Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Australia is home to a sizable number of Muslims, who number about 500,000, just over two percent of Australia’s population. Fifty percent of Muslims live in the state of New South Wales (Sydney) and a third in the state of Victoria (Melbourne). Most Muslims are fully integrated in the fabric of Australian society, which includes people hailing from over 170 countries, living in relative harmony, although economic disparities are noticeable.
About half of Australia’s Muslims were born in this country. In fact, Islam’s presence predates European colonization here and as such Muslims object to any suggestion that their culture and religion are alien to Australia or less authentic.
In the 2011 census, 1,140 people identified themselves as Aboriginal Muslims. Some may be recent converts, but some have Macassan ancestry, especially among the Arnhem Land people, where you can find Islamic cultural influences in the songs, paintings, dances, and prayers. Some may be descendants of Malay indentured laborers, or “Afghan” cameleers, who were brought in the 19th century to help run camel caravans across Australia.
Historians believe that Islamic and Arab contacts with Australia are older than its contact with Europe and Christianity. For examples, Macassan and Bugis traders from Sulawesi visited the coast of northern Australia to trade and fish, for hundreds of years prior to European settlement. They left their mark on the people of northern Australia — in language, art, economy and genetics in the descendants of both Macassan and Aboriginal ancestors that are now found on both sides of the Arafura and Banda Seas.
Later, British settlers used Muslims from African and Asian territories under British rule, as navigators, indentured laborers, or camel riders.
It is with that history in mind that Muslims assert their authenticity and loyalty to this country and reject suggestions otherwise made by right wing extremists, who were responsible for sporadic anti-Muslim hate speech and physical attacks, such as during the time following the Sept. 11 attacks (in New York), and the 2005 Cronulla race riots near Sydney. Unfortunately, these days, members of Australia’s Muslim community feel under siege as they face a new campaign of vilification and guilt by association, made by mainstream media and fringe groups. They say that the atmosphere is reminiscent of post-Sept. 11 days.
As has been widely reported here, scores of Muslim Australians are suspected to be fighting under the Islamic State flag in Iraq and Syria; some were implicated in the gruesome excesses of this terrorist group. Although Muslim leaders and ordinary citizens have condemned those outlaws, media have unleashed a hate campaign against Muslims and their religion, with little discrimination.
On Aug. 9, the daily Australian, a mainstream conservative newspaper owned by News Corp. (Murdoch), recklessly ran as its main headline on the front page this statement: “We’ll fight Islam for the next 100 years, says ex-army head.”
Although body of the story clarified the context somewhat, serious damage was done, as many people will only glance at the ominous headline. According to the newspaper, Peter Leahy, a former head of the Australian army, told it, “Australia needs to prepare for an increasingly savage, 100-year war against radical Islam that will be fought on home soil as well as foreign lands.” Leahy reportedly said the country was ill-prepared for the cost of the war that would be paid in “blood and treasure” and would require pre-emptive as well as reactive action. It quoted him as saying, “Australia is involved in the early stages of a war which is likely to last for the rest of the century. We must be ready to protect ourselves and, where necessary, act pre-emptive to neutralize the evident threat. Get ready for a long war.”
The Australian’s story was followed by false claims made by other media that certain Muslim neighborhoods were ghettos of a dangerous “monoculture” where English was not spoken, extremists congregated, and “terrorist flags” were flown in shops and homes. Thoughtful Australians were offended by the anti-Muslim campaign. Christian and Jewish leaders rallied to support the Muslim community, asking members of the public to join them in a campaign called “We’ll love Muslims 100 years,” in a reference to the Australian’s headline about a war of 100 years against Islam.
On Aug. 22, several Christian and Jewish clergy organized large events in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia to declare their support for Muslims. Pastor Brad Chilcott, one of the organizers, criticized the divisive “us and them” language developing in the national debate, adding that “Young Muslims in all walks of life are feeling very alienated by this conversation. They are university students, engineers, doctors, all rightly feeling they are contributing to Australian life.”
Rabbi Zalman Kastel, another organizer and the head of the multi-faith group, Together for Humanity Foundation, said he felt compelled to act because “I was concerned about shrill, harsh talk we see both in social and mainstream, even though there is a lot of good interfaith work going on in Australia every day. As a result, we have Muslims who are made to feel like terrorists in the past few years … and it is simply as a result of cultural incompetence.”
Pastor Chilcott, based in Adelaide, faulted the government for the “rhetoric raising the specter of Sept. 11, 2001, and demonizing the broader Muslim community.” He added that the government “risked creating the very conditions that lead to separation and, ultimately, radicalization. When you alienate any group of people, whether that is due to being unemployed, young, disabled, or of a different faith, you create conditions where people don’t trust authority and they separate from mainstream society and alienation becomes anger and frustration.”
Such was the background when Prime Minister Tony Abbott held meetings this past week with Muslim leaders to garner support for his proposed counterterrorism laws and build a unified front to fight extremists with “Team Australia.” Community activists have been divided about those meetings.
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