On the weekend, we went to a food festival. We love food, and we love a festival, so it’s an ideal way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday in our regional city. As we walked towards the festival, my son spied a make-shift sign directing us to the entry. He read the sign, then stopped dead in his tracks, looked at me wide-eyed with worry and said ‘Islamic Food Festival? We can’t go in there, Mummy, they are our mortal enemies!’
He’s a six-year-old with a passion for Star Wars, so I wasn’t surprised by his turn of phrase, but absolutely horrified by the context in which he used it. In fact, the shock of his words took my breath away. I bent down and asked him what he meant – ‘I saw on the news about Islamic State, Mum. They’re going to kill everyone.’ I explained, as best I could whilst kneeling down in front of the doors of the venue with people walking by, that ‘Islamic’ and ‘Islamic State’ are two vastly different things, that Islam is a religion and that the festival was all about celebrating the food and culture of the wide variety of people who are Islamic.
He was relieved by my answer, and was happy to continue into the festival. We first did a reconnoitre of all the food stalls to see what was on offer – Bangladeshi pakoras, Indian curries and chicken from the tandoor, Iraqi tagines, Indonesian satay and rendang, Turkish delight and baklava and Bosnian lamb cufte – and then each decided on what we’d have. The stall holders were all so proud of their food, and were happy to share with Dave some rendang and some tandoori chicken, Hugh some chicken satays and baklava, and me some pakoras followed by Turkish delight. The venue, a gymnasium which had been hastily set up to host the festival, was packed with people, so in between courses we were joined by another family, which included a young mum and a couple of toddlers. I gave up my seat so she could sit and feed her children, but I was only standing for a few seconds before a stranger brought me over a chair, gave me a big smile, and urged me to be comfortable.
Once we’d eaten, we spent a few minutes watching some people observing midday prayers, before we ventured outside to explore the jumping castle, the henna artistry, and the police community liaison information stand, which is a usual presence at all local community and sporting events. There were quite a few police there interacting with excited kids urging them to turn on the siren and then all shrieking and laughing at the noise, but no doubt there were many more officers in attendance at the crime scene just down the road, where the local mosque had been seriously damaged by arson two days before.
When I first heard the news of the fire, I’d felt a mixture of anger and shame that such an act had occurred (and for the second time) in my city. That such violent and destructive intolerance had been acted out in this community, in the dead of night in such a cowardly way, made me so sad and disheartened. I continued to feel angry, sad and ashamed, right up until my son expressed his fear to me outside that food festival. I realised then and there, that his fear, like the fear of those who attack, both in words and actions, the Muslim community, is based on ignorance and misunderstanding. People post hateful vitriol online, and verbally attack others in the streets and on public transport, and set fire to places of worship, because to them Islam is an unknown, and therefore to be feared. My son is only six years old, and so his lack of knowledge is understandable (although, for me as his parent, regrettable), but these other people – the haters, attackers and arsonists – are adults who choose to remain ignorant. They choose to continue to believe that Islamic State represents all of Islam, that extremist Muslims speak for all members of that faith, and that therefore their ignorance and hatred is justifiable. It is not, and will never will be, in any society which considers itself open and democratic.
Since the food festival, I have had a couple of conversations with my boy, about freedom and tolerance and acceptance. We’ve talked about how what we see on our television – whether it is footage of murderous terrorists in far-flung places or arsonists burning mosques only a few kilometres from our home – must not be accepted as our reality. Reality is walking out into the world, shaking people’s hands, sharing food, offering a seat, listening to stories, learning. The world is sometimes a shocking place, but as a parent I am determined to ensure that my beautiful boy has every opportunity to understand that our reality is the one we build, not the one we imagine.