History gives no grounds for Islamophobia

21 Nov 2006

Australia has always been multicultural, says Simon Adams in this speech to a forum on “Islamophobia and the War on Terror” held recently at Curtin University of Technology

LET me set the scene for you. It’s a Tuesday morning in September 2006 and I am having a cup of tea before heading off to work. Across the street a couple are building a new house on a suburban block of land - their own little slice of the Australian dream. The builders are pouring concrete and the big red truck is flying an Australian flag from its roof. On the back window of the truck is a huge sticker of Australia and the plain, bold, black type inside it has my undivided attention. “Fuck off, we’re full!”

If such sentiments can provoke alienation and rage in me; a well assimilated, white, English-speaking “New Australian” - then what kind of response do they provoke amongst the Muslim migrants, Asians, and refugees against whom they are more sharply directed? And why 105 years after Federation does our country still struggle with issues of citizenship and belonging? Were the dreadful Cronulla riots of Christmas 2005 really a one-off social aberration? Were the grotesque slogans - “We grew here, you flew here!,” “Ethnic Cleansing Unit,” etc - simply the redneck rantings of a lunatic fringe? Or do they represent widely shared resentments against “New Australians” (Particularly Middle Easterners)?

Regrettably, it has often required the stimuli of new immigrant outsiders to cohere our national identity. During the second half of the nineteenth century, for example, it was the Chinese whose presence provoked bitter disputes about belonging, followed by the Japanese, to be replaced by Greeks and Italians in the 1950s, Vietnamese in the 1970s and 80s, and now “Muslims” or “Middle Easterners” (especially Lebanese) in the new century. What is truly remarkable is how potent the hostility is, and how quickly it submerges when new threats (imagined or real) emerge.

After the Cronulla riots talk-back radio shock-jocks condemned the rioters as being misguided, but also attacked previous federal governments for “imposing” multiculturalism upon otherwise tolerant Australians. In other words, blame the victims. Nobody directly praised the rioters, but Prime Minister John Howard pointedly refused to condemn them for carrying (ie. hiding behind) the Australian flag. The usually sedate Laurie Oakes, of Channel Nine, described Howard’s response as “a disgusting cop-out.”

Surveying all of this with a historian’s eye and an immigrant’s heart, I was reminded of previous struggles to exclude our citizenry on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity.

As strange as it may seem now, during the first half of the nineteenth century it was the Irish who appeared to pose the greatest threat to social and political fabric of Australian society. In particular it was the threat posed by the armed Fenian movement during the 1860s that led to even greater public fear and loathing of the Irish “terrorist menace.”

In Sydney and Melbourne there were large Irish populations whose Catholicism and folk customs, along with their alleged inability to assimilate, challenged mainstream society. The attempted assassination of the Prince of Edinburgh on a Sydney beach by an Irish-Australian in March 1868 seemed to confirm these fears. Prosecutions and persecutions followed.

With time, however, even this “war on terror” had to end. Federation brought respite. Essentially, to be considered Australian one had to be white, Christian and speak English. The Irish qualified on all counts. “Anglo-Celts” became the core of the new nation and old divisions ceased to be as polarising as they had once been. Shamefully, many Irish (my people), having been reluctantly admitted through the door of Australian nationhood themselves, have assisted in slamming it in the face of those who came afterwards.

In these times of terrorism and war, Muslims are now our most reviled and alienated citizens. Politicians complain that it is essentially a question of education. Muslim Australians, we are told, need to learn about “Australian values” and embrace our history. Where then are all the Muslim heroes of Australian history and why are our children not being instructed about them at high school?

Why are they not told, for example, that Muslims might have actually discovered Australia? Although the evidence is fragmented, the Chinese Muslim admiral of the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He, may have sent an exploratory vessel that reached northern Australia during the fifteenth century - beating Captain Cook or the Dutch by a few hundred years.

Or what of the Macassan fishermen, from Sulawesi in Indonesia, whose ancestors have been visiting Australia’s northern coast since the early 1600s? Many of these fishermen, who hunted trepang and interacted with Aborigines, were Muslims.

There were even Muslims among the convicts at Botany Bay. The first Muslim convict arrived with the Third Fleet in 1791, only three years after the colony was established. Recent research has pointed to the possible existence of free Muslim settlers working in New South Wales as servants as early as 1801. We also know that Muslim sailors celebrated “the festival of Hassan” (Hussain) in Sydney in 1806 with fires, costumes, wild “extravagancies” and “odiferous fumigation,” much to the curious delight of the locals.

It has been forgotten that even the Afghan asylum seekers who washed up on our shore in refugee boats and were incarcerated behind razor wire shared much history in common with us. Woomera detention centre, for example, is situated in a remote region of South Australia that was regularly traversed by nineteenth century Afghan Muslim cameleers as they carried vital supplies across the outback.

So what are the facts? There are about 280,000 Muslims in Australia today, making Islam the third largest faith in the country. Muslims, however, still only make up 1.5 per cent of the population. The Australian Muslim population is therefore much smaller, in both absolute and proportional terms, than the Muslim community in France (10 per cent of the population) or Britain (3 per cent). The Australian Muslim community is also extremely diverse, being made up of ethnic Javanese, Malays, Pakistanis, North Africans, Iranians and Afghans, alongside the 20 per cent of the community who were born in an Arab country.

Despite the stereotype of the oil-rich Sheik, Australian Muslims have a weekly income below the national average. According to the 2001 census, 43 per cent of Muslims had a weekly income of less than $200, as compared to 27 per cent of the total Australian population. Only 5 per cent of Muslims had a weekly income of more than $1000, as compared to 11 per cent of all Australians. The Australian Muslim community is generally a working class, blue-collar community. They live and work beside us in our suburbs and cities, but are generally cut off from “Middle Australia.”

The experience of Australian Muslims since 11 September 2001 has been one of growing alienation. A Muslim woman wearing the hijab in suburban Perth had dogs set on her. In the weeks after “9/11” a Perth Mosque was desecrated with faeces and another Mosque in Queensland was firebombed. Reflecting the ignorance of the people carrying out such attacks, religious “strangers” of all types experienced a rise in attacks after 11 September 2001. In Perth, for example, a Sikh temple in Canningvale had the severed head of a pig placed outside it - a particularly offensive, if misplaced, attack on Muslim sensibilities.

Muslim community organizations began receiving emails telling them talking about wiping out the “Islamic vermin.” An alarming 43 per cent of respondents to a survey of Australian Muslims revealed that they had experienced abuse in public shopping centres. Muslim youths and women seemed to be particularly vulnerable targets. One young Muslim who had been told to go home, commented upon the fact that s/he was “seventh generation Australian, my ancestors came on ships.” More than a third (36 per cent) of Australian Muslims were born in this country and know no other home. Nevertheless, a common feeling, despairingly expressed, was that after 11 September 2001 “it felt like our home,” Australia, “was somehow not our home anymore ever since then I’ve started feeling more like a foreigner.”

So where does this leave us today as we confront the rising tide of Islamaphobia? In the words of a young Muslim woman: “I’ve had comments like ‘Go back to your country!’ and I think well, ‘You came from England! My mother was born here.’ The only people that can tell us to go back to our country are the Aborigines, the Indigenous people.”

She makes a valuable and important point. Unless you happen to be Aboriginal, we are all boat people. Our families all came here from somewhere else. We should not allow Islamophobia and this climate of fear to drive a wedge between Muslims and other Australians. The truth is that Australia has always been a multicultural country. The now (thankfully) extinct White Australia Policy may have temporarily whitened Australia, but it could never expunge the underlying history of immigration, integration and diversity. In these times of terrorism and war, we need to reach out and grasp the tolerant threads in our history. •

Simon Adams is the Dean of Arts & Sciences at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He can be contacted at

Photo: Andrew Jeffrey

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