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     Volume 6 Issue 35 | September 7, 2007 |

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A History of Muslims in Australia

Dr Nahid Kabir

Did you know that Australia had the multicultural character even during the colonial and 'White Australia' periods? Australia's need of labour and the emigrant's desire of a better life resulted in the emergence of various nationalities into this country since 1788. While various religious groups such as the Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus have settled in this country. Muslim contact with the continent of Australia took place before European settlement, as early as the 17th century when the Macassarese people from Indonesia came to the north coast on fishing expeditions. A Muslim presence can also be found during the convict period when a few Muslim convicts and settlers arrived in Australia in the early 1800s. The presence of two Bangalis at Ballart, Victoria during the Eureka uprising (miners' rebellion) of 1854 reveals that they were present in Australia at an earlier period.

The first official Muslim settlement, however, took place in the 1860s with the arrival of the Afghan camel drivers. The camel drivers are regarded as the founders of Islam in Australia since they built the first mosque at Marree, South Australia in 1882. The Marree mosque was built with mud and is no longer standing. The major mosques built by the Afghans (along with some Indians including the Bangalis) are in Adelaide, South Australia (1890), Broken Hill, New South Wales (1891) Perth, Western Australia (1905) and Brisbane, Queensland (1907).

Building mosques in Australia was an expensive venture for these people as they earned a pittance, around £ 3 a month. They had to raise funds from within the local Muslim communities to buy land and the construct mosques, although sometimes they had to seek financial support from outside as well. They appealed to the Muslim princes, nobles, and merchants, and other people residing outside the Commonwealth of Australia who would be interested in making a contribution. For the establishment of the Perth mosque, some local Hindu and Sikh Indians also helped their Muslim friends and made monetary contributions. Thus there was sense of camaraderie among people of different faiths.

Socially, the Afghans with some Indians including the Bangalis, Punjabis, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs lived a segregated life, away from white settlements in rough makeshift camel camps and later on what became known as 'Ghantowns' where the chief characteristic was segregation from the 'white' community. However, some Afghan and Indian merchants lived in the cities (Kabir 2004). The presence of a translated copy of the Holy Quran in Bangla at the Broken Hills museum also confirms that the Bangali Muslims lived in the Ghantowns.

Archival evidence also reveal that along with some Indians (Hindus and Sikhs), some Bangali Muslims worked as drapers, hawkers or bush grubbers. For example, in 1896 a Bangali Indian, Abdul Aziz, came to Western Australia at the age of 17 from Chitrasali, Hooghly, India and worked as a draper. He took leave of absence from Australia in 1901, 1908, and again in 1934 to visit India. In this context, it is important to explain the Immigration Restriction Act, 1901 or the 'White Australia' policy which posed restrictions on the movements of the 'coloured' population or the 'aliens'.

'White Australia' as a national ideal developed in the latter decades of the 19th century, when politicians and journalists began to articulate a vision of a future Australia inhabited only by 'white' people, and predominantly by British protestants. The place of 'non-white' people in the Australian colonies had been a subject of concern for most of the 19th century. The rapid increase of the Chinese population as a result of gold rushes in the 1850s, the employment of Afghan camel drivers for the development of the drier areas of the subcontinent in the 1860s, the recruitment of Melanesian and other non-European workers for the Queensland sugar industry in the 1880s, all resulted in economic competition with white labourers because coloured, indentured labour was available at cheaper rates. A range of eugenic, social and cultural fears among white people all contributed to calls for the total exclusion of 'coloured' people. The prevalence of certain race theories such as polygenism and Social Darwinism couple with economic concerns, eventually enabled the Commonwealth Government to enact the Immigration Restriction Act, 1901.

Under this Act, all aliens who attempted to enter Australia had to submit to a medical examination at their port of call and to a dictation test of fifty words, in any language chosen by the immigration officer. The dictation test remained on the statute book until 1958, and it was administered in a language unlikely to be understood to ensure that the applicant failed it. This resulted in a rapid decline in the arrival of 'non-white' people, including Muslims, into Australia. Although a small number of Asian labourers were permitted to stay after 1901, they were subjected to various restrictions such as denial of naturalisation (or the right to become British subjects), family reunion and economic and political disadvantages. Only their sons when turned 21 were allowed to join their father in Australia. Among this small number of labourers, some Bangalis were also retained such as Abdul Aziz. For each visit Aziz produced two character references from his Australian employers to obtain the Certificate of Exemption from Dictation Test from the Commonwealth of Australia Customs and Excise Office.

Since the 1920s, Australia witnessed the arrival of more European labourers. Along with the Southern and Eastern Europeans, also arrived the Albanian Muslims. This pattern of migration continued for a few more decades. However, the arrival of Nazir Mia, a Bangali Muslim from Begumganj, Noakhali, in Brisbane in 1942 revealed that some Indians being 'British subjects' still enjoyed the privilege of entering Australia in spite of the Immigration Restriction Act, 1901 (National Archives, Qld).

By 1973, the need for more labour led to the influx of immigrants and the introduction of an official 'Multicultural' period in Australian history. In 1975, the Anti-Discrimination Act declared discrimination on the basis of race, colour and ethnicity as illegal. Subsequently Muslims from many different nations (including Bangladesh) have settled in Australia, with a major influx occurring in the past thirty years.

Like other immigrants, the Bangladeshi-born immigrants are also making a smooth transition to their host country. Most of the Bangladeshi-born immigrants are highly skilled people. They are successful in the Australian labour market and are working as engineers, doctors and academics. In social and cultural aspects, like other immigrants, the Bangladeshis are enjoying their traditional food and cultural celebrations. For example, Muslims enjoy the halal food, Ramadan and Eid, while the Hindus enjoy Puja festivals and so on. There are about 100 mosques in Australia, including the Sefton mosques, which the Bangladeshis have established in Sydney in 2000. The ethnic and cultural associations of the migrants, ethnic radio stations, Islamic schools and colleges Australia wide are the strength of the Australian multicultural spirit. Internationally, the cricket matches between the Bangladeshi and Australian teams are the positive developments between the two countries. The Bangladeshi-born immigrants also take pride of their dual citizenships of both Bangladesh and Australia. It is great that we can be in touch with our roots our motherland, Bangladesh.

Dr Nahid Afrose Kabir is a Research Fellow at the Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia. She holds a PhD in History and an MA in Historical Studies from The University of Queensland, Australia. Dr Kabir is the author of Muslims in Australia: Immigration, Race Relations and Cultural History (London: Kegan Paul, 2005).


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