Comment: Changing our view of Muslim Australia

Only 20-30% of Muslims construct their identity on the basis of their religious practice, writes Saman Shad.

Australia's Islamic communities are becoming a world-leading example of positive integration. It's time we recognise that Muslims are a diverse lot, writes Saman Shad.

It might surprise some people in Australia that not all Muslims in this country are the same. Yup, not all of us wear hijabs or pray in mosques or grow beards. In fact some of us don’t even consider our ‘Muslim-ness’ as inherent to our identities. Just as most people consider themselves to be unique individuals, most Muslims do too. (Here’s a secret – we are people just like you and everyone else).

A survey of 6,000 Muslims in ten different countries, conducted by Professor Hasan of Flinders University in South Australia, has revealed that “Between 20-30 per cent of Muslims construct their identity, their 'Muslim-ness', because of their (religious) practice...” Which indicates that a large majority of Muslims don’t believe their religion should be a factor in how they are perceived.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise – not many of us want to be defined by our religion, or ethnic background or our race. Most of us want to be viewed by our achievements, where we grew up, where we live, our career aspirations, or basically by what we do for most of the day. Most of us residing here in Australia, simply want to be perceived as Australians more than anything else.

Professor Hasan agrees and states that “Muslim Australians are in many ways in the first instance Australians.” He also believes that Muslims in this country are more positively integrated than anywhere else in the world.

This should be a cause of celebration. We should embrace the fact that no matter what our religion we all want to be identified as being of this nation first and foremost. Yet despite this, many still don’t view Muslims as a valued part of society.

Last year, for example, some media commentators used the violent protests against the screening of an anti-Islam film to paint a picture of a society where a clash of cultures seemed to be raging. They used the incident to show that Muslims found it hard to fit in to the Australian mindset; that they are angry and not loyal to the values that are upheld in this country. This is despite the fact that the perpetrators of the violence represented a very tiny minority of the almost half a million Muslims in Australia.

It’s not just media commentators who question the place of Muslims in Australian society. Earlier this year, a two-year parliamentary inquiry into multiculturalism was “overwhelmed by concern about Islamic integration”. And then there’s our own Prime Minister who has himself spouted comments that could be viewed as Islamophobic.

It is no wonder then that many Muslims are beset with frustration – despite feeling like we have integrated into the country we call home, many of our countrymen feel we don’t belong here. The reason for this may be that the majority of the populace has a very narrowly defined image of a Muslim. They typically imagine a very socially conservative person, who wants Sharia law to govern Australia, who holds sexist views towards women, and is pro-terrorism. A bit like Uncle Sam perhaps – who is actually, you know, a caricature.

It shouldn’t need to be said but Muslims come from all walks of life and hold all sorts of views – just like the general population. Islam in Australia isn’t a recent occurrence. As Professor Possamai from the University of Western Sydney says, “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 [in the 19th and 20th centuries].”

So it seems Muslims in Australia have a long and varied history in this nation. Yet while the vast majority of Muslims have done their best to integrate into Australian society, society itself is often not particularly welcoming. The onus is now on society at large to change its views of Muslims. It’s time all Australians educated themselves about the religion and its adherents that so many in this country seem to demonise - because the reality is we all have to live together in this great big land - the more harmoniously we can do it, the better.

Saman Shad is a storyteller and playright.

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