Social cohesion in Bendigo: understanding community attitudes to the mosque in 2015

Islam Islam and politics Religion Freedom of religion Property development Bendigo
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The Victorian Multicultural Commission contracted La Trobe University to study the Bendigo mosque protests in 2016. From 2014 to 2016, Bendigo attracted international attention because the regional Victorian city became the site of multiple antimosque and/or anti-Islam and anti-racism protests that distilled national debates about safety, security, multiculturalism and Australian identity. Centred on a planning application for a mosque to service the population, some local people mobilised to protest against the proposed development through formal planning objections and street rallies together with external protestors. Counter-protests and other community-based activities were initiated to counter-act anti-mosque and/or anti-Islam sentiment. The planning and appeals processes proceeded as per regulatory requirements, however, due to the unprecedented level of vitriol and broad media coverage, the community was polarised.

The nature of the anti-mosque and/or anti-Islamic protests in Bendigo were qualitatively different from other contentious planning scenarios because they comprised a mass mobilisation of individuals and political groups against a particular group of people in society, rather than the development itself. The protests extended beyond a stance against a product or a type of physical infrastructure because they aimed to exclude Muslim people from experiencing the same rights and freedoms as others in Australian society to practice their faith.

The main areas of conflict were the social impacts of the mosque development on the community, the erosion of human rights and democracy, the need for leadership, and the role of social media in social mobilisation. Ironically, the vehemence of the antimosque protestors meant they used their democratic rights against the cultural and regulatory institutions of democracy in their bid to stop Muslims from practicing their faith. Local objectors were assisted in their efforts with training, crowd source funding and the in-migration of people during protest events, which was made possible by social media.

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