Today a Canberra imam and I had a brief chat about proposals for a national imams’ board as reported in today’s Australian. Our conversation was in English. The imam is a qualified architect who runs Canberra’s National Islamic Library. The vice-president of his organization is a female. One of its former presidents was a female. Women are welcomed at this Islamic centre, and all activities are conducted in English. Believe it or not, this gentrified Islamic Centre in the nation’s capital is the exception, not the rule, among Aussie Muslims. Most Australian mosques are run by first generation migrants with poor English skills who run the mosque like a cultural artefact of what their homeland was like before they jumped on the plane.  Most employ imams who play cultural roles irrelevant to local conditions. Hence, most imams speak little English, and are expected to play cultural roles of little relevance to the majority of Muslims who speak English as their native language and were brought up in Australia. Women aren’t welcome in many mosques. Young people are often either turned away or made to feel uncomfortable. Even if a national board of imams is established, one wonders just how influential it will be. Especially given that no one has yet studied exactly what proportion of Muslims worship at mosques for congregational prayers on Fridays or any other day for that matter. But the tide is turning on the old establishment. Australia’s Islamic religious organisations are going through a change in the guard. It is a cultural, linguistic and generational change.  Unlike previous years, the majority of executive members of the Lakemba-based Lebanese Moslems Association (which manages the Imam Ali ben Abi Taleb Mosque where Sheik Hilaly preaches) consists of 2nd and 3rd generation Aussie Muslims. Antiquated LMA rules bar women from full membership, and also exclude men unable to establish at least one of their parents is of Lebanese extraction. Now, LMA members are openly debating changes to their constitution on various chatrooms and internet forums. And although the LMA still has plenty to learn about public relations, it is holding a mosque open day this weekend. So if you are interested and in the mood for some tasty baklava, get down there!

Peter Fray

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