Plans to develop an Islamic community centre in Bendigo have been approved, despite protests from some residents and anti-Islamic agitators from further afield.
The proposal to develop a two-storey mosque and community centre on the outskirts of Bendigo received mixed reactions from the local community, with some launching a controversial ‘Stop the Mosque in Bendigo’ Facebook page.
Though the page has exceeded more than 8,200 ‘likes’, its members have little in the way of arguments against the planning application itself. Instead, the page serves as a forum for broader anti-Islamic sentiment, including incitements to violence.
Accusations that the venture was a waste of tax-payers money have been widely circulated (despite the widely reported fact the mosque is privately funded by the Australian Islamic Mission). Many of the debates centred on the supposed inability of Muslims to adapt to Australian society.
Bendigo is home to international students, to small but well-established Chinese and Filipino communities, and more recently, to Karen and Hazara migrant communities. But it retains a predominantly Anglo demographic, with many residents having limited experience with Islam.
While various spiritual leaders have welcomed the construction of the mosque and the City of Greater Bendigo council has been commendably objective in evaluating the proposal, the backlash on Facebook hints at a lingering fear of Islam fuelled by hysteria and misinformation in the post 9-11 world.
Claims that the mosque is unnecessary, given Bendigo’s negligible population of Muslims, have some validity on first examination. But with large Muslim populations in nearby centres such as Shepparton, there will be ample opportunities for regular usage by rural Islamic communities.
In any case, people are not objecting because the mosque may or may not be unnecessary. They are objecting because it is an Islamic centre of worship. It is an empty argument fashioned from the ideals of an expired national past, which implies and demands that communities are consolidated around notions of exclusion rather than inclusion. It is old Australia personified in a Facebook page.
The mosque debate itself has since become entangled with a secondary controversy – the decision made in April by Bendigo Bank to close the fundraising account of the Facebook page’s administrators on the grounds that their stance against the mosque did not align with the bank’s community inclusion values.
This prompted a public furore, with some bank customers withdrawing funds and closing accounts, accusing the Bendigo Bank of pandering to Islam while denigrating free speech in the community. Conservative columnist Andrew weighed into the debate, suggesting on his blog that Bendigo Bank had made ‘a dangerous decision’ and should be banned.
Bendigo is a growing and ambitious community, attracting ‘tree-changers’ from Melbourne and seeking to reassert itself as a modern cultural hub, building on the colonial gold-rush legacy.
While the city may not yet share the multicultural makeup of Melbourne, it is obvious that the embrace of migrant communities is integral to future growth and the enhancement of cultural capital.
The planning application for the mosque, submitted by the Tomkinson Group, claims the mosque development ‘will define Bendigo as a multicultural city’ – an aim shared by the vast majority of locals who do not oppose the plan.
Indeed, for a rural city, Bendigo is relatively progressive. The development was approved on 18 June, with councillors voting seven to two in favour.
Bendigo is maturing. Perhaps some residents just need to mature along with it.