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<p>Photo by Ella Rubeli</p>

Photo by Ella Rubeli

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The Unhysterical History Of Islam In Australia

From the misreporting of a picnic “massacre” almost a century ago to SIEV4 and beyond, the Muslim population of Australia has been lumped together and misunderstood. The Global Mail begins an ongoing series.

Ninety years before the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor bomb plot that so alarmed Australians in 2004, two bearded men in turbans made the first and only successful terrorist attack by Islamist jihadis on Australian soil.

On New Year's Day 1915, under the blazing sun of a Broken Hill morning, these self-proclaimed holy warriors crouched on an embankment overlooking the town's railway tracks, raised their rifles and directed a bloody fusillade upon a trainload of townsfolkbound for a holiday picnic.

The Convert

More than 1,000 people, under the purview of the local Manchester Unity Order of Oddfellows chapter, had crowded onto 40 converted ore-hauling railcars. Bound for nearby Silverton, they sheltered under a flotsam of white parasols. As their train pulled out of town, few spotted a crude, red, cotton flag fluttering atop an ice-cream vendor's cart by the embankment. The cart was familiar but the white crescent moon and star of the "Sublime Ottoman State" rather less so in Broken Hill.

Some thought the shooting celebratory, until bloodied passengers crumpled. One woman was shot through the jaw, another through the elbow. A bullet passed clean through the torso of a teenage girl, killing her instantly. Passengers dropped their parasols to hug the floor until the train had passed from the shooters and pulled in at a siding, where the militia was summoned by telephone.

<p>Photo courtesy State Library NSW</p>

Photo courtesy State Library NSW

Broken Hill riflemen after the fight, pictured in The Sydney Mail, Jan. 13, 1915.

A state of war had existed between the Ottoman Empire and Australia since the previous November, but their armies weren't to join in battle for another four months, at The Dardanelles. Australian diggers were in Egypt rehearsing the attack on the Gallipoli peninsula planned for April. But the two Broken Hill attackers had gazumped the brass, drawing first blood for the Holy Caliphate.

By warfare's bloodstained standards, the Battle of Broken Hill wasn't much of an engagement. As the train steamed beyond range, Gool Mohamed and Mullah Abdullah withdrew to a quartz outcrop covered with spinifex at the edge of town. By lunchtime a posse of militiamen surrounded them. Islam was defended for an entire hour.

When the snipers' bodies were recovered, their farewell notes were discovered, glorifying their faith, and the honour of the Sultan in faraway Istanbul. Though dressed as political and religious, the motives for the attack were steeped in personal grievance. Mullah, a lame, 61-year-old halal butcher and camel driver, had been fined by a local sanitary inspector. Unable to pay his fine, according to a local policeman, he had turned "broody." For years children had thrown stones at him. Mullah's last wish, scrawled in his note, had been to slaughter the meat inspector who had spoiled his living.

Of Gool even less is known. A ganja-smoking 41-year-old ice cream vendor, he was, said the same policeman, filled with a Turk's "lust for blood." He may even have served as a soldier in the Ottoman army for a time. Gool was blamed for turning the mind of his Muslim butcher buddy to murder.

Then as now, as seems ever the case in the politics of war, each side would stoke fervor with whatever propaganda works. A far-off colonial turf-and-trade gambit became a jihad. Displaced, despondent foreigners became shooters with a cause, in turn causing fear and suspicion of "their kind," however broadly drawn.

The War on Terror is not the first in which the finer distinctions of responsibility, reason, religion and the individual get lost in the rubble.

Journalists scurried to Broken Hill as national newspapers shrieked such headlines as "Two Foreigners Run Amok." Thousands of Germans and a few identifiable Turks were rounded up across Australia, profiled as enemy aliens and interned or paroled. One was the so-called Turkish Tom Thumb, a Jewish-Greek dwarf arrested after an anonymous tip-off by a disgruntled business associate. The president of Australia's Ottoman Association tried to deter a general attack on foreigners by indignant and angry Australians with this confused summary:

Islam in Australia: Mona

"The assailants concerned in the Broken Hill affair must be Mohammedan Afghans actuated by their fanatical spirit , said S.J. Attiah to The Adelaide Advertiser. " The assailants must have been driven either by insanity or fanaticism…. Calling these men at Broken Hill Turks is a huge mistake, which should be explained to the public."

It was never explained that neither man was a Turk. They were most likely Pashtuns from present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, the latter then in British-ruled India. Nor was it highlighted that their motive was probably a concoction of despair and resentment distilled from the harsh isolation imposed by outback life. In letters to newspapers, Muslims were described as dirty, treacherous and lascivious.

Ottoman, like Muslim today, was a noun encrusted with history, fable and oddity. The Ottoman Empire covered much of modern North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and parts of the Horn of Africa. The Sultan was both a political and religious leader. The Sultanate encompassed dozens of languages and cultures, and many more tones of religious and political affiliation. But here, "Johnny Turk" was just an Oriental bogeyman.

At a time when Australia was a far less diverse country, the motives of the murderers put the allegiances of all foreigners in doubt. Modest in number even now, Australia's Muslim community was insignificant a century ago. Between 1870 and 1900, around 2,000 Muslim cameleers had trooped camel trains down the streets of Kalgoorlie, Coolgardie, Bourke and Marree. They trekked far into the unexplored deserts and up the Birdsville Track, while in Broome the burgeoning pearling industry employed well over 1,000 Malay divers.

Australia's outback was a Babel, ringing with bells, camel groans, and the shouts of Pashto, Dari, Baluchi, Punjabi, Sindhi and Urdu drivers. Camel trains serviced the construction of the Adelaide to Darwin telegraph line, and transported goods between Adelaide to Alice Springs before the opening of the railway in 1929. "Ghan towns" and tin mosques, along with Aboriginal humpies, sat as slums at the fringes of towns.

Islam in Australia: Mohamad

From Federation in 1901, the White Australia policy limited Muslim immigration. In 1914, of a population of almost five million, Muslims amounted at most to a few thousand.

These days, according to the 2006 census, Australia's 380,000 Muslims make up about 1.7 per cent of the total population. Overwhelmingly they are first- or second-generation immigrants. Born in more than 60 countries and from many ethnic backgrounds, they speak a vast array of languages and dialects, from Central Asian Turkmeni to Banyumasan of Central Java.

Still, how many Australians distinguish among them?

Aside from ethnic and linguistic differences, Australian Muslims observe a variety of religious practices, from Sunni, Shia, and followers of Sufism, to much smaller groups including the Alawis, Ismailis and Ahmadis. Yet few non-Muslims in Australia would understand the often antagonistic divisions within the religion here.

A majority of Australia's Muslims live in NSW and Victoria, with about three-quarters of the two biggest Muslim ethnic groups, Turks and Lebanese, located in Sydney. Many of these live in clusters around specific suburbs such as Bankstown, Lakemba and Ryde.

Though dressed as political and religious, the motives for the attack were steeped in personal grievance.

It would stretch a neat historical comparison to say that The Battle of Broken Hill fixed Australia's suspicions of Muslims. But in the decades since, complex policy debates about immigration have been muddied by stock stereotypes and suspicions.

One journalist prematurely warned the 1898 W.A. Royal Commission into Mining that Afghans imperiled Australians "if a Jihad (Holy War) were to be proclaimed somewhere in the Muslim world."

More than a century later, Australia remains ill at ease with its Muslim community.

This discomfort quickly surfaced following the airborne attacks on the US in September 2001.

It was in the atmosphere of terror and shock immediately following the al-Qaeda strike in America that the Australian Navy intercepted a boat of Iraqi refugees in October 2001. It was also during a federal election campaign. During the long standoff that ensued as the refugee families tried to reach the sanctuary of Christmas Island, the immigration minister Philip Ruddock told reporters that some of the 223 Iraqis on the now notorious vessel tagged SIEV4 had tried to throw their children into the sea.

<p>Photo courtesy State Library NSW</p>

Photo courtesy State Library NSW

While a senate inquiry found it untrue, the insinuation stuck - Iraqis were a people capable of sacrificing their children, just as Muslims had sacrificed themselves in attacks on New York and Washington.

Moreover some imams, preaching at a handful of Australia's 300-odd mosques, also played to the perception of a fundamental divide between Islam and Australian secular values, fuelling fears in the broader community.

The most notorious was the Sunni Egyptian Sheik Taj al-Din al-Hilali. Australia's most senior Islamic cleric enjoyed delivering sermons and lectures replete with racist and sexist remarks.

In a 1988 lecture to Muslim university students, al-Hilali held Jews responsible for "communism, libertarianism, Free Masons, Baha'ism, the Rotary clubs, the nationalistic and racist doctrines. The Jews try to control the world through sex, then sexual perversion, then the promotion of espionage, treason, and economic hoarding." A 2006 Ramadan sermon ignited outrage when he described women as temptresses sent by Satan and compared them with pieces of "uncovered meat." The repeated election of al-Hilali to his post appeared to outsiders as Muslim approval of his remarks.

By 2004, two-thirds of Muslim and Arab Australians had experienced an increase in racism or racial vilification since the September 11 attacks, according to a survey by Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. More than 90 per cent of the respondent women reported abuse.

Australia’s outback was a Babel, ringing with bells, camel groans, and the shouts of Pashto, Dari, Baluchi, Punjabi, Sindhi and Urdu drivers.

Australian security forces have sharpened their expertise in Muslim affairs and intensified their surveillance of suspected radicals in the Muslim community. At the same time, well-funded community-based organisations have tried to keep the crisis in relations off the boil and to deter potential recruits to one of the 21st century's principal revolutionary causes.

Some programs miss their mark. One brought hundreds of Australia's most promising young Muslims from various communities together to discuss racism. They left agreeing that Australians do not much like Muslims.

Australian Muslims have a long history in Australia, one far more nuanced and complex than the occasional "ethnically motivated" crime report can explain.

The Global Mail aims to follow this and other communities within our broader Australian community, to be on the ground looking at the tinder and not only there when flares erupt from them.

This includes the extreme, divisive, sometimes dangerous and mostly minority views both within Australia's Islamic and other communities and within the broader community.

By 2004, two-thirds of Muslim and Arab Australians had experienced an increase in racism or racial vilification since the September 11 attacks.

We begin with three snapshots of Muslims whose paths cross one another in parallel if different directions. One is an ordinary Australian who chose to convert to Islam about seven years ago.

Sebastian Cilento is a 45-year-old Melbourne-born jewelry designer and yoga teacher, now based in Sydney.

Like his famous aunt, the late Australian film star Diane Cilento, Sebastian delved into a number of esoteric traditions, in his case after a youth spent in the punk and rock scene of his home city.

For Sebastian Islam has replaced some of the certainties of an earlier Australia and is an antidote to a prevailing atmosphere of consumerism.

Another is 20-year-old student Mona Abdelraheem. She's a committed Muslim and first-generation Australian of Egyptian and Palestinian parentage. Mona is a signpost to a generation of Muslim youths - confident, cashed-up, and career-oriented - emerging from the broadly secular canvas of Australian suburbia.

The third is Lebanese-born 21 year-old Mohamad Saddik, a student of Business at the University of Sydney with a knack for building cars. He's also Mona's fiancé Having been taken back once by his father to live for an extended time in Lebanon, Mohamad sees Australia through different eyes.

6 comments on this story
by Mustafa

Indeed, a supremacist ideology like Islam is not much more dangerous than any other small minority, when it doesn't have the numbers on the ground.

When it doesn’t have the numbers homosexuals, atheists, Jews and women have little to fear.

Of course, many Muslims do not even follow the commands of Mohammed in relation to subjugation of non-Muslims, and must be commended.

February 6, 2012 @ 10:29am
by Abdel Naturalised migrant, 20+ years in Oz

Interesting piece. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Thanks & regards

February 6, 2012 @ 10:36am
by Margo

Thank you, thank you, thank you for such an intellectually satisfying news services. No hysteria, no rotten writing and different from everything else on offer. Congratulations.
Margo, Age reader, ABC listener,

February 8, 2012 @ 10:50am
Show previous 3 comments
by Jim

Your essay is timely. I love the personal stories inserted as illuminations of the text (not only in your article - but in others I have read to-day from The Global Mail).

I was raised in a fundamentalist and extremely narrow US-style Protestant sect. "Be ye IN the world BUT not OF the world" was the mantra which (in some senses) thundered regularly from the pulpit. Friendships at school were really only possible with those of like faith - and the very idea of "being unequally yoked" (wed to others) occupied to an unholy degree the elders. There was an obsession. My Saul of Tarsus moment came rather late - aged 19 in my 3rd Year at Sydney University. Friends of Chinese, Jewish, Russian and other backgrounds - Professors challenging the expurgated history I had been fed as a child/adolescent and a growing realisation of hypocrisy - "do as I say - not do as I do" - a real disconnect from/among those senior in position and age - who should have been the models of behaviour - who knows what destroyed my belief! Nevertheless I believed that I should have some affiliation. I searched Anglicanism, Catholicism and other more extreme fundamentalist Protestant form. And then I read the Qu'ran. What a shock. So far as I could determine - and I had read the Bible quite a number of times before - it was more-or-less (more, truly) of the same stories and injunction. I may offend devout Muslims - and this is not my intent - but I felt as though I had stumbled upon another version of what I was already familiar with in the Bible. No one had ever before suggested that this was the case. The same characters, the same guidance. I began to seriously consider whether this was the path I wanted to take - and then I came to a more straightforward solution - to live my life as best I could - not being told by someone else how to do it. But my reading of the Qu'ran convinced me that true Muslims were honest and trustworthy persons - and in various contexts - friends and colleagues and students here in Australia of various Muslim backgrounds - have borne this out! Students from Lebanon, from Syria, from Turkey, from Egypt - from Cyprus. And during my time teaching in Japan I forged a strong friendship with a younger Indian scientist - and we spent many nights drinking coffee and discussing our varied cultural backgrounds - finding all the commonalities as well as the differences of packaging. He was Hindu - but spoke movingly of the communities within which he had grown up - in Burdwan and in Calcutta (Kolkata) - Hindu, Islam, Jain, Parsi, Zoroastrian, Christian... all festivals enjoyed and respected! That was the kind of Australia - the kind of Australian I hoped I was/am! Respect for others - no stereotyping, no unthinking bigotry - no discriminatory scape-goating.

Many have trod similar pathways to myself - I know that. We see the mosques or churches or temples or synagogues or chapels or whatever places of religious worship - Bora rings or significant sites of Indigenous Australia included - and we rejoice at this diversity and richness in spiritual/cultural/historical/artistic/literary/musical expression!

Thanks for this exploration - a beginning. Keep on following these lines of thought - throwing light onto the goodness of the hearts of our fellows in this landscape! Bravo!

February 8, 2012 @ 11:57pm
by MikeM

Last December the local Turkish mosque held an open day, inviting anyone who passed by to come in and join the community at lunch in the hall adjacent to the mosque. I went in and was made to feel very welcome.

The mosque is small and inconspicuous. If you drove past you would likely not even notice it but in a move that younger members are enthusiastic about, the open day is now an annual event to introduce itself and its members to the neighbourhood. The food was Turkish home cooking at its best.

It is really time that Australia got over its Muslim problem.

February 10, 2012 @ 1:26pm
by Veritas

Islam will bring nothing but trouble to Oz in the long term....

November 26, 2013 @ 9:32am
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