By Salma Merhebi
The presence of Muslims in the West is definitely not a new phenomenon. Increased numbers and a more visible presence of Muslims in the West is mostly due to immigration. In particular, Australia has one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse populations in the world. It is estimated that about 40% of the Australian population is made up of immigrants. Thus, Australia’s Muslim communities are not a homogeneous group but make up a large, culturally diverse section of Australian society that comes from all over the world from Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey to Bangladesh, Malaysia and Fiji. So, what are the major issues and debates surrounding this visible and, for some, problematic presence of Islam and Muslims in the West?
Some previous terrorist attacks and acts of violence have given rise to an exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from social, political, and civic life. Islamophobia, an anti-Islam sentiment, has gripped Western societies. Therefore, when racism or Islamophobia intrudes, concerns arise over the future of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West and young Muslims find themselves extruded from their communities. To face and solve all these fears, a group of Muslim students decided to make a change in their community starting from their own university life.
The University of New South Wales, which is ranked 37th in the world according to the 2019 QS World University Rankings, respects religious diversity. It provides a Religious Centre for all UNSW students and staff: Anglican, Buddhist, Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Islamic, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Pentecostal, Presbyterian and Uniting Church and it promotes them to have associations. Hence, Muslim students found it easy to start the “UNSWMSA". The University of New South Wales Muslim Student Association (UNSWMSA) was founded in October of 2012 in the campus of UNSW.
UNSWMSA, formerly known as IAFUNSW, leverages on the university’s diversity to serve and facilitate the religious, social, and academic needs of Muslim students, both local and international, as well as staff. To fight the myth that Islam is incompatible with Western values, this association seeks to organise events, materials, and discussions for Muslims and non-Muslims alike and enhance their knowledge of Islam as well as issues related to Islam and Muslims. Furthermore, UNSWMSA acts as an advocacy group for all Muslim college students on campus and serves as a way for them to fulfil their mandatory religious obligations, grow spiritually, develop their faith, and engage in philanthropy in a healthy venue.
The large Muslim population on campus along with a general lack of understanding about Islam at the University make very clear the need for an organization like UNSWMSA. They provide different activities such as: Prayer facilities, Friday prayers, charity fundraisers, sports activities, Futsal for brothers after Friday prayer, Sisters Coffee, debates with free food, barbecue, donuts and halal Camel burgers. They have also organized communication campaigns and events such as the Ramadan Photo Competition that aimed to reveal Ramadan experiences in one photo and uncover the true beauty of Ramadan. Other examples are “Why I’m Muslim”, Conversion Stories, and Islamic Awareness Week. Overall, UNSWMSA promotes a sense of community and brings awareness which fits with its primary goal.
More specifically during Islamic Awareness Week, UNSWMSA conducts reasoned discussion and respectful discourse. Their purpose is to increase wider knowledge of Islam and to promote an atmosphere of engagement between Muslim and non-Muslim students on campus. They encourage all students of all backgrounds to feel welcome in coming forward to ask questions and learn more about Islam rather than making assumptions from TV or the media. In brief, this association is continuously spreading Islam values and motivating people to ask questions instead of having that seed of doubt in their minds.
Looking into student life, their student chapter is effectively addressing and solving problems within the university related to academic issues. For example, during exam season, they arrange reading materials, information stalls, and other mediums at the campus to improve studying. They also share best practices on how to maximize the productivity and learning efficiency to students.
In conclusion, most of UNSWMSA’s activities point to successful transformations and fruitful exchanges of ideas. Understanding the faiths of fellow students and supporting each other allows us to create a more accepting, tolerant environment, starting from a small community, university, and growing to a larger national and international scale. Looking back 7 years ago, it has been a journey, not an easy one, but thanks to the association’s hard work, it has won the respect and kindness of others. The different events provide an opportunity to get involved in the community and to learn about each other's cultures.
Lastly, UNSWMSA believes that their culture is so much more than what is on the news, that is why one of their most important achievements has been “the power of one'', the power to do something - anything.