Can you be a practising Muslim and identify with the Australian way of life?

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SHAFAQNA – With growing concerns over national security, and the increased threat of those wishing to divide us, there has been recent public discussion about the future of our immigration program, and whether the values and customs of some migrant groups have a place in the Australian way of life.

Negative attitudes towards Muslims in Australia seem to be based on a fear of the unknown, and this perceived difference in values and culture. Attributes we typically identify as integral to the Australian way of life – like our freedom and democracy – are commonly perceived as being at odds with Islam.

It raises an interesting question – can Australian Muslims maintain their customs and traditions but still embrace and identify with the Australian way of life?

According to research released by the Scanlon Foundation last week, the majority of Australian Muslims have a high level of identification with Australia, with 72% reporting a sense of belonging to either a “great” or “moderate” extent. Of the Muslim Australians surveyed, 75% indicated that they were satisfied with their life in Australia. These positive findings suggest a sense of commitment to Australia’s safety and welfare by Australian Muslims.

That is not to say that the new research does not identify some emerging problems and challenges. While many Muslims spoke positively about their experiences of life in Australia, with particular reference to the opportunities, freedom, and security offered here, many also expressed concerns over a deterioration in relations, particularly in recent years.

Muslim women in particular spoke of being subject to discrimination – of being spat upon, shouted at, or denied jobs. “The negativity [towards Muslims] is more now, it’s higher now,” said one focus group participant.

Muslim faith focus group respondents also spoke of the frustration of being lumped together as one, homogeneous group – particularly by the media and some politicians.

In reality, Muslim Australians are a group as diverse as the rest of Australian society. Of the approximate 480,000 Muslims in Australia, around a third were born here. The remainder come from a variety of countries, each with their own cultural nuances. On top of this geographical diversity, there are generational differences – a “massive generation gap in thinking and behaviour between people, parents, our elders who came here from overseas and settled and their kids and grandkids,” as one focus group put it.

And while almost six in 10 of all Muslim Australians indicate that they are either “very” or “somewhat” religious, this figure varies significantly across sub-groups within the Muslim population, peaking at 80% of those born in Cyprus, and dropping as low as 20% of those born in Iran.

This recognition of diversity within the Muslim Australian population is significant, as it not necessarily fully recognised in public discussion.

The challenge for us all is to recognise the issues affecting the minority group within the Muslim population that report a low level of identification with Australia, and a low level of participation in community life. It is important to identify the factors that affect individuals on a personal, social and economic level and which influence their willingness to contribute to and be part of an inclusive community.

Ensuring new arrivals and all sub-groups of the population, including Muslim Australians, feel a sense of belonging in Australia requires the effort and commitment of all. In relation to Australian Muslims in particular, it involves taking steps to better understand the diversity of the Australian Muslim community, the personal impact of discriminatory acts, and the difficulties of resettlement for new migrants in unfamiliar environments and alien cultures.

For Australian Muslims, the challenge needs to be resolved not defensively but through understanding and respecting the common values that bind us together.

It is important to understand that Australian Muslims are just as fearful and concerned for Australia’s welfare as those who were born here.

As one Muslim focus group respondent put it, “We also don’t want extremism to happen, you know. We’re all the same, we’re all fighting the same war.”

Dr Hass Dellal AO is Executive Director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation.

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