Muslim Converts in Australia

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by Yusuf Eades

With the ongoing “War on Terror” in which Australia is taking part as a coalition ally of the United States, a spotlight has been cast on Australia’s small Muslim population. Muslims in Australia, now 1.5 percent of the total population, are mostly migrants or the children of migrants from Muslim countries. However, there has been an increasing attention in the media on Muslim converts from the traditionally Christian majority Anglo-Celtic and Aboriginal population. In this article I will discuss the place of convert Muslims in the broader Muslim community in Australia and some of the issues facing converts in contemporary Australia.

Background

Like many of the white European settlers who still referred to Britain as ‘home’ well into the 20th century, the identity of Muslims in Australia was until recently tied to migrant families and their countries of origin. For the children of Muslim migrants, Australia is the only country they know as home, and they have adopted many aspects of mainstream Australian culture. Nevertheless, they hold on firmly and proudly to their religious identity, whose traditions and practices have been handed down from the preceding generations.

For converts to Islam, the issue of defining one’s religious identity is quite different from those born into Muslim families. Converts typically identify with the culture of the Anglo-Celtic or Aboriginal society in which they live. Most Australians are nominally Christian—about half Catholic and the other half Anglican or from another protestant denomination. The British arrived in Australia in 1788, and remained until recently an isolated outpost of the British Empire. Immigration to Australia was highly restricted until the early 1970s, when the discriminatory White Australia Policy was dropped. After this time, people from all corners of the world, including from Muslim countries, have migrated to Australia. The Muslim population of Australia is extremely ethnically diverse. The migrant Muslim communities established mosques and Islamic societies to cater for their own specific needs.

In Australia, the new convert to Islam is fortunate to be able to experience such a vast array of mosques, societies and different approaches to the practice of Islam. However, converts often find that their original spiritual and doctrinal motivations for conversion can be swamped as they attempt to glean from the complex religious traditions of peoples from societies very different from that which they have grown up in, particularly as migrants are quite often from very traditional rural settings in the Middle East and Asia. Furthermore, the diversity of approaches to Islam can be daunting. Answering the question “What does Islam require of me?” can be very difficult to answer indeed. It is in this context that many converts are negotiating the diverse cultural landscape they have entered into while attempting to remain true to the core teachings of Islam and other aspects of their original reasons for embracing Islam.

Reasons for converting

Motivations for conversion to Islam vary from person to person. The average Australian knows little about Islam and Muslims, although with the increased attention on Islam and Muslims in the media since the Gulf War of 1991, this seems to be changing. Understandably, this attention stimulates many to do their own research. The characterization of Islam in the media is mostly negative, and has given many Australians a bad impression of Islam. This media representation is particularly potent as it often plays upon the traditional European fear of the ‘Muslim hordes’ whose ‘alien way of life’ is perceived as a challenge to Western culture and values. Yet, in spite of the negative perceptions, there are people embracing Islam in Australia. Conversion is typically facilitated by two factors: the individual’s experience of Muslim people and culture, and/or through personal study of Islam itself.

Australians often first experience Islam through friendships, either with families of Muslim migrants, or through travel to Muslim countries. Australians visiting Muslim countries often note the strong family and community bonds, the deep respect of individuals toward one another, and the centrality of religious life, all of which have weakened somewhat over the years in Australian society. Many also find that in spite of the many hardships faced by people in these countries, there is a sense of emotional well-being and happiness that is lacking in many people from more affluent societies. Such experiences draw people’s interest in Islam, and many embrace Islam after discovering more. Some Australians marry into Muslim families, which also provides a catalyst for conversion.

Australian converts generally state that Islam is a source of spiritual sustenance for them and provides a strong sense purpose in life. Many see Islam as a way to navigate the tide of materialism and as a remedy to their disillusionment with some of the negative aspects of what have recently become features of mainstream western society, such as drugs, alcoholism, individualism, family breakdown, and de-facto relationships. Nowadays Australian society is becoming less centred around the family unit and more around the individual. Also, the role of the individual in the family is becoming less clearly defined. Changes in attitudes to the institution of marriage in the past few decades have meant that de-facto relationships are increasingly the norm, and single parent families are increasing. Many converts feel that this is a problem, and that Islam provides a basic philosophical framework for family life, bringing people together not only as families, but in brotherhood and sisterhood with fellow Muslims, and in turn the wider society. For many, Islam facilitates harmony in personal relationships, as people focus less on themselves and the pursuit of their own ‘happiness’ as an individual, but rather the betterment of the community.

The equality of men and women of all races and ethnicities is a central tenet of Islamic belief, which is attractive to many converts. The notion of one’s identity being based primarily on principles and belief rather than race are highly relevant to the Australia of today, especially as we attempt to deal with our past and present relations with the Aboriginal people of our country. Being Muslim also brings closer ties to some of our nearest neighbouring countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Many of the traditional Australian fears of Muslim Indonesia to our north, and its intentions toward us, can quite possibly be linked to a lack of knowledge of Islam. Nevertheless, for many born Muslims, Islam is tied to the country of their forefathers and the issues that are prominent there, and many issues in Australian society are often ignored. This lack of engagement with these issues can often be frustrating for converts who see Islam as providing a basis for our views on social issues such as Aboriginal rights and the rights of refugees.

Being a traditionally Christian society, the religious context of Islam is very familiar, but the emphases are somewhat different from the tradition in which they have been raised. The Qur’an is viewed by Muslims as a continuation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Thus, for many converts Islam is viewed as a continuation, and not an abandonment of their Christian heritage. The organization of a Muslim’s life around family and prayer provides a new more spiritual focus to everyday life, and provides purpose to all their activities. Islam provides a motivation for improving oneself and one’s society.

Resources

New converts require much support and encouragement, and personal relationships with other Muslims are extremely important. Apart from mosque societies and Muslim community groups, there is a range of organizations from which new Muslims can obtain information on Islam, attend lectures, or take part in activities. The nationwide Federation of Australian Muslim Students and Youth (FAMSY) is based at their centre in Melbourne and has chapters in all major cities in Australia. FAMSY publishes a monthly magazine called Salam, and classes are held regularly at their centres. They also arrange lectures from visiting speakers in conference centers and universities. The Young Muslims of Australia (YMA) is highly popular within the Muslim community. YMA holds regular classes on Islam, and organizes lectures and youth camps. Salafite groups such as Islamic Information and Support Centre of Australia (IISCA) and Islamic Information and Services Network of Australasia (IISNA) in Melbourne have also made attempts to attract converts. With their impressive promotional capability, these organizations are attractive to mainly young newly converted Muslims. However, their exclusivist attitude means that the convert is faced with a lack of interaction with other Muslims as well as the broader society, and this brings much hardship into the lives of these converts.

Increasingly Muslim converts in western countries are exploring the foundations of their newly adopted religion, and attempting to approach many of the issues in their society from an Islamic perspective. University Islamic societies often provide forums for the discussion of such issues. Examples include the Melbourne University Islamic Society (MUIS), the Muslim Student Associate of Western Australia (MSAW), and the Sydney University Muslim Students’ Association (SUMSA). Nevertheless, these organisations are often subject to doctrinal or ethnic-based rivalries.

There are no organizations that cater specifically to converts in Australia. However, the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV), based in Melbourne, holds classes for both men and women. In 1999 the ICV established the Reverts Support Group (RSG) aimed primarily at providing a welcoming environment for converts to meet other Muslims and to learn more about their religion. The RSG holds regular meetings and discussions, and provides a forum for converts to explore various aspects of Islam and the issues affecting them. The Melbourne City Circle is another group that is popular with converts, and has recently been established at the ICV to provide a forum for free discussion of issues relevant to Muslims in Australia and to debate different approaches to understanding Islam. Apart from these groups, there is very little activity for converts, and many make do with their own reading, and informal discussions and studies with other Muslims.

Australian Muslim identity

Australia has traditionally been a deeply secular society, with a healthy disrespect for authority and a suspicion of overt religiosity and organized religion. Australians are hard-working but easy-going, and enjoy a high standard of living. They are typically quite uncomfortable discussing issues of spirituality and God. The intense focus on God-consciousness and spirituality in Islam are in some ways at odds with the cynicism so characteristic of Australians. Nevertheless, the natural human inclination to question one’s purpose and higher meaning has lead many to explore Islam. The egalitarian spirit of Islam and the simplicity of its message are in many ways congruent with the Australian ethos.

As Islam has come to Australia largely by peoples from countries with very different customs and histories to our own, the new convert often finds himself straddling two different social worlds. Many converts go through a period of disillusionment with the rivalries and arguments within the migrant Muslim communities based on sect or ethnicity. But with faith and nurturing of one’s practice of Islam, converts are naturally finding their feet as Muslims who are Australian.

Australian converts don’t follow a common madhhab or have a set of common practices to draw upon. This is primarily due to the fractured nature of the Muslim community, with religious guidance being specific to each migrant community or Islamic organization. The convert is left to sink or swim in a daunting array of practices, traditions and schools of thought. Furthermore, the imperfect knowledge many born Muslims have of their own traditions is a further problem for the sincere seeker of Islamic knowledge. As such, there is not a strong sense of a common group identity among many Australian Muslims. Some converts adopt many Islamic practices of a particular migrant community with which they associate, or the customs and practices of their Muslim spouse. Converts are confronted with having to decide what gives them their Islamic identity. In the absence of a clearly defined Australian Muslim identity, there are many issues the convert has to negotiate by himself. Such issues include adopting a Muslim name, relationships with others, particularly with families hostile to the new convert, or with friends of the opposite sex, raising children as Muslims, and for women the hijab.

There are many difficulties and struggles faced by Muslim converts as they deal with issues of identity, their place in mainstream Australian society, and their relationship with the wider ummah. Nevertheless, Islam provides an unshakeable well-spring which gives all Muslims the strength and inspiration to do the right thing for themselves, their families, and the society in general. It is up to all of the Muslims in Australia to find meaning in their faith in the context of modern Australia. With the establishment of proper Islamic education, better coordination of resources and a greater confidence in our identity as Australian Muslims, Muslims of all backgrounds in Australia can work together to establish Islam within our community and confidently participate as members of Australian society.

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