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The pace of Muslim integration into Australian society


Muslim at prayer

In the past months the concern of the Muslim communities in Australia over the effect on them of legislation directed against terrorism has grown. So has anxiety among many other Australians about the evidence of increasing violence and discrimination against Muslims.  

Some well-intentioned Australians have proposed steps that Muslim communities themselves might take to placate the fears held by many Australians that Muslim places of worship breed radicalisation.

These steps focus on leadership and religious teaching in Mosques. It is suggested, for example, that local Imams, not those from overseas, should be appointed to Mosques and that the services might be conducted in English. It is argued that this may diminish the segregation of Muslims into national groups, and also allay the fears of non-Muslims about what is done in the mosques.

Muslims, of course, will make their own judgments about such suggestions. They are unlikely to be favourable.  And from long experience of chaplaincy to a small Catholic immigrant community, I would also counsel against them.  They run counter to all that we have seen and learned of the faith of migrant groups in Australia and their relationship to the wider Catholic Church.

When Australia sought migrants after the second world war, Catholic Bishops sought chaplains for the different national and linguistic groups from the sending nations. These were cheerfully provided and were received as a gift. Generally the immigrant groups were encouraged to accept the hospitality of local congregations for their services. Only a few groups built churches of their own.

The special services led to grumblings among some priests and parishioners that the immigrant Catholics did not contribute to the life of the local parishes. Nor did they conform to the Australian sense of what being Catholic meant.  It would be better if they simply integrated into the Australian congregations with their expectations and practices.

But these populist attitudes never became prevalent. Particularly after the liturgy was celebrated in vernacular languages instead of English, it was recognised that for migrants to live their faith in a new country was not simply a matter of of leaving one culture and joining another. It was more like grafting a branch from one tree on to another.  The life of the branch had to be nurtured until the graft took, when it would be part of the new tree but bear flowers from the old tree from which it was taken.

In churches people needed to pray and converse about faith in their own language and culture. They needed to have this opportunity offered them as long as they retained a sense of transition. This process could take some generations, but would be marked by continuous change.

In my experience the language and customs of the community at prayer gradually become an amalgam of the immigrant and the host nation as children become more proficient in English than their ancestral language, and are influenced by the practices of the local schools and parishes. But people who were elderly when they came and have never come to think in English continue to pray in their old language and ways.

This process is consistent with an understanding that identity is not something solid that we are given or choose, but that it is given by nodes of interacting relationships. It is layered in the sense that some of these relationships are more important than others. We became who we are by developing connections with others through education, nationality, faith, work, sporting and other groups. The stronger these layers of identity and the more they overlap, the stronger and more secure our identity is.    

The process of becoming Australian is marked by such formal points as the right to vote and the choice to take out citizenship. But the deeper aspects of the process involve strengthening the relationships that shape our identity and building connections with the host society through these relationships.  For migrants, making connections will depend largely on how welcoming and accepting of difference are the people and groups we encounter in the host community.

In the case of Catholic migrant communities the welcome extended by local congregations and the encouragement they receive to worship in their own language enables them themselves to feel part of the Australian church. That is the sap of grafting.

Against that background we can see the importance of Muslim groups maintaining their own praying community and culture including, centrally, the use of their native language of worship. In coming generations we might expect that the place of Imams and the pattern of worship will be influenced by the developing culture of the community and the relationships that it builds.  

But the pace of this process will be a matter for the communities themselves. The most harmful thing that native born Australians could do to the grafting of Muslim communities on to Australian roots would be to pressure them to abandon their cultural roots in order to fit our expectations and to placate our fears. That would stunt the development of an Australian identity. For it would stifle the trust needed to build the variety and depth of interconnection that shape identity.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. 

Muslim prayer image by Shutterstock.



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Islam, Muslim community, migration, multiculturalism, worship



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Existing comments

It is not only elderly migrants who continue to pray in their own language and ways. An acquaintance of mine who arrived here as a young teenage refugee from South America, now in her late middle age, tells me that she has never been able to recite the Lord’s Prayer in English, for her it only has resonance in Spanish. Furthermore, rather than expecting Muslims to appoint English speaking Imams just to allay the fears of non-Muslims about what goes on in mosques, why don’t the rest of us learn their language, it just might give us an insight into how difficult it is to find a place in a new country. Just this, in fact, was done years ago by a suburban PP in Brisbane, a man of Irish background, who learnt Italian because he wanted his Italian speaking parishioners to feel comfortable going to confession with him.

Paul | 01 July 2015  

The moslem agenda is different to that of any other religion. A bit more homework is required before giving our country to them. If they want to live that life, why come here? Why should this country change to integrate them? Wake up Australia, before it's too late! Our descendants deserve their freedom and islam gives none of that, particularly to women. Once in, the only way out is in a box.

John | 01 July 2015  

Thank you for this inspirational and thought providing article. My ancestors spoke excellent English & we're very successful professional & business people. Till the day they died they continued to use their Catalan prayer books. Reminds me of the old saying about country people. "You can take the people out of the bush but you Can't take the bush out of the people!"

Helen | 02 July 2015  

This is a complex topic. The matter of alienated Muslims in Western society is something which has already come up in Europe and the USA. I guess what we are trying to do is to plant the seeds of peaceful coexistence for the future between Muslims and the larger community. To this end I think the article "Double Alienation and Muslim Youth in Europe" by Adi Greif published on the website of the (private) United States Institute of Peace may give readers some useful insights http://www.usip.org/publications/double-alienation-and-muslim-youth-in-europe There are plenty of people in the Australian Muslim community who are already trying to build bridges. Anne Aly, on last Monday's Q&A is one. So is Jamal Rifi in Sydney. ES's occasional contributor Irfan Yusuf is another. I think it is important to listen to them.

Edward Fido | 02 July 2015  

As I was reading this fine article I was thinking of the opening words of "Wayfaring Stranger": 'I am a poor, wayfaring stranger/Travelling through this world alone.' The diversity in any group is probably the only sure connection. And sensitivity to difference is key to integration. Integration shouldn't mean uniformity but a settling-in of difference. Liked those last two sentences Andy.

Pam | 02 July 2015  

Perhaps the pace of Muslim integration into Australian Society would increase if we could establish a 'half-way house'. If Australian Society were to be truly Australian, perhaps we should cease reliance on the two cultural props we cling to, which double the difficulty for all migrants to identify with;- namely (1), the lip service to all things 'British', their flag in the corner of our flag; the face of their Monarch on our currency; a holiday on their birthday etc. We cling to these but expect migrants to sever ties with their traditions. And (2),Our 'Judeo-Christian' Traditions, which are based on failed and faulty theology. The 'Judeo' part represents a Tribal Dynastic theology, at odds with a Universal God. The 'Christian' part represents the Greek distortion of altering and deifying the beliefs they inherited. Most of what we have embraced as Tradition result from the politicalising of what the Romans adopted from the Greeks, which is far from the spirit of the first Christians. We may have arrived here before the Muslims, but we were not the first ones here.

Robert Liddy | 02 July 2015  

Maybe, Fr Andrew, integration of migrant peoples might have been a lot easier had Catholicism retained a universal liturgical language. Maybe the Latin Mass advocates had a point after all and the implementation of the vernacular was another great disaster for the Church as a unified people.

john frawley | 02 July 2015  

In the middle 1800s my husband's Great-grandfather brought his large family to Australia. His reason? So his sons wouldn't join the IRA and be killed. Many Muslim people live in the area where i do and I find the women respond readily to a smile. I also know Italian women who came in the 1950s and are embarrassed by their lack of English. They are passionately Australian.

Margaret McDonald | 02 July 2015  

On Aug 04 2013 Putin gave this speech:. "In Russia, we live like Russians. Any minority from anywhere wanting to live, work and eat here should speak Russian. respect and uphold Russian laws. If they prefer Sharia law they should go to live where that's the law. Russia does not need these minorities, they need Russia. We wull not grant them special privileges or change our laws to fit their desires no matter how loud they scream "discrimination". We will not toleratre disrespect of the Russian culture, We should learn from what's happening in other coiuntries who bow to these people if we are to survive as a Russian nation. Those minorities are taking over those other countries. They will not take over Russia. If our customs and traditions are not comfortable with their ways or Sharia Law they can leave. When this honourable legislative body is creating new laws they should nave in mind the Russian National interest." The Duma (Russian Parliament) gave Putin a 5 miniute standing ovation.

Robin Henderson | 02 July 2015  

If they want to live that life, why come here? Some would of course say the same about Christians...

margaret | 02 July 2015  

Kevin Rudd - former Prime Minister of Australia, angered some Muslims in Australia by saying that he supported spy agencies monotoring mosques in a bid to head off terrorist radical attacks. Immigrants, not Australians, are the ones who must adapt. Thhis nation should not need to worry about offending some minority or individual culture. After Bali we have experienced a surge in national patriotism. Our country and culture has been developed through the trials, struggles and victories of millions of Christian men and women seeking freedom.We speak English! If you want to be part of our society - learn the language. Most Australians beleve in God, Christian principles founded this nation. You will not disrespect out heritage. if we display it on the walls of our schools you have no right to object and if this offends you then you should find another country as your home. We will respect your beliefs and will not question so you must accept ours and live in peaceful harmony and enjoyment in our culture. Australia is our country with our lifestyle.

Esther Henderson | 02 July 2015  

From my experience very few local imams have the necessary training. Many of them have done short courses overseas at institutions which promote the very views that are the cause of our current problem. That said there are some true gems among our local imams who have had a more traditional training. We still need to bring well trained and well qualified imams from overseas but we need to mentor and support them properly. They need to be assessed and supported by the national imams council which should act as an advocate for them with their employers, the local mosque committee because the imams frequently fall victim to divisive mosque politics. The mams also meed training both in the English language so they can communicate with younger second generation members and in Australian customs and habits so they can understand the wider community. Because they also perform a welfare role they need appropriate counseling skills and knowledge of community resources they can access. All this needs training and money. I believe the imams council did attempt to formulate a training program but it failed for lack of support. It is time to revisit it and give it some financial support

Gary Dargan | 02 July 2015  

Andrew's point that identity is given by "nodes of interacting relationships " and through building relationships with the host society are interesting points. It seems in stark contrast to the message of Tony, ( and apparently Vladimir Putin) of Get onto the right team and there is only one team and that's Team Australia. My Greek neighbor ,30 years in Australia still speaks little English . Her children are fluent speakers are members of soccer clubs ,have a variety of careers. She bakes cakes for us at Greek Easter and accepts mediocre offerings back at our celebratory times. Her family has added so much richness to our lives as have our new Muslim friends escaped from a terrifying situation in their home country. Maybe it's time to stop being afraid , to welcome the stranger and celebrate the diversity of language , culture and religion. A teacher once reminded me"remember we all smile , laugh and cry in the same language." She could have easily added what a reward we get from building those connections that Andrew wrote about.

Celia | 02 July 2015  

"Maintaining their culture" sounds fine in the broad sense but claiming that right can perpetuate some extremely oppressive (however culturally justified) restrictions on the movement of women outside their home. In the adult migrant English home tutor scheme we tiutors encounter women who are virtually imprisoned in their small apartments, They have none of the freedom of movement Australian women take for granted, "Maintaining their culture" is politically correct but highly problematic in detail and not just on issues like female circumcision but everyday life where misery and boredom is perpetuated as cultural imperatives.

Timothy J. Macnaught | 03 July 2015  

I appreciate your thoughtful reflective article Andy Hamilton. This places an onus on us for our very best efforts towards being a welcoming new home for our Muslim brothers and sisters. Surely this will assist in inosculation and a successful graft.

Christina Coombe | 05 July 2015  

Please do not confuse Islam with the culture of immigrant groups. Locking women in an apartment is patriarchal and tribal, not Islamic. There are over 6000 famous female Islamic scholars who were certainly not locked up. It is also false to claim Christians were here before Muslims. We need to know more of our history. See Macknight, C.C. The Voyage to Marege’ MUP 1976. They did not try to enslave the First Nations people.

Bilal | 06 July 2015  

Bilal, perhaps you don't realise, there is a later anthropological study than what you've cited. It finds the discourse between the Macassan Islamic fishermen and the Northern Australian First Nations People soured because the people of this nation came to experience an oppressive culture of exploitation. (Anthropologist Ian McIntosh) In direct contrast to your last summary sentence. Similarly, the Christianised island of Ambon was experiencing that same acquisitiveness by 1940 (first hand account) from Islamic immigrants that resulted in rancor and bloodshed when the new immigrants reckoned their power would be enhanced by trading their neighbours and defenders to the Japanese Imperial Navy. Roughly 60 years later the Australian War Graves on that island were being systematically desecrated (same first hand account). On the same island less than 2 years previously, 100 Christians were murdered in a torched church. Many more had died and many more did. Strife flowed from Aceh and was floated by Bin Laden. So close to our shores, yet muffled by Basil Fawlty logic, which we echo with false declarations that try to keep the scaries in the dark.

MichCook | 07 July 2015  

Islam is not a "branch" that grafts to another tree, it is an all consuming vine that will host of a tree till the tree is killed!

Andrew | 07 October 2015  

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