Islam in Australia: remembering the ‘Afghans’ in the aftermath of the Sydney hostage siege

Yesterday a hostage crisis in central Sydney ended fatally when two civilians were killed during an attempt to release them from the grasp of an Islamic extremist flying the flag of ISIS. Today’s fallout, with reports that the lone gunman, Iranian asylum seeker Man Haron Monis, was known to the police, have created fears of a backlash against Australia’s Muslim community.

The Sydney hostage siege ended in tragedy
The Sydney hostage siege ended in tragedy

These fears have been alleviated somewhat by a social media campaign in which ordinary Australians from across the religious and ethnic spectrum have voiced solidarity with the many moderate Muslims across the country. The incident has, nonetheless, highlighted the growing threat posed by Islamic extremism to Australia, which is part of the coalition trying to ‘degrade and destroy’ ISIS in Iraq.

Substantial Muslim immigration to Australia is a relatively recent phenomenon. The ‘White Australia Policy’, which operated in various forms until into the 1970s, restricted immigration to white Europeans in general, few of which professed the Islamic faith.

There are concerns in some quarters that this ‘new’ religion in Australia may lead to ethnic and religious divides and weaken the country’s internal security. It has fed into debates regarding the detention and repatriation of asylum seekers and the wisdom of Australia involving itself in Middle Eastern affairs.

What should be noted, however, is that the history of Islam in Australia predates even the 20th century. From the 1860s until the end of the 20th century, some 2,000 South Asian camel herders – collectively termed ‘Afghans’ – emigrated to Australia and subsequently settled there.

The first pioneering cameleers arrived to take part in the Burke and Wills Expedition which sought to travel from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, mapping and detailing the Australian interior like no Europeans had done before. Camels, it was determined, would be the most effective beasts of burden in the harsh conditions of the outback and the ‘Afghans’ served as porters.

The outset of the Burke & Wills Expedition with the 'Afghans' and their camels leading
The outset of the Burke & Wills Expedition with the ‘Afghans’ and their camels leading

More ‘Afghans’ subsequently arrived with their camels to aid the exploration and development of the continent before the construction of railways and roads made prospectors and traders less dependent on animal transport. Many of the ‘Afghans’ were Muslims and they settled in the country after their service was complete, becoming camel breeders and traders in their own right.

The first recorded mosque in Australia was established at Marree around 1861 and by 1888 the Central Adelaide Mosque (still standing) had been constructed. These ‘Afghans’ and their descendants never left and, despite discriminatory policy towards non-whites in Australia during the early 20th century, they continued to contribute to society.

Adelaide's Central Mosque complete with minarets
Adelaide’s Central Mosque complete with minarets

Indeed, the ‘Afghans’ stand as pioneers of Australia in much the same way that the Europeans who explored, developed and settled the interior do. They have also created a feral camel epidemic which has left a rather less positive legacy.

Either way, Islam in Australia is not new. It has domestic historical roots older than many other ethnic and religious groups in Australia. Furthermore, with the exception of a few isolated incidents, Muslims have lived peacefully on the continent.

It would be sad if the lone actions of one deranged extremist should scupper this. It is now down to the Australian security services to ensure that the minority that share the views of Man Haron Monis are weeded out and sent packing back to the Middle East. Theere they can die for their abominable cause without threatening innocent Australia civilians.

Bahrain and Britain Rejuvenate Historic Ties with Naval Base Agreement

News that Britain will build a new naval base in Bahrain has disappointed many local and international observers alike who feel that the deal is a reward for the failure of David Cameron’s government to put sufficient pressure on the Gulf state to improve its human and political rights record.

Mina Sulman port will be the site of Britain's new Middle East naval base
Mina Sulman port will be the site of Britain’s new Middle East naval base

For Britain it is certainly a telling step, the country’s first naval base east of the Suez Canal since their withdrawal from Bahrain in 1971. It shows the willingness of the British government to take an increasingly active role in promoting security in the Middle East and rejuvenates ties with a traditional ally.

Bahrain officially came under British control in 1892, although in reality British merchants and administrators had played an influential role in the kingdom for more than a century prior to that. The British were inextricably linked to the Al Khalifa dynasty, which has ruled Bahrain since 1783. In exchange for ensuring Bahrain’s security, Britain was given exclusive economic rights in the country and control over Bahrain’s foreign relations.

Bahrain prospered under British (and increasingly American) guidance, becoming an important trading hub along the Empire’s trade routes. Exploitation of pearl fisheries and, from the 1930s, oil, contributed to Bahrain’s economic ascent.

Bahrain's first oil well in 1931 - in 1935 Britain would move its entire Middle Eastern fleet to Bahrain
Bahrain’s first oil well in 1931 – in 1935 Britain would move its entire Middle Eastern fleet to Bahrain

 

It would take the rise of Arab nationalism and the spread of anti-colonial sentiment in the post-WWII period before Bahrain eventually tired of British overlordship. That said, the two states have retained strong relations since Bahrain’s independence in 1971 and the new naval base agreement a strong signal of intent for a long-term strategic partnership.

The Al-Khalifa rulers are aware of the role Britain played in enabling Bahrain’s rise towards an independent and prosperous statehood. In agreeing to host a new British naval base, they are acknowledging this, in addition to underlining their commitment to playing a lead role in bringing security to the world’s most fragile region.

From Frobisher’s ‘Gold’ to Bountiful Uranium: Greenland and the riches of the Arctic

The melting of the polar ice caps is not all bad news for the people of Greenland. Indeed, it has increased the prospects of exploiting the abundant mineral resources on the world’s largest island, which remains under the sovereignty of Denmark.

Greenland's ice sheet is melting quickly, uncovering more natural resources every year
Greenland’s ice sheet is melting quickly, uncovering more natural resources every year

In particular, the Greenlandic government claims that it has sufficient uranium reserves to make it the fifth-largest exporter of the metal in the world, enough to contribute $20bn a year to the island’s economy.

Unlike large parts of the Arctic, the sovereignty of Greenland is not disputed between the world’s powers. That said, there has been a growing agitation for independence from the Greenlandic people. This has been nipped in the bud by economic realities, which dictate that Greenland is too reliant on Danish loans and grants to go it alone.

Uranium could change that and its presence on the island is undisputed. This is not the ‘fool’s gold’ of history. Between 1576 and 1578, English seaman and privateer Martin Frobisher embarked on three voyages in search of the Northwest Passage. His attempts foundered yet along the coast of Greenland and present-day Canada he discovered what he believed was an abundance of gold.

Risking his men and his ships in hazardous Arctic conditions, Frobisher transported several hundred tons of the ‘gold’ ore back to England (along with several captured Inuit) believing that, whilst he had failed in achieving his main goal, he had made his fortune.

The first European portrait of an Inuit by John White - this Inuit was captured on Frobisher's 2nd voyage
The first European portrait of an Inuit by John White – this Inuit was captured on Frobisher’s 2nd voyage

Of course the ‘gold’ turned out to be iron pyrites, a worthless commodity, and Frobisher is now better remembered for the geographical contributions of his voyages and his efforts in repelling the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Although uranium is ready to be mined in Greenland it is proving, in a sense, to be a modern-day ‘fool’s gold’. This is a result of legal, rather than technical or geographic, limitations. Because uranium is a crucial component in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, its extraction and export has to be carefully monitored.

Therefore, negotiating a legal framework to allow Greenland to export the product, as well as to invite global mining corporations to come and excavate it, could take many years and requires Danish leadership given that Copenhagen is responsible for Greenland’s defence.

Frobisher thought he had discovered fabulous riches that would bolster the fortunes of England in the 16th century. He was wrong. Greenland’s politicians today know that they are sitting on a fortune that will transform their economy and potentially set the stage for independence.

Despite this, they are feeling the same frustrations experienced by the great sea captain over 400 years ago. Watch this space.

A uranium mine in Australia which, along with Canada and Kazakhstan, accounts for 64% of the world's production
A uranium mine in Australia which, along with Canada and Kazakhstan, accounts for 64% of the world’s production