TWO prominent Muslim commentators came to Wagga on Saturday armed with one simple message - Australians have "nothing to fear" from Islam.
In an event organised by the Museum of the Riverina, Zachariah Matthews, founder of the Islamist think-tank Deen Academy, and Susan Carland, a Monash University academic and social commentator, came to Wagga to answer the questions of more than 200 people about all aspects of the religion.
In light of recent tough rhetoric on Islam from some parliamentarians and sections of the media, Dr Matthews said prior to the event he was anticipating "tough but confronting" questions.
His aim was to foster a better understanding of where the Muslim community fits into a broader Australia.
"Muslims migrated to Australia to find a better way of life, primarily economically," he said.
"I think sometimes with the rhetoric, the scaremongering, the campaigns of fear from certain sections of the community, Aussies forget that Australia is a great country and is inclusive."
Organisers of Saturday's event were overwhelmed with the public interest in the question and answer session with Dr Matthews and Ms Carland.
Originally slated to be held in the museum, it had to be moved to the much larger council meeting room to accommodate the eventual roll-up of more than 200 people, with some relegated to standing room only.
Dr Matthews hoped the event would, above all else, foster a greater understanding of Islam for the Wagga community.
"There's nothing to fear from Islam or your Muslim neighbours and workmates," he said.
"I work, I contribute, I pay taxes - this is my home and I only have the best intentions for this country.
"By and large, the vast majority of Muslims have the exact same objective for why they are here."
For the president of the Muslim Association of the Riverina, Ata ur-Rehman, fostering that understanding is a two-way street.
He believes the city's Islamic community needs to be more open about their ideals and aspirations to help others understand.
"We just took it for granted that people know about Islam, but in fact people know very little about the real Islam," he said.
"We haven't been vocal, we haven't come forward to tell people what Islam really is."
WHEN the public hysteria about the burqa reached fever pitch earlier this year, Susan Carland started to worry about her safety on public transport.
The social commentator and Monash University academic, who converted to Islam when she was 19, also watched her friends in the Muslim community become transfixed by fear, too afraid to send their children to school given the hostile climate.
"It was really alarming to see, after the terror raids, there was quite an increase in physical and verbal attacks on Muslim women in the streets," she said.
She believes there's lots of ignorance and misconception in the community - a view backed up locally by the chairman of the Muslim Association of the Riverina, Ata ur-Rehman.
Dr ur-Rehman said he was of the belief women had "extraordinary" rights under his religion, and joked that sometimes men "felt jealous" about them.
"(People) think they're subjugated and oppressed, but if you read about women and how they are treated in the Islamic world, you would be amazed," he said.
Ms Carland was in Wagga on Saturday to discuss Islam and the status of women within the religion, which has been in the public spotlight over the past few months.
Of particular disappointment to her was the brief banning of the burqa within Parliament House in Canberra, which saw women wearing the burqa relegated to what she termed the "penalty box" and not allowed to sit in the public galleries.
"It's been incredibly frustrating, especially when it turned out the whole thing was sparked by a rumour from a camera crew," she said.
"It just looked like such opportunism from certain politicians."