Islam in Australia

Islam in Australia is a minority religious affiliation. According to the 2016 Australian Census, the combined number of people who self-identified as Muslim in Australia, from all forms of Islam, constituted 604,200 people, or 2.6% of the total Australian population,[1] an increase of over 15% of its previous population share of 2.2% reported in the previous census 5 years earlier. Of that earlier 2.2% figure,[2] "some estimate more than half are non-practicing"[3] muslim's stemming from all the varying denominations and sects of Islam present in Australia.

That total Muslim population made Islam, in all its denominations and sects, the second largest religious grouping in Australia, after all denominations and sects of Christianity (61.1%, also including practicing and non-practicing cultural Christians).

Demographers attribute Muslim community growth trends during the most recent census period to relatively high birth rates, and recent immigration patterns.[4][5] Adherents of Islam represent the majority of the population in Cocos (Keeling) Islands.[6]

The vast majority of Muslims in Australia belong to the two major denominations of Islam, the Sunni and Shia denominations, with the followers of each of these further split along different Madh'hab (schools of thought within Islamic jurisprudence for the interpretation and practice of Islamic law), there are also practitioners of other smaller denominations of Islam, including Ahmadiyya Muslim Australians of various national backgrounds, Ibadi Muslim Australians of Omani descent, as well as some non-denominational Muslims, and approximately 20,000 Druze Australians whose religion emerged as an offshoot of Islam which arrived in Australia with the immigration of Druze mainly from Lebanon and Syria. There are also Sufi (Islamic mysticism) minorities among Muslim practitioners in Australia.[7]

While the overall Australian Muslim community is defined largely by a common religious identity with "Islam", Australia's Muslims are not a monolithic community, and it is only the Qur'an that unites them. The Australian Muslim community is fragmented into not only the traditional sectarian divisions of what each sect defines as Islam, but it is also extremely diverse racially, ethnically, culturally and linguistically.[8] Different Muslim groups within the Australian Muslim community thus also espouse parallel non-religious ethnic identities with related non-Muslim counterparts, either within Australia or abroad.[3]


Prior to 1860

Indonesian Muslims trepangers from the southwest corner of Sulawesi visited the coast of northern Australia, "from at least the eighteenth century"[9] to collect and process trepang, a marine invertebrate prized for its culinary and medicinal values in Chinese markets. Remnants of their influence can be seen in the culture of some of the northern Aboriginal peoples. Regina Ganter, an associate professor at Griffith University, says, "Staying on the safe grounds of historical method ... the beginning of the trepang industry in Australia [can be dated] to between the 1720s and 1750s, although this does not preclude earlier, less organised contact." Ganter also writes "the cultural imprint on the Yolngu people of this contact is everywhere: in their language, in their art, in their stories, in their cuisine."[10] According to anthropologist John Bradley from Monash University, the contact between the two groups was a success: "They traded together. It was fair - there was no racial judgement, no race policy." Even into the early 21st century, the shared history between the two peoples is still celebrated by Aboriginal communities in Northern Australia as a period of mutual trust and respect.[11]

Others who have studied this period have come to a different conclusion regarding the relationship between the Aboriginal people and the visiting trepangers. Anthropologist Ian McIntosh[12] has said that the initial effects of the Macassan fishermen were "terrible", which resulted in "turmoil"[13]:65–67 with the extent of Islamic influence being "indeterminate".[13]:76 In another paper McIntosh concludes, "strife, poverty and domination . . is a previously unrecorded legacy of contact between Aborigines and Indonesians."[14]:138 A report prepared by the History Department of the Australian National University says that the Macassans appear to have been welcomed initially, however relations deteriorated when, "aborigines began to feel they were being exploited . . leading to violence on both sides".[15]:81–82

A number of "Mohammedans" were listed in the musters of 1802, 1811, 1822, and the 1828 census, and a small number of Muslims arrived during the convict period. Beyond this, Muslims generally are not thought to have settled in large numbers in other regions of Australia until 1860.[16]:10

Muslims were among the earliest settlers of Norfolk Island while the island was used as a British penal colony in the early 19th century. They arrived from 1796, having been employed on British ships. They left following the closure of the penal colony and moved to Tasmania. The community left no remnants; only seven permanent residents of the island identified themselves as "non-Christian" in a 2006 census.[17][18][19]

1860 to 1900

19th-century mosque in cemetery, Bourke, New South Wales
The grave of an Afghan cameleer

Among the early Muslims were the "Afghan" camel drivers who migrated to and settled in Australia during the mid to late 19th century. Between 1860 and the 1890s a number of Central Asians came to Australia to work as camel drivers. Camels were first imported into Australia in 1840, initially for exploring the arid interior (see Australian camel), and later for the camel trains that were uniquely suited to the demands of Australia's vast deserts. The first camel drivers arrived in Melbourne, Victoria, in June 1860, when eight Muslims and Hindus arrived with the camels for the Burke and Wills expedition. The next arrival of camel drivers was in 1866 when 31 men from Rajasthan and Baluchistan arrived in South Australia with camels for Thomas Elder. Although they came from several countries, they were usually known in Australia as 'Afghans' and they brought with them the first formal establishment of Islam in Australia.[20]

Cameleers settled in the areas near Alice Springs and other areas of the Northern Territory and inter-married with the Indigenous population. The Adelaide, South Australia to Darwin, Northern Territory, railway is named The Ghan (short for The Afghan) in their memory.[21]

The first mosque in Australia was built in 1861 at Marree, South Australia.[22] The Great Mosque of Adelaide was built in 1888 by the descendants of the Afghan cameleers.

During the 1870s, Muslim Malay divers were recruited through an agreement with the Dutch to work on Western Australian and Northern Territory pearling grounds. By 1875, there were 1800 Malay divers working in Western Australia. Most returned to their home countries.

One of the earliest recorded Islamic festivals celebrated in Australia occurred on 23 July 1884 when 70 Muslims assembled for Eid prayers at Albert Park in Melbourne. “During the whole service the worshippers wore a remarkably reverential aspect.”[23]

1900 to present

In the early 20th century, under the provisions of the White Australia policy, immigration to Australia was restricted to persons of white European descent (including white Europeans of the Muslim faith). Meanwhile, persons not of white European heritage (including most Muslims) were denied entry to Australia during this period.

Thus, in the 1920s and 1930s Albanian Muslims, whose European heritage made them compatible with the White Australia Policy, immigrated to the country. Albanian Muslims built the first mosque in Shepparton, Victoria in 1960, first mosque in Melbourne in 1963 and a mosque in Mareeba, Far North Queensland in 1970. The Albanian community in Far North Queensland settled in the area in the early 20th century searching for work in the sugarcane and tobacco industries with many descendants still living in Mareeba, Cairns and other small towns across the Atherton Tablelands.

Modern-day replica of an ice cream van owned by one of the terrorists involved in the Battle of Broken Hill in 1915.

Notable events involving Australian Muslims during this early period include what has been described either as an act of war by the Ottoman Empire, or the earliest terrorist attack planned against Australian civilians.[24] The attack was carried out at Broken Hill, New South Wales, in 1915, in what was described as the Battle of Broken Hill. Two Afghans who pledged allegiance to the Ottoman Empire shot and killed four Australians and wounded seven others before being killed by the police.[25]

Increased immigration

The perceived need for population growth and economic development in Australia led to the broadening of Australia's immigration policy in the post-World War II period. This allowed for the acceptance of a number of displaced white European Muslims who began to arrive from other parts of Europe, mainly from the Balkans, especially from Bosnia and Herzegovina. As with the Albanian Muslim immigrants before them, the European heritage of these dispaced Muslims also made them compatible with the White Australia Policy.

Later, between 1967 and 1971, during the final years of the step-by-step dismantling of the White Australia policy, approximately 10,000 Turkish citizens settled in Australia under an agreement between Australia and Turkey. From the 1970s onwards, there was a significant shift in the government's attitude towards immigration, and with the White Australia policy now totally dismantled from 1973 onwards, instead of trying to make newer foreign nationals assimilate and forgo their heritage, the government became more accommodating and tolerant of differences by adopting a policy of multiculturalism.

The Chullora Greenacre Mosque

Larger-scale Muslim migration of non-White non-European Muslims began in 1975 with the migration of Lebanese Muslims, which rapidly increased during the Lebanese Civil War from 22,311 or 0.17% of the Australian population in 1971, to 45,200 or 0.33% in 1976.[citation needed] Lebanese Muslims are still the largest and highest-profile Muslim group in Australia, although Lebanese Christians form a majority of Lebanese Australians, outnumbering their Muslim counterparts at a 6-to-4 ratio.

By the beginning of the 21st-century, Muslims from more than sixty countries had settled in Australia. While a very large number of them come from Bosnia, Turkey, and Lebanon, there are Muslims from Indonesia, Malaysia, Iran, Fiji, Albania, Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, among others.[citation needed] At the time of the 2011 census, 476,000 Australians (representing 2.2 percent of the population) reported Islam as their religion.[26]

Since the 1990s

Trade and educational links have been developed between Australia and several Muslim countries. Muslim students from countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, are among the thousands of international students studying in Australian universities.[quantify][citation needed]

A number of Australian Arabs experienced anti-Arab backlash during the First Gulf War. Newspapers received numerous letters calling for Arab Australians to "prove their loyalty" or "go home", and some Arab Australian Muslim women wearing hijab head coverings were reportedly harassed in public. The Australian government's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission included accounts of racial harassment experienced by some Australian Arabs in their 1991 report on racism in Australia.[16]:11–13

On a few occasions in the 2000s and 2010s, tensions have flared between Australian Muslims and the general population. The Sydney gang rapes formed a much reported set of incidents in 2000; a group of Lebanese men sexually assaulted non-Muslim women. In 2005, tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in the Cronulla area of Sydney led to violent rioting; the incident resulted in mass arrests and criminal prosecution. In 2012, Muslims protesting in central Sydney against Innocence of Muslims, an anti-Islam film trailer, resulted in rioting.[27] There was an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in the aftermath of the Sydney hostage crisis on 15–16 December 2014, including a threat made against a mosque in Sydney.[28] However, the Muslim community also received support from the Australian public through a social media campaign.[29][30]

The founding president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils has said that with moderate Muslims being sidelined by those promoting more fundamentalist views, there is a need to be more careful in regard to potential Australian immigrants. Keysar Trad has said moderate Muslims need to take back control.[31] An article in The Australian in May 2015 opined, "Most Muslims want the peace and prosperity that comes from an Islam that coexists with modernity; it is a fanatical fringe that seeks to impose a fabricated medieval Islam". It describes Dr Jamal Rifi as a brave insider who is working to assist "the cause of good Muslims who are struggling for the soul of Islam".[32]