Dr amanda wise & dr jan ali commonwealth of Australia 2008



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Ethnic Diversity among Muslim-Australians


Like migrants generally, Muslims migrate to Australia for a multitude of reasons, however, the economic advantages, educational opportunities, family reunion, and escaping political oppression in their homelands are some of the more prominent criteria for making Australia their permanent home (Jones, 1993). Whilst some migrants come from Islamic monocultures such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, a lot of them arrived from countries like Albania, Lebanon, and Nigeria, that are themselves culturally and religiously diverse (Jones, 1993). As a result, Muslim migrants have different experiences of Australian society, and cannot be categorised as one homogenised group. The plurality of Muslims and their experience as migrants contrasts with the popular media representations of Islam and Muslims being uniform and homogeneous.

The majority of Muslim migrants settle in large capital cities, in particular Sydney and Melbourne (Humphrey, 1998). These large urban centres provide relatively cheap accommodation, particularly in their outer suburbs, and offer employment in the manufacturing and service industries, and are also homes to other groups from the same ethnic backgrounds, which supports the socio-cultural and emotional needs of new Muslim immigrants (Cleland, 2001). Thus, Muslim immigrants typically settle close to each other. Following the dominant pattern of immigrant settlement in Australia, Muslims gravitate towards their own ethnic circles concentrated in the working class suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne (Humphrey, 1998). In Sydney, for instance, Muslim communities are concentrated in four Local Government Areas namely Auburn, Bankstown, Canterbury, and Liverpool (ABS Census 2006). The overwhelming concentration of Muslim immigrants in these two capital cities corresponds to the settlement patterns of Mediterranean migrants. In the case of Muslim immigrants, 50% settled in Sydney and 23% in Melbourne, according to the 1991 Australian Census (Bouma, 1994). Humphrey (1984) observes that chain migration - by which individuals immigrated and later brought over families, relatives, and friends - and close settlement were pivotal in creating the geographical concentration of Muslim immigrants, emphasising the significance of social relations based on parochial and family ties and ethnicity (Humphrey, 1984). Humphrey (1998: 21) claims that ‘Muslim immigrants have entered Australian society through the cultural mediums of family, community and religion which have located them in social spaces shaping their status, employment and residence patterns’.

According to Humphrey (1998) this has meant that the established social relations of the family and village community have become even more firm and indispensable resources of social barter in themselves. Consequently, this has helped create social microcosms. These social microcosms have been meticulously built through the application of personal efforts in home making, family creation, ethnic language maintenance, and selective shopping based on culture. These social microcosms are also maintained and further perpetuated transnationally by recognising the importance of maintaining links with the past. This is done, for instance, by going ‘home’ for a visit, sponsoring family members to immigrate, and sending money to extended family back home.

Family and community bonds have been of paramount importance for Muslim immigrants to immigrate, to receive support during settlement, to re-establish their traditional social worlds, and, ultimately, to obtain Australian citizenship. Family in particular has been the principal resource in reproducing social and religious culture. Chain migration made immigration possible and acted as the vehicle for penetrating the broader society. Family and community bonds facilitated residential grouping from which emerged Muslim community and Islamic life. As Humphrey (2005: 136) notes, ‘The family and village community was used as the basis for recreating community and re-establishing religious life’.

However, the emergence of Muslim communities and Islamic life is not so autonomous and has involved a complex web of institutional interaction and coming to terms with certain ideological realities namely integration, assimilation, and multiculturalism. The nature of Muslim communities and Islamic life in Australia therefore needs to be understood in this context.

Immigration and Assimilation


In Australian immigration history, the question of who should be permitted to settle in Australia has been directly associated with the idea of which people will assimilate with the least resistance. Immigration during most of the last century was essentially an issue about the maintenance of white mono-cultural national identity through the practice of selective immigration.1 It was a way to develop Australia and assist its participation in the post-World War II global order based on ethnic and cultural purity.

In 19th century Australian colonial society culture and race were key issues in the creation of the nation-state. The birth of the Australian nation-state, the transition from colony to a constitutional monarchy in 1901, clearly acknowledged memberships in terms of race. The ‘Immigration Restriction Act’ of 1901 denied entry to ‘coloured’ people. Its legacy was the ‘White Australia Policy’ which survived beyond the post-World War II period of Australian mass migration.

The ‘White Australia Policy’ continued to shape the post-World War II immigration initiative. Assimilation was the approach adopted towards difference to ensure cultural uniformity expressed as Australian national identity. The key aim of the assimilation policy was the preservation of an imagined homogenous national community founded on British culture and institutions (Jakubowicz, 1989). Assimilation was a racist model that expressed the supremacy of the Australian host society in cultural rather than racial terms.

Eventually, it was the immigration program, the large influx of immigrants from different parts of the world, which weakened the openly racist construction of the Australian nation- state. The on-going arrival of non-British immigrants fractured the formal ties between Britishness and citizenship and nationalism. The official stance on Australian nationalism and citizenship began to change as early as 1958.

It was for the first time, then, in 1958 that the ‘Immigration Restricted Act’ or the official ‘White Australia Policy’ was subjected to reform. Thus, the openly racist dictation test was abolished in 1958 (DILGEA, 1988: 42). Then in 1959 further changes were made allowing Australian citizens from an immigrant background to sponsor their non-European spouses and single young children to immigrate to Australia (DILGEA, 1988: 43). Importantly, in 1964, the rules governing the entry of people described as ‘of mixed descent’ were relaxed further (DILGEA, 1988: 48).

In 1972, race and culture were removed from official discourse on the recruitment of immigrants with official abolition of the ‘White Australia Policy’ and its replacement with multiculturalism as the dominant theme in immigration and settlement policy. By this time mass immigration changed the character of Australian society and it became literally multicultural. This meant that multiculturalism as the official national policy prohibited discrimination on the basis of culture or race in the recruitment process of immigrants and their treatment in Australian society. In this regard by the late 1980s the multicultural policy identified and emphasised three critical points:



    1. Cultural identity – the right of all Australians to express and share their cultural heritage,

    2. Social justice – the rights of all Australians to equal treatment and opportunity,

    3. Economic efficiency – the requirement to maintain and develop the skills of all


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