Christmas means a lot to Muslims
By Kuranda Seyit
It’s Christmas Day, 1982. Emu Plains.
As usual on this special day, the temperature was nearing the high thirties. I was excited with anticipation as my father drove us home in our silver HQ Holden. In the boot lay an unassembled red racer. This was my first real bike.
I had never received a gift like this before. We grew up in the inner city and my parents were un-skilled migrants from Turkey. I was the third oldest of nine children and my father at best was struggling to put food on the table.
As practising Muslims we didn’t celebrate Christmas yet I grew up in a Christian society and openly participated in scripture at school and my parents sent me to Sunday school. I grew up with the same stories from the Bible as the ones in the Quran. There was very little to differentiate between the two faiths from my 10 year old eyes.
I was brought up to love Jesus but my father was very clear on his status as a prophet and not the son of God. But you could not be a Muslim if you did not love and respect Jesus Christ. He was born of a miraculous birth to Mary. The Quran lucidly describes his entry into this world. In his brief life he inspired thousands in the Holy lands to turn back to the righteous path to God. He lived austerely and in complete devotion to God. He personified peace and performed miracles including healing lepers and bringing the dead back to life- albeit through the power of God.
So on this warm Christmas Day in Emu Plains on the foot of the Blue Mountains I was anxious to show all my friends my Chrissie present. In all truth it was just a present but in my attempt to “fit in” I wanted my friends to think that we believed in Christmas and celebrated the tradition.
For some years throughout my adolescence I continued the façade that Christmas was as much a part of our tradition as it was my mate’s. As the only Muslim kid in a school of over a thousand students I desperately wanted to feel accepted. It took me a whole year to make friends and to establish my identity after moving to the suburbs from the city and I wasn’t willing to let it go after all my hard blood, sweat and tears.
My brothers and sisters grew up with racism. We were constantly in fights, name calling and being marginalised. I used to be called “gobbler” by my English teacher and “Ching” by some students and had to constantly put up with bullies who just didn’t like the colour of my skin or the shape of my eyes.
But I still loved it when Christmas came around. As I got older I was invited to my mate’s Christmas lunches. Now, that was a good treat although I never ate the Christmas ham I enjoyed the cake, the soft drinks and the steak. But it was the feeling of belonging that mattered to me.
More than two decades on and I have done a lot. I worked as a cop, a teacher, an actor and now a community activist. Motivated by the September 11 terrorist attacks I felt obliged to build the bridges between Muslims and Christians. I saw the need to break down the misconceptions about Islam. There were reports of Muslims being vilified and harassed. So in 2002 I took up a post with the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils as the Media Liaison Officer. It was no easy task. We were hearing at an almost monotonous rate the varied issues involving Muslims who allegedly were trying to turn Australia into an Islamic state. There were mad mullahs in Melbourne and gang rapists in Sydney, across the Gulf of Carpentaria were the Bali bombers crying out “Allahu Akbar” in court. Then of course there were a number of arrests of alleged terrorists so the threat of terrorism felt real in the minds of every Australian.
In this context every effort to build better community relations was hampered by negative media coverage but we persevered. In 2003 I founded the Forum on Australia’s Islamic Relations, a think tank and an advocacy organization which ran a number of successful projects including the now very popular Goodness and Kindness Project, where a Muslim, Jew and Christian visit schools. We did a lot of interfaith work and we put out information about Australian Muslims as well as appearing frequently in the mainstream media on various issues from the war in Iraq to the banning of the headscarf.
For all intents and purposes we were doing well. The arson attack on Kuraby Mosque was an all time low for Muslim community relations but amazingly the community has endured the problems with great determination and as was seen after the London bombings there was very little to report in terms of a backlash against Muslims.
Today, there are great initiatives being taken by various religious organizations, the Catholic arch diocese, Griffith University and the Islamic Council of Queensland. Last year the community hosted the first Multicultural Eid festival of Queensland which not only celebrated the end of Ramadan but also Queensland’s great history of pluralism and harmonious co-existence.
Our organization has always supported the celebration of the multitude of religious traditions in Australia. Christians celebrating Easter and Christmas, Jews celebrating Hanukah, Sukkot and Yom Kippur and Muslims who celebrate Eid ul Fitr at the end of Ramadan and Eid ul Adha at the end of the Hajj pilgrimage. Of course there are many more celebrations than just these few which makes Australia the great place that it is.
We were shocked when we heard that our organization was apparently calling for an end to the Christmas tradition and to change the name to “winterval”. As the thousands of readers who were insulted by this suggestion we too were offended. Unfortunately, the story had been manipulated to present a wrongful message that Muslims had an agenda. Well, this was preposterous and in no way based on fact.
Muslims make up about 1.5% of the population. They are one of a number of religious faiths practiced in Australia. There is no doubt that Christianity is the faith of the majority of Australians. There are some politically correct do-gooders who create the impression that Muslims are advocating for change. However, Muslims often are so grateful that they can practice their own traditions freely and unimpeded than they could in the homelands of their parents or grandparents. So why would they try to create division and tension when as a minority they are still establishing themselves in this land? Our children are growing up with the tradition of Santa Claus, Carols by Candlelight, Chrissie on the beach and of course the great Christmas barbie. Christmas is not an affront to Islam nor is it an issue. We draw a lot from the prophet Muhammad who congratulated his Jewish and Christian friends during their festivities, we know that for Australian Muslims it is incumbent on all of them to show respect and kindness to people of other faiths and to share in the spirit of Christmas.
I hope that during Ramadan Christians and others will join in with me to break bread and enjoy the fruits of multicultural living in days to come.
Kuranda Seyit is the Director and Founder of the Forum on Australia’s Islamic Relations, he is also editor of Australia Fair Newspaper and has been chosen amongst the Smart 100 by the Bulletin Magazine in 2003 and also awarded the Sunday Telegraph’s Pride of Australia medal for the peace category in 2005.