Muslims in Australia: Immigration, Race Relations and Cultural History

By Yasmeen, Samina | Islamic Studies, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview
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Muslims in Australia: Immigration, Race Relations and Cultural History


Yasmeen, Samina, Islamic Studies


Nahid Kabir. Muslims in Australia: Immigration, Race Relations and Cultural History, London: Kegan Paul, 2005. Pp. 352. Hardbound. ISBN 0-7103-1108-7. No price given.

The terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001 and the London bombings of July 2005 have drawn attention to the position of Muslims in Australia, as in other liberal democratic states. The active participation by the Australian Government in the War on Terror has been paralleled by a series of initiatives designed to counter extremism among Muslims living in the country. This is considered important due to the increase in the number of Muslims living in Australia. At the turn of the 20th century, the number of Muslims in Australia was estimated to be between 2,000 and 4,000. This is in marked contrast to the current demographic picture. According to 2006 Census, Australia is home to 340,392 Muslims. Of these 47.7% are women and 53.3% are men. Approximately 59% of the total Muslim population is under 30 years of age, and 38% of them are Australian-born. These Muslims belong to diverse ethnic backgrounds from the Middle East, Southeast and South Asia, Africa and Europe. A large majority of them (81.6%) live in two states, New South Wales and Victoria, with Western Australia and Queensland attracting other 13% of the Muslim population.

The counter-extremism agenda, however, has also resulted in increased negativity directed towards Muslims. The Australian values debate initiated during the liberal government after the London bombings provided space for those targeting Muslims as the 'outsiders' who could not be both Muslims and Australians. The question of ethnicity and religion got intertwined with issues of security. Why has it happened? Is it a unique phase in Australian history or do precedents exist in the past as well of similar approaches towards Muslims? What drives such attitudes: is it racism, cultural fundamentalism or fear of compromised security in a country that spans a continent?

Nahid Kabir's book on Muslims in Australia is an essential reading for anyone interested in finding answers to these questions. Drawing upon rich and hitherto untapped documents, she has provided a detailed historical account of Muslim immigration into Australia as Afghan cameleers. By referring to the information published at that time, she establishes that the Muslims were identified as the 'other' on cultural, economic and racial grounds. Religion was not the main determinant in the vilification, for example, of Afghans (p. 84). They were viewed as competitors, along with other Asian immigrants, by other white labourers seeking employment. The discriminatory attitude towards the Afghans, therefore, reflected the preeminence of notions of racial superiority of the whites versus others. By adopting the racial discrimination as the official policy of the government, the Commonwealth of Australia became a party to this discrimination.

The chapter three on Muslims during the first and second world wars provides interesting insight into the mutation of outlook vis-à-vis the 'coloured others.' Preoccupied with the issue of security, the colour became less relevant compared to the requirements of loyalty. This had ramifications for the 'White Turks' who were no longer acceptable due to their 'whiteness.' Meanwhile, Lebanese and Syrians were naturalised based on their 'loyalty' (p. 120). The Second World War also saw a preference for security considerations at the expense of racial-based discrimination. Nahid Kabir provides interesting account of how some Indian Muslims were viewed as a security threat due to their anti-British attitude in a war that Australia had joined primarily to support the United Kingdom.

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