Sherene Hassan – a conduit between communities who brings people together

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On a bright Spring day I pull up in front of the Islamic Museum of Australia, nestled down by Melbourne’s Merri Creek. Situated on a Thornbury street filled with warehouses and light industry, the Museum is a haven of peace and tranquillity. I’m here to meet with Sherene Hassan, the Director of Education and Community Engagement at the Museum. Sherene has worked in leadership roles in the Islamic community and is a force for change in creating and facilitating interfaith dialogue. She was elected to the board of the Islamic Council of Victoria, was one of the founding Directors of the Islamic Museum and is also the namesake behind the Museum’s popular ‘Coffee with Sherene’ event, designed to spark dialogue and create connections between communities.


 
 

MARIA O’DWYER: You’re a teacher by trade. What prompted you to take on leadership roles with the Australian Muslim community?

SHERENE HASSAN: I was in Adelaide around Sept 11 and there was a mosque open day. I was going into the mosque to pray and there was a man explaining to a group why women wear the headscarf and I remember thinking that didn’t really gel with me … I said ‘excuse me’ and volunteered my own explanation. At that point it really brought up the question of ‘why aren’t Muslim women speaking up for themselves and why are people speaking on our behalf?’ It didn’t sit comfortably with me.

I came back to Melbourne and remember whinging to my friend Waleed Aly who was on the board of the Islamic Council of Victoria about some aspect of the Muslim community and I remember him rubbing his hands gleefully and saying, “Why don’t you come onto the board?” I said, “You don’t have any females on the board.” He said, “That’s exactly why we need them!”

I didn’t realise but Waleed was going behind the scenes lobbying to get me on the board and six weeks later I was elected! I had been quite frustrated by the lack of Muslim female leadership we had, so it was an opportunity I was grateful for.

In 2016, you responded to comments by Today host Sonia Kruger who advocated a ban on Muslim migration to Australia. You wrote a letter to The Age reaching out to those who had shown support to the Muslim community by inviting them for coffee at the museum – “your shout.” This began the incredibly successful “Coffee with Sherene”. How did the success of this one, quite simple, call-out make you feel?

It came from a point of great frustration – when Sonia Kruger made those comments it was a bit of a watershed moment for me and the community. We just felt that we’d been doing so much in terms of engaging with the wider community and so much in terms bridge-building and, all of a sudden, we’d just been forced 10 steps backwards. It was a difficult time. What I did notice after she made those comments was that it really did polarise the wider community. Individuals who had a dislike towards Muslims – that dislike was entrenched further – but there were a lot of individuals who went the other way and who made an effort to show warmth towards Muslims.

So the letter was basically a way to say ‘to those of you who have chosen the path of understanding over fear, thank you, I would like to invite you to the Museum for a coffee, my shout. I received a couple of emails and couple of phone calls, nothing overwhelming, but then a woman called Fiona Scott Norman [a Melbourne-based comedian and writer] contacted me and said “Sherene lets do something … there are so many of us who feel like Sonia Kruger doesn’t represent us as Australians and we want to do something about it. We feel so helpless. What can we do?” [Fiona then contacted her networks and] to my surprise I opened up my Facebook page and saw that I’d been invited to an event called “Coffee with Sherene.” So I rock up at this event and there were about 55-60 people in the room. I just burst into tears. We were just squashed in like sardines, it was huge, it was absolutely huge.

And the love that I received and other Muslims received that day, just buoyed us, it was just so heartening. Magda Szubanski was there and she spoke about it on Q&A so there was this ripple effect. It really demonstrated to me the impact of small little acts of kindness …and how they can really be a force for social change.

We live in times where the hate speech has become almost “normal speech” in some quarters. How do you think we shift this monologue into a conversation?

When it comes to individuals who I encounter at the museum who are quite hateful in their rhetoric I always try and be very calm. I try and point out to them that a lot of their qualms or concerns are really not applicable because, when I speak to them and ask, ‘have you had a conversation with a Muslim? And, have you ever even met a Muslim?” invariably their answer is “No.”

As a Muslim leader I have received my fair share of hate mail over the years. There is a verse in the Quran 41:34 that states “Repel evil with good and you can turn an enemy into a friend.” This verse has informed the way I deal with these haters.

There was one man called Dave who sent me quite a nasty email full of negative sweeping generalisations about Islam and Muslims. Calmly I responded to him in a courteous manner. He continued to email me and I continued to respond until he stopped contacting me. I breathed a sigh of relief and then weeks later his name appeared in my inbox. Opening the email with trepidation, I found an animation: two puppy dogs with love hearts circling them stating: ‘you are one of my dearest friends, send this to six of your dearest friends.’ So the man who had nothing but utter contempt for me and my religion is now sending me a friendship chain email!!

Dealing with trolls for so long now has changed the way I feel towards them. I no longer feel angry, just pity. Clearly they have no meaningful friendships and are so devoid of love – I ask myself what must have happened in their life for them to be so consumed with hatred? 

How do you avoid activism fatigue?

I have learnt not to take the abuse I receive from on-line trolls personally. It’s just a reflection of them – I try to surround myself with good people. I do believe in placing a limit on the amount of vitriol I see online. There are also resources such as the Islamophobia Register that you can use to report Islamophobic behaviour.

I think it’s important to also celebrate the small wins and not get distracted by those who seek to undermine your efforts. Trying to create a more peaceful cohesive society seems like such an insurmountable task at times, but taking the time to appreciate small acts of kindness and progress is imperative. There is always something good to celebrate and champion.

You work in education – do you think young people are the future of genuine interfaith dialogue?

Absolutely, young people are our future and I feel so heartened and so buoyed by the sincerity they exude and the commitment they have to creating a better world. When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s there was no such thing as multiculturalism. Being different would often instil a sense of shame. But for the younger generation they have been introduced to the notion at a very young age that being different is not something that should just be tolerated it should be celebrated and respected.

You have four children – have you found it hard to balance family life with having a public persona, particularly in such difficult times for the Muslim community?

I often feel guilty that my community work has taken me away from my family, and I admit it has been one of my greatest challenges. But now my children are grown up (three of them in their twenties, one still a teenager) they constantly tell me how proud they are of the sacrifices I have made, and it has inspired them to do their bit to create a more just and inclusive Australia.

I am particularly proud of the organisation they volunteer with – Happy Brain Education – which aims to empower young people from disadvantaged backgrounds through tutoring and mentoring.

Museums usually use numbers (X visitors in the last financial year) to measure success but the Islamic museum is trying to do something quite different – either shift behaviours and attitudes or simply open people’s eyes to possibility. What does success look like to you?

It is a visible transformation, right from when they walk through the front doors, many seem tentative and anxious and gradually they relax and then are smiling and laughing. There was one group when they arrived – the bus driver took me aside to tell me they had been bagging Muslims the whole hour-long journey. Amongst them, there was a 92-year old woman who said to me I was the first Muslim she had spoken to. For years she had been crippled with fear towards Muslims and now all that fear has dissipated. At the end of the tour they were hugging and some were in tears.

In addition, groups that visit the museum are asked to fill in a feedback form which evaluates their perception of Islam before and after the visit. The results have been extremely compelling with the overwhelming majority of visitors to the museum stating their visit has been transformative and they now see Islam and Muslims in a positive light.

Did you see a response to the Christchurch attack at the Islamic Museum?

We were so overwhelmed by the community response to the terror attacks in Christchurch. Two days after the tragic incident we had a nation-wide Mosque open Day and the Islamic Museum participated as well. Over 700 people came through the doors all with one objective; to show their support for the Muslim community. We were bombarded with letters and flowers and hugs! There was so much genuine goodwill and love for the Muslim community which was so uplifting and healing.

Inducted in the Victorian Women’s Honour Roll, in 2007 you were selected by The Age newspaper as one of Melbourne’s 100 Most Influential people, in 2016, was awarded ‘Muslim Woman of the Year’ at the Australian Muslim Achievement Awards (AMAA) and in 2018 awarded an Order of Australia medal (OAM) on 26 January 2018. Where to from here??

My favourite thing about what I do is the impressive people I meet from all walks of life, particularly young women. It is so enriching. There are so many talents and incredible individuals – I look forward to taking a back seat! I actually really enjoy learning from others – I’d like to focus on that for a while.


Photography: Mia Mala McDonald

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