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No one Muslim fits all

By Waleed Aly - posted Friday, 2 September 2005

Much has been made of the list of Muslim leaders who met with Prime Minister John Howard last week. It seems like it achieved the miraculous feat of pleasing no one.

Even among those in attendance, Australian Federation of Islamic Councils president Ameer Ali queried the absence of more radical groups when the summit presented an opportunity to confront and denounce them. Perhaps.

But it seems to me more likely that the summit simply would have been hijacked by senseless rhetoric.


Within the Muslim community itself, far more fervent criticism was directed at the idea that the invitees were not representative of Muslim Australia. This, I suspect, is true enough. In particular there was a notable absence of women and young people. Some of the largest Muslim organisations in Australia were not present. There was no representation of the large Turkish community.

But as anyone familiar with Australian Muslims could tell you, the prime minister's selection task was an impossible one.

This is because the Muslim community, as a homogenous, coherent entity, simply does not exist. It is, in reality, a very diverse set of communities hailing from about 70 different nations, and featuring a mind-boggling number of different cultures and languages.

Mosques are still very often constituted largely on ethnic lines. To complicate matters, many are also contending with a generation gap exacerbated by the dynamics of migration. When you add to this the fact that a significant and growing proportion of Australian Muslims are converts - even indigenous Australians - the mix is even more varied.

My wife, for example, traces her family history to the First Fleet.

Within each ethnic group, too, there are diverse connections to Australia. Some trace their Australian presence through several generations, going back to the Afghan cameleers who built so much of this country, while others are first or second-generation Australians. Some entire communities are now well established after 50 years. And new communities of very recent arrivals are also beginning to form, particularly from the Horn of Africa.


Perhaps most important, theological, political and social attitudes are equally diverse. Put simply, the Muslims in Australia are as diverse as the world itself. If we want every strand represented, we're looking at a guest list in the hundreds.

We're also looking at a summit that is totally unworkable. This quandary would have been of tremendous concern had the summit been the full extent of the interaction between the Federal Government and the Australian Muslim communities.

However, the signs immediately following the summit indicate that it is only the starting point. The prime minister's commitment to ongoing talks provides a chance for true engagement to begin. John Howard has signalled more grassroots involvement with government.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on August 24 2005.

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About the Author

Waleed Aly, a Melbourne lawyer, is a member of the Islamic Council of Victoria executive. He is a lecturer in the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash Univeristy. His book, People Like Us (Picador), will be published in September.

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