From Al Mesbar Monthly Book Muslims in Australia: History and Policies of Multiculturalism

Published: November 21, 2017

By comparison to European and American diaspora communities, which have been studied prolifically, Islam and Muslims in Australia have yet to receive sufficient attention from scholars. Al-Mesbar Center’s 122nd monthly book, Muslims In Australia: History and Policies of Multiculturalism, examines the topic through a series of informative studies.

Among the prestigious contributors, Prof. Fethi Mansouri examines the settlement of Muslims in Australia from the early days of the nineteenth century to the contemporary migration from many parts of the Muslim world. His chapter Muslim Migration to Australia: History and Contemporary Social Experiences traces the historical factors that initiated, constrained and shaped this migration. It also investigates the social experiences of Muslim Australians especially in the context of new securitized discourses that somehow connect Islam and Muslims to political conflicts and terrorist ideologies.

Muslim Migration to Australia: History and Contemporary Social Experiences

Prof. Fethi Mansouri


This chapter aims to shed light on the history of Muslim migration to and settlement in Australia, an area of Australia’s settlement history that has not been extensively documented in the literature. Contrary to popular belief, Australia has in fact experienced its first Muslim migration and settlements well prior to formation of the Australian Federation in 1901. Indeed, Muslim presence can be traced all the way back to the sixteenth century with the arrival of Makassar fishermen and Malay pearlers in Western Australia, Queensland and in the Northern Territory (Mansouri 2012; Kabir 2004; Wise & Ali 2008). In the nineteenth century, during the European explorations across the Australian ‘Red Centre’, between 2,000 and 4,000 Afghan cameleers in particular started to migrate to Australia (Wafia & Allen 1996, p. 9; Mansouri & Percival Wood 2008, p. 9). But following the creation of the Federation and the adoption of the ‘White Australia policy’ in 1901, this source of migration significantly decreased and certain communities such as the  Afghans and Syrians increasingly struggled to find employment due to racial vilification and isolation, practice that can be currently identified as instances of “Islamophobia” (Saeed 2003, Bouma 2011).

Yet and despite the long history of Muslim presence in Australia, much of the Muslim migration gathered pace  after World War II increased significantly from an estimated 2,704 in 1947, to a total figure of 22,311 in 1971. Initially, with the largest group being of Turkish descent.  With the adoption of the Australian multicultural policy in 1972, this trend changed with Arab migrants coming from different countries because of two main factors. Firstly, a push factor relating to numerous conflicts were affecting Arabic countries (in particular the Lebanese civil war); secondly, a pull factor pertaining to Australia introducing and  implementing local government policies for economic expansion and well-targete migration programs  (Mansouri & Percival Wood 2008, p. 11). This wave of Arab migration has included a variety of religious beliefs, though prior to 1975, most Lebanese migrants who moved to Australia were Christians. However, since the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon in 1975, a greater number of Lebanese Muslims migrated to Australia (Poynting & Mason 2007).  This was followed by successive waves of other groups such as the Egyptians, the Iraqis and the Africans.  Iraqis,

Since 2001, the presence of Muslims in Australia has been consistently increasing. In 2001, there were approximately 282,000 Muslims in Australia (Saeed 2003); this number significantly rose in 2006 with 340,000 people affiliated with Islam living in the country (ABS 2008). According to the last Census held in 2011, Islam represented the 2.2 per cent of the Australian population (ABS 2013). Based on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, from 2001 to 2011, Muslims in Australia as a community increased by 69 per cent to 476,300 (ABS 2013). Islam now represents the third most popular religion in Australia after Catholicism and Hinduism. Data shows that 61.5 per cent of people affiliated with Islam were born overseas (ABS 2013). According to Australian Bureau of Statistics (2013), in 2011 1.4 per cent of the Australian population spoke Arabic. Compared to previous years, the number of Lebanese migrants relocating to Australia has decreased. As the leader of the Muslim community Jamal Rafi, explains applications to come to Australia have become very expensive and people cannot afford it (Overington 2016). Moreover, the Lebanese community has become more integrated. Lebanese do not go back to the home country to find a partner anymore, preferring members of the community in Australia

Data released in 2016 by the Ministry of the Immigration and Border Protection provide a more recent picture of the presence of migrants coming from Arab and Muslim countries as permanent residents. According to the data released in 2016, in the year 2014-2015 the number of skilled migrants coming from Arab and Muslim countries has increased, with more Pakistani than Irish citizens relocating to Australia as permanent migrants. In the year 2014-2015 skilled migrants coming from Pakistan were 6,974 and the family migration of Pakistani citizens reached 1,302 migrants (Ministry of Immigration and Border Protection 2016). Most of these migrants are assumed to be Muslims since, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2013 87.7 per cent of migrants from Pakistan identified themselves as Muslims (Overington 2016). Skill migrants from Arab and Muslim countries permanently relocating to Australia in the year 2014-2015 also come from Malaysia (3,997), Indonesia (2,007), Iraq (568) and Syria (220) (Ministry of Immigration and Border Protection 2016).

The Humanitarian Programme has also contributed to increase the presence of Muslim and Arab migrants in Australia. In the period of 2015-2016 a significant portion (58.9 per cent) of visas granted offshore were allocated to Middle Eastern countries (DIBP 2016). Iraq received the highest number of visas granted in the Humanitarian Programme (4,358) followed by Syria (4,261) and Afghanistan (1,952) (DIBP 2016). It should be noted, however, that the increasing presence of Muslims in Australia is not only directly connected to immigration but to high birth rate within Muslim and Arab communities (Mansouri et al 2016; Mansouri 2011).

Social Experiences of Muslim Australians Post 9/11

The increasing fear of ethnic diversity and the antagonism towards Arab- and Muslim-Australians, as well as Muslim migrants, have been strictly connected to international and local events that affected Western countries, including Australia.

‘September 11’ invoked a considerable backlash against Arab- and Muslim-Australians for a number of reasons (Johns et al 2015; Mansouri & Percival Wood 2008, p. 1; Mansouri 2011).  Firstly, the nature of the act sparked outrage, horror and intense shock throughout the world, having Western countries experiencing for the first time the impact of a terrorist attack. Secondly, due to a misinterpretation of the reasons of the event, Western countries started to search someone to blame for the attack. ‘September 11’ cemented Western leaders and the Western mass media’s positioning of Islam as a homogeneous entity that incites anti-Western primordial violence (Saeed 2003, p. 186).  Hysterical and panicked sections of the public in Western nations started to look at their fellow citizens and at asylum seekers, Arab or Muslim or both, as potential terrorists and untrustworthy individuals (Hage 2002, p. 243). According to the Australian Arabic Council, a twenty-fold increase in vilification against Arab and Muslim Australians was registered in the country in the three weeks following the events of September 11 (Australian Arab Council 2001, p. 4).

In the same year, the Australian Government contributed to foster a negative representation of asylum seekers coming from Middle Eastern countries. The climax was reached during the so-called ‘Tampa’ and ‘children overboard’ incidents that happened within Australian territorial waters. Following these incidents, the Government made substantial legislative changes, making more difficult for asylum seekers of Arab and Muslim background to reach Australian (Leach 2003, p. 26). As Leach (2003, p.25) argues, these two incidents were used by the Government as a “central motif” of their 2001 election campaign. The electoral campaign aimed to define the Australian national identity against those who were labeled as ‘Arab Others’ (Poynting et al. 2004, p. 63). ‘Arab Others’ were Muslims and, primarily, Middle Eastern. In the fearful environment post-September 11, Australian politicians often associated asylum seekers to global terror networks, fostering Australian nationalism and portraying non-Anglo Australians, especially Arab and Muslim Australians (Leach 2003, p. 29).

International conflicts have also influenced the image of the Arab and Muslim community in Australia. The participation of Australia in various conflicts in the region contributed to foster the anti-Muslim sentiments. Muslim communities in Australia faced considerably hostility and xenophobia since the 9/11 and especially after the   2003 war in Iraq.  Many Muslims had their loyalty to Australia questioned and they felt they had to choose between their cultural background and their Australian national identity.  

Since 2003, Middle Eastern countries have been affected by numerous conflicts that have contributed to further deteriorate the image of Islam and Muslims in Australia. The successive Iraq conflicts since 2003, the Syrian civil war since 2011 and the 2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt are only the most current events that interested Arab countries. These conflicts have further damaged the image of Muslim citizens who live in Western countries, including Australia.  

Within Australia, the Sydney Café siege in 2014 contributed to compromise the already damaged perception of the Arab and Muslim community. Significant is the political rhetoric and the speculations made about the event, incorrectly linked to domestic terrorist activities (Levy & Visenten 2014). The incident generating a great degree of concerns and fear among people. Moreover, since the  emergence of DAECH, concerns on the recruitment among Australia Muslims as ‘foreign fighters’ have served the interest of some political leaders to promote new anti-terror policies (Johns, Mansouri & Lobo 2015). The emergence of DAECH has added a worrying dimension to the already vexed relationship between the Muslim world and the West. The conflict in Syria where DAECH is a key protagonist is becoming a regional theatre for a multi-sided proxy war. Events such as the recent waves of attacks in Tunis/Sinai/Ankara/Beirut/Paris is highlighting the transnational dimension of these terrorist activities. These current events have put under the spotlight once again the Arab and Muslim communities, creating more fear among Western countries and fostering a sentiment of uncertainty towards Arab- and Muslim- Australians and their loyalty to the country as Australian citizen.

Muslim Australians and the rise of xenophobia

Conflicts and terrorist events have clearly had an impact on the perception of both Muslim and Arab-Australians.  The consequences of these events can vary, depending on many factors. A study conducted in 2003 showed that racism and xenophobia towards Muslim and Arab-Australians by other Australians reached alarmingly high levels (Dunn 2003 pp. 2-4).  The study also showed that every day, non-formal types of racism were experienced by many Australians indicating that one-quarter of Australians experience types of racism through everyday social interaction (Dunn 2003, p. 10). Attacks to vilify Muslim and Arab-Australians, particularly women, have been also widely located at the time of the War on Iraq, including death threats and threat of rape to Muslim women (Nahlous 2001, HREOC 2004). Muslim women, in particular, appear to be targeted for two major reasons.  Firstly, those who wear hijab, or a headscarf, are physically identifiable with Islam (Saeed 2003, p. 182). Experiences reported by Muslim and Arab-Australians included widespread and numerous abuse include having scarves ripped off, verbal and physical assault, being spat on, intimidated and patronised, receiving hate mails and many other examples (The Sunday Morning Herald 2004) . Secondly, Muslim women are viewed by some other Australians as complicit in their own oppression by a patriarchal religious and cultural order, and consequently despised (Saeed 2003, p. 182).


Many commentators have made direct connections between world or local events and attacks upon Muslim and Arab-Australians (Mansouri et al 2015; Saleem et al. 2015).  It is worth further exploring how Muslim and Arab-Australians have come to be seen by some as implicated in events that, in reality, are often far beyond their control.  This might be understood through the conflation of Muslim and Arab, the lack of understanding of Islam in Western countries and, most importantly, the presentation of Islam as a homogeneous entity that has been associated with terrorists targeting Westerner countries. Moreover, this sentiment might be regarded as part of a conservative backlash against multiculturalism, or at least a conservative hardening of the notion of multiculturalism, where fear and suspicion of any Australian with multiple cultural and national allegiances have become spread sentiments (Mansouri & Percival Wood 2008, pp. 12-16). These sentiments include fear of visible communities who do not assimilate with Anglo norms (Levey 2011, pp. 42). Ironically, the isolation that has been forced upon some members of Muslim and Arab-Australian communities has been interpreted as a dissociation with ‘Australian-ness’ and as evidence of loyalty to a religious or political order that is considered an ‘enemy’ of the West. However, xenophobic treatments of Muslim and Arab-Australians are not a consequence of recent world events. The Australian history of the treatment of cultural differences, the historical context of exclusion and prejudicial treatment of Muslim and Arab communities in Australia, as well as the history of Western discourse on Islam need to be further analysed to comprehend the evolution of xenophobic sentiment towards Muslims and Arab-Australians.

The historical context: the orientalist discourse and the ‘Islam versus the West’ thesis

Since 2001, the violent and abusive sentiment towards Muslim and Arab-Australians have exceeded the already negative perception that Muslims experienced around the time of the Gulf War (Saeed 2003, pp. 189-192). However, the Muslim and Arab community in Australia faced serious levels of discrimination and xenophobia at earlier point in history, with many episodes of harassment and xenophobia throughout the 1990s.  

The Western interpretation on world events from the 1970s onwards has led to an historical association of Islam with “extremism, intolerance and violence” (Saeed 2003, p. 184). These events include the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Gulf War of 1990-91 and terrorist activities undertaken committed in the name of Islam in the Middle East, Philippines and Indonesia (Saeed 2003, pp. 184-86).  The association of Islam and extremism has been further nurtured by the more recent conflicts in Middle Eastern countries, fostering Islamophobia already present in the country (Bouma et al. 2011)

However, the relationship between the creeds of Islam, Arabs, violence and oppression has not been constructed simply after the event of ‘September 11’. According to Jureidini and Hage (2002, p. 173), anti-Arab racism in the Western world has a long genealogy. In the Orientalist tradition, analysed by Said (1997), and in the dominant popular Western racist imaginary, the boundaries between being an Arab and being a Muslim is greatly blurred (Jureidini & Hage 2002, p. 173). The negative, essentialist and misguided discourse has certainly been heightened in the aftermath of the events in the US, but it must be remembered that ‘September 11’ was simply a new point on the continuum of a Western discourse.  

In 1997, postcolonial theorist Said worriedly commented that “malicious generalizations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West” (Said 1997).  Said (1997) challenged the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis epitomised by Western scholar Huntington (1997), where Islam was portrayed as a “single, coherent entity” (Huntington 1997). According to Said (1997), Orientalist scholars, Western mass media and Western policy makers developed hostile generalisations about Islam.  Through the images promoted by commentators, it has been denied to Islam any diversity in character, practices and beliefs, and all Muslims and Arabs are presented as having intrinsic pejorative natures (Said 1997). Said suggested that these generalisations have dangerous consequences, inciting hatred and distrust towards Muslims and those associated with Islam, creating associations between Islam and fundamentalism (Said 1997).

However, it is worth noting that, while recent and historical world events involving Muslims and their analysis in Western media have shaped the basis of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment, such sentiment cannot be understood solely in these terms. Australia has a long history of formal and informal exclusion of ‘Others’. While there are historical specificities that shows why particular ethnic and religious groups have been marginalised, in the case of Muslim and Arab-Australians there are some commonalities in the exclusion of minority groups that exist across groups’ experiences.


Issues of Belonging, Identity, and Social Inclusion in Multicultural Australia

As early as 1996, Deen wrote that “around Australia, Muslims … are convinced that … Islam has become the new global enemy … Australian Muslims need reassurance that they are not seen as the enemy; that they are not un-Australian” (Deen 2003, p. 272). Saeed (2003 pp. 186-87) also affirmed that there has been an historical continuity of a trend, started in World War I, of non-Muslim Australians doubting Muslim Australian allegiances to the Australian nation and these doubts were raised each time there was a world crisis or local events involving Muslims. While some Muslim Australians have reacted by prompting their community to self-consciously promote a positive image of Islam in Australia, other Muslims have felt to appease those who perpetuate hatred towards Muslims (Deen 2003, pp. 271-279). Hostility and questioning of Muslim-Australian identity have caused fear, apprehension and isolation amongst some Muslims, effectively creating social distances between Muslims and non- Muslims, silencing those who believed “they could not receive a ‘fair go’” (Deen 2003, Kabir 2007). Muslim Australians have been reduced to the same monolith of pejorative stereotypical images (Saeed 2003). Moreover, Muslim Australians have been denied their diversity as well as their humanity by ‘Muslim watchers’, using stereotypical images to define people and representing Islam with images such as veiled women, fierce bearded men, barbaric parents, rapists and suicide bombers (Deen 2003, pp. 283-287, Kabir 2008).

Migrants and different religious groups in Australia, especially Muslims, have faced some resistance in the process of inclusion in the Australian society (Markus and Dharmalingam 2007). Despite the difficulties encountered by Muslim Australians to prove their ‘Australia-ness’, there are some techniques that Arab and Muslim communities have adopted to establish (or re-establish) their image. ‘Bridging’ and ‘Bonding’ represent two methods the Arab and Muslim community have used to connect with Arab and non-Arab communities, supporting communication among these groups as a response of xenophobic behaviours (Allen 2009). According to (Lamont and Molnar 2002) these two techniques are used to reinforce or transcend the boundaries of the groups determined by race or ethnicity.

‘Bridging’ may be understood as the attempt to build links with non-Muslim and non-Arab Australians to counter current social divides. “Bridging’ is based upon mutual understanding, cross-cultural communication and a willingness to engage with other members of the community to avoid exclusion (Lamont & Aksartova 2002, p. 18). The Muslim community has been encouraged to embrace this process to restore the image of Muslims in Australia However, some Muslim community members seem to comment that not enough effort has been made by the community to bridge the gap between Muslim and non-Muslim Australians. According to Deen (2003, p. 283), since the Gulf War, Muslim communities, including religious and ethnic groups, have failed to “build bridges” with the non-Muslim communities, fostering ignorance and xenophobia. However, blaming Muslim Australians for the exclusionary discourse supported by some non-Muslim Australians appears to be a dangerous excuse. According to Deen (2003) many community organisations have tried to address this gap between Muslim and non-Muslim Australians since 2001. According to the author, 2001 was the watershed year for Muslim activists in trying to start a dialogue with the wider community.  However, the author suggested that Muslim religious leadership should emphasise Islam similarities and overlaps with Christianity and Judaism, finding allies outside religious groups and allowing “invisible Muslims” to speak out (Deen 2003, pp. 386-387). Refugee activism and advocacy and anti-war activism can be considered a valid example of ‘bridging’ that has brought together Muslim and non-Muslim Australians (Deen 2003, p. 325, Phillips 2009, p. 511).

Muslim communities have also involved in ‘bonding’ activities in response to racist episodes and xenophobia. “Bonding” is described as the activity of strengthening the connection and support between communities and community members, reaffirming ethical and national identities of migrants (Levitt 2003, Hirschman 2004).  The renewed interest of Muslims in Australia in teaching and learning of Islam amongst young Muslims can be explained as a response of the events that affected the Muslim and Arab community and the feeling of challenge the community has experienced (Deen 2003, p. 388).


The Australian Muslim community has been reduced to a monolith of pejorative stereotypical images of a distorted interpretation of Islam linked almost in a causal manner to recent domestic and international conflicts and terror events. Muslim Australians have been and continue to deny their individual agency, their cultural and religious identities as well as   place in the global human community. Policy makers and commentators alike have contributed to portray a problematized image of Australian Muslims, allowing misguided stereotypes to define a vastly heterogeneous community. While global political events have undoubtedly contributed to foster the anti-Muslim sentiments in Australia as elsewhere in Europe and North America, specific historical and local factors have also played a crucial role. Negative attitudes towards Muslim- Australians characterise and dominate the current social and political discourse. These attributes need to be reconsidered in light of interrelated factors, including media representations, social policies (in the form of a folkloric version of multiculturalism), as well as the deep, if unconscious, influence of ‘Orientalist’ discourse on perceptions of Islam and the East.

In Australia, the current perception of Islam and Muslims has been further compounded by the almost daily ‘terror alerts’ issued by government ministers, self-declared experts and media reporters. As Said noted almost thirty years ago (1997), the mere use of the term ‘Islam’ to either explain or indiscriminately condemn Islam and Muslims has become an irresponsible overgeneralisation that is problematic, counterproductive and increasingly stigmatising towards an entire community.  In the context of a culturally diverse society such as Australia this demonization should be considered even more unacceptable. According to the conservative wing of the country, cultural unity has been undermined by multiculturalism and by different cultural groups, in particular Muslims and Asians. It is in this political and social climate that immigrant Muslims in Australia have been increasingly portrayed as a threat to social homogeneity and as a potential risk to national security. Indeed, the on-going debates about the failure of multiculturalism and the rise of far-right white supremacists groups represent one of the most critical challenges facing Muslim-Australians and affecting multicultural Australia as whole (Mansouri et al 2016).


Author biography

Professor Fethi Mansouri holds the UNESCO Chair in comparative research on ‘Cultural Diversity and Social Justice’ and an Alfred Deakin Research Chair in migration and intercultural studies. Professor Mansouri is   the Director of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University-Australia. He is the editor of the Journal of Intercultural Studies, founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Citizenship and Globalisation Studies and   founding co-editor of the international journal of Social Inclusion.  Since 2010, Professor has been serving as an expert advisor to the UN on cultural diversity, intercultural relations and the role of ‘culture’ as the fourth pillar for sustainable development. He also sits on the advisory boards of various government agencies and NGOs including the Victorian State government and the Australian Intercultural Society respectively.  His most influential books  include: ‘Islam and Political Violence: Muslim Diaspora and Radicalism in the West’, (2007); ‘Political Islam and Human Security’ (2008); ‘Identity, Education, and Belonging: Arab and Muslim Youth in Contemporary Australia’ (2008); ‘Youth Identity and Migration: Culture, Values and Social Connectedness’ (2009); ‘Australia and the Middle East: A Frontline Relationship’ (2011, second edition);  ‘Muslims in the West and the Challenges of Belonging’ (2012); ‘The Arab Revolutions in Context: Civil Society and Democracy in a Changing Middle East’ (2012); ‘Global Perspectives on the Politics of Multiculturalism’ (2014); ‘The Multicultural Challenge’ (2015); and ‘Women and Migration’ (2016).  Professor Mansouri’s 2004 book ‘Lives in Limbo: Voices of Refugees under Temporary Protection’ was short-listed for the 2004 Human Rights Medals and Awards.




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