Young Muslims in the Town Hall

I walk into the historic Supper Room on the third floor of the Melbourne Town Hall. Period timber paneling lines the room, an opulent nineteenth-century sideboard stands in the corner; gold chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Around me are life-sized portraits of Melbourne’s mayors past with names like Godfrey Downes Carter (Mayor 1804–1885) and Alderman James Cooper Stewart (Mayor 1885–1886).

If Melbourne has a building that represents its stagnant colonial traditions, this must surely be it.

As I take my seat I feel the watchful eyes of his Excellency Lord Viscount Canterbury, but I look around at the hundred or so young people attending this event, typing away on their iPhones, iPads and Androids – their tweets filling a screen at the front of the hall – and these old mayors seem drastically ancient, out of place at this weekend’s event, which is so clearly about leaving the past behind.

Tonight is the opening plenary of the first ‘Media and Young Muslim Conference’. The event was organised by the Multicultural Media Exchange, a nonprofit, and over three days it will bring together influential journalists and young Muslims to discuss their negative representation in the media, and to work out what can be done to strengthen relationships between the two parties and to combat racism.

Obviously, these are the kinds of abstract ideas that could be discussed, analysed, and dissected for days on end. But at its core, the Multicultural Media Exchange understands that there is a simple way forward: create a dialogue between Muslim communities and journalists, and help young people in minority communities represent themselves.

It is no small task but seeing my fellow participants around me, focused, engaged, taking notes, buzzing with energy, it seems that if anyone can take this task on, it’s the enthusiastic young men and women sitting around me.

During the conference, attendees will participate in training sessions from some of the country’s most respected journalists. Over the weekend they will talk about media ethics, Muslim spokespeople, Islamophobia, burqas, the fear of creeping Sharia … Heavy stuff. But first, right now, we are watching an episode of The Chaser.

The episode is poking fun at what could only be described as the ridiculousness of Muslim stereotyping.

‘So want to cook up a news story about Muslims in the media?’ The hosts ask. ‘All you need are a few simple Halal ingredients. First, find an unusual practice that barely exists in Australia and pretend it’s a looming menace like … WEARING BURQAS.’ On the screen is the image of an alien spaceship hovering over the city, a woman wearing a burqa on board.

It’s funny. And the whole hall is laughing. When you’re a young Muslim in Australia today, it seems you have to have a sense of humor about you to get by. But soon we will hear the dark side of this kind of reporting on the community as well.

Nearly every young woman I talk to at the conference who wears a headscarf tells me a story, at some point, of having it ripped off. Many of the men I interview mention the concern they feel for their female friends and relatives. ‘Because they wear hijabs,’ they tell me. ‘Unlike us, their identities are visible, making them much more vulnerable to attack.’ A young aspiring journalist explains to me how the day after she started wearing the hijab, friends stopped talking to her, she had her hours cut from work, and she was verbally abused and spat at. A young doctor stands up to ask what he should tell his small children when they read the malicious comments online and ask why all Australians hate them. The Islamic Council of Victoria describes how they’ve had to board up their windows permanently because every time there is a ‘hot’ media week, they get smashed.

One of the panelists, a comedian from the duo Fear of a Brown Planet, lightens the mood – ‘If we were all terrorists, we would be doing a pretty terrible job because here we are in the Melbourne Town Hall and nothing’s being blown up.’

Most of the men and women here are journalism students or leaders in community organisations. Some are in suits having come straight from work, others are in casual clothes; many of the women are wearing colourful, patterned hijabs. They are tweeting, laughing, chatting, joking, watching The Chaser – the kind of thing, I think to myself, you never see young Muslims doing in mainstream media.

And outside are the headlines:

‘Muslim Group wants Sharia law in Australia’
‘Victorian Muslims too scared to assimilate’
‘Islamists spread terror message’
‘Hot Topic: Muslims living in enclaves’

How do you reconcile these two pictures?



Saturday begins with an event entitled, ‘The Big Issue’. It employs a tactic called the World Cafe Method: a communication technique designed by a US nonprofit called World Cafe to host large group dialogue. It draws on seven key principles, based on the understanding that ‘conversation is the core process that drives personal, business, and organizational life’.

The host of the session puts us into groups of four or five. Each group consists of a few young participants, a designated coordinator and a journalist. We are told we will be given a topic and for a few minutes we will chat about the issues that are raised. Then a bell will ring and everyone, except the coordinator, will move to another table. This will go on for about 45 minutes and then, at the end, we will come together as a group and discuss what we’ve come up with. Finally, the host will put together a document with our conclusions to use for future projects.

I have to admit, the idea seems a little ‘new age’, and, sitting at our makeshift tables with big pieces of butcher paper and different coloured markers, I’m cynical about how much we can achieve. (Also, thinking back to my undergraduate university days, I’m skeptical about how seriously this will be taken by the young participants.)

But once we begin, the young people very quickly become engaged and take control of the conversation. I start to realise that for a community that has a hard time being heard, for young people who often feel outnumbered, a session like this is probably a welcome change. I also realise the rarity of this conversation, a conversation about the Muslim community that actually involves a majority of people from the Muslim community.

The hosts give us topics, like, ‘What are the issues that most concern young Muslims living in the twenty-first-century?’

My group is quiet to begin with. The young Muslim men and women at the table smile warmly at the non-Muslim participants. I start thinking about the topics I read every day associated with the Muslim community – terrorism, fundamentalism, the oppression of women … But, of course, these are not the issues that most concern young Muslims living in the twenty-first-century – these are the issues that most concern non-Muslims living in the twenty-first-century. The issue that the young Muslims care about most is just being heard in a media landscape that often speaks for them and about them without listening to what they have to say.

‘It’s not necessarily about what’s being reported,’ a young man explains, ‘it’s the way it’s reported, the way loaded words are used, the sensationalist headlines … there are different journalists from different networks but it’s like there’s an agreed upon way to report on Muslims and regardless of whether it’s a positive or a negative story, the way it’s reported is usually to create fear or anxiety between Muslims and non-Muslims.’ Another man continues, ‘And it’s not about being biased. It’s about proper and fair representation. I think that will fix a fair bit of problems for the Muslims in this country.’

The conversation soon moves on to how it feels to be young and Muslim in Australia. ‘To be myself is difficult,’ the woman next to me declares. ‘I don’t want to be seen as just a Muslim but I don’t want to assimilate. I don’t want to have to choose … When I put a scarf on, the way I’ve been at times treated is that I can’t really speak English or I don’t really understand English or when I joke around, people react to it in shock, “Oh, she can laugh? She’s actually funny?” And yes I can understand that there are certain Muslims that do the wrong thing and portray the wrong image but on the other hand, it seems like the media really boxes us in – men as terrorists and women as oppressed – and that’s where people learn it from.’

During this time the journalists take notes and listen. They offer insights from their own experiences but often, they just listen. A few journalists sit with notebooks and jot down comments throughout the discussion. It feels like they are as eager to learn as the young participants. One journalist admits she doesn’t know that many Muslims, another admits she has questions and there are some practices she does not understand. A young participant wearing a headscarf nods her head, ‘Any questions you have, please ask me. I want to talk about it.’ And then, the question so many non-Muslim women are too scared to ask, she asks: ‘The headscarf, can you explain to me the actual reason behind it? I feel like there is so much misinformation.’ And the young woman answers …

But the young people here aren’t interested in dwelling in conversation for too long. Their focus is on being proactive. The participants are here to engage, to create dialogue, to network, to learn and then to implicate that learning. The tweets attest to that:

‘The media is going to go for what sells. Us Muslims need to provide them with better choices.’
‘We should work to improve our communication and make it easier for them.’
‘Let’s bring people into our world.’
‘Muslims need to get educated about media.’
‘We need better spokespeople and maybe non-Muslim ambassadors.’

At the end of the session, after what I’ve heard about the effects sensationalism in print and TV news has on the community, I expect to hear anger when the host asks participants for a list of practical solutions for moving forward. I expect blame for the media. But it seems that’s not what the participants are here for. It’s as if they’ve processed their anger already and no longer have any use for it. Throughout the conference the feeling from participants is not one of blame but of appreciation that the media representatives are here to work with them.

It is not just the participants whose focus seems to be on practicality. It is what the media representatives focus on over the next couple days as well. The journalists, many of whom have worked at the country’s most popular media outlets – Today Tonight, the Herald Sun, A Current Affair – admit mistakes. ‘Look, I’ve made some terrible clangers in my career due to ignorance,’ a journalist acknowledges. But mainly their talks are grounded in practicality. They talk about how to break into the media, how to get stories out there, how to meet deadlines.

Many of the young people in the room are aspiring journalists, and for them these tips, as well as the new contacts, are extremely valuable. Most participants are excited to hear from these big names and are energised by what they are hearing. But it’s surprising to me to hear how much the journalists talk about ‘the media’ like it is something outside themselves. ‘The Media hates a clean story,’ they say. ‘The media loves conflict.’ Later, ‘The media has no patience.’ It is almost as if the media is a vicious beast, not made up of people right in this very room, not controllable, not accountable to anyone.

It seems someone else in the room feels the same way. When talking about Sheikh Hilali, the infamous fundamentalist who has been given an abundance of airtime to comment on various social issues, a journalist is saying, ‘Look we had to tell the story and he was the only one we could find in time.’ And someone raises a hand: ‘I understand that the media has deadlines but how does that justify what you just did? Did you wonder, what’s this going to make viewers think? Where is the accountability for what you are doing? Us Muslims need to come out and represent ourselves better, but there’s no excuse for that kind of reporting …’

The journalist listens, nods, ‘I understand, but asking the media not to be the media is not going to work.’

Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps it’s not. But the point is that we are here to focus on practical solutions, on common ground, which is: the young people at the conference want to be journalists and the media here want to help them get there. The young people here want to have better spokespeople and the journalists here want to help create them. A journalist remarks, ‘It is inevitable that journalists will bring their own background to their writing and therefore, the more we get Muslims into the media, the better off we will be.’ So we move on.

The weekend involves workshops by some of the most successful journalists and political campaigners in the country. Sessions cover how to run an effective media campaign; The Diversion Principle: you cannot control media but you can divert it; The Boy Scout Principle: be prepared; The Vacuum Principle: fill the space, keep engaging with them. What else? Humanise your story; don’t play into stereotypes; change perceptions; respond to negative stories within an hour; practise ringing radio; don’t waste media opportunities; never say ‘no comment’, and so on.

In one workshop, journalists and participants sit together to work out how to enhance the ‘Australian Journalists’ Code of Ethics’ to ensure fair and accurate reporting on issues relating to the Muslim community. Media ethicist and writer Denis Muller states, ‘You can deal with these issues but in dealing with them you can treat people respectfully, you can avoid stereotyping, you can avoid making the inevitable equation that Muslim equals terrorist. Simply to say that the community love conflict therefore that’s what we’ll give them is an abdication of leadership. All professions have to give leadership to the community and journalism is among them.’

He goes on, ‘But I’d like to add this: the media are not monolithic. Yes, certainly there is an element in the media – the sort of tabloid media and tabloid television programs – which are the worst offenders of this kind of thing but SBS, the ABC, broadly speaking the Fairfax newspapers, are, I think, usually highly responsible and do this kind of reporting very well.’

The hosts of the conference ask the participants about their goals moving forward. ‘Diversify the media sector,’ people call out. ‘Combat racism!’

A petite 16-year-old sits next to me. She is wearing a tan-coloured hijab and her face is so small that if she’s not looking up, all you notice are her thick-rimmed glasses poking out the side. She has been sitting quietly for much of the conference but now she pipes up in a broad Australian drawl, ‘I love the Bombers and I want to become a broadcasting sports journalist. I feel much more encouraged now. Nothing will stop me.’

A handsome, softly spoken young man raises his hand and says, ‘Something I would love one day to see is this scenario: a non-Muslim father with his son drive past a mosque and see the people coming out after their prayers. The son asks, “Dad what’s going on in there?” And the dad answers, “Son, they are Muslims. They are there to pray to their God. They’re there to humble each other. I know some of them. And they are good people.”’

Some of these goals are small. Some are bigger. But, after this conference, they all seem a bit more attainable.

Bec Zajac

Bec Zajac is Overland’s publicity officer. She is also a Master of Journalism student at the University of Melbourne and a broadcaster at 3CR community radio. She has published in Overland, New Matilda, Brooklyn Rail and The Age.

More by Bec Zajac ›

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