After six years of controversy that saw protests in the streets and a mock beheading, a mosque is finally being built in the central Victorian city of Bendigo. Accompanied by police, Premier Daniel Andrews took part in a sod-turning ceremony at the site of the future Bendigo Islamic Community Centre in East Bendigo this morning.
The premier said he was not concerned about the prospect of the centre being targeted by protesters, and most of those who had rallied against the project were not from Bendigo. “Bigotry is not an acceptable form of protest. Ignorance is no excuse when it comes to these things,” he said.
The first milestone in the highly contested project has been made possible by a $400,000 grant from the Victorian Government. The government money is for phase one of the building — a sports and community hall due to be completed within nine months. Construction of the prayer hall will start after that, pending further fundraising.
“There’s four stages so let’s go stage by stage,” said the vice-president of the Bendigo Islamic Community Centre, Sameer Syed. “Stage one should be a couple million and hopefully we’ll have that in the next couple of years.”
A long and difficult process
More than 500 Muslims of 25 different nationalities call Bendigo home. Islamic prayer services were taking place in a small room at the local campus of La Trobe University when the council approved a permit for the mosque in June, 2014.
More than 400 objections were lodged against the mosque’s planning application, which led to fierce debate. At one council meeting, 200 people packed the gallery and councillors were escorted away by police. Some opponents claimed the mosque would bring violence to Bendigo and the city would be overtaken by Sharia law.
“If you’re Muslim and you want a mosque, go back to the Middle East. This is Australia,” one member of the public said.
A small group of local residents then took the case to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), arguing the development would cause traffic and social problems. While VCAT dismissed those concerns, the fight continued to the Victorian Court of Appeal before a final attempt to take the matter to the High Court in 2016 was thrown out.
Protests shut down the city
Alongside the failed legal action, mosque opponents took their fight to the community through a coordinated social media campaign, with trucks towing billboards and black balloons strung up across the city. The tension brought far-right activists to the regional city, with three men staging a mock beheading on a dummy with fake blood outside the Bendigo council offices.
The men, including Blair Cottrell of the United Patriots Front (UPF), were later convicted of inciting serious contempt towards Muslims over the protest. The disagreement also broke onto the streets in Bendigo, as a rowdy protest in August 2015 shut down the city centre as far-right and anti-racist activists rallied against one another.
Large numbers of police officers were needed to keep the large groups apart as several small scuffles broke out. Two months later, crowds of protesters returned as anti-racism groups marched to Rosalind Park while 400 police watched on as hundreds of members of the UPF occupied a rotunda in the same park.
The presence of far-right activists in Bendigo sparked a counter-movement from the city’s community leaders, including furniture businesswoman Margot Spalding.
‘Community centre with a mosque inside’
A tiny mosque in the outback of Australia built in the 1800s and the founder of Bendigo all played a part in the design of Bendigo’s mosque. The building will hold up to 375 people and will comprise a mosque making up 20–30 per cent of the building. The rest of the building will comprise a sports hall, community spaces, library and cafe.
“What it is, is a community centre with a mosque inside,” architect Asher Greenwood said.
The design was inspired by Australia’s earliest known mosque, built in Maree in South Australia in the 1860s, using materials from the local landscape such as mud and tree trunks. Sandstone material from the Bendigo area will be used in the construction of the centre.
Centre spokeswoman Aisha Neelam said the design paid respect to existing Bendigo architecture and care had been taken to ensure it would fit in with the local landscape. “It doesn’t stand out, and it’s just part of what it means to be a building in Bendigo.”
The design also features a nod to the founder of Bendigo, German-born architect William Charles Varland, who is credited with developing the use of decorative ironwork in buildings.