Dr amanda wise & dr jan ali commonwealth of Australia 2008



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Australians, regardless of their background.

Muslims and Multiculturalism


Multiculturalism meant the recognition of the diversity of the Australian population. The policy supported the promotion of tolerance and acceptance of large diverse cultures of Australian people and encouraged and assisted individuals, groups, organisations, and institutions to reflect the multicultural character of Australia in their local and overseas dealings. It meant that all members of Australian society had the right to equal access to services, regardless of their ethnic background.

Immigrants were granted fundamental rights to live according to their own cultural values, yet, nevertheless were expected to integrate into Australian society. The new multiculturalism policy meant that ethnic and cultural diversity were encouraged, however, only to the extent that it did not undermine the values, customs, and institutions of the dominant Anglo-Celtic society and conformity is practiced. It was basically assumed that immigrants arriving in Australia would automatically adapt to the dominant Anglo-Celtic way as they worked here, and they would simply abandon their customs and habits (Graetz and McAllister, 1994). This became the distinctive Australian trajectory to full citizenship. Integration, in essence then, entailed participation in the key areas of society - namely labour, education, and housing; a pathway to fruitful existence for immigrants. Failure to integrate would result in deprivation. In other words, cut off from the many benefits and privileges available and offered to ordinary citizens. Equality2 did not mean similarity but an ‘equal playing field’ for all. The idea of a mono-cultural society was abandoned and difference was celebrated and made the basis of integration.

However, if Australia is a multicultural society in which cultural diversity is celebrated then why is it that cultures are valued differently? As Humphrey asserts, ‘The lexicon of multiculturalism differentiates and values cultures differently according to undeclared criteria’ (2001: 37). Why for example, does the Muslim presence produced through immigration, often present a perceived threat to the Australian national mosaic? Or why are Muslim beliefs and practices too often considered discordant with the patterns of public life in Australian cities? Why are Muslim practices of prayer and fasting, for instance, seen to challenge the conformity of the modern public sphere and its ideals?

Attitudes towards Muslims in Australia indicate that despite the formulation of multiculturalism as a public policy the views of the dominant group predominate. Theirs is a modernist view that expects immigrants, particularly from more traditional societies, to assimilate through the processes of secularisation and individualism. The modernist view is founded on the premise of secularism – the diminishing significance of religion – forcing religion from the public sphere into the private domain, thus, the expectation that immigrants, perhaps the second and third generations, will eventually assimilate as individuals who become divorced from their ethnic roots.

In Australia, Muslim organisations and cultures have emerged from settlement and immigration processes connected in complex ways to working-class immigrant experience of social marginalisation and economic deprivation (Humphrey, 2001). For Muslims, their immigration experiences have forced them to negotiate their cultural identity with the Australian state and society. In relation to this, Michael Humphrey argues that the

‘Muslims in Australia’ narrative is a reflection of the politics of multiculturalism that limits both pluralising and homogenising tendencies:



It is pluralising through the migration process that has generated local, ethnic community-based Islamic religious institutions which, in turn, helped decentre and localise the religious authority of tradition. It is homogenising through a multicultural politics of ‘re-traditionalisation’ – the essentialisation of culture as a defensive, as well as representational, strategy that tends to place ethnic culture in compartmentalised social space (2001: 35).3

The negotiation by Muslims of their cultural identity in the context of Australian multiculturalism has left them relegated to the ‘Other’ in the national imagination, which is both defined by, and predominantly represents the culture of, the hegemonic group. It incorporates Muslim-Australians only insofar as they contribute to the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of the dominant group, and, therefore, merely as the ‘Other’. This aspect of multiculturalism is thus essentially a policy for the management of ethnic minorities. According to Hage (1998) it involves strategies of exclusion alongside the rhetoric of inclusion. In a sense, then, this form of multiculturalism maintains the marginality and liminality of immigrants and their descendants


Muslim Marginality


In the Australian multicultural panorama, Muslim means being ‘immigrant working class’

and religiously ‘conservative’.4 This class description of Muslim-Australians has developed from the origins of Muslim immigrants and their real experience with the Australian labour force. A vast majority of Muslim immigrants have arrived in Australia from poor rural and urban backgrounds from mostly underdeveloped countries. After arriving, these Muslim immigrants have largely been engaged in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs within the manufacturing and service industries (Humphrey, 2000). Muslim immigrants who had academic qualifications and professional experience were even forced by the immigration processes to take up non-professional menial jobs because the Australian government deems qualifications from underdeveloped countries comparatively sub-standard, thus refusing to recognise them (Graetz and McAllister, 1994).

Furthermore, Lowenstein and Loh assert that ‘Often Australia does not recognise the overseas trade and professional qualifications of migrants, so skilled people are forced to work either at unskilled jobs or to carry out skilled work at unskilled rates of pay’ (1977:10). As in the context of immigrants in general, the demand by Australian society for cultural accommodation of Muslim immigrants entails a slow transition. Migrants are typically required to initiate social and cultural adjustments to their daily social and vocational rituals by accepting the routines of the manufacturing industries in which they work and take more than one job to maintain a family or depend on limited welfare benefits with some income derived from working in the black economy. The whole process of cultural accommodation imposes upon Muslim immigrants to modify the ritual of their daily life in accordance with the practices of the broader Australian society and in so doing it impacts on the entire basis of their social existence. For example, the impact is felt on all aspects of social life such as marriage, social networks, residency, gender relations, housing, and consumption patterns. This makes the reconciliation between ethnic culture and customs and new social and work rituals problematic.

These are the demands of the class culture (Humphrey, 2001) and when Muslim immigrants fail to fulfil them, they also fail to meet, as a group, their expected economic contribution and consequently are censured for not making a fair contribution to the national economic growth and development of the whole society. Their statistical over- representation in the records of welfare benefits, workers compensation claims, and unemployment give them a negative image and push them to the lowest strata of the social hierarchy. This highlights their peripherality in urban structures and their status in Australia.

Given their marginality to the labour force, many Muslim immigrants have been pushed into a situation of mutual dependency. The requirements of social and community reciprocity due to their social marginalisation and the fear of loss of family and cultural identity often force family and community to guard the environment in which tradition is nurtured (Humphrey, 1984). However, whilst on the one hand family and community are strengthened as principal cultural capital through immigration policy and social and economic marginalisation, on the other hand, they are rendered tenuous by fearing the loss of cultural heritage and the sense of loss of identity through the process of immigration.

Thus, Islamic organisation and Muslim culture need to be put in the context of the language of multiculturalism. Muslim cultural differences do have their origins in specific places and customary traditions but these are only further reinforced and perpetuated through the policies of settlement and windows of opportunity (Humphrey, 2001).


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