Meeting the Muslims of Oz: A British Muslim’s perspective
by Aftab A. Malik
When I received an invitation from the Lebanese Muslim Association (LMA) to be the keynote speaker at their recent “Contextualising Australian Muslims” (CAM) summit, I was only too happy to accept. As someone who has an interest in Muslim affairs, I’m always keen to meet new Muslim communities, hear what they have to say, and learn about their challenges. While being subdued somewhat by its wintery season, once in Sydney, the cold was offset by the warm smiles that greeted me as I was exposed to inquisitive groups comprised largely of university students and young professionals. Although brief, my intense five-day stay gave me a chance to listen to the hopes and frustrations of a group of Australian Muslims. The discussions were impressive to say the least, as was the sincerity and zeal that propelled our many conversations which varied from the need for more indigenous imams to a better understanding of the democratic rights of citizenship; from issues of funding to the need to include Australian Muslims in the global dialogue on Islam.
There were, however, two issues that arose time and time again: media coverage about Muslims and questions about how to acquire a deeper understanding of Islam. It wasn’t a surprise to find that Islam and the media was a reoccurring topic. Before departing for Australia, as I tried to acquaint myself better with the issues of Australian Muslims, I learned that large majorities of Muslims were unhappy about media projections about Islam and of Muslims—who were regularly shown with negative stereotypes. Equally disturbing, a 2011 national study conducted over a decade found that nearly 50 per cent of Australians identify themselves as having anti-Muslim attitudes. It seemed that despite their best efforts, Australian Muslims are simply seen as different, to put it mildly. It also became immediately apparent that a number of Muslims are struggling to find “authentic” sources of Islam, reliable books to learn about their faith, and connect with Muslim scholars who can decipher the sacred texts in the context of modern Australian society. As a consequence of this search, I was informed that some Muslims have begun to gravitate towards either a scripturally literal understanding of Islam or to adopt a non-integrationist approach—largely because the philosophy of these two orientations is more accessible in the English language.
So, what words of encouragement did I offer? Well, I emphasised that Islam is not a static force; it is dynamic and has built-in mechanisms to contextualise itself within the indigenous surroundings. I argued that mainstream, normative Islam offers a balanced and dynamic alternative to either puritanical or ideological versions of Islam, whose followers strive to win over Muslims engaged in such soul-searching. However, I cautioned that if mainstream Muslim scholars fail to differentiate between “historical Islam” and “trans-historical Islam,” the religion will be held hostage to the past—static and time locked—and will be seen as irrelevant by young Muslims who will gravitate towards non-traditional interpretations of Islam, particularly when these are well-presented in the English-language. I quickly learned that the challenges facing Muslims in Australia are not so different to those faced by British Muslims. For example, while both Muslim communities see themselves as part and parcel of society, large numbers of the wider community tend to see them as “the other.” In other words, they don’t appear to be “normal” members of society. Muslim women, like their counterparts in the United Kingdom, struggle to find access to Islamic scholarship and face difficulties attending the mosque; when sacred space is reduced, they are forced to resort to “Shaykh Google,” a solution that isn’t without consequences.
In addition, like many Muslims in Britain who are faced by competing voices for an “authentic Islam,” Australian Muslims struggle to access mainstream Islam and filter out the groups that have developed more extreme theological interpretations of Islam. It is quite clear to me that there is a need for a UK-Australian partnership to link dynamic leaders, religious institutions, charitable organizations, media outlets and Muslim student bodies, for example. British Muslims have been confronted with many of these issues, and often found ways to engage them in creative ways. Both communities would benefit from one another, with the Australian Muslim community tweaking, refining, and adopting best known methods to their own community environment.
Not only did I leave Sydney with a lot more Facebook friends, but more importantly, with a sense that the CAM summit was the start of something very important. Meeting the Muslims of Sydney confirmed to me that, like elsewhere, there is a new generation of young Muslim activists, academics, and professionals who are taking the various challenges they encounter seriously. Among them is a vibrant, energetic, and creative group of Muslim women. This disparate collective group of individuals are the cultural mediators who will play a critical role to help others develop and celebrate their identities. In my view, the summit marks the beginning of a long overdue discussion and debate of many issues pertinent to the survival and growth of the Muslim community down under in a public and transparent manner. This one initiative will certainly generate other similar projects that will ultimately empower Australian Muslims with the tools of both religion and culture, enabling them to forge an authentic and distinctive vision of Islam in Australia.
*Aftab A. Malik is an advisory board member of the British Council’s “Our Shared Future” project based in Washington, DC and a UN Alliance of Civilizations global expert on Muslim affairs.