Mates in the Mosque

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Home for Douha Boksmati is Newman, a Western Australian mining town built on the wealth of a giant iron-ore deposit. Her four children were born in this isolated place, far from their mother's Lebanese homeland. One of a handful of Muslim families in Newman's multiracial community, they pray at the 15-year-old mosque, play in football matches, and gather at weekend barbecues. Sometimes Boksmati cooks her children the food she grew up on, but usually she serves up their favorite-steak and mashed potato; she also learns Chinese cooking from a Chinese friend. "We know everybody and every house in Newman," she says. "We live like brother and sister here."

Many others in Australia's 200,000-strong Muslim community, which makes up 1.1% of the nation's population, know that same sense of belonging and acceptance. Nearly 40% of Australian Muslims were born here; many of those who were not have put down deep roots in their adopted home. "I have been living here and enjoying every part of it for 50 years," says Sheikh Fehmi El-Imam, head of the Islamic Society of Victoria, who was awarded the Order of Australia for his community work.

But on Sept. 11, something changed. As reports began of Islamic links to the terrorist attacks, Australia's Muslim community prepared for a backlash. And, though cheered by the support of most Australians, some have felt the chill of hate in streets, shops and schoolyards. Hatice Han was born in Australia and considers herself "more Australian than Turkish." But the 19-year-old Melbourne university student now locks her doors while driving and avoids leaving the house alone. "It's very sad," she says, "to feel insecure in your own country."

In the days following the American attacks, Muslims joined in Australia's outpouring of grief. "We are just as shocked and horrified as everyone else," says Jamila Hussain, a lecturer in Islamic law at Sydney's University of Technology. Muslim leaders argued that such acts violated the very basis of Islam. "Anyone who understands the real Islam would not commit any kind of terrorist act," says Khairy Majeed, secretary of the Victorian Arabic Social Services. But though Prime Minister John Howard led calls for calm, describing the majority of Australian Muslims as "peaceful, law-abiding, patriotic people," not everyone cared to listen. With the issue of Middle Eastern asylum seekers already a highly charged topic, some Australians vented their rage on the closest Muslim target. Schoolchildren were spat on, women had their head scarves pulled off, and people were verbally abused. Several mosques were defaced with graffiti. One Brisbane mosque was petrol bombed but escaped serious damage; another was destroyed by fire. "We've never had this kind of problem here in Brisbane before the Sept. 11 incident," says police inspector Peter Harding. "The community here has fitted in very well with this part of town."

The sense of peace has also been shaken in the large Muslim community in Sydney's Lakemba area. Reports that locals had celebrated the terrorist attacks on Lakemba streets were "the biggest lie," says the Lebanese Muslim Association's Keysar Trad. But the local Al-Imam Ali mosque has put security guards on its doors, and some Muslim women are too scared to leave their homes. It's not only Muslims who feel frightened, says Roland Jabbour, chairman of the Australian Arabic Council. "We have a situation where anyone thought to be of Middle Eastern origin is being made to answer for the crimes of people overseas," he says. "It makes you wonder what our citizenship is worth." In advertisements placed in Arabic newspapers, the council is advising people to "explain patiently and quietly that these acts are not part of your culture."

It's clear most Australians accept that. Even as talkback radio overflowed with venom, many Muslim groups were being overwhelmed with messages of support from non-Muslim Australians. The concern far outweighed the hate. An Islamic school in Perth had windows smashed, but at a nearby mosque flowers were left on the doorstep. "This mentality will be short-lived," said one note. Multi-faith religious services brought together congregations around the country, while letters, e-mails and phone calls flooded into community groups. "Just as you have a few individuals that have done these things in America, so here you have just a few individuals who have thrown rocks at Muslim school buses," says Amjid Muhammad, of the Islamic Information and Support Centre of Australia. Muslims know the vast majority of Australians have nothing against them, says Sheikh Fehmi El-Imam: "Many Australians are gentle men and gentle women and they have responded beautifully, offering to do whatever they can to help."

Hatice Han has also been cheered by the support shown by strangers-it's helped her endure the suspicious glares her head scarf attracts. "Two women looked at me," she says, "and I could tell they were thinking, There's another terrorist." How realistic are such concerns? Prime Minister John Howard warned last week: "Don't imagine it can't happen here." Han, who is involved with Islamic student groups at Melbourne's LaTrobe University, says she has never heard anyone promoting terrorism. Most Muslim leaders argue that their co-religionists abhor terrorism. But some say Australia is not entirely free of terrorist sympathizers. Abdul Ahmad Mir, chairman of the Afghan Australia Council, says associates of Osama bin Laden have visited Australia. "I hear from some of our youth who have been exposed to these people and their ideas," he says, "that Islam will take over Australia." Says Michael McKinley, of the Australian National University's Department of Political Science and International Relations: "I'm sure they're right that there are some people in their community who support what bin Laden has done. But whether you can extrapolate from that disposition to people's preparedness to be suicide bombers is really a leap of faith."

In outback Western Australia, Douha Boksmati says the alleged sympathies of a few should not determine the treatment of the rest. She herself has had nothing but support from her neighbors. "People say, It's not your fault," she says. "We are innocent people. There are some crooks in the world-does that mean all Muslims are crooks?" In Lakemba, caterer Sany Lackany boasts of his 22-year-old university-student daughter. "She's a very patriotic Australian and she was a volunteer at the Olympics," he says. "She's got a Portuguese mother and an Egyptian father and she says, I'm a typical Australian." Her father is one too. If Australia were in trouble, the proud Australian Muslim says, "I would defend it with my life."

-With reporting by Michael Fitzgerald and Michael Ware/Sydney