While important to research those already involved in activities to improve relations between Muslim and non-Muslim-Australians, it is also imperative to understand the motivations of those who are disengaged completely to better understand their views of the ‘other side’ and why they may or may not be drawn to engaging in bridge building activities at the community level.
To that end, the project interviewed 10 Muslim-Australian and 10 Anglo-Celtic Australians who we had identified as never having participated in an activity aimed at building bridges between Muslim and non-Muslim-Australians. On the Muslim side, we sought out as broad a cross section of ethnicities as possible, and aimed for a balance between age and gender. On the Anglo-Celtic non-Muslim side, we sought out ‘everyday’ people residing in the Sutherland Shire, an area we felt provided a good ‘laboratory’ as this community is one that has had little or no contact with Muslim-Australia. The Cronulla riots added an additional layer of analysis as this is a community that has been very directly exposed to negative stereotypes surrounding Muslims.
We were interested in five key themes;
What are their patterns of and opportunities for mixing with the ‘other side’.
What were the barriers to mixing with the ‘other side’.
Their views on the positives and negatives about mixing with the other side.
What kinds of ‘bridge building’ activities might engage them.
How to engage them in such activities and how might local government be involved?
Patterns of Mixing
Overall, the Muslim-Australian participants we classified as ‘disengaged’ tended to mix predominantly with other Muslims. Mainly this had to do with feeling more ‘comfortable’ with other Muslims, and the reproduction of existing kinship and friendship networks.
Interviews with the Muslim ‘Disengaged’ were enlightening insofar as they emphasised the fact that Muslim-Australians, as a rule, would like more opportunities to get to know non-Muslim-Australians. This was a sentiment that crossed age, gender and ethnic boundaries. That said, any possibility for mixing must also fit in with people’s busy lives, and not threaten sometimes quite strict cultural and religious codes. Mixing with non- Muslims tended to occur through work, school and with neighbours and typically involved more acquaintances rather than deep friendships. Further, the propensity to form close friendships with non-Muslims tended to decrease with age; and seemed to be particularly linked to an increase in religious observance.
Positives about mixing
That said, there was a general consensus among participants that there were definitely positive aspects to mixing with non-Muslims, and that it should be encouraged. The most common views on the positive aspects of mixing mentioned were:
Helping Australians learn more about Islam
Participants felt that a positive outcome of mixing more with non-Muslim-Australians was that in offering an opportunity for the ‘other side’ to get to know Muslims, they would help reduce negative stereotypes about their community and religion. There was also interest in showing the positive side of Islam, in which they invested a great deal of pride.
Jasmina: Yeah, I had one long term friend, … I feel comfortable around her, even though she’s not a Muslim, because she’s a really nice person, that’s why. She’s not racist, and that’s a good thing. ... I tried to approach her about Islam, and she actually wanted to know about it. She was curious, and I liked that. … Like, she wants to know... It’s a positive thing. I want to help, I tried to get cassettes, tapes, DVD’s, just to tell her more.
Iqbal’s strong views below were actually fairly representative of a broader malaise whereby Muslim-Australians feel unjustly stereotyped as ‘terrorists’ and feel the impact of this social stigma quite deeply. Muslim-Australians we spoke to felt strongly about the need to challenge these stereotypes and felt that getting to know non- Muslims would contribute to that.
Iqbal: That’s good. If you explain, and talking, and that’s really good. It’s not ‘good’ only, but it’s very good. You have to – Muslims – see that other people are normal people. Not like this [rubbish] done on America, you know what I mean? Because the Muslim is a good person; it’s not like something… Scary people, yeah. It’s normal people. That’s why you have to talk to another religion, to explain to him I am not like him, I am totally different, you know what I mean?
This stereotyping of Muslims was felt particularly strongly by Muslim working class men, who tended to have encountered negative experiences in the workplace and in other situations of intense interaction with non-Muslim men. However this was not simply a defensive stance. Participants were mainly keen to help Anglo-Australians understand more about Muslims.
Mustafa [on the positives of mixing with non-Muslims]: Well, to understand their way of life, the way they do things. To understand how they feel about us, and also many times I’ve bumped into non-Muslim people, especially Anglos, who probably come from an area that doesn’t have much Muslims, you know...even you can find this sort of thing in some areas, because they don’t really mix, they don’t interact, so they don’t understand the opposite side, you know? So I’ve found out that a lot of things, they’re confused about a lot of things…
Mustafa makes an important point, that many Anglo-Australians have little opportunity to interact with Muslim-Australians. He sees interaction as an important means of challenging stereotypes, and also as a means of learning more about ‘Australian culture’ and way of life.
Feeling more integrated
Related to this, is a view that mixing with non-Muslims is valuable in helping Muslim- Australians feel less alienated. It appears that having friendships and positive acquaintances amongst non-Muslims provides somewhat of a bulwark or buttress against anti-Muslim moral panics and negative encounters. In this way, Muslim-Australians are able to draw on first hand friendships to counter feelings that all non-Muslims are racist and against Islam.
Dalia: For example… after the Cronulla riots incident, they [non-Muslim friends] treated me extra… with extra friendliness… it was so nice to me… and we spoke about it… and I said my point of view… and they said their point of view, and they were very understanding… like… from this incident… like…. I felt like I can be … like they ’re not the enemy… you know, like… we can be friends… if there’s… as you said, there’s opportunity, yeah… why not…yeah.
There was also a sense that mixing provided a feeling of being more integrated in to the wider society, and provided an opportunity to learn more about others’ way of life.
Mubarak: I think the good things about mixing with non-Muslims is that you’ll appreciate the good values which every religion and every sect has in their beliefs, and you can actually explain how you resemble those good values. I’m sure both non-Muslims and Muslims have good values. Then you feel a kind of bond of humanity between you and a non-Muslim, and I think that’s a good thing about mixing with a non-Muslim. Obviously, friendship and in time of need, actually, you can still depend on...or if you’re going somewhere that is purely non-Muslim, or there’s a function that’s non-Muslim, you can get this advice about how you go there....so you’re just finding from another person about their culture and their way of life. I think it’s always good, especially when you are living in a country where you have all these different people living with you, so you should be always open and upfront with these things. I think that’s always good.
Mustafa: Well [the good thing about mixing with non-Muslims is], to understand their way of life, the way they do things. To understand how they feel about us
Barriers to mixing
Despite the positive aspects of mixing identified by these disengaged Muslim-Australian participants, there were a number of negative aspects raised. These difficulties in negotiating the cultural differences appeared to create real barriers for this group to get to know non-Muslims. It must be remembered that this sub-group within the study represent a fairly typical cross-section of the Muslim-Australian community, and to some extent are more representative than those already involved in the community based ‘harmony’ initiatives we’ve identified elsewhere in this report. Interview participants identified a number of fairly significant barriers to mixing with non-Muslims. Many of these were ‘everyday’ cultural and religious differences. In ranked order, the most common barriers referred to were:
Alcohol & Food
Surprisingly, it was not well known among non-Muslims interviewed in this study that it is forbidden in Islam to drink alcohol. Moreover, the concept of Halal was little understood. This seemed to be a key barrier to greater levels of socialisation among Muslim and non- Muslim-Australians, particularly Anglo-Australians for whom alcohol is a key part of socialising, particularly among men who tended to use alcohol as a social lubricant to bond with other males.
The issues around alcohol arose at two levels. First, women in particular were quite fearful of being in the company of men who were drinking. They tended to associate drinking with drunkenness and licentiousness, and therefore felt fearful that being around drunken men was sexually dangerous. There also seemed to be little understanding that much Anglo-Celtic drinking fits into a more responsible style of drinking behaviour such as having a couple of beers at a BBQ or a glass of wine with dinner in mixed gender company. Muslim-Australian men also felt a sense of protectiveness towards their female relatives, choosing not to accept invitations where alcohol would be involved.
Jasmina: I get scared. Especially walking around the pubs, or...not in the pubs, but when you (walk past) the pubs, it’s uncomfortable. We believe in different things and we socialise differently to how you socialise, so that gives me an uncomfortable feeling and I don’t want to be around that, especially with my religion. It doesn’t really...yeah.
Fatima: Last time for Christmas party, my husband, his manager, his boss, had Christmas party in their house, their own house…We went to the party, but I sit around all another people, I don’t like mix another people. So I go sit in the…sit alone. Because I see a couple of drink people, because I’m Muslim. The drink people maybe come and maybe do bad things… Something like that.
Karim: Yeah, it’s easier to commit to go to a Muslim’s place than a non-Muslim’s place. Just our Muslim values and my wife, she’s always eaten halal meat, she’s been a non-drinker and things like that, so I’ve always got that in the back of my mind, that she might not be comfortable...
It also emerged during the research process that some Muslim-Australians also feel morally compelled to avoid being around alcohol, not just avoid drinking when others do. A further barrier is the social discomfort this can cause, where invitations are refused from well meaning non-Muslims.
Dalia: Even if I'm not going to drink, I can’t be in a place where there is drinking, so they don’t understand that… especially like… we’re invited to a barbeque.
Mubarak: To be honest, with the non-Muslims, when you get to know each other there is no problem, but when you’re meeting a new non-Muslim person in the beginning, I wonder how I’m going to get along with that person because whatever he drinks or whatever he or she wants to eat and what I want is probably different, and most of the time it has happened that because of the difference in eating and drinking, that can block the talking and we actually don’t get along very much.
Fatima: They different culture, they different people. … now I learn, I don’t like to share with another people food or drink... because another people may eat pork or dog. Chinese eat dog, Vietnamese eat dog, or drink. I can’t feel like that, I don’t know. I’m share my food. I’m bringing some plate or dish or something like that, but I don’t like to eat from another dish, because I don’t know what’s in there.
As can be seen from these interview snippets, it can create a feeling of burden and in turn perhaps a tendency to try to avoid situations where such invitations might be extended so as to avoid social embarrassment. There are occasions where the non-Muslim hosts are willing to provide Halal food, however non-Muslims may feel unreasonably constrained to have to avoid alcohol themselves at these gatherings, despite not expecting their Muslim- Australian counterparts to drink. These are vexed issues and seem to be one of the most predominant barriers (particularly alcohol) to mixing between the two groups. These differences can cause discomfort, and sometimes irritation even among the most well intended individuals, and offence can sometimes be taken when a well meaning social invitation is declined. Therefore it is imperative to foster a greater sense of awareness among non-Muslim-Australians about the dietary restrictions of Muslim-Australians so that when invitations are extended, such social embarrassment can be avoided. Further, the two groups should focus on more on social activities where alcohol is not normally present, such as sport.
Different cultural practices surrounding mixed gender interaction also emerged as a key issue which sometimes hampered attempts at positive social interchange.
Mustafa: Well, in our culture, we mix mostly with our own gender. For social order, you know? Men mix with men, and women mix with women… So if someone comes and visits, for example, if me and my wife are living in a certain house and our friends are coming to visit, normally the procedure that we’ll go by is that men will sit in this lounge room and the women will be in another living room. Socialising is done that way.
Dalia: It’s not a problem. But the fact, like, with a man, they don’t know. I don’t shake hands with men, so that’s a minor problem. And another problem......Because like… sometimes they feel the other person feel embarrassed or… or… I don’t like … like … it’s still embarrassing?... For both of us… like, I get embarrassed, too… I don’t know… because I feel … I don’t feel sorry for the other person, but… you know… like… he’s trying to make an effort to be friendly and … you know… to say: ‘Oh, no… sorry, I don’t shake hands.’
Mustafa:...if there’s a picnic or a barbeque, we’ll go and have a barbeque, but in a way that doesn’t affect the sensitivities on each side.For example, there won’t be alcohol. If I want to have a picnic, I want to bring my wife, I’ll ask my non-Muslim friend if he can respect our way of...... segregation. The women sit on these chairs on this side, the men on this side...it will work, you know? So that’s mostly how I interact with my non- Muslim friends.
Again, there are variations as there are many Muslim-Australian women who are comfortable in mixed company. However there are also substantial numbers who do adhere to more traditional forms of segregated gender interaction. Some of the smaller things also do make a difference. For example it is not hard to imagine the possibility of offence being taken should a Muslim-Australian refuse the offer of a handshake. The importance of the everyday rituals for smooth social interchange has long been acknowledged by ‘micro-sociologists’ such as Erving Goffman, whose 1967 book Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, is a classic in the discipline. He argues that everyday rituals such as hand shaking provide an important shared meaning framework through which self and others are interpreted. Where such codes are not mutually understood, there is great scope for social offence to be taken.
Comfort with ‘those like me’
It is for these reasons that mixing across cultural and religious difference can, at times, be uncomfortable and even exhausting as everyday codes and customs have to be consciously negotiated. Many of the interviewees acknowledged that in general they simply found it more comfortable to mix with others like themselves. Often this had to do with religious differences and the feeling that mixing with non-Muslims meant having constantly to resist and avoid ‘no go’ activities.
Mustafa: Like I said before, I like to socialise mostly with the Muslim community because – it’s just like you’ll find even with a lot of other nationalities, it doesn’t really have to mean that it’s religion, it’s also to do with cultures. You’ll find Italians, Greeks, Pacific Islanders, Asians – they choose to socialise, they’re more happy to socialise with their own kind because they have a deeper connection with each other. The same as if you get to a workplace, whatever. Even the Anglo-Australians, they will value their own kind most of the time. They connect to each other. They believe a certain way, they have the same views, you know what I mean? For example, I love to socialise with my own friends because I know that we’ll be doing the same thing. For example, I won’t be drinking. We have the same hobbies, the same views, the same emotions, the same goals in life, so of course I socialise with my own kind, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t be talking to non-Muslim friends.
This sense of ‘comfort’ and familiarity also translated into a feeling of closeness where participants simply felt a stronger and more organic connection to their Muslim-Australian friends. This closeness mainly stems from a feeling of being understood, not just verbally, but in the whole person sense of the term; including unspoken norms, customs, and practices.
Mustafa: Yeah, yeah, of course I have non-Muslim friends, but the difference is – and this is why I socialise more with Muslim friends – is because we have a different connection. That is the way that I live. I socialise in a certain way, so I like to mix with people who live my certain way, you know? So that’s why I like socialising more with them. … I’m very friendly with anybody, you know? I have Aussie friends, I care about them, you know? But they’re different to the friends that you do everything with, you know?...
Amirah: You feel closer to them, like you understand them and they understand you from where you’re coming from.
Hard work when there are language barriers
Related to the challenge of social rituals is the simple fact that language barriers can make it difficult to engage in meaningful interaction with speakers of another language.
Iqbal: I try to talk English, but that’s hard. Sometimes, maybe he understands but he doesn’t accept it, you know what I mean? …: Sometimes you can explain an easy thing for him… But he doesn’t accept it, especially because of the accent.
As this interview extract suggests, it can be embarrassing for someone whose English is limited or heavily accented to engage in (unsuccessful) dialogue with an English speaker. However it can be equally discomforting for the English speaker, and what tends to happen is that further, or deeper exchange and conversation is avoided.
Lack of opportunity
It was both explicit and implicit in the interviews with ‘disengaged’ Muslim-Australians that lack of opportunity was an important factor in the low level of social mixing with non- Muslims. Unsurprisingly, that scarcest of resources time figured prominently in the interviews. Like most Australians, Muslim-Australians are simply caught up trying to keep pace with busy family and working lives.
Amirah: Organisations which work with the Muslim youths and they actually get Muslims and non-Muslims together. Yes, I’ve heard about those kinds of things but I’ve never been involved in any.
Dr. J. Ali: Any particular reason for that?
Amirah: I don’t know, maybe I’m...I honestly don’t know. Like, it’s not that I’m not interested. Actually, I’m not really interested in those things, in a way. Like I like to hear about it, I like to see people doing it, but I don’t really see myself doing it, that’s all. Maybe because I’ve been too busy.
Amidst busy lives, the priority for weekend socialising tended to be to spend time with family and friends. There was a distinct sense that any longer term commitment to formal activities designed to bring Muslim and non-Muslim-Australians together would be too onerous. Nonetheless, those who were able to commit to such activities were viewed positively, and this appeared to have a ‘flow on’ effect in terms of positive sentiment.
Lack of opportunity also manifested geographically. As can be seen from the GIS map of top twenty Muslim communities, they tended to coincide with more culturally diverse zones anyway, therefore there was a reduced opportunity to meet Anglo-Celtic Australians in a local social setting and as neighbours.
Jasmina: To me, it’s lack of opportunity, definitely. Lack of opportunity. Like, if I have an Aussie neighbour, I don’t mind visiting her...but now, especially in Australia, everybody lives individually. They all have their own problems. .. Especially in Australia… But in Syria, every day you socialise.
Dalia: Um… no, not by choice…no… it’s lack of opportunity. If there are more opportunities to meet other non-Muslim women, I would do so… yeah… no, it’s not a choice, no.
Furthermore, almost none of our disengaged Muslim-Australians had heard of activities in their areas to bring Muslim and non-Muslims Australians together. Therefore those activities that are occurring tended to be dominated by those already engaged in the community organisations involved in the initiative.
Experiences of discrimination and racism.
Experiences of racism also made the Muslim-Australian participants more hesitant to mix, and certainly more cautious in leaving their own suburbs to spend time in areas where there are few or no Muslims. Experiences of racism ranged from the obvious—having racist comments shouted from a passing car—to the subtle, such as being overlooked for service in a shop.
Jasmina: Well, it happened to me once, OK? But in the city, when I go to the city, I truly, truly feel different. Like, I know around Bankstown, I feel like I’m in Syria, OK? My country. But when I go to the city I just feel different. I get the sense that they look at you differently. They don’t even care, but it’s just that feeling. And even out of the city, we go in the car and then this group of people started pointing. They were all Aussies. It was like, ‘Get off’ or something. And it was just so embarrassing, and I poked my head down in the car! (laughs)
As Jasmina points out, her negative experience visiting the city contrasts sharply to her increased feeling of safety in and around the Bankstown area where there are many Muslim-Australians present.
Mubarak: When I’m travelling on public transport, for example. On a train or a bus, and the seat next to me is empty, if any Australian is coming – and you can see it’s a purely Australian person, a white person, for example – they will tend not to sit next to me. They will give you a look which is probably...OK, maybe I’m wrong in my perception, but I think so far I’m right in a sense, that they don’t want to sit next to me...when I have sat next to someone who is purely Australian, a white person...I have seen it, they change seats, on many occasions! As soon as I sit, they change seats! It’s like, OK! Sorry! That’s fine! I have to sit, anyway! …But that’s the kind of negative feeling I get. I feel like there is something going on.
These experiences tended to colour views about non-Muslims, and prejudice how victims imagine other non-Muslims feel about them as Muslim-Australians. This in turn had the effect of a slightly defensive stance, where new acquaintances would be assessed as to whether they ‘liked’ Muslims or not. These experiences of racism are wide spread, indeed almost universal amongst the Muslim-Australian research participants. Racism is painful to encounter and it is understandable that it can lead to a lack of inclination to want to mix with those identified as belonging to the perpetrators group.
Everyday conflicts experienced as racism
Related to this is a tendency to sometimes over-interpret awkward or negative social encounters as always about racism or Islamophobia. It is often difficult to unravel whether a negative encounter has to do with racial or religious difference, or whether it is simply an example of the type of everyday conflicts we all encounter from time to time.
Iqbal: I’ve got neighbours. Some neighbours, they come to my place; very good woman, her name is Julie, she’s got two sons, very good boys, and from the old house, we’ve got one woman, I work from … ; I tell you true – one woman, a very old woman, I do a couple of things, electrical work for her for free. One time, I did something wrong. I tell you, it’s wrong. I used the water for wash, because I was doing the renovation, but I did a couple of things for her free, you know what I mean? I worked a couple of days, couple of things, for her free, and because I help her stuff, I bring it inside the house. One day, I’m doing renovation for my home – painting stuff, change the kitchen. You know, all the house is big flood, you know what I mean? And outside, I got the hose and I started cleaning. She opened the door and she saw me using the water. She told me, ‘You’re not allowed to use the water.’ I told her, ‘It’s not allowed, but you know, it’s too much dust, and I’ve got kids, and always these things I have to clean properly …And in five or ten minutes, she called the ranger! That made me upset inside. I told her I didn’t do it for no reason. I knew I was wrong to use the water, but she was more wrong on me, because she forgot I was her neighbour, and I did it for a reason, and she forgot what I did for her. Why call the ranger, you know what I mean?
This account of the conflict over Sydney Water restrictions is a good example. It is difficult to tell whether the Anglo elderly woman who reported him targeted him because of his race and/or religion, or whether she was simply being a ‘nosey parker’ as she would with other neighbours, regardless of race. However this distinction, in a sense, is unimportant. Rather, it is experienced as tied up with his religion and/or culture and taken as an offence. His previous experiences of racism have left him hyper sensitive to encounters where he feels wrongly done by.
Dalia: And, I was standing in a line… and out of nowhere the lady… the lady… in front of me, she’s… she… I don’t know where she was… she came, and she started shouting at me and she told me: ‘you took my turn… I was here before’… and I just went… I told her, like, I didn’t know what to do… I was so shocked… what’s wrong with her? And I really…couldn’t like…. because I'm new… I… she can tell I… I'm Muslim… and… yeah… so…like, I don’t know, I'm upset about it, but then what can you do.
For Dalia, the pain associated with racism is such that subsequent encounters are read through a similar lens.
Opportunities to mix
Despite such negative encounters, there were situations where mixing was experienced as positive. The place of work or study was the most important opportunity for mixing for men, while for the women, neighbours and meeting other mothers through school and sporting contexts were important. A key theme seemed to be that the men in the study in particular needed a common goal or project to work on in order to get to know non- Muslims. This accords with research on men generally, as evidenced, for example, in the success of the ‘Men’s Shed’ concept aimed at engaging elderly males in community activities.
Work and Study
For the Muslim-Australian men interviewed, work was especially important as a context affording the opportunity to get to know non-Muslim men
Karim: In our office, I am the only Muslim. The company employs 120 people across Australia. There are a few Muslims, but in my specific office, I am the only Muslim there. And everyone’s aware of my values, that I do have certain rules I have to follow. But I stay there with non-Muslim people in my day-to-day role, meetings and projects...it’s working with a close relationship with people to achieve objectives. Outside of work it’s more in a sports context. These days what I’m finding is, the people I used to call friends – before, I used to have plenty of friends. I used to have lots and lots of friends. Now, it’s pretty limited to who I’d actually call friends. Work- wise, they’re more associates... Now, I probably wouldn’t say that I actually have many friends. Before, you know, I’d be out with friends...outside of work, and try to be part of the group. If they’re going out to lunch, I’ll go with them. That kind of thing. And at work, I suppose we all have the same common goal, although we do have different beliefs. And even within those projects there are different people. Like, you have Catholic people, probably atheists...all different people coming together...
Work not only provides the opportunity to meet non-Muslims, but the nature of work is such that interaction occurs around team based activities where the group share a common purpose, common goals. The value of having a common activity or project to work on is that familiarity can occur organically at a person to person level, rather than as an explicit activity aimed at learning about one another’s ‘culture’ or ‘faith’ in the abstract. Moreover, the rules and framework for behaviour are set by the workplace and work activity itself reducing the level of social ambiguity present in less structured situations. Together, these features fit the important criteria set out in the ‘contact theory’ perspective, introduced in the literature review section, where positive inter-group relations require: equal status between groups, common goals, inter-group co-operation, and support or sanction of the authorities, law or custom.
Mubarak: Yes, most of my time, actually, is spent during the working hours, but during work we get a break of an hour or half an hour, and we tend to share the same table for eating and drinking, relaxing...so we do talk a lot as well. Especially when we’re having a break and there is some kind of news, big news in the newspaper. It will generally come up at the table and they’ll say, ‘Oh, look! What’s going on with you guys?’ then we have to explain, ‘That’s not how it is!’ Or, ‘This is how it is!’
Of course work also provides the opportunity for unstructured socialising once collegial relations are established. A number of the interviews mentioned the ‘lunch room’ as an important site for, if not friendships, then good relationships to emerge. These lunchtime interactions provided the opportunity to, for example, provide a Muslim-Australian perspective on current affairs (where a colleague is reading the paper at the lunchroom table) and in turn to complicate stereotypes that emerge in media reporting.
Iqbal: I work with company, that company it’s a big company, pay fair, they very good money…, I got the manager very good man, look after me, look after all the people like a father…. He’s Aussie. All the people like him – all people. Not to make you upset, never. If you’re sick, don’t want to go to work, if you’re really sick and if you’re tired, he looks after you, he not put pressure on you. Everyone, he likes him – everyone. We’re like family inside the company. … always I come in, I said, ‘Hello. How are you? Good’ and this. I bring some staff Lebanese food or some Lebanese thing or something.
Finally, feeling valued and respected also emerged as an important aspect of involvement in a diverse workplace. The employers (the boss) was especially important, particularly so in small workplaces. Workplace superiors play a very important role in helping alienated Muslim-Australian workers feel valued and like a member of ‘the family’. Small gestures of care from the employer, such as ensuring Halal meat is available at the work BBQ, or a caring attitude towards employees in times of need such as when a child is sick, have a flow-on effect in terms of attitudes to the broader Australian society. These kindnesses are then reciprocated.
Similar opportunities to get to know non-Muslim-Australians are present in the school and post-school study environment.
Mubarak: With my friends at uni, we work in groups. We do assignments together. We study together, so this is how I’m involved and how I spend my time, but sometimes as well, like on weekends, I do go out and socialise with them. For example, we go out for dinner or to have a drink – but obviously, there’s always this difference of what you want, what you can drink! (laughs)
Dalia: Uh… actually... because my kids, they do lots of sports, like I make sure I take them to non- Muslim organisations so they can, like, mix… because they go to a Muslim school, so the schools… I decided that I want them to go to an Australian one. So when I go there… I meet with lots of mums… and we talk… and you know… we share experiences…
Some Muslim-Australian parents choose to send their children to public rather than religious schools for this very reason, believing that it ultimately benefits their child in terms of having opportunities to meet and form friendships with children from other faith and cultural backgrounds.
Sport provides a similar context to the workplace in providing a mostly neutral ground upon which to interact around a shared purpose.
Karim: Also, with sports, cricket, I’m the only Muslim in the cricket team. They’re a good bunch of blokes and everyone has an understanding that they’re part of a team. It’s a bit of exercise for everyone…. So, we have something in common, those blokes and me.
Sport is also an ideal activity in that it is a social activity which does not revolve around alcohol, and provides ongoing interaction over an extended period, providing the opportunity for relationships to grow organically.
Finally, neighbours also figured prominently in terms of providing the opportunity to get to know non-Muslims in an informal setting. There were mostly positive accounts of neighbours, especially where there had been some friendly exchange and assistance, such as swapping food, or providing help to an elderly neighbour.
Jasmina: Of course. We had a non-Muslim neighbour and she was always in our house, and she was a really nice person. … Because now we’ve spent time with each other, she doesn’t have negative views about Muslims. She likes her Muslim neighbours and understands them. It’s good.
Neighbouring also provides an ideal opportunity to get to know non-Muslims in a non- threatening situation over a long period of time. In this instance, the young Muslim- Australian woman reports that sustained interaction with her neighbour has resulted in attitudinal change on her neighbour’s part, such that she now holds positive views towards Muslims.
Engagement Strategies for local government
Interviews also canvassed views of local government and how the local municipality engages the Muslim-Australian community. Muslim-Australians interviewed for this study were overwhelmingly ignorant of the activities and role of local council. The majority had had little or no contact with their local council, and had not participated in any council organised activities or consultation forums. Most understood council as being for ‘roads, rates and rubbish’.
Dalia: Yeah, yeah… definitely…. I feel ignored. Yeah… because… um there’s, I don’t know there’s a gap… like… we can’t reach and they (council) can’t reach, I don’t know why… and they don’t make the effort … like… to advertise … like, you know…advertise… they… uhhm… if they want like… to… tell us something, they should advertise it … like in the local newspaper.
Participants were also clearly of the view that it was important to consult a range of Muslim community opinion beyond official ‘community leaders’.
Dalia: I think it’s not enough to only talk to Muslim leaders… because sometimes Muslim leaders, unfortunately… um… they lack…. communication within line… within their people as well…yeah. … so…like… it should be both…like the leaders and the Muslims… like individually as well…yeah.
It was also important to the participants that not all Muslims are the same, and that consultation should encompass a range of ethnic groups and Islamic denominations.
Mubarak: I think they should take more into account, not only the community leaders, but they should actually involve the rest of the people. The group leaders, maybe, at the level below the community leader, because the community leader might be just representing one sect of the Muslim community. …You will see Lebanese, Turkish, and all these different sects of Muslims, so they will still have these differences in their culture...
There were a number of other issues raised during the interviews and in the research process more generally. These included:
A perception that Muslim dominated areas had been deliberately left to run down.
Dissatisfaction that councils did not, as a general practice, offer halal food at council events.
A view that council needed to do more to reach out to the Muslim-Australian community. Participants felt that more could be done to engage Muslim community organisations, but the Mosque was the most frequently cited base to successfully engage a large cross-section of Muslim-Australians.
Mail-outs and flyers were also suggested as effective techniques.
Dissatisfaction was expressed towards park and public facilities which were seen to be unwelcoming to Muslims. A small number of participants suggested that they were less likely to use public BBQs due to the fear of contamination by pork and non Halal meat. Further, there was distress at the widespread acceptance of dogs in parks, particularly off-leash parks, which Muslim-Australians felt discriminated against them. It is perhaps not well known by councils that it is ‘Haram’ (forbidden) for Muslims to come into contact with dogs.