Being Muslim in the West: The case of Australian Muslims

Rachel A. D. Bloul, The Australian National University

Abdullah Saeed & Shahram Akbarzadeh (eds.) Muslim Communities in Australia University of New South Wales Press, 2001 (244 pp). ISBN 0-86840-580-9 (paperback) RRP $42.95.

This book aims to give a general overview of the circumstances and challenges facing Muslim communities in Australia. Recent world events are keeping Muslims and Islam as a foremost Western political concern, making its publication timely. In particular, events such as the attacks of September 11 and the refugee crisis in Australia have made those Muslims who live in the West objects of intense—often painful—scrutiny.

Muslim Communities in Australia is an edited volume whose mostly academic contributors survey Muslim life in Australia. The introductory chapter makes clear that the Australian Muslim population is noteworthy for its diversity in terms of ethnicity, national origins, language, and class. This diversity is all the more remarkable because, at around 300,000, Muslims make up about 1.5 percent of the Australian population, a share quite disproportionate to the place they assume in mainstream apprehensions.

Consequently, one of the two main themes of the book is the contrast between the actual diversity of the Australian Muslim population and the ubiquitous stereotypes characterising the Australian public’s perceptions. Chapters aim to correct such stereotypes by providing detailed descriptions of individual Australian Muslims, their hope for life in Australia, and their needs. However, the same chapters are also quite conventional, highlighting the issues that Muslims complain the West always focus on, to the detriment of a more comprehensive understanding. Two chapters concentrate on Muslim women, aiming to counter the familiar trope of veiled submission, two other chapters deal with the problems of providing a Muslim education for the next generation, and a fifth examines the clash between Muslim personal status codes and Australian family laws. I cannot help but wonder if these contributions actually mirror the effects Brasted notes in his excellent chapter: though the content of articles about Islam in the mainstream press is more balanced, the captions reproduce the same old stereotypes (p. 220). For Brasted such a noticeable gap between headlines and content paradoxically helps maintain the stereotypes the articles purport to fight.

Despite the stress on diversity, a number of contributions write of ‘Australian-Muslims’ reactions’ without distinguishing between the possible various strands of opinion within such a diverse population. My own research among Muslims in Europe shows that Muslim women’s private reactions (they often expressed a desire not to have such opinions attributed to them personally) to European style family laws are markedly less negative than men’s. Hussain alludes to this kind of difference in her chapter on family law, but it is mostly glossed over. It is true that these legal contradictions create tensions within Muslim families, tensions that women may not want to exacerbate by making public their contradictory desires. It becomes all the more important then to understand the precise dynamics in action, because new generations of Muslim Australians may well be expected to be influenced by such underlying currents.

The second main theme is the vexed question of identity. Authors use the familiar metaphor of layered identity throughout the book. A ‘mix of loyalties and responsibilities’ results in different layers gaining prominence in different situations. The question the book considers central to the future of Australian Muslims is the development or otherwise of an ‘Australian Muslim identity’? Whether this Australian Muslim identity will be another layer or a unifying overlay ordering other aspects of identity is not clearly conceptualised, and the book remains non-committal. An historical overview of Muslim immigration in Australia shows that at various points in their history, Muslims developed different capacities for an overarching Australian Muslim identity. Outcomes depend very much on circumstances, including the composition of the Australian Muslim population, the social policies aimed at them, and the reactions of mainstream Australia. Outcomes also depend on negotiations between the Muslim and mainstream Australian communities, negotiations that the writers feel are possible within the framework of Australian multiculturalism. Indeed some writers seem to think that some of the major obstacles come from the various Muslim communities themselves, or more properly from the particularistic (ethnic, national, sectarian) ties within therein.

Recent world events are keeping Muslims and Islam as a foremost Western political concern.

Surprisingly, no author gives careful consideration to the implications of Australian Muslims’ overseas ties for the development of an Australian Muslim identity. Presumably overseas ties can go both ways, reinforcing either particularistic attachments or affinity with a global ‘umma’ (community of believers), which may or may not favour the formation of an Australian Muslim identity. While the book mentions but does not reflect upon the effects of ties to transnational Muslim organisations, it barely considers attachments to overseas national communities and their effects.

I felt this lack in particular in the chapters by Clyne on Islamic schools and by Bouma et. al. on the organisation of religious life. The problems linked with the reliance on overseas imams (religious leaders) and overseas funding for schools have been explored in depth in the literature on Muslims in Europe and are coming under particular scrutiny in the USA in the aftermath the events of September 11, 2001. The writers could not have anticipated these events, but one can reasonably expect them to show awareness of how other Western countries are considering the issues raised by Muslim migration.

Of course, the issues created by the presence of Muslims in the West are so complex that one book cannot deal with them exhaustively. On the credit side, this book has the merit of being easily read; it addresses a general educated readership rather than specialists on Muslim migration, with a minimum of academic jargon. The book does not, however, give a clear picture or an overall description of ‘Muslim communities in Australia’, and so falls short of the claims of its title. It is more a collection of sketches on certain aspects of Muslim life in Australia, linked by a concern to counter pervasive stereotypes and to answer, or at the very least reflect upon, what seems to be the main anxiety of the Australian mainstream: the issue of Muslim Australians’ ‘allegiances and loyalties’.

This is not a uniquely Australian anxiety, and much academic and journalistic literature has explored this politically charged question. One can understand writers’ reluctance to delve into the unavoidable contradictions of divided loyalties, or of loyalties felt to be—or made to be felt?—incompatible. But politically correct attitudes notwithstanding, the issue will not go away by not being addressed. And I do believe—as the editors of this book note—that mainstream Australia’s reactions and government policies can make a difference. Appropriate policies can foster the emergence of a solid Australian Muslim identity. Conversely, hysterical rejection and racist reactions will foster the alienation of Australian Muslims to the detriment of us all.

In this regard, the experience of European countries can be instructive. One would hope that European mistakes can be avoided, though what has been presented as mainstream Australian reactions to the Tampa crisis do not raise much hope. But then, I am not really sure what have been mainstream Australia’s reactions to the Tampa affair. I know only what the media have told us about it and various contradictory boasts by politicians, and I would welcome in-depth research on the subject. Comparison with the European situation, in particular with the UK and France, highlights immediately a number of important points that should help Australia avoid some mistakes.

The authors maintain hope in the resilience of Australian multiculturalism.

Australia has a very different Muslim population than European countries: its arrival is much more recent, it is more diverse and far less numerous than, say, in France (with almost 10 percent of Muslims) or the UK (with an estimated 4-5 percent). Most important, Australian Muslims do not bear the burden of past colonial oppression by its co-citizens’ ancestors. Australia is also a country of immigrants, and has formally accepted the diversity of its population, evolving specific multicultural policies to deal with this diversity, whatever their merits and demerits. All of those characteristics mean that in Australia, one can easily distinguish recurrent migrant issues (isolation, possible divided loyalties among migrants, second generation evolution) from issues facing Muslim migrants in particular (religious education and the articulation of a Muslim religious identity, two very different systems of family laws). It also means that Australian multiculturalism offers hopes and practical avenues for the peaceful settlement of differences. Certainly, the lived relationships between the Muslim and mainstream Australian populations have so far been placid, especially when compared to Europe, where various riots, murders, and other clashes have punctuated the interactions of Muslim migrants and European native populations in the past 20 years.

All this makes recent mainstream reactions in Australia so paradoxical: why so much fear of, and hostility toward Muslims? Several explanations, not necessarily mutually exclusive, come to mind.

First, there is the well-documented xenophobic ‘aura effect’: people are more fearful of members of groups presented in the media as ‘agents of trouble’ when they do not have contact with these groups. In the absence of real contacts, fears and phantasms can be exacerbated, thereby creating the very consequences people fear and want to avoid. The solution is to encourage inter-group cooperative relations and encounters, something policy-makers should keep in mind.

Second, the proximity of the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia, encourages the never far away, and often played upon, fear of foreign invasion. I am not sure how much the legitimacy of such fear matters. It exists. Yet I would point out that South East Asian Muslims are a minority in Australian Muslim population.

Finally, and one would hope not most importantly, there is increasing Western antagonism to the Islamic world, paralleling efforts by Muslim countries to increase their participation in world affairs. Australia’s share of this antagonism is increased by close ties to the USA and the UK. I doubt that it is in Australia’s best interest to fuel this antagonism while so far she has been spared the experiences that, rightly or wrongly, are used to justify it. May I add that echoes of the ‘clash of civilizations thesis’ which seems to speak to the imaginations of both Westerners and Muslims, highlight the incredible arrogance and narrow-mindedness of both the Western and Islamic world? What of the rest of the world? Even put together, Islamic and Western worlds are far from being the majority of the world population. Other world-civilizations also in ascendancy. One wonders what their views on the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’ might be and what strategies they might evolve to deal with what could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The authors in Saeed and Akbarzadeh’s collection, of course, while deploring mainstream hostility to Muslims try to steer away from contemplating the self-fulfilling thesis, and maintain hope in the resilience of Australian multiculturalism. I wonder if, one year later, the same reasoned optimism can be sustained.

Dr Rachel A. D. Bloul is lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University. She has researched Muslim migration in France and other Western countries. Her current research interests include Islam in Cyberspace, transnational religious networks, and Arab fraternalism.