After the Second World War
Between 1947 and 1971 the Muslim population of Australia increased from 2,704 to 22,311. Apart from the immigration of Albanians, who came in relatively small numbers, the only Muslims acceptable under the prevailing immigration restriction policy were Turkish-Cypriots who held British passports by virtue of the occupation of their land by the British Empire. European Turks and “Turks of Ottoman race” were theoretically acceptable but were certainly not encouraged to migrate. Assimilation was dominant. What this meant is explained by Bouma: “The immigrant was to settle into the pre-existing culture and society without causing any noticeable change. The immigrant did all the changing; the society did none. The immigrant was expected to learn English, acquire an Australian accent, eat Australian-style cuisine, go to Australian schools, adopt a footy team, attend Australian churches and blend in.”
Despite the experience the world had just been through with the highly developed racial theories of Nazism and the terrible cost these had inflicted upon all humanity, including the German people, old myths about “Nordic” racial types apparently still prevailed in Australia. Blond haired blue eyed migrants from north western Europe were clearly favoured by the Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell. ‘White’ Muslims from Cyprus, Bosnia, Albania, Bulgaria and Russia did get in as refugees but they were small in number.
Ahmed Skaka, trained as an imam in Sarajevo, enlisted in the Yugoslav Army then imprisoned by the Nazis in Stalag 17 in Bosnia and escaping to Brno at war’s end, sought emigration to Australia which was, at that time, eagerly seeking suitable settlers. He sailed for 26 days from Napoli to Melbourne, arriving on January 26 1950 and was transferred to the migrant settlement camp at Bonegilla. On the ship to Australia, he recalls, there was not one Bosnian. The passengers were mainly Italians, Romanians and Poles. In Bonegilla there were a few Russian Muslims and a few Romanian Muslims. They were able to get halal food from a family of Albanians who had a farm not far from the migrant camp. In accord with the terms of his migration he was assigned a job and equipped with an Employment Certificate which stated that the bearer had to remain in the assigned employment for 2 years. Ahmed Skaka and a Romanian Muslim from the camp were assigned for two years to the same job, at Clipsall in Adelaide. Both of them assumed that Adelaide was a desert so far as Islam was concerned.
They only discovered that there was a mosque in that city from a newspaper report of the death and funeral of Gool Mahomet. The following Saturday they set out to find it. There was a congregation of only two or three aged Afghans. From then on Ahmed acted as imam of the mosque while continuing to work for Clipsall. Only 7 people attended the Eid Prayer in 1951. All the old Afghans continued to wear national dress and when the younger ones, born and brought up in Australia, came to the mosque in European dress, the old men called then non-Muslims. Imam Skaka told of an incident which occurred after Colombo Plan students started to come to study in Australia. One young Malaysian student brought a Quran in latin script to the mosque. The 80 year old caretaker, Iset Khan, finding it sitting inside, declared it a kaffir (non-believer) book and threw it out, onto the ground. Ahmed Skaka had to explain what it was.
Iset lived in the little room in the backyard of the mosque. He refused electric light and used a kerosene lamp, giving permission for the introduction of the godless innovation only when the lamp blew up. He had come to Australia when he was a young man.
According to Imam Skaka, the people living around the mosque in Little Gilbert Street Adelaide, were very hopeful that the Muslims would vanish with the last Afghans and that the land would come up for sale. However the Colombo Plan and the demise of the White Australia Policy caused them to lose hope.
Non-Europeans could get resident status in Australia from 1947. The concession was minimal, but the tide was turning. “It was decided that non-Europeans admitted for business reasons, who had lived in Australia continuously for 15 years, could be permitted to remain without applying for periodical extensions of permits. In effect, such people achieved resident status.”
However what appears a fairly enlightened development did not benefit Samsuddin Bin Katib, an Indonesian who had only been here for 11 years. In Australia since 1937 he was working on a pearling lugger until the war. With the outbreak of war he first enlisted in the Australian Navy, then volunteered as a commando. Undertaking extremely hazardous action, he spent 199 days behind Japanese lines and gained non-commissioned rank. Unfortunately his service record did not protect him when he became involved in an industrial dispute with the Pearlers’ Association. It was over an attempted reduction in divers’ wages. As founder and president of the Indonesian-Malay Association, a type of pearling workers union, he was selected for deportation as a troublemaker in February 1948. After representations by the Seamen’s Union, Calwell, a Minister in the Labor Party government, suspended the deportation order on condition he found employment in the pearling industry. Returning to Broome to the offer of a job, Samsuddin’s potential employer insisted that he resign from the Indonesian-Malay Association. Samsuddin refused to resign, all other employers refused to hire him, so he was again subject to a deportation order which, this time, was carried out. His former employer, to whom he was under bond, was ordered to provide repatriation to his country of origin. John Pattiasina, a Javanese, was also deported for his activities as secretary of the Association. As the Melbourne Herald noted, it was strange that the president and secretary of the IMA were being deported under the Immigration Restriction Act for trying to maintain a reasonable standard of living for all residents of Australia, supposedly the purpose of the Act.
An article warning of dangers in the north appeared during the development of this controversial series of events. The article, obviously reflecting some of the ferment in the north, was headed “Malays ‘In Control’ in the North-West”. It suggested how dangerous matters could become if too many ‘Asiatics’ became influential in the north. The Broome Branch of the RSL had charged that the Commonwealth Government was allowing breaches of the policy in their region. The Lord Mayor of Perth added his voice, describing the “racism” of so many Malays. “Malay crews of pearling vessels would not allow white men to join the vessels.” Such an attitude could have only once cause. “Communism, he alleged, was ‘rampant’ among the Malays, who adopted a belligerent attitude toward white men.” Indeed the leaders of the Seaman’s Union, who intervened for Samsuddin were communists, and these were the first years of the Cold War. Indonesians in the 1940s were also highly politicised by the liberation struggle going on in their homeland. The press in an increasingly politically aware Malaysia reported that it was the militancy of Indonesian pearl divers which was encouraging Australian lugger owners in Broome to concentrate on Malays. The Investigation Branch of the Attorney General’s Department did note in a report in April 1949 Ali bin Baharon, originally of Sarawak, who had replaced Samsuddin and was acting chairman of the Association, had been “holding private meetings amongst Asiatic indents and lecturing them on Communism”. He left Australia of his own accord in December 1949.
Malays, Minister Calwell and the White Australia Policy were very much in the news in 1947 and 1948. Amidst the 5500 nationals of Asian countries admitted on a temporary basis, about a third wished to remain. More than 100 were deported before 1949 when adverse publicity forced the prime minister to halt the process. One of the public relations disasters for the Chifley Government commenced in November 1947. Mr Calwell, determined to expel 43 Malayans of whom 14 had Australian wives and families, claimed that “It would amount to discriminatory treatment if [they] were permitted to stay here on the sole ground of their marriage to Australian women.” That these men had served as merchant seamen during the war meant nothing. This breaking up of families understandably created a storm. The Australian section of the World Council of Churches called upon the government to reconsider its decision, stating: “As men who stood beside our own servicemen in the defence of Australia surely these Malayans have earned the right to humane consideration at Australian hands.”
The government would have to pay social service payments of about three pounds a week to families it was depriving of breadwinners. Speaking for the wives Mrs Phyllis Osman of Brougham Street Wooloomooloo said “As the Government is taking our husbands away and leaving us without support, I think it should increase the social service contribution at least to enable us to live and feed the children properly.” Bishop Pilcher of Sydney organised a rally for 27 November to protest against this unjust decision and called together several churches, womens’ organizations and the Waterside Workers’ Federation. The Prime Minister Mr Chifley was not swayed and publicly supported his Minister for Immigration, emphasising to Parliament that “Since the war the Government has been deporting large numbers of people of all nationalities who were given temporary shelter here.”
The Bishop of Armadale then joined in the fray, telling a Church of England Men’s Society luncheon that Australia was “turning potential friends into enemies.” He advocated the admission of quotas of people from neighbour-lands “firstly for friendship and secondly so that Australians could absorb something of their culture.” The Sultans of Malaya were also getting restive, asking for an explanation of the decision. Twenty-five Malayan associations demanded retaliatory action against the Australian export trade. As the Herald editorialised “These are unfortunate repercussions and we may not have heard the last of them.” Despite the pressure the Prime Minister refused to review the case.
Trying to defend the indefensible, Mr Calwell told Parliament that one of the Malays being deported already had a wife and family in Malaya. He had attacked the wrong target. Mrs Phyllis Osman quickly retaliated. She told the press that if the Minister for Immigration had had the decency to check his statement, he would have found that her husband had already divorced his wife. She was very critical of his “thoughtless and unconfirmed statements”. Her husband had cabled Malaya asking for papers confirming his divorce as soon as he heard Calwell’s statement, she said. She also said that she knew of the children from that marriage and was sending them food parcels each week. Her husband, Ahmat Bin Osman was permitted to stay until 30 June 1948 as they were expecting a baby in February.
The other men however had to leave as soon as possible and would be sent by air if a ship was not available. A ship was not available until February 1948 but even the wives who wished to accompany their husbands to Malaya could not go. There was no room on the ship. The Federal Government promised that they would be permitted to join their husbands without undue delay.
The war had awakened Asia. The Europeans could no longer assume the mantle of invincibility they had worn in earlier times. They had been soundly trounced by the non-Nordic Japanese, and Asia and the world would never be the same. The Malayan people no longer accepted British or white domination. They were asserting their equality along with billions of other former colonial peoples. They no longer accepted racial insults with politeness born of subservience, a common response in the nineteenth century. The Malayan newspapers strongly attacked the “blundering, tactless, unreasonable, harsh and provocative” Calwell. He had at least united all Malayans by insulting the Malays, the Chinese and the Eurasians, the Straits Times article said, but his actions had also “offended the racial pride of Malaya.” This hostile article was part of the welcome received by the Australian Goodwill Mission to Singapore.
Within Australia a serious debate about the future of the policy began. Leading Australians differed on what should be done. Professor Agar of Melbourne University, the eugenics advocate of the 1930s, had learned nothing from the Third Reich and the war. In 1948 he still believed in the enforcement of the racially exclusive policy to the maximum degree. “If we are forced to give way on this question we shall be swamped in a generation or so. ..We must hold at all costs and even take the risk of being forced to yield, because the alternative is the certainty of being overwhelmed by more fecund races.” Dr Booth the Archbishop of Melbourne held a more civilised view arguing that “Australia must take the initiative and put herself right by bringing up to date an immigration policy which has become obsolete and dangerous.”
However the old order held strong. When Mr Jennings of the Singapore “Free Press” was in Melbourne in 1948 he said that harsh enforcement of the racially exclusive policy was the only cause of ill-will between Malaya and Australia. The Minister for External Affairs Dr Evatt, warrior for the United Nations Organisation and for human rights, accused the Singapore Free Press of being ‘extremist’ and raising “irrelevant issues of immigration policy when the Australian Goodwill Mission was in Singapore.” The Opposition still held to the policy too, arguing only about details of implementation. Losing an opportunity to serve the country and its reputation in Asia, Mr Holt MHR, later the Prime Minister who disappeared while swimming in Port Philip Bay, stated in July 1948 that “..he found little to criticise in the general policy approach of the Minister for Immigration (Mr Calwell)…But it was to be regretted that Mr Calwell had taken so long to make a clear statement of his Government’s attitude.” The debate went on for years with the politicians mainly holding to the old traditions and criticism and new ideas coming from some academics, the churches and some left-wing trade unions. However changes in the international situation made continued adherence to the policy untenable.
White Australia sinks into oblivion
The old policy was rapidly falling apart. The Lebanese imam, recognised in the New Year Honours of 2001 with an Order of Australia, Sheikh Fehmi Al-Imam, arrived in Melbourne on 15th May, 1951. Born in Tripoli, Lebanon, he was apparently regarded as racially acceptable.
A revised Migration Act was introduced in 1958, abolishing the blatantly racist dictation test although entry permits were still given at the discretion of immigration officials. More Lebanese Muslim families came after this reform. The following year, 1959, there was a further weakening of the discriminatory policy. Australian citizens normally resident in Australia were permitted to sponsor their non-European spouses and unmarried young children to come and live here. Then in 1964 entry regulations for people described as of ‘mixed descent’ were further relaxed. The term itself reveals that racist assumptions still lay behind the policy. Another step was taken in March 1966 when it was announced that applications for entry of well-qualified people would be considered on the basis of their suitability as settlers, however the announcement included the sentence: “The changes of course are not intended to meet general labour shortages or to permit the large scale admission of workers from Asia…”
The climate of official opinion at that time is illustrated by a letter from the Attorney-General’s Department in June 1963 to Imam Ahmed Skaka of the Adelaide Mosque. It was to announce that on 1 September the State marriage law would be superceded by the Marriage Act 1961. The message was of shattering import. “Persons registered under State law as authorized to solemnize marriages will automatically be registered under the Marriage Act 1961 and continue to have authority to solemnize marriage only if they are ministers of religion of a religious denomination recognized for the purposes of the Act. The Islamic religion is not recognized for the purpose of the Act.” Informed that it would henceforth be an offence for him to perform marriages, it was further explained that the Act was for monogamous marriages only “not polygamous or potentially polygamous marriages.” It was magnanimously conceded that this would not prevent people of the Muslim faith marrying in Australia, so long as they were prepared to accept “the conditions and obligations of monogamous marriage” and have their marriages solemnized by “properly authorized celebrants.” Imam Skaka was still outraged by this letter when visited by the author in 1997 at his residence next to the Adelaide Mosque. In 1968 the Australian Federation of Islamic Societies, while Sheikh Fehmi was General Secretary, managed to change this bigoted interpretation of the law. Federal Attorney-General Snedden accepted that Imams from recognised Islamic Societies would be authorised by the federal government to celebrate marriages.
A migration agreement with Turkey was signed in 1967 providing for assisted passages to Australia for “selected workers and their dependents.” However it was not until the election of the Whitlam Labor Government in December 1972 that the White Australia Policy was totally abolished and the introduction of multiculturalism as the dominant theme of immigration and settlement policy began. No longer was discrimination based on race, colour or nationality to be permitted.
The disorder and civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s resulted in large numbers of Arabic speaking migrants for the first time. By 1981 there were about 17,000 Lebanese Muslim migrants here. Many Turkish Cypriots were forced out by fighting in their homeland in the early 1970s as well. Then as a result of the migration agreement with Turkey, in the period 1967 to1971 over 10,000 Turkish migrants came. They were needed as a labour source because it was feared that migration from Italy and Greece was not at high enough levels to meet the future needs of the Australian economy. In 1967 Australia had tried to attract 150,000 migrants but due to the growing prosperity of Europe it was 10,000 short of the target. It was hoped that the 2000 Turkish migrants who would come in the next financial year would provide skilled, unskilled and semi-skilled labour “to boost our sagging migration program.”
This was the first large scale migration from a Muslim society and there was considerable good-natured interest in the people who came. A story about what happened at the Yakka Factory in Broadmeadows Melbourne, which suburb now has one of the largest concentrations of Turks in Australia, appeared in the Herald newspaper in November 1968. The personnel officer had apparently responded to a request from Broadmeadows Migrant Hostel following the arrival of 160 Turks the week before. He offered a woman a job as a pedal machinist and she arrived with another 19 women, thinking that they had all been offered work. Then their husbands arrived. “So that’s why Yakka’s 850 staff now includes a battalion of Turkish women set up in a section to themselves in the machine room. And a similar section of Turkish men working on the automatic presses. But there’s more. The Turks, all Moslems, sought and received permission for their womenfolk to wear head scarves at work. And because they are still new to their surroundings, Yakka lays on a bus to take them to and from work each day.” Thus formerly racist “White Australia Policy” Australia moved towards multiculturalism and relegated, in remarkably few years, the old racist attitudes to the lunatic fringe of Australian society.
Apart from Australian born Muslims who make up more than a third of the Australian Muslim community, mainly the children of immigrants, the largest Muslim ethnic groups since the 1970s have been the Lebanese and Turks. They naturally gravitated to the largest urban centres which offered employment in manufacturing and service industries. According to the 1991 Census 50 per cent of Australian Muslims lived in Sydney and 32 per cent in Melbourne. Overall, 93.21 percent live in State capitals.
Building a National Body
During the years of decline from the 1920s onwards, the Muslim population fell steadily so that the mosques in Perth and Adelaide were the only reminders of past days. In NSW and Victoria where most post-war migrants landed, Muslims started from a great disadvantage. Unlike Christian immigrants who found churches waiting for them, the Muslims had to establish Islamic Societies and mosques from zero. In the 1950s the small but ethnically diverse community would jointly celebrate Eid Al Adha and Eid Al Fitr together in rented halls. In both NSW and Victoria the first Islamic Societies were established in the mid-1950s, consisting of representation from all ethnic groups in the Muslim community.
Sheikh Fehmi, when he arrived in 1951 in Melbourne, found no mosque or Islamic centre, earlier Islamic organizations having died out since Federation, under the White Australia Policy. From the start he took a leading role, with the few Muslims then in Melbourne, in organising regular congregational prayers in private homes. In 1957, he and others founded the Islamic Society of Victoria, the first Islamic society in Melbourne of the post-war period. It had representation from the Arabic, Turkish, Yugoslav and Indian Muslim communities and it remained as a multi-ethnic society until well after the establishment of the national organisation. The Turkish Muslims were amongst the first to leave, establishing their own society and setting up the Fatih Mosque in Coburg in 1971. The Islamic Society of Victoria eventually became a Lebanese Muslim Society after a takeover by more nationalistic elements in the 1980s. The NSW Islamic Society did not transform in the same way but in 1961 the Lebanese left it to establish the Lebanese Muslim Association. In Melbourne, the Albanian Islamic Society opened a mosque in Carlton in 1967, an outgrowth from the Albanian mosque in Shepparton. It is thus the oldest post-war mosque in Melbourne. However Albanians were from the beginning represented in efforts to establish a national Islamic Organisation.
Muslim immigrants from various ethnic backgrounds, even while ethnically based Islamic Societies were springing up, sought to build a degree of unity amongst the family members of Islam. Due to the efforts of some leading Muslims like Sheikh Fehmi Al Imam, Abdul Khaliq Kazi and Ibrahim Dellal, as well as many others, the Australian Federation of Islamic Societies (AFIS) was established in 1964. Although division and argument was common, as it is in any voluntary community organisation, it grew in strength.
A turning point came in 1974 when a two man delegation, composed of Dr Abdullah al-Zayed, Rector of the Abdul Aziz University in Riyadh and Dr Ali Kettani, an adviser to King Faisal, arrived from Saudi Arabia to investigate the needs of the local Muslim community. Dr Kettani encouraged a new approach to national organisation which would, if followed, overcome the ethnic divisions which were causing such grave concern amongst the religious leadership and the problem of uniting all states under the one umbrella. If the national organisation was to be dominated by the 90 per cent of the Muslims in Sydney and Melbourne, why would the small states bother joining at all? This was a similar problem to that faced by the Australian Federation Movement, resolved by means of the Senate, the States House, representing the places rather than the size of the population. Kettani’s recommendations were accepted by the mainstream of the Muslim community but still await implementation in full. They were fourfold. The gradual elimination of Islamic Societies based on ethnic, national language, racial or sectarian grounds. The establishment of Islamic Societies on a purely geographical basis in each state. The formation of an Islamic Council in each state or territory to represent the entire Muslim population of that state. The association of those State Councils into a federation at national level. Only the last two recommendations have been brought into effect, as ethnic pride still divides the community, although it is already into a second and third generation of Australian born Muslims.
The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils was formed in 1976. Based in Melbourne at first it shifted to Zetland, near Redfern in Sydney, the location of the early Muslim community in that city. AFIC is based on a constitutional structure which takes account of the concentration of Islamic Societies in two cities by giving the power of election of President, Vice-President, Secretary and Treasurer to the State Council Chairmen at election Congresses, which occur every second year. The President of AFIC, supposedly in consultation with the other office bearers, then chooses the general members of the Executive Committee. Policy is determined by a general vote of all societies at Annual Congress but control of the organisation is vested in the Executive. There are State Councils in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, ACT, Northern Territory, WA, SA, Tasmania and Christmas Island. Islamic Societies are permitted to join the State Council if they have 100 financial members, control their own Islamic Centre and are a certain distance from other member societies. These rules are waived for Islamic Societies in remote areas. Internal democratic organisation, elected leadership and consultation with members are features of all AFIC member societies.
Although the bulk of the Muslim population today is found in Melbourne and Sydney, the spread of voting rights amongst all State Councils has meant that the role of President of AFIC is shared amongst the states. In the four presidencies to the year 2000, the presidents came from Queensland, NSW, Tasmania, and Adelaide. They have also come from a wide variety of ethnic groups. The past four presidents have been, in origin, Indo-Fijian, Lebanese, Pakistani and Singaporean. AFIC Executive Committee is still dominated, as are State Councils, by overseas born Muslims, although over a third of the community is Australian born. The next generation has yet to come into leadership positions. However the last two secretaries of AFIC and one of the last four presidents have been new Muslims.
As a result of the 1974 delegation from Saudi Arabia, in order to assist the Muslim community establish itself on a sound financial bases, $1.2 million was given by the Saudi Arabian government to AFIC to distribute among Islamic Societies for the erection of mosques and Islamic centres. The delegation recommended that AFIC should be recognised as the sole representative of Muslims in Australia and also that AFIC should become the sole authority in Australia to certify that meat had been killed in accordance with Islamic rites. It was the intention of this recommendation to make the Muslim community self-sufficient and less reliant on overseas support. A Saudi Royal Decree of February 1976 specified that only halal certification by AFIC would be acceptable on meat imported from Australia. Other countries followed suit. The Arab Emirates specified AFIC halal certification in 1980 and Kuwait in 1982.
The issuing of halal certification became both a blessing and a curse to AFIC. A blessing in that it provided, with the fee charged for the issue of certificates to abattoirs, a source of income which permitted societies to establish mosques. Unfortunately much of the mosque building directly contradicted the recommendations made by Kettani in that every ethnic group wanted to set up its own mosque and then even sectarian groups within ethnic communities wanted their own places of worship. The halal certification rights of AFIC also stimulated greater opposition from those groups which had established their own halal certification businesses, such as the Perth Halal Sadiq Company, the Muslim Association of Brisbane and the Adelaide Mosque Islamic Society. At the 1982 Royal Commission into the Australian Meat Industry the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation, and a section of the meat industry in Australia, also opposed the system on the grounds that AFIC charged too much for certification and that it was not run efficiently enough by AFIC with its very limited full-time staff. There was also a lot of criticism of the system which it was believed was open to abuse. Indeed the abuse was so severe that Justice Woodward stated in his report that he was convinced that the existing system could not be allowed to remain. Certificates, signatures and seals had been forged to avoid paying the AFIC fee and AFIC registered halal slaughtermen had signed false certificates. One company stated that the inability to get certificates and seals on time to meet air freight deadlines encouraged such forgeries. The Minister for Primary Industry, Mr Nixon, in the House of Representatives 26 August 1981 reported that he had heard that kangaroo meat has been found in mutton cartons in Saudi Arabia. It was due to the existence of such scandals and the associated threat to the Australian market in the Middle East that it was decided by all the participants in the Royal Commission that evidence on these matters would be given in private session. The Royal Commission recommendations on halal slaughter and certification included the introduction of a single system of certification with an official Australian government certificate and an official Australian government stamp’ The system was to be under direct and continuous supervision by the Export Inspection Service of the DPI.
AFIC maintained its separate certification but within the general government supervised system. The great benefit of the scandals of the 1980s was that any falsification of documents or breach or abuse of Islamic halal requirements in the meat industry is now met with sanctions under the law. However disputes between the leadership of AFIC and Saudi Arabian Embassy led to the selective appointment of 55 Islamic Associations from around Australia, to certify halal meat for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s. The 40 or so
organisations left off this “approved list” were left, it was intended, without any source of financial support. The AMLC welcomed this development as they had been opposed to the domination of the system by AFIC since the beginning. The result was disaster for the Muslim community with intense competition between warring groups for the halal certification market and growing accusations of fraud and corruption on all sides. The anarchy was impossible to work with so the Saudi Embassy had to set up five State groupings of “approved” Islamic Associations, but there has been competition between these as well. Even private individuals with no credible link to religious authorities or Muslim organizations have set themselves up as “halal certifiers” to the discredit of this nation’s reputation in the Muslim world.
At the 1998 regional meeting of Islamic peak bodies from Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, attended by the Islamic authorities of Malaysia and Indonesia, both importing countries expressed concern that only genuinely halal products should be consumed by their people and were most interested in standardisation of procedures in Australia in order to ensure that only the highest quality products were imported to their respective countries. The delegates at the meeting resolved that the three national bodies attending, AFIC, the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) and the Fiji Muslim League (FML) should be recognised as the prime national halal certifying bodies in their respective countries and that other halal certifying bodies should be registered with their respective national organisations. It was also agreed that the three umbrella organisations would recognise each other. The halal accrediting authorities in the importing countries were also requested to develop accreditation criteria for accepting halal certifying organisations.
AFIC has also worked to establish Islamic Schools, in response to community demand, from the first decade of its existence. The first school was established in Victoria in 1983, with generous assistance from the Saudi government. King Khalid Islamic College of Coburg, which now has a second campus in Merlynston, was placed under the control of a trust, for a nominal rent, by AFIC in early 1990s. This proved a very controversial decision. This College offers both secondary and primary education and takes in overseas students. The Sydney school, Malek Fahd Islamic College, Chullora, NSW, was established in 1988 and now caters for over 1400 students. It too offers a complete primary and secondary curriculum. The Islamic School of Brisbane was established in1995 for primary level but is now also offering lower level secondary. The Islamic College of S.A., established in 1998, provides primary education but has plans to develop a secondary section within the decade. Several other Muslim organisations have also established schools apart from those set up by AFIC. Most of them are in NSW and Victoria. Werribee Islamic School in Melbourne, one of the first, was set up under an Islamic Trust Fund in 1984. The Islamic College in Perth, which was registered in 1986, relied strongly upon the support and work of a committed Muslim philanthropist.
Although disputes within AFIC are ongoing, the destructive nature of past divisions is absent. There are disagreements over the central position given to the small State and Territory Councils in decision making, related to their power over elections. There are disputes over constitutional provisions regarding membership, voting rights and policy making, but it is widely agreed that a national organisation is of vital importance. Only the most marginalised groups, which see themselves as the sole “bearers of Islam” are indifferent to its fate. It does however have profound faults. For example, although it enjoys good relations with government, it was unable to save Muslim personal law, which had been enjoyed by Muslims on Christmas Island until its replacement by Australian family law in July 1992.
Australia has a multicultural policy framework which has completely replaced the old discriminatory policies. The aim is admirable. “Government multi-culturalism policies aim to bring all Australians to fully participate in society and development. Australian institutions are expected to acknowledge, reflect and respond to its culturally diverse communities.” Unfortunately events sometimes overtake theory.
Discrimination at the level of Local Government
Muslims in Australia have faced, in the past two decades, many attempts to prevent them from exercising their right to freedom of worship. Many have been surprised to find that, despite the rhetoric about freedom of religion, denial of permission to establish mosques has become the norm in relations between the Muslim community and local government.
Victoria, which is home to about one third of Australia’s Muslims, has been a difficult place in which to establish a place of worship. Practically every Islamic society there has had to wage a political or legal campaign with its local Council to obtain permission to build or extend a mosque.
In the northern suburbs of Melbourne, the Broadmeadows Islamic Society had to face a protracted dispute in the mid-1980s between the Society and local residents. Spearheaded by the local Progress Association, objecting to the construction of a mosque in a residentially zoned area, the dispute raised divisions which nearly twenty years later have not fully healed. Local government feared to take a strong stand in the face of the anti-mosque lobby and State government intervention was eventually necessary. A mosque was subsequently constructed on a different site. There was also a major dispute over the erection of a minaret on the mosque in the late 1980s.
The Lebanese Muslim Community in Newport also faced considerable hostility. In June 1984 this group purchased a small house in Newport as a place of worship. The Melbourne Age reported that Williamstown City Council had received 10 objections to the mosque, including a petition with 90 signatures. However the Muslims had their defenders in the community. One of them, Councillor Schutt, said 2000 of Newport’s 7500 residents were Lebanese. “She said most of the objections were based on prejudice and misunderstanding of Muslim traditions. ‘They said the Lebanese would be performing strange sacrificial acts with animals and that we would be encouraging a rash of proposals from other minority groups’”
The Lebanese Muslims were denied a planning permit by the Council on the grounds that the premises did not meet local planning requirements and because there were objections from local residents. The house had to be closed and the local authority made it clear that permission would only be granted for a site already designated as a place of worship. The Islamic Society subsequently purchased a church building and was able to establish its mosque.
An application by the Islamic Society of Victoria, Preston to build a minaret in 1986 was rejected by the local council. . It subsequently applied for permission to build the minaret and also to install facilities to provide for funeral services from the mosque. Although the Preston Council planning committee recommended approval, the Preston Council refused the application. The Society appealed the decision and won. It now has a minaret which is an accepted part of the local scene and the mosque provides funeral facilities for the Muslim community.
Thomastown Turkish Islamic Society experienced problems with the Whittlesea Shire Council in 1987 and 1988 in gaining renewal of its permit to use its premises as a place of worship and a community centre. Its original permit had only been for a community centre, not a place of worship. This was due to the advice of a local councillor who thought it would be easier to get a permit for such a facility than for a place of worship. It lodged a series of applications to use the premises as a place of worship in 1987 and 1988 and each application was rejected.
In late 1991 the Coburg Council imposed restrictions on the use of an Islamic Centre in Coburg which was the meeting place and place of worship of the Australian Islamic Social Association. Local residents protested that night prayers attracted too many people to the locality so the premises should not be used after 8.30 p.m., despite the fact that there are noisy clubs with loud music in the same street. The restrictions upon the building made it almost useless to the Muslim community so it had to move.
This Association purchased the former Broadmeadows Technical College and established a mosque in the old Commonwealth Library of the school and quickly moved to establish an Islamic College in the classrooms. From the announcement of the purchase there was protest from the community, again led by one of the local Progress Associations. In order to ameliorate this dissension, the Broadmeadows Council organised a community seminar to introduce the new owners to the local community. The aims and purposes of the Association were explained and the fears of the local residents were laid on the table. Both sides were impressed by the normality and decency of the others and a repeat of the divisive campaign whipped up over the Broadmeadows Turkish Islamic Society Mosque was avoided.
However the holding of two Eid Festivals each year on the school site over the next few years, attracting up to 30,000 visitors, combined with the slamming of car doors late at night after Night Prayer, led to a new protest by local residents. The Council offered an alternative site for the Eid Festivals, which has been used successfully for several years now, in the main commercial precinct of Broadmeadows. The State Government found an alternative site which was offered to the Association but this offer in the end was not taken up. The mosque has had to be closed for Friday Juma Prayer, for dawn prayers and for night prayers but the Islamic College continues.
A dispute with local government, based on a resident action campaign, led to legal action before a minaret could be built on the mosque of the Albanian Islamic Society in Carlton. Some local residents opposed the un-Australian nature of the minaret. In Footscray the Islamic Society, when rebuilding its mosque, suddenly found that new parking regulations had been imposed beyond those which had existed before. They ended up abandoning plans to build there and purchased land in St Albans.
New South Wales, with over half the Australian Muslim population, has also been the scene of many disputes with local government. In Campbelltown the local Islamic society sought council permission to establish an Islamic Centre from 1981 until 1991. Opposition from local residents and a local newspaper, which had portrayed the centre as a potential fortified building bristling with armed guards, prevented any progress being made for a long time. As in most cases, after protracted dispute, the mosque went ahead. Camden Council and the Fairfield Council were also both involved in lengthy disputes with the Muslim community over the rights of Muslims to have Islamic Centres.
The Department of Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs revealed a degree of concern over trends in the 1980s. A 1988 paper commented, on the matter of rejection of mosque and temple projects; “In some instances, the authorities involved have raised legitimate planning questions – e.g. access and noise problems – when objecting to religious development, and sometimes assistance has been given to find an alternative site for the development. There is also evidence, however, that in other cases certain councils and local residents are unduly and unfairly resisting an ethnic religious presence in residential areas.”
In February 1987 a Conference of Planning Ministers was held in Wellington NZ. At the request of the then Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs the Hon. Chris Hurford, the then Minister for Local Government and Administrative Services the Hon. Tom Uren supported the adoption of the recommendations of the Agenda Paper prepared by the NSW Department of Environment and Planning. This paper was adopted by the Conference.
The five recommendations were:
Circulars should be prepared by planning agencies in each State, outlining for Local Government, suitable guidelines for religious developments.
In each State community information officers or their equivalent provide and co-ordinate information and advice to ethnic communities about available properties suitable for religious use and development including underused or disused church sites.
Christian church organizations be approached in each State to provide information about redundant properties in their possession suitable for re-use by other religious bodies and be requested to consider the implications of the social and functional problems suffered by other religions.
The function of the Land and Environment Court in New South Wales and its equivalent in other States and in particular the respective appeal processes be clarified to the representatives of ethnic religious minorities.
Local Government associations in all States be approached to give consideration to the planning aspects connected with ethnic religious developments.
However this did not solve the problem.
The Sefton Mosque case, which aroused interest throughout the Muslim world, creating inquiries from Islamic organisations as far away as Turkey, shocked the Australian Muslim community, which despite some knocks, believes in the potential of the multicultural society. In 1995 the Bangladesh Islamic Centre of NSW bought a disused Presbyterian church in Helen Street, Sefton. Since 1954 it had been zoned as a place of worship, so the Society was sure it would be a safe choice for a mosque. They did not take into consideration the attitude of the Bankstown Council. It permitted use of the existing church as a place of public worship for only 12 months. This expired in 1997 and permission was withdrawn.
Closure of the mosque was challenged by the Islamic society and the case ended up in the Land and Environment Court of NSW. Jon Marsh of the Sydney Morning Herald reported “No fewer than six dictionaries were quoted in the case. In his conclusion, Justice Terry Sheahan ruled that: “A mosque, while a place of worship, is not a church, which is a place of worship in the Christian tradition.” The implications were obvious. The Bangladesh Society thus lost the court case and costs of $37,000 were awarded against it. These included the cost of their own solicitor and the cost of the QC who argued against them on behalf of the Bankstown Council.
The situation was serious. The mosque was permitted to remain open pending an appeal. The Premier of NSW, Mr Carr, was asked by the Muslim community to intervene. He spoke on the Voice of Islam radio station, saying he would like to help and his spokesman said that the Premier had asked the Ethnic Affairs Commission to discuss the matter with the Department of Local Government. The degree of concern within the Muslim community and amongst ethnic communities generally, was profound. “It is a very significant ruling. Every council all over Australia will use that ruling,” said Mr Ali Roude, chairman of the Islamic Council of NSW. “To say that a place of worship is only for Christians is something that should be addressed by the law makers immediately. If we are talking about multiculturalism and we are not being able to practice our religion freely, what’s the use of having multiculturalism in place?” Mr Stepan Kerkyasharian, chairman of the Ethnic Affairs Commission, also expressed grave concern over the implications of the ruling.
The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils established a “Save Sefton Mosque Fund” and in conjunction with the Islamic Society commenced a political lobbying campaign at both the State and Bankstown Council level. An appeal was lodged by the Islamic society and the Vice-President of AFIC, Dr Sikander Khan, was assigned by the national organisation to provide support and liaison with the Bangladesh Society. It was essential that the decision that a church is different from a mosque should be overturned. A barrister was appointed and an outside consultant, a Town Planner, hired.
The issue was resolved. On 16 March 2000, AFIC issued a press statement thanking the three Judges of the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of NSW for setting aside the ruling that a church was not a mosque.
This did not mean that the genuine concerns of the residents had been forgotten. “The Muslim community of Sydney expressed relief and happiness as this decision. However, leaders of the Bangladesh Islamic Centre in Sefton, south west of Sydney assured the local community that this does not change anything and that the local community’s legitimate concerns would not be ignored by them. A spokesman said that the Mosque officials are ready to work with the local residents to overcome any concerns.”
This problem continues to concern the Muslims. In 2001 the Victorian Muslim community faced community opposition over a mosque refurbishment, without expansion, in Carlton, over a minaret in Deer Park and over parking for the proposed rebuilding of the mosque in Newport. The allocation of land by Hume Council for a mosque near a shopping centre in the northwestern suburbs of Melbourne was also opposed by some sections of the community on planning grounds. Local Government attitudes have improved over the decade but there seems to be considerable disquiet amongst a minority within the Australian community over places of worship that are used too frequently (in their eyes) for worship. Churches used only once a week are acceptable but prayer five times a day is too much!
The Gulf War
Another indication that all was not well in Australian society was provided by the Gulf War. The invasion of Kuwait by the Ba’athist regime of Iraq in 1990 led to a crisis for the Australian Muslim community. Attacks on Muslims and Arabs became so serious that the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, after the outbreak of hostilities in January 1991, warned Muslims to keep a low profile and suggested that Muslim women only go out when absolutely necessary. The Islamic Council of Victoria had to employ a security firm and advised all Islamic Societies to do likewise.
The ACTU Ethnic Liaison Officer, Alan Matheson, issued several papers, “Developments in Migration” on the question of Muslims and Arabs in Australia during the Gulf Crisis. In a paper to the City of Prahran’s Multi Faith Civic Service he said that there are two periods in which minority groups have cause to fear: “In tough economic times minorities are frequently blamed for the hurt and despair that such times bring. And in times of international tension, crisis and war, minorities quickly learn how fragile is their place in the community.” His warning was taken seriously by the Muslim community.
In September 1990 in Victoria, attackers tried to burn down an Islamic School in Coburg, attacked a mosque in the same suburb and twice ransacked the Islamic Council of Victoria’s offices, stealing files containing names and addresses of Victorian Muslims. The Al-Taqwa Mosque at Werribee Islamic School was burnt to the ground. Graffiti were sprayed on the Preston and Lysterfield mosques in Melbourne. Earlier the same month in Sydney, the Lakemba mosque which has up to 5000 worshippers at Friday prayers, received bomb threats on two consecutive Fridays. In January 1991 the Rooty Hill mosque in Sydney was fire bombed.
Some mosques received a stream of threatening phone calls, warning of bombs, or of hit-lists of Muslims. Arabic writing on an Islamic School bus in the northern suburbs of Melbourne had to be removed because of attacks on it as it carried primary school children to and from their homes.
Apart from these attacks upon Islamic properties, there were many cases of abuse and assault of individuals identified as Muslim. Many women reported being abused by people in the street and on more than one occasion attempts were made to rip off their ‘hijab’. In Broadmeadows, a woman wearing Islamic ‘hijab’ was smashed onto the floor in a shopping centre and knocked unconscious. One woman was refused service at a Werribee service station and told to “get her petrol from Saddam” (the President of Iraq). The car of a Kashmiri Muslim woman wearing traditional dress was deliberately bumped into in Brunswick and its driver accused her of being an ‘Iraqi terrorist’. One Muslim lady from Bosnia was subjected to constant telephone harassment because of her family name.
In Campbelltown near Sydney, the Melhelm family was subjected to such constant racist harassment that it had to shift and Ali Melhelm’s death was attributed by his doctor to the one month terror campaign waged against him and his family. Several Muslim families received threatening mail and a brick was thrown through the window of one home in Burwood.
Muslim school students were subjected to abuse and girls wearing ‘hijab’ were often made feel afraid for their safety. Although the teacher unions and the Ministry of Education strongly defended Arab and Muslim students from harassment, there were some isolated instances of harassment of these students by individual teachers.
The Prime Minister on January 14 1991 and then the Governor General in his Australia Day Message, issued statements against the harassment of Australian Arabs and Australian Muslims.
The Minister for Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs, Gerry Hand, the Minister for Justice, Senator Tate, the Premiers of Victoria and NSW, the Federal Opposition spokesperson on Immigration, Mr Ruddock, the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, Sir Ronald Wilson, the ACTU, the Victorian Trades Hall Council, the Council of Churches, the Equal Opportunities Commissioner, the Chairman of the Ethnic Affairs Commission, the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils, the Victorian Police, the Ministry of Education in Victoria, all issued statements against the harassment of and discrimination against Arab and Muslim Australians. Most government departments dealing with the Arab and Muslim communities set up strategies to deal with racist attacks, harassment and discrimination.
The Equal Opportunity Commissioner and the Human Rights Commission took the initiative in organising a media forum in Melbourne on 21 February 1991, at which members of the Muslim and Arab-Australian communities could discuss their concerns about the media stereotyping of their communities with representatives of the press, radio and television. Concern about increased reports on racist violence had led to a National Inquiry into Racist Violence being established in December 1988 and its report was presented to the Commonwealth Attorney-General in March 1991. It concluded “Evidence to the Inquiry has shown that the victims of racist intimidation, harassment and violence on the basis of ethnic identity are most likely to be Asian or Arab Australians.”
The response of mainstream Australia to the persecution of the Muslim and Arab communities during this period was heartening but there were creatures lurking in the shallows which were worrying.
The lack of inhibition which was displayed by some public figures in verbally assaulting Muslim and Arab members of the community was itself worthy of note. One example was provided by Mr Bruce Ruxton. President of the Victorian Branch of the RSL . He put out a statement which said in part: “Its high time the Western World took on the Arabs. They are nothing more than a tribe of ratbags who got an overblown sense of their own importance when oil was discovered in their part of the world. They were happier it seems to me, when they were nomads. Any race that can spawn the likes of President Hussein of Iraq is a strange race indeed and any country which tolerates his antics as his own people do, must be a strange people.” The lack of reflection thus displayed says much about the mind-set of those who launch such attacks.