The first Maroochydore mosque protest scared me more than any terror threat

The Sunshine Coast’s Reclaim Australia rally in Cottontree was fairly tame compared to those in some capital cities, but does anyone remember the heat at last year’s mosque protest? 

The Sunshine Coast made national TV news last September after hundreds of residents gathered to protest a proposed mosque in Maroochydore. 

The mosque has since been approved – it complied with all planning restrictions for the site – and backlash from local anti-mosque groups culminated in a second protest. At that rally, one protestor called for the arrest of every Muslim in the country. 

The following article was written after the first protest.

Church Street in Maroochydore is closed to traffic, but choked with people. The morning is overcast: a grey Saturday on the Sunshine Coast. The police hope it will rain.

On one side of the street, hundreds of protesters chant, “No mosque here,” and, “Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi oi oi!” Opposing them is a much smaller group of counter-protesters, many of them university students.

It’s September 20: just sixteen days since the Muslim Organisation of the Sunshine Coast (MOSCA) won the auction of a Uniting Church building and announced plans to use the space as a place of worship. In that time, opponents of the mosque organised a rally with an estimated 400 attendees—likely the Sunshine Coast’s biggest protest since Noosa won its de-amalgamation.

The sky finally delivers a light drizzle. The crowd thins, but not by much. Placards grow soggy, the messages running and cardboard falling to pieces. The small army of journalists, cameramen and photographers scramble to cover their equipment with umbrellas and jackets. Later, many images from the protest will show raindrops on lenses, blurring the picture.

Police officers form a line between the protesters and counter-protesters. News reports will say they had to hold the crowd apart, but apart from asking the anti-mosque protesters to move back, little physical intervention is needed. They are here as a warning, but the presence of plainclothes officers shows they are ready should the situation turn violent.

Anti-mosque protesters Heather and Andrew Bennett say they’re worried about the risks to Australia. “If they get a foothold, which they’re trying to get now, Australia will be gone,” Mr Bennett says. “In the next 50 years it’ll be gone.”

Another man joins the group briefly, predicting that any digging for construction on the site will uncover buried pigs’ heads, rendering the site unholy.

“We want to contaminate that land,” Ms Bennett agrees. “We don’t want them there.” She doesn’t believe MOSCA’s statement that the existing building would be used and there were no plans for the construction of a traditional mosque. “It will become a mosque,” she says. “They’re liars. They’re liars, they’re cheats, and they lie their whole way through life.”

It was unfortunate timing on MOSCA’s part: they bought the property on September 4, sixteen days after IS released its first execution video and two days after its second. Since then, the Australian terrorism threat level has been raised to high, highly publicised terror raids have been carried out, and Australia has begun airstrike operations against IS in Iraq.

MOSCA slipped further into controversy after president Orhan Rihaz told the Sunshine Coast Daily he believed the September 11 attacks were fabricated by Jews and the US government.

The last months have left Australia in a state of hyper-vigilance on terrorism, with many feeling Muslims cannot be trusted. After ten years operating on the coast with barely the bat of an eyelid, MOSCA is now caught in the tumultuous rage of the concerned citizen.

University of the Sunshine Coast student Charlie Jenner organised the counter-protest. He doesn’t agree with some Islamic teachings, but makes it clear he would have defended any religious group’s right to a place of worship. “I’m not sure it was pro-mosque,” he says of the counter-protest’s purpose. “I think it was just pro-compassion… [The mosque] doesn’t make a negative iota of difference in anybody’s life, but it’s a positive difference in theirs.”

Both sides yell over the police officers’ shoulders. With around four anti-mosque protesters to every counter-protester, the former are more vocal, crying, “You guys wouldn’t know what it meant to stand up for your country,” and, “Don’t you have children?”

The pro-compassion side accuses the larger group of bigotry and Islamophobia. They hold signs reading “Celebrate diversity and practise acceptance,” and “Peace. Freedom. Hijabs.”

Attitudes in both camps range from zealous to tongue-in-cheek. While one man climbs on a scissor-lift to shout warnings of beheadings and sharia law in Australia to a cheering crowd, a young woman holds a placard reading, “I was told there would be free doughnuts”.

Jenner is surprised at the turnout. “First I thought, people won’t really get out of bed for this, will they?” he says. “But then someone said to me well, you know, a lot of them are scared and fear’s a great motivator. Well if fear’s a great motivator, then surely we can waste our Saturday mornings for compassion. If people are ready to come up and spew hatred, then surely there should be a presence there that perpetuates ‘love’.” He places “love” in air quotes, conscious of sounding “preachy”. He’s been accused of being a lefty do-gooder enough today.

Both sides sing the national anthem, although the pro-compassion side adds the second verse, including the line “we’ve boundless plains to share”. The pro-compassion side also sings “We Are Australian” and the anti-mosque protesters return with “Jingle Bells”, perhaps because some are realising how ridiculous this all looks.

In an aggressive display of irony, Greg Mackenzie, 22, accuses Rhea Abraham, 26, of disrespect to women because she’s of middle-eastern appearance.

“Don’t come to our country and tell us to accept a religion that disgraces our country and our culture and our women,” Mackenzie shouts as the crowd behind cheer him on. “Go back to where you come from. This is our country. This is Australia. You have a problem, go back and live in a Muslim country.”

A shaken Abraham later tells a Sunday Mail reporter she’s an atheist.

“There was that vitriol, it was like a switch flicked in him,” Jenner says after the incident. “It was like, ‘if I can’t reason with someone maybe I’ll just shout, because if I shout louder, it means I’m right’… If you heard her speak, she was as Aussie as anyone, it was just because she looked a bit different.”

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or be afraid. This belongs on the news, not on the laid-back Sunshine Coast.

The protest drags on. Neither side will leave, believing that braving the rain and the increasing irritability of the police officers will deem their cause more righteous, their argument more valid.

In an admin post on the protest’s Facebook page after the event, the anti-mosque side declare themselves victorious because they shouted loudest. “The pathetic opposing protest that was specifically targeting our rally to cause an incident was a complete failure,” the post reads. “We couldn’t hear what they were saying as they were shouted down with chants of NO MOSQUE. It was a good event, the next one will be bigger and better.”

And there you have it. We’ve proved ourselves completely unable to solve problems through rational discussion.

The internet was supposed to connect people in a diverse global consciousness, but in reality it’s polarised the population. Much like the protest, in the environment online an opinion differing from the majority is not considered, but immediately shouted down. Commenters on online news articles throw insults and inflammatory comments at the Muslim community and each other. This isn’t a place of discussion, but conflict.

And like all conflicts, innocents are caught in the crossfire. A source at the University of the Sunshine Coast Student Guild said a female international student wearing the hijab was verbally abused while grocery shopping at Sunshine Plaza. She’s reportedly too scared to return, and other guild members now do her shopping.

Is this antagonism helpful?

Unfortunately, conflict is the most prominent news value of current media commentary on Islam in Australia. The Australian National Imams Council (ANIC) denounced IS in a media release on September 15. The Australian was the only major newspaper to cover the release in online spaces.

All over the world, people are calling on Muslims to condemn IS’s actions, often with the catchphrase “the silent majority is irrelevant”. Few Muslims dare raise their voice in forums for fear of attack by their fellow Australians. There were no Muslims at the Maroochydore protest to anyone’s knowledge. Who would stop shouting long enough to hear them? Certainly not those screaming about the mosque in Church Street.

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