In its inflammatory article about Young, New South Wales, The Daily Telegraph has quoted Muslim convert Mohammad Carson as saying the September 11 attacks were a conspiracy and “had nothing to do with Islam”.
When I was a cadet journalist in his hometown, Young, in 2012 he used the exact same phrase. However, he mentioned nothing of a conspiracy.
“The more I learnt about Islam, the more I learnt 9/11 had nothing to do with Islam,” he told me. “We don’t approve of that [the attacks], and we are more against that than the non-Muslims themselves. These people are murders and killers, and no one approves of a killer.”
I read Friday’s “exclusive report” headlined with “Young NSW is the unofficial Muslim capital of the outback” with apprehension — not of the “radical transformation” of the town, but of the potential fear it could stir up.
I was also shocked because when I had asked Carson about his views on Islam, he came across as a gentle, well-spoken man who had found meaning through his conversion. He expressed none of the extreme views that were attributed to him last week, such as that “disobedient” women should be disciplined with “a bundle of dried grass” and that he wanted to marry off his 13-year-old daughter.
I lived in Young for almost 18 months from June 2011, and saw no overt racism between Young’s Muslims and the rest of the population. In fact, when 90 Afghan refugees moved to the town to work at the currently closed abattoir a number of years before I arrived, a welcome group was set up to make them feel part of the community. Independent filmmaker Tom Zubrycki covered the events in his film Molly and Mobarak.
The Tele’s article, with 339 comments, and Saturday’s more moderate follow-up have generated plenty of clicks, but they don’t paint a complete picture.
The Sydney tabloid seems shocked to discover that Muslims live in the country, too. It says Arabic is the second most spoken language in Young, but at 0.8% of the more than 10,000 population, it’s hardly a huge number of people, especially as 2.7% of the NSW population as a whole speak Arabic.
The Tele article says 400 Muslims live in Young without pointing to any statistics, but Islam didn’t even make the top five religions in Young in the 2011 census, with the fifth having fewer than 350 practising members.
Carson told me he and his fellow Muslims had indeed “copped a fair bit” of racism, but that inflammatory media coverage of Islam only fuelled the ignorance. “There are a few of the locals that have a strange feeling towards us, but then there are the locals who know me and know my family,” he said. “We have this opportunity to represent Islam in such a beautiful country town as Young.”
He explained his comments on sharia law, arranged marriage and discipline within a marriage with much more nuance than his comments in the Tele. He says he doesn’t believe Australia should be forced to live under sharia law, but that Australians “may accept” it if they knew more about it.
He says he would only arrange a marriage for his 13-year-old daughter if she consented, and she wouldn’t be able to spend time alone with the man — no more than seven years her senior — until she was “at least” 18.
Carson says he explained to the Tele’s reporter, as they laughed and ate his food, that the Koran called for husbands to gently strike their wives with a bundle of dried grass as a last resort. However, similarly to the Bible, it is an ancient text, and he says he doesn’t condone violence against women.
In fact, Carson witnessed domestic violence as a child. “This is why I’m so dead set against women being beaten in the home,” he said.
Carson says he fears repercussions from the article.
In yesterday’s Young Witness, my former colleagues spoke to the town’s civic leaders, who have hit back at the Tele’s stories. Young Council’s general manager Peter Vlatko was quoted as saying:
“First of all the journalist needs to understand where the outback is … then they’ve alleged we’re the capital.
“What’s the story? They interview one person and paint the whole town based on that, something that’s not true.
“It’s so misleading and inaccurate it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”