CAIRO – Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has praised the Muslim community as a “respected and valued” part of the Australian society, winning praise from the leaders of the religious minority.
“I want to emphasize to each and every one of you that the Australian Muslim community is respected and valued,” he said in a speech to the Islamic Council of Victoria on Monday, March 7, The Guardian reported.
“And we do not consider or talk about or contemplate the Muslim community solely through the prism of security.
“You are an integral part of an Australian family that’s bound together by the shared values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”
Turnbull’s visit to Victoria Muslims followed an invitation from the Islamic council last November after Paris attacks.
After the attack, Turnbull spoke to Islamic community leaders of the necessity of mutual respect, a point he reiterated in his address on Monday.
“The glue that holds us together, the bonding agent, is mutual respect,” the prime minister said.
“It’s a two-way street. It means you respect others and they respect you. It means you seek to understand others and they understand you. It means that you and each and every one of us is enriched by the cultures and faiths of our neighbors.”
The visit is seen as a step in the right direction towards mending relations between the federal government and Australia’s Islamic community which reached a record low during former PM Tony Abbott.
“It went beyond our expectations,” said Nail Aykan, the general manager of the Islamic Council of Victoria. “Everyone felt he was humble and genuine.”
Aykan said he hoped that some of the youth assembled would run for office. “Social cohesion is a core aspect of what we’re trying to achieve but one level above that would be civic participation,” he said.
One of the council’s vice-presidents, Junaid Cheema, said Turnbull’s message “resonated and was authentic”.
“He’s obviously fixing a lot of the damage that has been done in the past,” he said.
Turnbull is the first PM to visit the Islamic Council of Victoria since the 1980s.
“We have particularly witnessed the stark difference in tone and approach in countering violent extremism,” Randa Kattan, the chief executive of the Arab Council of Australia, said.
“His collaborative and inclusive language has created a space for the community to engage on solutions, rather than continue to push back against the demonizing and fear-mongering narrative that has featured strongly over recent years.”
She added that the government’s tone on Muslim and Arab affairs had “drastically” changed since Turnbull took office in September.
A similar opinion was echoed by other influential Muslim Australians who heralded the change in rhetoric.
“It’s too early to come to a conclusion,” said Silma Ihram, the head of the Australian Muslim Women’s Association.
“[Turnbull’s] ability to engage with the Muslim community is much better than his predecessor, as is his understanding of Islam.
“However, possibly because of the legacy of his party, we are yet to see substantial on-the-ground policy improvements.
“We still have draconian security laws that would detain minors, there’s the recent issue of the young man [Oliver Bridgeman] in Syria, counter-terrorism measures that require teachers to report on kids in schools.
“He’s one person in a large party and realistically you can’t expect any one person to step in and change everything.”
The success of the Muslim community in Australia was regarded as a key factor toward helping new immigrants, including 12,000 Syrians, to assimilate in the continent.
“We don’t want to look around in 10 years and say: ‘How come these refugees aren’t assimilating?’,” Samier Dandan, the head of the Lebanese Muslim Association, said.
“We need to identify how we can help these refugees by better understanding where they’ve come from, to look at how we can help them psychologically, to deal with the traumas they’ve faced.
“Malcolm sings the praises of innovation. Innovation is not just technology, it’s also in government services – in particular social cohesion and refugees.”