In Australia, as in other Western countries, Islam occupies an increasingly contested place in the public consciousness. Melbourne has a small, but visible and very diverse Muslim community ranging from Albanians and Bosnians who have been worshipping at their Carlton mosque since the 1960s, to affluent Southeast Asian international students and Somali refugees.
There is the eloquent TV personality Waleed Aly, and a teenage Syrian refugee who scored one of the highest school scores two years after arriving in the country with no English, and was subsequently feted in the press as a success story of integration.
But there are also five men from the Western suburbs – five Lebanese-Australians and one Egyptian immigrant – who were arrested for an alleged plan to attack Flinders Street on Christmas Day in an ISIS-inspired terrorist event. The news, though unnerving, was dealt with by the city with surprising calm. On the day nothing happened, leading some to cry that the whole thing has been an “overreaction” although until the details are aired in court, who can really say?
Muslims themselves have also been targeted with the shocking firebombing of a Perth mosque, with worshippers inside, and strident rhetoric from anti-immigration senator Pauline Hanson who seems to have replaced the threat of “Asian immigration” with “Muslim agitation”.
Victim, villain, success story: its all part of the multifaceted Australian-Muslim identity.
Given this, the construction of a landmark new Australian Islamic Centre was always going to be interesting. The centre, currently being built between an oil refinery and a golf course in the Western suburb of Newport, has been designed to make a defiant architectural statement. Its non-Muslim Australian architect Glen Murcott has forsaken a minaret for a series of angular modern triangles, painted gold and designed to channel the light, a design that has already been acclaimed.
There is an exhibition on the centre’s design on show at the Ian Potter Centre of Australian Art at Federation Square.