Thursday, August 04, 2005


A Faith at the Heart of Mainstream Australia

Muslims have had a presence in Australia which pre-dates European settlement. Makkasan fishermen regularly sailed into Australian waters and traded with indigenous communities across northern Australia. The broad outline of Australia appeared on Arab maps dating back over 800 years.

Following European settlement, Muslims were instrumental in opening up outback Australia. Burke and Wills may have perished in the outback, but their Afghan trackers survived. Afghan and Indian Muslims helped lay telegraph lines which formed the basis of our state borders. Their work has been honoured in a train named the “Ghan” which follows the traditional Afghan cameleer route from Adelaide to Alice Springs.

In many regional and country towns, you will meet Australians with surnames such as “Khan” and “Baluch”. The Mayor of Woomera was often quoted as speaking against Afghan refugees in detention, perhaps forgetting that her surname suggested Afghan ancestry of her own.

The White Australia policy could not keep Muslims out of Australia. Large communities of Muslims from Albania and the former Yugoslavia entered Australia following the Second World War. Later, Muslims from Cyprus and Turkey migrated. Many of these communities have completely assimilated into Australian society, whilst maintaining their distinctive European Muslim identity.

This point became abundantly clear to me once when I had to meet a non-Muslim friend at Auburn RSL for lunch on a Friday. In doing so, I had to miss the Friday prayer. I expected not to be caught out for my sin.

How wrong I was. By 2:30pm, there were at least 50 Turkish Muslim men playing the pokies or enjoying a schooner of VB at the bar. One came up to me and asked me in Turkish: “Young man, why weren’t you at the mosque?”. He then asked if I wanted a VB or Tooheys.

In recent times, with attention focussed on Muslim communities as a result of terrorist attacks and irresponsible rants of some local sheiks, many have presumed that Muslims have become invisible and are not condemning terror enough. Many look to caricatured imams or community leaders as evidence of Muslim silence.

Muslims are invisible. They have settled in so well that it is hard to know exactly who is Muslim. Like most Australians, Muslims don’t talk about religion or politics at the dinner table or to work colleagues.

One of my proudest moments in the last few weeks was to see John Ilhan, managing director of Crazy Johns Telecommunications, speaking about how his Muslim faith affects his business. John was one of a number of leading Australian business figures profiled by the Australian Financial Review magazine in a special feature on faith and business,

I showed the magazine article to a friend of mine. There was John Ilhan, standing in the water with his trousers rolled up, telling readers about how his faith affects his dealings with competitors. I felt as proud as punch. My friend was confused.

“When did Crazy John convert?”, my friend asked. It was only after googling Ilhan that my friend believed me when I told him that John comes from a Turkish Muslim family.

John Ilhan is a man at the heart of Australian life. His company sponsors football teams from 2 major codes. His advertisements are some of the most popular and entertaining on TV.

John Ilhan is Australian. He is Muslim. So is Ahmed Fahour, a senior executive of the National Australia Bank. So is Abdul Rizvi, a senior bureaucrat from the Department of Immigration, a man at the centre of implementing mandatory detention policy.

Muslims are at the heart of Australian life. Islam is an Australian faith. To speak of Judeo-Christian culture is mythical. Really, we should be speaking of a broader conservative or Abrahamic culture encompassing the 3 major monotheistic faiths and incorporating features of other faiths (Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism etc).

Islam is part of the Australian landscape. Islam is here to stay. Australian Islam pre-dates European settlement. Those who try to marginalise Muslims and Islam are rowing against the tide and without a paddle.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

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