Q&A: Indigenous and Muslim ‘a growing trend’ in Australia

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Dr Peta Stephenson is an honorary fellow at the Asia Institute. She has interviewed dozens of Indigenous Muslims as research for her book ‘Islam Dreaming’, and says numbers of those converting are on the rise.

DR STEPHENSON, HAS THERE BEEN AN INCREASE IN INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS CONVERTING TO ISLAM?

If we look at the 2006 census and the two before that, we do see that the numbers are rising. In 1996 and 2001 there were just over 600 Indigenous Muslims in Australia in each of those censuses.

In the subsequent one, in 2006, the number had risen 60 per cent to more than 1,000. So, not huge numbers if we look at the population of Australia, but it’s still a significant climb.

WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE MOTIVES FOR CONVERTING TO ISLAM YOU’VE FOUND DURING YOUR RESEARCH?

I conducted interviews with Indigenous Muslims for my book ‘Islam Dreaming’. Some of those were descended from Muslim fathers or forefathers, but wouldn’t classify themselves as practicing Muslims.

Perhaps they had an Afghan cameleer father or grandfather or a so-called ‘Malay Man’ who came to work in the pearl shelling industry. Then there were others who didn’t have that family history but had decided to embrace Islam.

And I found that the men and women who converted to Islam shared many commonalities with converts globally. Their experiences were that they enjoyed feeling part of a community, that they found Muslims to be extremely welcoming and hospitable.

In many ways, they felt that by becoming Muslim they were going back to their traditional pre-colonial indigenous identity, because they could see that there were many similarities in traditional Indigenous societies and Islamic ones.

For instance, men can have more than one wife, arranged marriages were common to both societies, men were usually much older than their wives, they had gendered spheres of influence, so, sort of ‘men’s business’ and ‘women’s business’.

The indigenous people I spoke to felt re-affirmed in their Aboriginality by becoming Muslim, and that wasn’t something I expected to find at all. That’s something that’s quite distinct from non-Indigenous people who embrace Islam.

Another difference was that Aboriginal people are coming to Islam against a backdrop of Christian ‘missionisation’, so some of them were attracted to Islam because it’s a non-Christian faith, and something they embraced by choice, not something that was imposed upon them.

DID YOU COME ACROSS ANY DIFFICULTIES WHERE THE TWO CULTURES MIGHT NOT PARTICULARLY BE COMPATIBLE?

I think that Aboriginal people haven’t really found that to be a difficulty, I mean, some people say they have foregone or given up their Aboriginality by becoming Muslim, but as I’ve just mentioned, the Indigenous Muslim people I’ve spoken to say, on the contrary, they feel more Aboriginal by becoming Muslim, particularly because in Islam, language differences and colour and cultural differences are recognised in Islam. It’s seen as a sign of God or Allah’s will to make people different.

So Aboriginal people maintain that, unlike Christianity, or their experience with Christian Missionisation at least, wherein people were expected to forego their languages and stop practicing their culture, Islam accepts that.

The difficulty they might find is in the reception, perhaps by friends or families but also the wider population who doesn’t perhaps understand, and might just think aboriginal people are embracing Islam as a, sort of oppositional anti-white type identity.

What about traditional aspects of Aboriginal Spiritualism? Have any of the Indigenous converts or their families expressed any regret at that being overlooked?

Most of the Aboriginal Muslim people I spoke to, and according to census figures as well, are younger people under 30 years old, and they live in metropolitan centres, the majority in Sydney.

These are people who have felt that they haven’t had access to their traditional spiritual beliefs, and perhaps, access to their languages and their traditional ways of life. I guess Islam to them helps provide an alternative route back to those roots.

Some people explained to me they felt they didn’t have a full identity, they could claim Aboriginality but they didn’t really have the full exposure to what that meant, to their traditional culture. So Islam helps fill that gap a bit, I suppose.

Of course some people I spoke to lament the fact that they don’t have access to that traditional way of life and traditional spirituality, but once the language is lost, and people die, that access is simply not possible. Islam has provided them with another way back, if you like.

WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT MALCOLM X, AND HIS INFLUENCE HERE?

A lot of the men I spoke to, particularly those who had been though the prison system, were first inspired by Malcolm X.

They had read his autobiography, and some of them openly described themselves as having been angry men who got into trouble with the law partly because of their attitude, they resented feeling like outcasts in their own country and were perhaps attracted to Malcolm X and the Black Panthers and those sorts of movements thinking that they were anti-white.

But once they started to learn more about Islam, they soon started changing their way of thinking very much, because they found a faith that accepted them, that accepted they were different from mainstream white Australia and that they weren’t judged for that, because Islam says all people are created equal.

So once the indigenous men sort of restored their sense of self, then that anger sort of dissipated. A number of them talked about how it is ironic some people accuse them of perhaps having terrorist tendencies because they have become Muslim.

They’ve said, before they embraced Muslim, they were angry, and afterwards they’ve actually become very peace-loving people, and their attitudes have been noticed in the prison system and by their families as well.

WOULD YOU SAY FOR SOME CONVERTS THE DECISION TO BECOME MUSLIM IS LIFE-SAVING?

For all of them, yes, on so many levels. Islam, you can’t drink, you shouldn’t gamble so just on that very basic level some people have found it very helpful to align themselves to a faith that forgoes some of the things that have had adverse effects in indigenous communities.

Men and women have embraced Islam for some of the same reasons but also some distinct ones. So men, for instance find Islam attractive because men are deemed to be the head of the household and they’re expected to protect and maintain their family, it says in the Qur’an.

A lot of the men have said Islam has helped them to step up and take responsibility for providing financially for their wives and children, to be hard-working men.

The women find that attractive because there are a lot of single-headed households in indigenous communities, particularly headed by women.

So the women are attracted to aboriginal men who are very family-oriented and who believe that having paid employment is important.

Also, against the backdrop of the taking away of children and the forcible breaking up of families, aboriginal women are attracted to faith that really places a lot of emphasis on the sanctity of marriage and the importance of the family and women’s role within that.

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