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.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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