What is ‘Muslim-ness’ in Australia?

Is there a need to foster a deeper understanding of Islam in non-Muslim host countries to fight stereotypes affecting Muslims?

These and other challenges have prompted Muslim community leaders and scholars from around the world to gather in Sydney for the inaugural Australasian Conference on Islam.

More in this report by Biwa Kwan, Rachelle Alchin and Marina Freri.

(Click on audio tab above to hear full item)

Professor of sociology Riaz Hassan at Flinders University in South Australia says the biggest misconception about Muslims is the idea that there is only one Muslim identity.

His research surveyed 6,000 Muslims in ten countries including Malaysia, Pakistan, Iran and Egypt.

Professor Hassan says results show there are multiple Muslim identities drawn from different emphasis on cultural and religious identities.

“Between 20-30 per cent of Muslims construct their identity, their ‘Muslim-ness’, because of their (religious) practice and a majority of Muslims practice sometimes, but sometimes not. Then you have 30-40 per cent of people who are basically Muslim because of a cultural [identity]. Being Muslim does not mean, as it is portrayed in the media, that people are fanatically religious. Being Muslim means, just like Christianity, some people are Muslim because they are culturally Muslim.”

Associate Professor Adam Possamai, from the University of Western Sydney, says there have long been multiple Muslim identities in Australia.

He says one of those includes Indigenous Australians, who are increasingly taking up the Muslim faith.

Australian Bureau of Statistic figures over the past decade show a significant number of Indigenous Australians are turning increasingly to the Muslim faith at the same time as numbers are turning away from Christianity.

Professor Possamai has spent the past five years researching why this might be the case.

“There is a supposition Islam arrives in the 1970s in Australia. But in fact there is a hidden history of Islam in Australia that started with the Macassar from Indonesia back in the 1700s, and with the Afghan cameleers. And when the Afghan cameleers came in the 19th century, 20th century they mix with Aborigines. And today some Indigenous people are not necessarily speaking about conversion, but will use the term reversion. Or a term that was used by Peta Stevenson, when she interviewed Aborigines that converted to Islam, she used the term kinversion; that is they go back to the faith of their parents and grandparents. And some of them were Muslims. And for them this is not a new religion.”

The Islamic Sciences and Research Academy’s Rawaa El Ayoubi Gebara says participating in a country’s society is pivotal to maintaining a Muslim identity.

And with regard to Australian Muslims, she says research shows holding and practising religious values doesn’t prevent integration in the broader community.

“To be a Muslim we have to have this faith and practice in Islamic teaching and apply this Islamic teaching in our days. But also participate in the society and be an active member in the society. This is about Islamic identity. I think around 84 per cent of people agree they can be good Australian citizens and good Muslims as well.”

The deputy chair for Interreligious and Intercultural Relations in the Asia Pacific for UNESCO, Professor Greg Barton, agrees.

He says Australia’s Muslim communities are becoming a world-leading example of positive integration.

“Well I think we’ve got to remember that Muslim Australians are in many ways in the first instance Australians. So if you mix with Muslim Australians and Muslims who are around the world you’re struck by just how very Australian Muslim Australians are. Often not even just second generation, often people who have only been in Australia for a short period of time settled in sort of a very comfortable pair of shoes. There is a sense of having to explore new ideas and making something new out of all sorts of different components.”

But conference co-organiser Mehmet Ozalp says one of the key challenges facing Muslim youth as they negotiate their faith and ethnic identity in Australia is the risk of radicalisation at a time when the image of Muslims is so negative.

He says incidents like the protests in Sydney over a YouTube video on Prophet Mohammed highlight this risk.

“Well the events are behind us, but the segments of society that cause these things are still there. And there could be another issue that may erupt. But the key thing is that these radical elements are contained, I feel, by a growing strong community who are quite comfortable in their Australian-ness but also quite assertive about their Muslim identity and they want to take over the limelight from these radical elements, which is a minority [element], again I stress that.”

Dr Nahid Afrose Kabir is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of South Australia and has been researching Muslim identity formation in Western countries such as Australia, America and Britain.

She says Muslim youth in Australia can also face other quite fundamental challenges as they form their Muslim and Australian identities.

“In my research young people have been saying that their parents are keen to change their name from Mohammed to Michael, for example, or to a less Muslim-sounding name, because their parents believe that with this Muslim-sounding name, their children might not have a bright future in this society.”

Dr Kabir says education levels of Muslim Australians is high when compared to some other migrant communities, but they’re not yet adequately represented in the higher tiers of business and politics.

“There is equal opportunity but why isn’t there any visibility of Muslims in those sectors? Policymakers should look into it and try to address these issues so that people can get a fairer go at every level.”