Friday, October 21, 2005

Muslim Minorities & Conservative Politics In Australia

In recent times, conservative political leaders have challenged Muslim Australians to “assimilate”, to “confirm” and to abide by “our values”. The rhetoric has been adopted by backbenchers such as Sophie Panopoulos, who has called for headscarves to be banned. It has also been used by Education Minister Dr Nelson in his call for Muslim independent schools to confirm to “Australian values”.

Conservative commentators have also not been far behind. Janet Albrechtsen stunned Muslim readers of the Australian newspaper when she claimed that migrant Muslim cultures teach Muslim men to sexually assault white-skinned women. Former National party Senator John Stone also wrote in the same newspaper that Muslim migration represented a “problem” and that Islam was a culture which could not find a place in Australia.

Such simplistic formulae are indicative of an intellectual laziness on the part of many conservatives. Muslims have lived in Australia for over 150 years. They have migrated from over 60 countries, and do not represent a uniform cultural phenomenon. Like all migrants, religion is just one layer of Muslim experience.

My family’s experience in this regard is quite typical. My parents were born in Delhi. The major source of their identity was language, it being the area in which they felt most vulnerable. As such, my mother’s first friend in Australia was an Anglo-Indian Jewish woman from Canberra who spoke fluent Hindi.

Growing up in East Ryde, most of my family close friends were people who spoke Hindi or had some form of Indian-ness. As such, most of my childhood friends were Hindus, Sikhs, Goan Catholics and Pakistani Anglicans. Muslims were the exception rather than the rule (unless they spoke Hindi or Urdu).

It was only when I was 10 that I realised Divali was not a strictly Muslim celebration. At 16, I came across a strange phenomenon – Muslims with blonde hair, blue eyes and white skin. Yes, you could be Muslim and European at the same time.

Conservatives who try to place all Muslim migrants into the same box are making the same mistake as Usama bin Ladin does with the “West”. Bin Ladin and other extremists present Western cultures as one huge monolith, declaring war on each part. The “us” and “them” mentality of al-Qaida is being replicated in the Parliamentary Liberal Party in the form of politicians creating an artificial “them” out of a faith community that has been at the heart of Australian life for over a century.

Conservative leaders and commentators should cease their intellectual laziness and search out the facts about Muslim Australia. They might start with a report published in 2004 by Professor Abdullah Saeed of the University of Melbourne.

In his report, Saeed gives a snapshot of the Muslim community based on figures from the 2001 Census. He shows that the largest ethnic group among Muslim Australians (in terms of place of birth) are those born in Australia. The next largest are those born in Lebanon. The ratio of the former group to the latter is over 3:1. The vast majority of Muslim migrants (some 79%) have taken up citizenship

Of course, it is easy to point the finger merely at conservative politicians, shock jocks and columnists. Muslims themselves also need to take some responsibility for the Talibanisation of discourse about Islam in Australia.

For a community with such strong roots in this country, Muslim leadership organisations seem to be dominated by first generation migrant interests. When the only voices speaking for Muslim Australia are middle-aged men with little English or thick accents, is it any wonder that so many Australians view Muslims as being foreign?

Muslim organisations also need to decide whether they represent Islamic orthodoxy or Muslim reality. The fact is that the vast majority of Muslims are relatively non-observant. The crowds that attend the Imam Ali Mosque in Lakemba for the Eid or Hari Raya celebration at the end of Ramadan are some 8 times those that attend the mosque on a Friday.

Like most faith communities, the majority of Muslims fit in quite well. Like most Australians, they do not make open declarations about their faith at every opportunity. Former ALP candidate Ed Husic is not the only Australian Muslim to have anglicised his name. Few would realise that large corporations such as the National Australia Bank and Crazy Johns Telecommunications have Muslims in senior management roles. Fewer would probably care.

However, if mainstream “Aussie Mossies” continue in their reluctance to identify themselves as Muslims, and if they continue to allow first generation migrants with poor English skills to speak for them, Muslims will continue to be marginalised.

The majority of Muslim Australians do engage with Australians of other faiths and no faith in particular. What they need to do is ensure that a distinctly Australian expression of Islamic theology and values emerge. This can only happen when Imams become more than just men who lead prayers and teach young kids how to read the scriptures in Arabic.

In the United States, the most popular Imams are home-grown. Institutions such as the Zaytuna Institute are providing a vision of Islam relevant to 21st century America. The director of the Institute, Hamza Yusuf Hanson, is as comfortable talking to President Bush at the White House as he is to students at the Institute.

Sadly, most Australian Imams cannot speak adequate English. Worse still, few understand our culture, politics and society. They are also under-resourced and poorly paid. Often they are accountable to mosque management committees, most of whom also have an overseas mentality. Given that peak representative Muslim bodies come from the ranks of such people, it is no wonder that these bodies simply are unable to articulate the interests and aspirations of the people they claim to represent.

Mainstream Muslims need to take control of their institutions, failing which they will provide much ammunition for conservative simpletons intent of marginalising Muslims for the sake of undefined Australian values.

(The author is a Sydney lawyer and occasional lecturer in the School of Politics & International Relations at Macquarie University. He was Liberal Candidate for the seat of Reid in the 2001 Federal Election. This is an edited version of an address to the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Sydney on 20 August 2005.)