As the Australian Defence Force looks to diversify its ranks, a Lebanese-born Muslim man describes how his preconceived idea changed after he enlisted.
Major Mehdi Moussaoui says he had a preconceived idea before he enlisted in the Australian Defence Force that he wouldn’t be accepted because he is Muslim. The truth was quite the opposite.
Born in Lebanon in 1985, he moved to Australia with his family when he was only months old. Growing up in Sydney’s Hills district, a career in the military was never one of his goals during his formative years.
It wasn’t until he began studying aviation engineering at the University of Sydney that he considered it as an option.
“It was a very appealing prospect. The fact that I would have a guaranteed job straight after university. That was very attractive. The idea of a job that involves physical activity, as well as the engineering aspect, was really appealing to me as well.”
At the time, his mother Umm Mahdi was convinced by friends that the defence force would never accept her son because he is Muslim.
The ADF doesn’t consider religion when a person applies to join, in fact, it launched an initiative in 2012 to recruit more people from diverse backgrounds, as well as women, Indigenous people and members of the LGBTQI+ community.
As part of this Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, the ADF began a targeted advertising campaign to attract people from the Middle East, China, India, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Major Moussaoui appeared in an ADF recruitment video in 2017.
A spokesperson from the ADF told SBS Arabic24 that currently, the proportion of personnel from different language and cultural backgrounds amounted to 25 per cent of the total number.
That figure also included people of Arab background, but the spokesperson confirmed that there was no statistic specifically on the cultural breakdown.
The spokesperson said that more than 12 per cent of the young leaders were Australians of various cultures, including Arabs.
Major Moussaoui works in the US-made Chinook Helicopter Unit, providing assistance and engineering support to the distinctively shaped aircraft crews that are used to transport equipment and personnel in Queensland.
For him, joining the ADF presented a number of challenges.
“It came from a place of lack of understanding of what I am getting myself into. And secondly knowing that my background, being Lebanese, being a Muslim as well, that I just assumed that it would be different - but that was not the case at all.”
In joining, he said he found an institution that respected his religion and values and helped him to live and work while retaining all of this.
He said staff even assisted during the holy month of Ramadan.
“During the month of Ramadan over the years, they were always very accommodating, by preparing my meal, and asking me what type of meal I needed and how much food I needed. Which were sometimes outside the times of the normal breakfast lunch and dinner.
“And allowing me to come at whatever various time, to the cafeteria and eat whether it is very early in the morning before fasting started and during Fotour [breaking fast] at the end of the day.
Major Peter Scott is a 20-year veteran with the ADF, including six years as a specialist in recruiting newcomers.
With the push towards diversity, Major Scott attends community events, high schools and employment forums to inform community members about the ADF.
On a visit to a school, he recalled that students of Iraqi origin said they would like to work in the armed forces but feared rejection due to their Arabic heritage.
Major Scott explained to the students that they can join just like any Australian citizen.
"Some of them were quite surprised that they are able to,” he said. “Yes. It is sometimes, they limit their own opportunities by what they think, and we are just trying to make sure that everybody understands that they have the same opportunity with the Australian Defence Force."
Major Scott has seen the benefits offered by people from different cultures to the Australian army.
“We had a requirement to go to Iraq in 2015. And we asked of the people that we had. Some people identified that where they had been born in Iraq and we asked if they have any native language skills that they would like to use, and we had a number of people who were able to use their native language skills to assist in completing our mission of helping to train the Iraqi security forces.
“That’s an obvious example of having language skills but even just the cultural awareness that people can bring to the ADF so they can help us be more culturally sensitive, culturally aware, that’s incredibly beneficial for everybody.”
Dr Donna Bridges, researcher and lecturer at Charles Sturt University, focuses her work on studying the strategy of the armed forces in diversifying their components and equating them in the administrative and combat environment.
She said that the armed forces are working with the Human Rights Council to change their cultures, especially following the Skype scandal of 2011.
“When people in the defence force do something prejudicial or they commit violence against one another or when they are on an operation, it gets a very high profile in the media. Ever since the Skype scandal, there has been a lot of media attention on defence and they’ve been trying to improve their image.”
Dr Bridges said ADF efforts to diversify their ranks began with extensive studies in the early 1990s.
“You have to have a specific inclusion method. And that’s why they want to do the training. And that’s why they want to have the champions. That’s about strong leadership. And it’s about policy. And it’s about enforcing the policy.
"So, there is consequences for people who don’t comply with the policy. (..) So I think those leaders really need to demonstrate why we do this: when we are all from the same culture, but we are kind of not.“