Interview with Imam Moustapha Sarakibi

Moustapha Sarakibi is an imam living in Melbourne, Australia. He is currently an executive director for the Board of Imams Victoria (BOIV) and manages all the operational affairs. He is also on the Executive Board. On a national level, he is involved with the Australian National Imams Council (ANIC) where he serves as the secretary. In addition, he leads the Muslim chaplaincy at Melbourne University and conducts Friday prayers at the University mosque. 

 Q: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do as part of the Board of Imams (BOIV)?

The BOIV is the oldest Imams council in Australia,  established in 1984. It is a union of imams in Victoria and includes imams of different mosques from all over Victoria. It is a highly reputable organization and well-recognized as a peak body for Muslim religious leaders. Other religions and faiths have establishments similar to the BOIV. For example, the Christians have the National Council of Churches and the Hindus have the Hindu Council of Australia. 

Q: What role do you think religion plays in life in Southeast Asia as whole and in Australia specifically? 

Religion is quite significant in Australia. Even though Australia is a secular country, many people are religiously oriented. It can be seen through the number of churches, synagogues, mosques and temples that exist. If you drive around in Melbourne, you will come across a great number of places of worship. Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia, is called the “City of Churches” because there are that many churches. 

People have strong personal relationships with their religion. This is where a lot of tolerance and acceptance comes from. Proselytizing or imposing one’s faith and beliefs on others, that’s not something that’s generally practiced here in Australia. People are free to practice their own religion and this freedom is very intrinsic when it comes to our rights as Australian citizens.

Interviewer: You mentioned that there are laws in place that guarantee rights as Australian citizens to freely practice your religion. Theoretically, a lot of countries have similar laws, but they face a lot discmirnation. Is there anything in Australian society or anything about the way that life works there that lends itself to be more tolerant and accepting?

In Australia there’s great adherence to law. Law really drives people’s lives. There’s also society and society’s position on these matters. On a social level, especially in Victoria, people who are racist or vilify others based on their religion or their culture, are generally shunned in society. In Australia religious intolerance definitely exists, but it usually is presented within a nationlistic framework rather than just based on pure hate of another culture or faith.

Interviewer: Could you speak on one or two specific cases of religious intolerance in Australia? What form do they take? What impact do they have on society?

In recent years, there was a right-wing extremist who was arrested for preparing to attack a mosque through the use of explosives. He was ultimately the first person to be convicted under Australia’s new anti-terror laws in Melbourne.

There were also the 2005 Cronulla riots. They were the largest anti-Muslim riots that have ever happened in the history of Australia. There was an incident at one of the beaches in Sydney between Anglo-Australian lifeguards and some Middle-Eastern men. Things were ultimately blown out of proportion and thousands  of people ended up rioting against Middle Easterners in Sydney. After that evening, there was another wave of riots in South Western Sydney. People were hurt and property was vandalized.   

It really is a great stain on the modern history of our country. It also shows that these sentiments are there and sometimes they can be spiked. It demonstrates that there is still more work to be done in Australia so that its citizens better understand others and other cultures. 

Interviewer: Who is currently leading efforts to increase religious tolerance?

Australian Religious Alliance: association of over 15 different faith groups. The alliance was formed a few years ago because there was an attempt to repeal the Religious Disrimination Act.  These religious groups got together and put together a submission not to repeal the act and an appeal to include protection from discrmination due to religion into the federal laws

Council of Chaplains for Tertiary Institutions (CCTI): in order to be a chaplain at Melbourne University/most other universities, one must be a member of the CCTI. We have regular meetings and hold conferences from time to time.

Jewish Christian Muslim Organization (JCMA): organization that brings together those three faiths. I was a board member from 2015-2016.   

Multifaith Advisory Group: the Victorian Police consults this organization on matters pertaining to religion and culture. 

All of these organizations are positively contributing to the development of our state and our country.

Interviewer: When were these organizations formed? Was there a general time when Australians or the Muslim community in particular, realized it was a good idea to have these types of entities?

As far as the Muslim community goes, we definitely stepped it up after 9/11. This is because there was a lot of misunderstanding towards the Islamic faith about that horrible incident.  9/11 and the subsequent attempted terrorist attacks in 2005, 2009, and 2012, put the community in a position where we felt we needed to be more proactive, pragmatic, and put in a little bit more effort than we had been prior.

At the time, there was a lot of panic within the Muslim community. There were a lot of questions about how these events are going to impact our lives as Muslims. And there were many incidents of verbal and physical abuse towards Muslims. Women who wore the hijab faced the most discrimination because they could be easily identitified as Muslim. 

That’s when we stepped up our efforts in terms of addressing these problems with authorities.

Muslim Community Hotline: hotline where people can report these type of things. 

Islamic Council of Victoria: the religious peak body for tens of thousands of Muslims. 

Collaboration with law enforcement: there were increased efforts to liaise with communities. Law enforcement would deploy more and more liaison officers to reach out to communities and community leaders and sort of resonate the message of the government.

It has been quite a dynamic experience to be honest with you. All in all it has been quite manageable. I can genuinely say that in Melbourne and Australia generally, the support that’s been out there is far greater than the voices of hate. 

Interviewer: Are there currently Muslim initiatives aimed at promoting religious tolerance and bridging religious differences between Muslims and non-Muslims in Australia? 

Community Integration Support Program: the BOIV works with offenders who are in prison for terrorist related convictions. We provide opportunities for mentoring and religious education and this sort of work really breaks down the prism, the network of people who are extreme. It has been successful running for just over ten years. 

Family Violence Initiatives: We often look at things that we have in common with other communities and family violence is quite prominent in all of the communities here in Australia. So there’s a lot of effort focused on countering family violence. This includes providing referrals and working with other agencies from different faith groups. 

Multicultural Eid Festival: in recent years, we have started hosting a multicultural Eid festival that is open to everyone. There is lots of food and people give out pamphlets about Islam, just to show and highlight the commonalities we have as people, as human beings, and as citizens of the country. 

 “Share a Plate with your Neighbor:” a BOIV initiative that we’ve orchestrated for a number of years now. During Ramadan, we always encourage communities to leave some food aside, knock on their neighbors door, and offer them food. Not because they’re in need of the food, but because it is a kind gesture. 

I find that this demonstration of good character and positive behavior is the most effective when it comes to understanding people and fueling integration in society. And these initiatives are not supported by the state, they are initiatives coming directly from communities. 

United Khutba (sermon): Something that the BOIV does really well.  For example, we have a day called White Ribbon Day which is a day where we take stance against family violence. So we will have a united khutba about the treatment of women. Imams from all over will give a sermon focused on that topic. 

Supporting Bushfire victims: last summer, when the Bushfires took place, I remember going to a warehouse and seeing 11 supply trucks being sent out tp\o victims who had lost their homes. This was all community funded and the majority of the supplies came from the Muslim community. That was an effort we encouraged people to do throughout sermons and other platforms.

Istiharah Prayer: in recent years, we’ve been having droughts. When these are happening, we do a istiharah prayer which is a specific type of prayer where we ask God to bring down the rain. This is usually publicized and many people partake. 

We do all of this to show that the Muslim community is concerned about Australia just like any other community. This serves to sort of break down the barriers that were put up after the wave of terrorist attacks, raids, and arrests. These initiatives have been very effective and really have been grassroots efforts. And it’s not an act in any way. The Muslim community is truly hospitable and generous and we want the public to see and know that the anti-Islamic hate speech that comes out is false. 

Interviewer:  Do you have any closing statement for our younger audience on how to embrace religious diversity? (1 minute only, short & brief)

 It really comes down to the basic message of all faiths I believe. For example, in Islam there’s no compulsion in religon whatsover. There’s no idea that my religion should be imposed on you and that my faith is the one that should be the one. In multicultural societies such as Australia, accepting and respecting other people’s beliefs and faiths allows us to be successful. 

There are intolerance in every country, in every society, but I don’t believe intolerance brings any success to any community. We pride ourselves in Melbourne because we have been able to advance as a society and as a city. We don’t even really talk about tolerance as much as we talk about celebrating diversity. We don’t like putting it in a way where it seems that we simply “tolerate” another person, but rather we celebrate the diversity we have in this city. This has really resonated throughout the whole country and that is why Melbourne is globally recognized as one of the most successful multicultural cities in the world. Embracing diversity amongst people is something that really strengthens us as a society rather than brings about fracture or intolerance. My hope is that this becomes a system that is practiced worldwide.