Racism and the Muslim Community in Australia

Racism and the Muslim Community in Australia

The rise of the far-right in Australia has caught the headlines recently. Their activities are not however, new. The following article from Australia highlights the history and current status of Islamophobia and racism in the country today. It may be of particular interest to the far-right Australian activists who have been leaving messages in our Guestbook. Peace unto all those who seek justice.

Bilal Cleland

Racism a major problem for early Muslims in Australia

From the time the Afghan Muslims came to this country, they were subjected to racist persecution. The semi-literate Anglo-migrants busily taking the land from the Aborigines in Australia at that time, were totally convinced of their own racial, religious and cultural superiority to all other human beings. The fact that they were subjects of ‘the Empire upon which the sun never set’ made it self-evidently clear that they had been chosen by God to rule the inferior races.

One of the fullest histories of these early Muslim pioneers, Christine Stevens’ ‘Tin Mosques and Ghantowns’ describes their situation:

“The biggest obstacle of all for the cameleers was racism. They had often demonstrated both physical and psychological strength, but the provocation, alienation and cruelty directed towards them by the Europeans was sometimes too much to bear. Soon after the first groups of Afghans disembarked at Fremantle even young European boys were smashing their windows and using abusive language towards them. Numerous complaints arrived at the Fremantle Court and the magistrate promised to do his best to protect the foreigners. Even camels were not exempt from hatred and vilification. One of Faiz Mahomet’s bulls, worth 75 pounds (in 1894) was found tortured, maimed and in severe pain outside Coolgardie. The young bull had one leg smashed and mutilated and two bullets in its head, but was left, still alive, to suffer as a symbol of racial hatred.” Christine Stevens. P.109

F.C.B. Vosper an Afghan hater and editor of the Coolgardie Miner used his newspaper to whip up racist feelings on the WA goldfields and in December 1894, with the support of 2000 miners, he set up the Anti-Afghan League. Its purpose was to have Afghans and other ‘Asiatics’ removed from the goldfields.

The incident at ‘Afghan Rocks’ occurred in that same year. Related by Christine Stevens (.p176-180) it illustrates how suspicion of the religion and culture of the Afghans led to murder. About fourteen miles west of Balladania, on the Nullabor Plain between Eucla and Norseman, there was a precious waterhole. In 1894 a group of three Christian European miners arrived at the waterhole to find a group of Afghans preparing for the Maghrib prayer. Several were performing their ablutions. As one of the Europeans walked towards the waterhole to fill his water sack he saw an Afghan standing in the water preparing to wash his feet. Outraged at the pollution of good drinking water, Ted Knowles drew his pistol. Another Afghan saw him and threw a rock at him. Struck on the cheek, the outraged Knowles shot Noor Mahomet dead. Another Afghan was wounded and later died. The Afghans surrounded the three Europeans and tied them up. The police were summoned.

There was no justice for non-Europeans. There was no inquest into either death. Knowles was charged with manslaughter not murder and then he was acquitted to the cheers of the crowd. “To the loud applause in the courtroom, an applause which was echoed by the country’s newspaper, Ted Knowles walked out of the courtroom a free man: a popular hero.” Stevens p. 180.

A series of increasingly racist laws was introduced. In 1897 the Imported Labour Registry Act was passed in NSW which prohibited resident ‘coloured’ people from importing ‘coloured’ alien labour. Afghan employers now had to find Europeans to bring in new Afghan cameleers.

In 1898 the WA colony conducted a Royal Commission into Mining. One of the central issues was the question of Afghans on the goldfields. Christine Stevens mentions Gilbert Probyn-Smith who was a journalist asked to give evidence to the Commission. He told the WA Parliament that the Afghans were dangerous.

“Many, he claimed, were still in sympathy with those Afghans who fought the British during the Second Afghan War. He declared they were traitorous by nature and warned of the peril to Australian lives if a Jihad were to be proclaimed somewhere in the Muslim world.” (P.148).


White Australia Policy and ‘Untouchable’ Muslims

In 1901 the new Federal Parliament passed the Immigration Restriction Act which excluded ‘coloured people’ from immigration to Australia. In order to avoid offending Btirtain’s ally Japan, the Act did not specify racial characteristics but imposed a dictation test, in any language, to be administered to migrants. This was applied to intending immigrants from non-European sources and the language chosen for the test was always one which they did not know.

After this Immigration Restriction Act, resident ‘coloureds’ even had to apply for a special certificate to cross over into another State. This prevented the free movement of the Afghan Muslims and their camels around the interior of the country.

In 1902 under amendments to the Roads Act cameleers were forced to obtain a special licence to operate in the camel carrying business and had to pay a registration fee for each camel.

Racial and religious vilification continued. In 1903 the editor of the “Barrier Truth” newspaper in Broken Hill, a Mr R.S.Ross, wrote of the ‘Afghan menace’, claiming that the Afghans were a threat to the morals of the community, that their camels were a danger to horses and that they were living in conditions even worse than those of the Chinese. He told his readers that these Muslims were fierce savages, that they held gross superstitions and that they were thieves. He advanced what was a quite widely held view in the English speaking world at that time, that the Afghans and the other non-white races could not blend with the whites and that they could not marry with whites because ‘the coloured mongrel is a weakling who tends always to sterility and extinction’.  “The term ‘Afghan’ began to embody a notion of contempt, of racial inferiority, of uncleanliness, brutality, strangeness and fear. Afghans became untouchables in a white Australia.” Stevens p.150

All such attitudes which involve the de-humanising, the denigration of other children of Adam, is condemned as part of the days of ignorance by Islam, meaning such attitudes belong to those people who have either rejected the guidance of God or who have not been made aware of the guidance of the prophets.


Racism from the Islamic Perspective.

According to the Quran, refusal to recognise the high status of human beings is rebellion against God. To attribute notions of superiority to nations or tribes is also condemned. Mankind as a species is one in essence, is superior to the rest of creation, is invested with the powers of a khalifah and is only to be ranked in accordance with degree of God-consciousness. The latter is known only to God. For all practical purposes this means that the whole human family, no matter what the various tribal or national origins might be, is equal. To insist on notions of inborn superiority is, for one who surrenders to God (a Muslim), a crime.


The Position of Human Beings in Islam. According to the Holy Quran, Allah announced to the angels:

“Behold I am about to establish upon earth one who shall inherit it”

Qur’an: Al-Baqarah 30

The term used was “khalifah”, one who exercises the delegated powers on behalf of the supreme authority. The implication of this delegated authority, some free exercise of power, is referred to in the question of the angels to Allah:

“Will You place on it such a one as will spread corruption and shed blood. We already extol Your limitless glory, and praise You, and hallow Your name.?” Allah replied :”I know what you do not know.”

Qur’an: Al-Baqarah 30

After imparting to Adam the names of all things, a breadth of knowledge apparently not available to the angels, and having him demonstrate that knowledge to them, Allah instructed the angels to bow down before His creation.

“And when We told the angels, ‘prostrate yourselves before Adam!’ they all prostrated themselves save Iblis, who refused and gloried in his arrogance: and thus became one of those who deny truth.”

Qur’an: Al Baqarah 34

This basic tenet of Islam, that human beings are higher in natural dignity than the angels, means that whoever challenges this status is in fact challenging Allah. Whoever denigrates humanity is placing himself or herself, in the eyes of Islam, on a par with Iblis.

Iblis, who considered himself superior to the being created from clay, for he was created from fire, became one of the accursed and foremost amongst the satanic forces. Muhammad Asad, in his Quranic commentary, sees the mention of “fire” as an allusion to the satanic forces active in human hearts, forces engendered by uncontrolled passions and love of self. These may be traced to the characterisation of Iblis in this passage as “one of those who think only of themselves as high.” (Sad 73-77)

Notions of racial superiority.

“Oh mankind! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing and all-aware”

Qur’an: Al-Hujurat 13

The implicit condemnation is of all racial, tribal or national prejudice. It is made clear that all humanity belongs to one family and evolution into “nations and tribes” is meant to foster our mutual desire to understand and appreciate the essential human oneness underlying our outward differentiations. No notion of national or tribal superiority is justified, for in the sight of God, it is the most righteous who is the noblest.

Do you not see that Allah sends down rain from the sky? With it then We bring forth fruits of different colours; and in the mountains are streaks white and red, of diverse hues and others raven black.

“And of humans and beasts and cattle there are various colours. Only those of His servants who possess knowledge fear Allah. Truly Allah is Mighty, Most Forgiving.”

Qur’an: Al-Fatir 27-28

‘…and among His signs is the creation of the heavens, and the earth, and variation in your languages and your colours, verily in that are signs for those who know.

Qur’an: Ar-Rum 22

The Holy Prophet (p), condemned notions of inborn superiority quite explicitly. One hadith reports him as saying “This your descent is no cause of reviling anyone: all of you are the children of Adam…”. (Uqbah b.Amir. collected by Ahmad)

Another hadith records he said:

“Let all people who boast of their forefathers who are dead, desist; they will become more disgraceful in the sight of God than a black-beetle which rolls filth with its nose. Verily, God has now taken away from you the vainglory of the days of ignorance, and its boasting of forefathers. Man is only a pious believer or a wicked sinner. mankind are all children of Adam, and Adam was from dust.” (Abu Hurairah. collected by Abu-Daud)

The most well known condemnation of racism and notions of inborn superiority was delivered by the Holy Prophet (p) on the occasion of the Last Pilgrimage. He stated:

“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over a white except by piety and good action.”

Previously, presumably in order to destroy ethnocentric attitudes then prevalent in Arabia, the Holy Prophet, when asked to describe an Arab, had said that an Arab was one who spoke Arabic. Islam had overthrown the genealogical pride of the days of ignorance. Those days have not yet finished in the some parts of the world.

Arrogant racism still alive and well in some areas

The Information Project for Africa published “Excessive Force: Power, Politics and Population Control” which examines the policies and tactics of the North in its dealings with the South. The book is subtitled “An Essay on the Benevolent Superpower, Sustainable Development and Other Contemporary Myths”. It illustrates the continuing belief of the representatives and servants of the ruling powers of the North in their natural superiority.

Amongst its revelations are, according to the review by Farish Noor JUST Chapter convenor in Britain:

“..the portraits and vignettes of the Western technocrats and politicians that litter the book; from Maurice Stans, the budget director of US President Eisenhower’s cabinet, who thought that ‘many Africans still belonged in the trees’…to Allan Dulles, head of the US Central Intelligence who argued that Islam is a backward religion which ‘has a natural appeal to black Africans by virtue of their own backward and superstitious character and culture’. The racist preconceptions and biases that contaminate the understanding which underlies the policies that these technocrats from the metropolitan centres of the West espouse comes to the surface as the researchers carefully document and record their testimonies and interviews in records that have long been kept away from public scrutiny.”

These notions of some sort of cultural and intellectual superiority are due, according to Erskine Childers (1993) to the incredible ability of some Western intellectuals to cut themselves off from reality and claim that the modern West was an internal Western incubation. There is a widely believed myth, as he puts it:

“..that the great philosophical, political, and scientific achievements of the West were developed de novo, in Europe, drawing directly from Greek and Roman civilisation. In this, we, who are of the West, have lived in what I call the largest self-induced amnesia in human history. Every textbook in every discipline which the first universities in Europe could use was a translation from Arabic.”


Riach and Rich Study in Melbourne

An article in the Cambridge Journal of Economics (1991) by Riach and Rich “Testing for racial discrimination in the labour market” based on a survey carried out in Victoria, brought the issue of discrimination into the open. It received little attention.

Greek and Vietnamese immigrant groups were matched up in this survey against the Anglo-Celtic dominant population. Matched pairs of written job applications in response to advertisements in “The Age” were sent out, using different ethnically distinctive names. Applicants with Vietnamese names encountered discrimination almost 6 times more frequently than applicants with Anglo-Celtic names. Those with Greek names encountered discrimination at 2.5 times the rate of those with Anglo-Celtic names.


Racism a sickness of ignorant societies in crisis

Economic crisis, uncertainty in the face of rapid social and industrial change and a growing feeling of “us” and “them” can wreak havoc in a multicultural society like ours. There is no doubt that there is a basis for an upsurge of racism in this community and we must be aware of it. Before the infamous Hanson speech in 1996 the Age in its Special Report “Racism on the Rise’ 2 September, carried the words of Michael Dodson, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. He said “What has emerged since the election…and what is now the defining political climate is a disturbibng new culture – a culture of disrespect, resentment and vilification”.

In that same issue, the World Council of Churches expressed concern over the rise in racism and also of the failure of middle class Australians to speak out over attacks on minorities. Rev. Bob Scott, head of the WCC program to combat racism, said this silence amounts to condoning racism.

This year, 1997, we have seen the whole leadership of the Christian churches come out in opposition to the proposed changes to native land title under the Wik legislation. The Archbishop of Perth, WA Premier Richard Court’s spiritual leader, has outspokenly denounced the proposed federal legislation as racist.

Muslims were not included in the 1991 Riach and Rich study of local discrimination. We can only surmise how great the gulf would be between us and the other groups. There is evidence that Muslims are perceived as “the other”, something very different and distant. Riaz Hassan’s research back in 1991 showed that the social distance scores between Muslims and the general community in Australia were great:

Social Distance Scores
Ethnic groups: Vietnamese 53, Lebanese 50, Turks 50, Japanese 46.
Religious groups: Muslims 54, Buddhists 49, Jews 38.

There is little reason to believe that the situation has changed much. Indeed after the events of the last 6 years it may have worsened.

Post-holocaust, an atrocity carried out by Western Europeans from a Christian culture, attacks upon Jews as ‘the other’ are no longer acceptable. It appears that Muslims have taken their place as ‘the enemy within’. As Rana Kabbani, quoted in Ahmed writes:

“Thankfully, and for good historical reason it is no longer easy to attack Jews publicly or depict them in fiction as unpleasant caricatures. But these salutary taboos do not extend to Muslims. I would even be so bold as to argue that there has been a transfer of contempt from Jews to Muslims in secular Western culture today. Many Muslims share this fear: indeed, one has written that ‘the next time there are gas chambers in Europe, there is no doubt concerning who’ll be inside them’ (Shabbir Akhtar in “The Guardian” 27 February 1989).”

“This may appear far-fetched, but a former Lord Mayor of Bradford, Mohammed Ajeeb, has actually received abusive letters saying, “What you deserve is the gas chambers.”

Ahmed 113.

Fortunately the situation in Australia, is to date, rather more civilised than in the Europe of the French fascist animal liberationist Brigitte Bardot or that of the booted National Front and its ‘Paki bashers” in Britain. However we have some doubts about the democratic and anti-racist credentials of some of our political leaders. Vigilance is indeed the price of freedom.

Our best protection against the rise of racist ignorance would appear to be effective da’wah. While this might not change the attitudes of those who have chosen the path of Iblis, it will cut down upon the reservoir of community support that they will be able to draw upon, a reservoir fed by streams of ignorance.

Invite (all) to the Way
Of your Lord with wisdom
And excellent admonition;
And discuss with them in the best
And most gracious manner
For your Lord knows best
Who have strayed from His Path
, And who is rightly guided. 

An-Nahl 125


References Ahmed, Akbar S. Postmodernism and Islam. Routledge. London 1992
Childers, Erskine. The Demand for Equity and Equality: The North-South Divide in the United Nations. JUST Commentary No 13 February 1995

Hassan, Riaz. The Minaret, December 1991 Australian Federation of Islamic Councils
Noor, Farish. Excessive Force Still the Norm in North-South Relations. Article. JUST World Trust. Penang. Malaysia. Undated
Riach, Peter A. and Rich, Judith. “Testing for Racial Discrimination in the Labour Market. Cambridge Journal of Economics 1991, 15, 239-256
Stevens, Christine. Tin Mosques and Ghantowns: A History of Afghan Camel drivers in Australia. OUP Melbourne 1989.

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