Muslim Australians

29 March, 2009

Afghan camel drivers standing next to a camel train, about 1912 - 1930.
Afghan camel drivers standing next to a camel train, about 1912 - 1930.
Image: John Flynn
Source: National Library of Australia Pictorial Collection

Question: What is the relationship between migration and Islam?

Answer: Australia is a nation of many cultures and faiths. It is also a close neighbour of the most populous Muslim country in the world. Islam has a long and rich history in Australia, and continues to be a significant element of the nation’s religious make-up. There is also a strong connection between migration and Islam – of all people affiliating with the religion in the 2006 Australian census, 62% were overseas born.

Yet there is nothing new about the presence of Muslims in Australia. Before European settlement Macassan traders were visiting Australia’s north and interacting with indigenous people, a long-term relationship whose effects can still be traced in the Macassan-derived words in Aboriginal languages of northern Australia. It’s in relation to this early trade relationship that historian Regina Ganter has called Muslims “Australia’s first non-indigenous segment.”

Later, a few Muslims came to Australia as part of European settlement. These were followed by camel-drivers from Beluchistan, the Punjab, Kashmir and the Sindh province who arrived in Australia to play vital roles in the early exploration of the continent, including the Burke and Wills expedition of 1860 and the 1872 construction of the overland telegraph line. At one stage approximately 3000 “Afghans” were working as camel drivers across the country.

Other significant Muslim arrivals occurred in 1924 (Albanians), the 1950s (South-East Asian students under the Colombo Plan) and 1968 (a Turkish assisted passage scheme). By the 2006 census, 1.7% of the Australian population was identifying with Islam, representing a population growth of 20.9% on the 2001 count – only Hinduism (55.1%) and “no religion” (27.5%) had bigger percentage jumps in the same five-year period.

Steady migration of Muslims to the state of Victoria has made it the home of many Islamic institutions, schools and community organisations. Approximately two-fifths of Australia’s Muslims live in Melbourne, and originate from over 70 countries.

Further reading

Ganter, Regina, “Muslim Australians: the deep histories of contact”, Journal of Australian Studies, 32.4, 2008, pp. 481–92.

Saeed, Abdullah, Islam in Australia, Allen & Unwin, 2003.

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