AS I sat listening to the radio last week on the debate being held in the Council Chambers concerning the building of the mosque in Bendigo, my over-riding feeling was one of gratitude that in Australia we can have such a debate and no one is hauled away at the end and shot.
It is sheer good fortune that we who can read this column today have been born in a democratic country that is peaceful, that respects diversity of opinion and needs no more than a smattering of police that night to control what could have been unruly and even violent scenes.
There was a cacophony of yelling, a torrent of screaming abuse and of wild applause for the two councillors who opposed the motion. The objectors showed a wilful ignorance of the purpose of the mosque, they were rude, aggressive and highly emotional. The councillors were unfazed and continued to discuss the issues around the mosque, to the credit of the mayor.
Councillors had done their homework and were well prepared, able to provide answers to any questions raised. No doubt council officers were involved in providing important information to help clarify those answers.
It would be a step too far to predict what may lie ahead as the Muslims in our community live here, worship here and their children are educated here. My experience over many decades of observing intrepid travellers to our island land “girt by sea”, welcoming refugees from all around the globe and all faiths and religions, is that these courageous people happily settle into every region of Australia. All peoples have been welcomed to these shores and these people have never been excluded from their continuing commitment to their religion, race or culture.
Muslims who have chosen Bendigo as their home include some outstanding professionals, contributors who would be valued in any community, and we are the fortunate recipients of their choice. These people include medicos, dentists and academics among other professions and occupations, and all of them have chosen Bendigo as the city they wish to settle in, bringing their families, their expertise and their skills to our community.
Bendigo can rightly be proud of their councillors and the council officers who stood beside them during this controversy, as they calmly considered the options and chose to support the building of a mosque as opposed to the personal prejudices and hatred of a very small, vehement minority. As Councillor Rod Campbell said last week, “This is a petition signed by 400 people, many of whom do not live in Bendigo but live in other parts of Australia and overseas, against 110,000 Bendigonians who have not signed this petition.”
Diversity in a community brings a greater richness of culture, of understanding of other races and colour, and brings people closer together as they discover the shared values every community desires and strives for.
Within Bendigo we have representatives of so many religions that I would have trouble naming them all. They all have their believers, and all have lived in harmony with each other since Bendigo was a tent city in the goldfields in the 1850s. Adding one more religion to this group will simply offer those believers in our community the opportunity to worship in their own “house”.
For the Bendigo children it is another wonderful opportunity to mix with and embrace friends from another culture to that of the Anglo-Saxon community which is predominantly the Bendigo community. Children simply do not see the divide that adults see.
You have done admirably, you seven Bendigo councillors and all council officers. Stand proud.