Melbourne Muslims feel ‘unfairly tarnished’ by reports linking them to rising COVID-19 case

Lady in WindowThe Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) has warned against scapegoating the Muslim community for the rising number of coronavirus cases in Melbourne while backing calls from AFL star Bachar Houli for more people to get tested.

The call comes as Melbourne’s Islamic Al-Taqwa College remains the state’s biggest cluster with 144 cases and after recent media reports have linked other clusters to Eid celebrations, which marked the end of the fasting month in May.

ICV vice-president Adel Salman told the ABC that some media reports had “unfairly tarnished” the Muslim community as being irresponsible and the cause of the current increase of cases, even if the articles did not explicitly call out Muslims. “There’s sort of an undertone and innuendo [in] some of the reporting that would lead the reader or the consumer of the media to think ‘Well, the Muslims are being irresponsible and Muslims [are] putting us all in danger,'” Mr Salman said.

He added that while a lot of Muslims had been “sadly impacted” by coronavirus or detected with the virus — including Houli’s mother who is battling COVID-19 in intensive care — he did not think the Muslim community was over-represented in the numbers of cases in Melbourne. Bekim Hasani, head of sharia affairs at the Islamic Co-ordinating Council of Victoria, said he and other Muslim leaders have been delivering a similar message to the community in Melbourne since the start of the pandemic.

Last month, Mr Hasani was involved in helping the Muslim community in the northern suburbs of Melbourne to undertake the State Government’s suburban testing blitz. He said there were several residents, including Muslims, who refused to get tested and were not taking the pandemic seriously.


Iman Bekim Hasani, of Carlton’s Albanian Mosque, helps out with COVID-19 testing in Broadmeadows.(AAP: David Crosling)

“We have a handful of Muslims out there who consider this whole pandemic to be not true,” said Mr Hasani, who is also an imam of the Albanian Muslim community in Melbourne. He said residents declined COVID-19 tests due to several reasons, including being influenced by misinformation and conspiracy theories related to the coronavirus on social media.

Mr Salman said while some people with a Muslim background had different opinions about the seriousness of the coronavirus, it was not unique to the Islamic community. “This would not be different to other communities, other ethnic communities and the mainstream Australian society,” he told.

Earlier this month, the ICV released a statement calling for more balanced and fair reporting on COVID-19 pandemic. The statement was released after media reports suggested the spike and resurgence of COVID-19 in the Melbourne suburbs were linked to Eid celebrations. “In times of stress like this, where everyone is looking for a reason and a scapegoat, it’s very easy to scapegoat minorities [including] Muslim communities, [and] I think that’s happening,” Mr Salman said.

Earlier this month, Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton also confirmed there was “an epidemiological link” between the Al-Taqwa cluster and the outbreak in Melbourne’s public housing towers.

One of the largest clusters in South-East Asia is an outbreak from a gathering of 16,000 people at a mosque in Malaysia in March, which resulted in more than 500 infections. The organisers held a similar gathering in Indonesia just weeks later. When asked about the risk of participants spreading the virus at the event in Gowa, in Indonesia’s province of Sulawesi, a participant told Reuters: “We are more afraid of God [than COVID-19].”

But Mr Hasani in Melbourne emphasised that putting faith in God should be accompanied by following public health directions and taking precautions. “After we follow all the instructions from the Government and health authorities — we wash our hands, we put a mask on — then we put our trust in Allah,” he said.

Mr Hasani said putting someone at risk of being infected with COVID-19 was considered “a major sin”, because the Koran dictates killing an innocent person is as great a sin as killing all of mankind. “By avoiding or refusing testing and not following the safety measures, if someone got the virus and spread it, he becomes the reason for someone to die,” he said.

ICV said it keeps disseminating important public health messages to their communities and working along with multicultural and multifaith organisations to support each other. “This [pandemic] got nothing to do with religion or race, or particular communities. This is an issue that affects us all equally,” he said.


Prayers in Indonesia
Coronavirus cases in a number of countries had surged after 16,000 Muslim pilgrims gathered at the Jamek Mosque in Kuala Lumpur.(AP: Vincent Thian)

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