Today’s papers reported that a weekend long deliberative poll on relations between Muslim and non-Muslim in Australia found that after a weekend of discussions and information, non-Muslims were markedly less hostile to Muslims that they had been at the outset.

The poll sampled the attitudes of people attending a weekend gathering at the old Parliament House. It contrasted their views before and after two days of close contact with members of the Muslim community.

The result came as a pleasant relief; all due respect to my co-religionists, but shut me in a focus group with some of them for 48 hours, and I’d be ready to convert to Scientology by the end of it. Luckily my non-Muslim compatriots are more generous, or less misanthropic, or just plain nicer, than I am.

I was among the “randomly selected” Muslim delegates, which is not the wild stroke of fortune it might appear.

Non-Muslim delegates were initially randomly selected from the phone book, but Muslims could not be recruited in any numbers this way. The organizers therefore drew names out of the hat at a series of Australia wide seminars, which were organized in consultation with local Muslim groups. So the Muslim delegates (probably unavoidably) were drawn from a pool that largely consisted of those closely involved in formal community politics.

It’s a small community, but I still hadn’t expected to see quite so many people I knew. The camaraderie among the Muslims as they greeted familiar faces from interstate could well have created an impression among the non-Muslim delegates of Muslims “sticking together”, but either they were aware of why this was so, or they were willing to forgive.

It was in some ways a deeply weird gathering – Cardinal Pell and Sheik Omran alongside Daniel (“Catch the Fire”) Scott, Wassim Doureihi from Hizb ut Tahrir, and an array of “ordinary Australians” from the suburbs and country towns, all presided over by Bob Hawke, Iain Sinclair, and Barry Jones.

But the mood as well as the poll results seem to show that most people came out of their personal encounters with Muslims (for many, it was the first time they had ever spoken to a Muslim) with greater understanding and empathy.

Peter Fray

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