Sure, some in the Australian Muslim communities may quarrel over details, while others may not, but I am glad the Sydney Morning Herald has today published a series of special articles on this important and much misunderstood part of the Australian family. See: Islam in Australia: a diverse society finds a new voice by Hamish McDonald.
…Islam’s followers are supposed to be brothers and sisters in a single, universal fellowship, the ummah. But elsewhere, the Australian community of believers tends to divide up at the mosque and elsewhere.
“They’re all in ethnic tribes,” said Bilal Cleland, a Victorian educationist who converted to Islam some 30 years ago and has become historian of the faith in Australia.
In 1947 Australia had only 2700 Muslims, descended from Afghan or Baluch cameleers, North Indian traders, Malay pearl divers and others who slipped through the immigration net.
Then, accepted because they were whites, came Muslim settlers from the former Ottoman parts of Europe. Some slipped in with Christians from Lebanon, setting up the strip of sweet shops and belly-dance restaurants along Redfern’s Cleveland Street, close to a multi-ethnic mosque in Surry Hills, before a breakaway group established a new Lebanese mosque at Lakemba.
The numbers swelled when Harold Holt’s government signed a migration agreement with Turkey in 1967, with 10,000 Turks soon arriving to fill assembly-line jobs in Melbourne’s car and garment factories.
In the mid-1970s came the sudden influx of Muslims fleeing the sectarian civil war in Lebanon – not selected by Australian immigration officials, but approved from lists provided by family and village sponsors already here.
Instantly the ethnic balance of Australian Muslims, and the Christian-Muslim balance among the Lebanese here, was tipped.
With 75 per cent settling in Sydney, and moving to the same lower middle-class suburbs around Lakemba, it was the defining moment for how Australians came to perceive Muslims, how their institutions emerged, and their role in Australian politics, says Michael Humphrey, professor of sociology at Sydney University.
In the public view, Muslims are represented by the big Lakemba mosque, its fractious community of Lebanese Sunni Muslims drawn from around Tripoli, and the contentious imam, Sheik Taj el-Din al Hilaly, they grandly proclaimed as Mufti (a senior scholar able to issue fatwa or religious decrees) of Oceania.
The other dimension, points out Humphrey, is the social problems of the Lebanese, who also include a large Shiite element drawn from villages in Lebanon’s south, and worshipping mostly at a mosque in Arncliffe.
Lacking English, they arrived just as the Australian economy began eliminating the factory jobs suited to previous waves of unskilled Mediterranean migrants. Both the Lebanese and the Vietnamese, who came about the same time, encountered severe long-term unemployment, persisting in the second generation and leading to some criminality.
The result is a dominant ethno-religious community that is both engaged and out of sync with the general Sydney community. As Karachi-born lawyer and commentator Irfan Yusuf points out, organisations tend to be captured by particular families and village clans. NSW has no less than three Islamic councils, “none of whom talk to each other”, Yusuf says…
Australia is also seeing some high-flyers in its Muslim communities. Among the Turks, Melbourne telecom entrepreneurs Orhan Buday and Kazem Ates are following the well-known success story of John Ilhan, founder of the Crazy John’s mobile-phone chain of stores. Along with Ahmed Fahour, chief executive of NAB’s Australian operations, are other rising stars in corporate and public service ranks.
With Melbourne, Griffith and Western Sydney universities designated as centres of excellence in Arabic and Islamic studies, a body of young secular scholars, many of them women, are emerging as alternative authorities on religion and culture.
The internet is also opening up new, liberal interpretations of Western scholars, some of them new converts: Tim Winter at Cambridge, Hamza Yusuf and Nuh Ha Mim Keller in the US, and Tariq Ramadan in Switzerland.
It may be a while before this sophistication hits Lakemba. Hilaly’s replacement is proceeding at a leisurely pace. Humphrey thinks it unlikely that he will be entirely pushed out, instead having his authority diluted by appointment of other muftis…
More: Islam A-Z.