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Syed Atiq ul Hassan: Assimilation in Australia

What it means to Muslims’ assimilation in Australia

By Syed Atiq ul Hassan, Sydney

[On the Occasion of Australia Day, 26th of January]

Shapeup into a uniform identity from the people of different background within a territorial boundary is a process of generations. It is a natural phenomenon of amalgamation where majority dominate minority and trends follow the needs of the people. In the process of integration people without any dictating force follow and practice traditions, customs, language and culture whichever they feel the needs of the time. The point I want to raise here is that the minority cannot be assimilated according to the wishes of the majority. It is a natural and long-term process where minority people gradually adopt the habits, traditions and other social elements of majority on the basis of societal and communal needs and where the minority people find no harm their heritage, culture and faith. However, in this process of integration and assimilation, the minority always and systematically loose the derivations of culture and in some cases the faith.

The historical trails and the claims of the descendents of early immigrants in Australia reveal that cameleers, farmers and unskilled labours started to arrive in Australia Indian subcontinent between mid to late of 18th century. The historical references show that cameleer were brought between 1840 to 1870 by the then British rulers and trans-continental explorer to open up the arid interior, construct the infrastructure of the then remote inland and fertilize the barren landscape. While farmers, hawkers and unskilled labours also arrived during the same period of time from India via Hong Kong and Singapore through Ships. Majority of Indian farmers, hawkers and labours came from East Punjab while a significant numbers of cameleers belonged to Baluchistan, Sind and Norther Western Frontier provinces of Indian sub-continent which later, after the creation of Pakistan in 1947 became the parts of Pakistan.

Many cameleers settled down permanently. Some of them married to Anglo-Saxon Australian or Aboriginal women and had families. As a matter of fact majority of these cameleers were Muslims. They were Pathans, Punjabis, Sindhis and Baluchis of today’s Provinces of Pakistan. Then Post World War situation made British rulers to become lenient in White Australia policy. During 1950s and 1960s, some Asian students started to come to Australia under the Commonwealth scholarship and Colombo Plan schemes among them few were Muslim students from Pakistan and India. Majority of these students came in New South Wales, Victoria and Canberra and later preferred to stay in these states. The significant and new phase of migration began in 1960s when restrictions on non-European immigration were relaxed in 1967 and eventually ended in 1973 the White Australia Policy was abolished. This started a stream of people from various parts of the world. Beside the large number of migrants arrived in Australia from Britain, Southern Europe, Germany and other European states, the people from Asian and Muslim countries also started to come. These Muslim immigrants were from Turkey, Middle East, Far East and South Asian countries.

According to Australia’s official figures, between 1947 and 1971 the Muslim population increased from 2704 to 22311. The first major migration of Muslims in Australia was the people from Turkey and Turkish Cypriots in result of the 1967 labour force agreement between Australia and Turkey. Today, Turkish-background Muslims are the largest Muslim population live in Sydney and Melbourne. The Lebanese migrants, many of whom were Muslims, began arriving in larger numbers after the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon in 1975.

From the 1950s through to the 1980s, many professional came to Australia under then Colombo Plan.

Today, Australia comprises of peoples from more than 140 nations and encompasses world's major languages, cultures, traditions and religions where Muslims play a vital role in today’s diversified Australian society. According to the 2001 Australian census there are 280,000 Muslims in Australia, however, as claimed by some Muslim organizations the number of Muslims in Australia is as high as 350,000 comprising of people from more than 60 different countries. The high proportion of Muslims is from Lebanon, Turkey, Indonesian, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Africa and India.

I found during my investigatory work on early Muslim immigrant that most of the 3rd and 4th generation of those early Muslim cameleers, farmers and labours completely transformed into white Australian and even they have changed their Islamic faith.

The Italian, Greek, English who came more than a century ago, today, hardly have any difference than the Anglo-Saxon came into Australia as a first bulk of immigrants from UK early 1800s.

Due to the fact that Muslims belong to a global community, they are binding with Islamic faith are found impassive to adopt those habits and traditions which they feel would harm to their Islamic faith. Religious prohibition to drink alcohol, eat ham and pre-marriage sexual relationship are those basic factors which make them different to the people of other faith.

What you drink, what you eat or what you dress should be a matter of assimilation process and should the assimilation process be dictated by ruling powers. This is something need to be of great concern, at present, in Australia. The way many intellectuals, writers and politicians of Anglo Saxon background define the assimilation of non Anglo Saxon into Australian society is that it is a process of changing and adopting the culture, habits and traditions of western society.

If the assimilation means the process for new arrivals to assimilate into the natives or settled community than why didn’t the first group of European convicts and aliens came by into Australia assimilated with aboriginal culture, language and tradition. Oppositely, the entire generation of aborigines was systematically eliminated by English Colonialists.

Geoffrey Brahm Levey, co-ordinator of Jewish studies at the University of NSW writes, Australia's national identity is a work in progress and it is not the business of the government to close the conversation and complete the definition of what it means to be an Australian.

During the last twenty years I have had the opportunity to work closely with different Muslim ethnic communities in Sydney and study the problems they are facing. Whether these problems are social, political or cultural, these are identical in their nature and substance. One clearly notices that when the issue of assimilation or integration is raised by various Australian sections, basically for them it is a matter for Muslims to change themselves to live like western society. They principally address to the people of Middle Eastern background and expect them to adopt the culture, tradition and other social habits of Anglo Saxon Australians.

Responsively, Australian Muslims find very constructive and affirmative in building a unified and harmonious Australia. They have, evidently proved that whatsoever the situation may be against the Muslims internationally – they have to deal the situation according to the demand as one Australian nation.

On the other hand, Muslims in Australia have always demonstrated their full commitment to keep the full harmony, solidarity and unity with the other Australians. Even when in the neighbouring Indonesia – largest Muslim nation on earth - the people were demonstrating on the street having the portraits of Osama Bin Laden in their hands, alighting American flags and attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq by US-allied forces the Muslims are showing their full responsibility, maturity and understanding like any other citizens of Australia.


The writer is a Sydney-based journalist and a Media Analyst)

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