AUSTRALIAN MUSLIMS: A BRIEF OVERVIEW: Contact between Muslim Indonesian fishermen from Southern Sulawesi and Indigenous people in northern Australia from around the 1750s is the earliest evidence of a Muslim connection in Australia. However, it was not until the 1860s with the arrival of Afghan cameleers that Muslims settled in greater numbers in Australia. At the peak of exploration and settlement of central Australia, around 3000 Afghans worked as camel drivers carting water and goods in the difficult terrain. Initially they were seen as very dependable and cheap labourers and they were employed in the public sector as well as by pastoralists in remote sheep stations. This led to friction between the traditional European bullock teamsters, popularly known as ‘bullockies’, and the Afghans. There were fatal shooting incidents between the two groups and at least one anti-Afghan league was formed in the Coolgardie region.
With the end of the camel transport industry in the 1920s and the restrictive effects of the White Australia immigration policy, the number of Afghans dwindled. It was not until the policies that restricted the immigration of non-Europeans to Australia were dismantled in the late 1960s that Muslim migration resumed. In the postwar period, mainly due to migration from Turkey and Lebanon, the Muslim population increased markedly, rising to 200,885 in 1996. But it still comprised only 1.1% of the total population.
The Muslim experience demonstrates the impact that political attitudes and the national policies they create can have upon people’s lives. The policies arising from the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 were based on the false notion of a relationship between ethnicity and standard of living. They wiped out the Australian Muslim community for nearly 70 years. It has only been since the change in national policy in the late 1960s that a Muslim community has been able to develop once again.
In the past two decades the Muslim population has increased significantly due to immigration and natural increase. According to the 2011 Australian Census there were 476,290 Muslims in Australia, of whom about 40% were Australian born. The rest came from 183 countries, making Australian Muslims one of the most ethnically and nationally heterogeneous religious communities.