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Building bridges over troubled water – a festival to help eliminate the cultural fear factor

One of the best ways to bridge divides between different communities, cultures and religions is to come together.

In an Australian first, the Al Salam – or Islamic Peace – Festival will be held this Sunday in Rymill Park to unite Muslim and non-Muslim groups.

Sowaibah Hanifie, 19, from the Islamic Society of South Australia, says, amongst a carnival atmosphere, people will have the chance learn about Islam to dispel myths and alleviate fears.

“We wanted to do things with the wider community and try to combat those stereotypes,” she says.

“Because of everything that’s been going on in the media about our religion it was something we felt the need to do.

“Obviously if no one is out there trying to correct the negative impressions or the misinformation then we can’t really blame anyone for misinterpreting things.”

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Sowaibah Hanifie – We want to do things with the wider community and try to combat stereotypes.

Everyone attending is encouraged to ask any questions they have about Islam in what will be a welcoming and open-minded environment.

“We understand that some people are shy, they don’t want to ask, they feel like they might offend us,” Sowaibah says.

“But people can feel free to ask anything, literally anything, that’s on their mind because we’re more than willing and happy to answer.”

Al Salam was inspired by the twice-yearly Islamic Eid festivals, which are a celebration with feasts, sweets and community gatherings.

“We thought why don’t we turn this festival into something we can invite everyone into,” Sowaibah says.

“We wanted to create this atmosphere where people are having fun and they can build a relationship with the people that are working at the festival.”

Like every culture and religion, Islam has it’s own rich style for celebrations, and festival goers can enjoy Middle Eastern food, camel rides, Arabic drums, a cultural exhibition and traditional tents draped with cotton.

Sowaibah hopes people will experience the many positive aspects of Islam, which will lead to greater acceptance and prevent prejudice.

“You get discrimination with people saying ‘go back home’ and ‘what’s that thing you’re wearing, take it off’,” she says.

“But then you also have the other side where people are so welcoming and so nice to you.

“I remember once at work this man was like ‘don’t worry about it darling it’s all fine we understand that you’re not like that’.

“It was totally out of nowhere but I knew exactly what he was talking about.”

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The discrimination, Sowaibah says, comes from a lack of education, which is why she likes to be asked questions.

“I get really happy when someone asks me ‘why do you wear the scarf?’ because it’s through those conversation that you combat the stereotypes and the misinformation,” she says.

“Our goal is to change at least one person’s image of Islam because we know that people don’t understand the religion properly because not everything out there is correct.

“Even just changing that one person’s perspective about what our religion means and their understanding of it, and we’ve pretty much accomplished our goal.”

Multicultural SA wants to make the Al Salam Festival an annual event and the state’s Islamic Society is hopeful the rest of Australia will follow their lead.

Initiatives to engage the wider community with the Muslim community began with the Roses for the Prophet project.

“In Rundle Mall we were giving out free roses with a saying of the Prophet attached to it that combated the stereotypes of our religion,” Sowaibah says.

“Then we had a National Mosque Open Day, inviting people to the mosque to ask questions.”

Sowaibah says some of the questions she often encounters, and one’s she encourages people to ask on Sunday, are ‘why do women wear the headscarf?’  ‘Why is it only your religion that’s involved in terrorism attacks?’ ‘What is halal food?’

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Sowaibah Hanifie, centre, with some members of the organising committee Zuzie Faiyad and Leanne Zreika.

So Stories Well Told sat down with Sowaibah to bust some commonly held misbeliefs about Islam.

What do you say to people who associate terrorism with Islam?

There are extremists within every sector of the community – there’s been Christian bombings of abortion clinics because they’re also an extremist group of that particular religion. We don’t associate terrorists with Islam, in fact we consider them to be bigger enemies to us because they’ve changed the way our religion is perceived by the wider community and because of them we’re under attack by normal people that would not have had these ideas if it wasn’t for them. ISIS uses religion for their own political benefits but at the end of the day they’re not representing Islam and their actions don’t relate to the religion at all.

So there’s actually diversity within Islam? 

There’s heaps of diversity within Islam, people from all different countries, literally from all across the globe. One lady I know is 13th generation Australian, but she converted to Islam later on. Then there are people from South America, from everywhere, there are so many different nationalities within our religion but we all unite by this sister and brotherhood we call the Ummah. Even within Islam there’s a lot of different takes on it, there’s all these different ways of understanding the religion.  But there’s a saying that no matter what we’re all equal.

Why do you wear the headscarf (hijab)? 

I chose to wear the headscarf when I was 16. Ramadan is a spiritual time when we fast and try to build a spiritual connection with the religion. During that year I started reading more about the hijab and why Muslim women chose to wear it. I grew so attached to the idea that in Islam it’s not about the way you look, even though women like to dress up. When you wear the hijab it’s saying ‘don’t look at me for what I look like, but look at me for what’s in my heart’. I became attached to the idea of wanting to acknowledge that I’m a Muslim and I’m proud of being a Muslim and I’m a woman and I’m also a feminist and I believe women are worth more than what people misuse them for.

How do you feel about the public headscarf debate?

It get’s really frustrating, but I understand that the debate is necessary because if we don’t talk about it then people aren’t going to understand. But from a Muslim woman’s perspective sometimes it gets really frustrating when people, no matter how much you talk about it, don’t understand. You can’t tell me I’m oppressed when I’m wearing the hijab and I’m telling you I’m not oppressed. But at the same time it gives us the motivation to be part of the conversation.

How does your religion fit into being Australian? 

People always ask, because I was born in Australia, ‘do you find that it clashes with the Muslim way of life?’ I was born here my family have lived here for 25 years and it’s something that goes so well together with the Australian identity. Things like equality and multiculturalism, things the Australian culture really respects, is also a part of our religion so they mesh really well. People say ‘how do you wear that in Australia?’, ‘how do you do this in Australia?’, ‘women are equal in Australia’.  But I can wear the hijab in Australia because everyone respects each other and we have respect for one another’s religion.

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The Al Salam – or Islamic Peace – Festival will be held this Sunday in Adelaide’s Rymill Park from 11am

Images: Brenton Edwards

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