A row has broken out in a Jewish-dominated area of Melbourne over a Muslim prayer group that meets in a council-owned hall.
The St Kilda Islamic Society has held Friday prayers at the facility for years, but the council now wants to change the venue’s permit to formalise the arrangement. That council decision has given opponents of the prayer group the opportunity to get vocal.
The prayer group started in 2008 with a group of Melbourne taxi drivers who were looking for a place to worship. They began meeting at the Alma Road Community House in Melbourne’s inner south-east, an area recognised as a Jewish enclave and does not have a local mosque.
These days about 35 men attend Friday prayers, including Qaiser Mohammed. “They think that we are going to occupy this place. We are here for one hour [a week], just for the Friday prayer,” he said.
Port Phillip Council, which owns the hall, is seeking to change the facility’s planning permit to allow bigger groups to congregate. This has focused attention on the venue’s existing uses, and suddenly a practice that has been happening quietly for years is now a matter of public debate.
Vickie Janson is from the Q Society, which is dedicated to fighting what it calls the “Islamisation of Australia”. She says the group behind the Friday prayers are “doctrinally aligned” with extremists. “I am against Sharia law in Australia. People have come here to embrace our freedoms, embrace the equality. Let’s not go down the track of Britain that has now set up 85 tribunals that act as Sharia courts,” she said.
Q Society is distributing petitions warning of unrest if the prayer group is allowed to continue.
“It is well documented that in many parts of the Islamic world, Friday prayers are noted for escalating violent outbursts towards non-Muslims. The gathering of a large group of Muslims in East St Kilda will likely strike terror into the hearts of local residents,” she said. “There is a lot of Jewish people in the area. We know if we look around the world with these more extreme groups, anti-semitism is a problem.”
Mr Mohammed rejects claims his prayer group increases violence or in some way is anti-semitic. He said the group does not want to introduce Sharia law and thinks those objecting to the prayers must be misinformed. “They are linking us to the terrorist group. I saw their petition. It is completely wrong,” he said.
Victorian State Labor MP Martin Foley says the situation is being blown out of proportion. “The dog whistling that we have seen in Canberra in recent times has encouraged this kind of behaviour, and this group (Q Society) has just sought to whip up fear and pander to the worst elements of our community [and] should pull their head in,” he said.