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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Mawson’s Feat Magnified a Century On: Shokalskiy mission caught short

In attempting to retrace the steps of Douglas Mawson’s 1912-3 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, a seventy-four man team comprising scientists, tourists and crew aboard the Shokalskiy Russian mission ship became trapped by thick sea ice on Christmas Eve, in an event widely covered by the global media. Several painstaking rescue attempts have led to the evacuation – by Chinese helicopter – of the 52 non-crew members, relieving them from a concerning and embarrassing ordeal.

A rapid change in winds moved ice floes that caught the Shokalskiy offguard
A rapid change in winds moved blasted snow and moved pack ice that caught the Shokalskiy offguard

A century ago, Mawson was one of a three-man sledging party – forming a larger expeditionary force of seven exploratory groups – that set out from Cape Denison to take recordings of the geology, meteorology and biology of eastern Antarctica.

Travelling some 500km from the main base camp, one of Mawson’s companions, and several accompanying dogs, were lost when they fell into a crevasse. Having already accomplished much in the name of science, Mawson and his remaining compatriot, Xavier Mertz, turned back towards base.

Mawson's primitive Antarctic base camp Source: Victoria State Library
Mawson’s primitive Antarctic base camp
Source: Victoria State Library

With only one week’s food supplies, and no provisions for the dogs, the recovery mission was apparently doomed. Unlike the people aboard the Shokalskiy, who were well-fed and sheltered from the unpredictably brutal weather of the Antarctic, Mawson and Mertz were forced to survive relentless blizzards, katabatic winds and malnutrition.

In a bid to stave off starvation, the two men began to kill their Husky dogs, consuming the livers now known to contain dangerously high levels of Vitamin A. Nauseous, frostbitten and wracked by delirium, Mertz died a short time later, forcing Mawson to retrace the final 100 miles to camp alone.

Mawson's expedition was an incredible feat of human determination and endurance
Mawson’s expedition was an incredible feat of human determination and endurance

That Mawson returned to camp alive is perhaps one of the greatest human endevaours during an era punctuated by similarly remarkable feats. It is also not surprising that, a century on, a well-equipped, well-informed scientific mission was keen to retrace Mawson’s path both as a testament to the endurance of his achievement and to provide contemporary scientific comparisons to the recordings made by him and his crew.

It is ironic that such a well-provisioned crew as that aboard the Shokalskiy barely made an indent into Mawson’s famed route. It also serves as a reminder that there is no place of touristic voyeurism in a climate as harsh as the Antarctic and that those nations wishing to exploit its natural resources need to undertake further preparation and research if they are to avoid the unhappy end to what was supposed to have been a mission of success and commemoration.