Having faced many negative events since September 11, 2001, Australian Muslims have grown as a mainstream community. From Cronulla to Hilali, the past two years have been a tough, bumpy ride for Islamic communities in Australia: however, the question of mainstream integration and leadership continues to be raised. Time and again politicians and conservative commentators have blamed Australian Muslims for not doing enough to speak up and to become a part of the mainstream.
It raises the question of both challenges and responsibilities.
Australia’s diverse Islamic communities face both external and internal challenges.
External challenges include world events such as September 11, 2001, Bali bombings 2003, London bombings 2004, as well the Cronulla riots 2005. These events, public backlash and subsequent policy shifts are out of communities’ control but give rise to Islamophobia and sectarianism. The resulting racism is further fuelled by dog-whistle politics and reckless media reporting.
Political Islam, the main internal challenge facing Australian Muslims, is the biggest hurdle to Islamic integration in the West.
Having risen amid failures of post colonial monarchies in the Islamic world, political Islam, in the 80’s, was a major source of support and recruitment for the US to defeat Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Saudi government, for its own cynical reasons, has bank-rolled political Islam for the past three decades to spread conservatism across many continents. If Muslims around the world are to become free thinking, progressive and engaged, the mega business of Hajj (pilgrimage) in Mecca will be in trouble. It is no surprise that many mosques and religious schools in Australia and around the world have been, and continue to be, funded by Saudis.
The proponents of political Islam in Australia have come from highly organised, successful backgrounds. It’s not the moderate majority of Muslims, but the well-organised minority of political Islamists and the religious conservative fringe that wants Muslims to feel victimised. These are the same people who, based on their outdated beliefs, deny Islamic women a voice.
Now, the question of responsibility: the government and opposition so far have taken the view that world terrorism may not be the doing of Australian Muslims, but even so Muslims must deal with the after effects on their own. A recent research report by Dr Tanja Dreher of UTS titled Whose Responsibility? Community anti-racism strategies after September 11, 2001, has highlighted the need for shared responsibility.
According to Dr Dreher, at a time when Muslim Australians are regularly called upon to "integrate" and to publicly defend their religion and cultures, they are in fact actually doing much of the hard work to build bridges in Australian society.
Dr Dreher stresses that strengthening community relations is a shared responsibility. We must not leave the task of combating racism to the very communities which have been targeted. Muslim and Arab communities in Australia have been reaching out but it is vital that governments, the corporate sector and all communities step up to take responsibility as well.
In combating political Islam, the lack of secular social infrastructure is the most serious issue facing Australian Muslims. While mosques are dominated by religious conservatives, community centres and clubs are needed to address the lack of facilities for social and cultural interaction. Non religious youth centres are essential to engage youth into sports, volunteering and other positive activities such as arts.
Undoubtedly, if Australian Muslims are to overcome their challenges, they must undertake long-term community development by promoting self-help. But they should not be doing it alone and all levels of government and other communities should also be lending them a hand. The first step to encourage sustainable integration is through civil institutions. Institutions provide vision, people and resources necessary to lead and affect change. The history of successful migrant integration into Western societies has been based on institutions.
If we are to successfully engage disaffected Muslim youth, we need arts and cultural institutions to provide positive alternatives to narrow and ethnically divided religious centres. Institutions that build cultural citizenship and support interaction and creative self-expression, that validate Muslim as an Australian identity, that offer opportunities for shared experiences between communities.
While many may consider the events of past two years as a major drawback, it has actually focused the attention on the real problem and revealed a way forward by finding and encouraging new voices. The key now is to find ways of using these voices proactively instead of defensively and reactively.
As a positive sign, the government seems reluctant to support religious leadership anymore. The axing of Prime Ministers’ hand-picked Islamic Reference Group has also been helpful in ridding the community of an unfair stereotype. Much is being achieved by individuals and organisations but still there is a long way to go. A national campaign against racism could do wonders not just for Australian Muslims but for many other emerging cultural and religious groups.