By Talal Yassine
January 27, 2017
Islam has played a vital part of discovering Australia from its earliest days and remains part of the rich tapestry of modern Australian society.
Invoking 'secular' as a term is always contentious, but I'm going to say it anyway: Australia is largely a secular nation.
Before anyone becomes concerned about the moral fibre of that large brown land at the bottom of the world, I need it to be clear that Australia's secularism is limited to politics. At a personal level, a politician can, without restriction, be a person of faith. However, in Australian politics, there is a line drawn between the politician as a person, and how they represent their constituents who will likely come from many faiths and backgrounds.
Although politically secular, the majority of Aussies class themselves as religious. If you walk around any Australian city you will be confronted with many places of worship, servicing all faiths. They aren't hidden away either - after all, it is extraordinarily difficult to hide a building that is 100 metres tall and takes up a whole city block.
However, it's not all churches and cathedrals - there are quite sizable mosques in each city as well. A pretty good representation from a real estate perspective, given that Muslims make up only 2 per cent of the Australian population.
And that's where things get a little interesting.
While a tiny band of Australian nationalists might moan their unfounded concerns that "The Muslims are coming", and thus try to latch onto the current global rhetoric of religious fear, the reality is that Muslims have had contact with Australia for centuries.
As far back as the mid to late 16th century, the Makassans from Indonesia harvested sea cucumbers from the shallow waters off the coast of what is now Australia. What they harvested needed to be processed and dried on shore for the trip back, and so they came into contact with Australia's indigenous people. While goods were no doubt traded, it was the Makassans' religion, Islam, which left its mark.
To put things in perspective, the Makassans arrived on Australian shores around the time that England and Spain were busy hurling armadas at each other. Anthropologists have found lingering cultural traditions, cave art, language, and culinary similarities that are a direct result of prolonged contact with those Muslim traders from Indonesia.
Oblivious to the turmoil in 16th century Europe, I imagine the Makassans and Australian Aboriginals partook in an activity that Aussies still engage in today - sharing a barbeque and few laughs. Although, in 2016 it is fair to say that Aussie lamb has become far more popular than the sea cucumber.
Even though England enthusiastically started its colonisation of Australia in 1788, it wasn't until much later that the interior of this new and inhospitable land was successfully explored and settled.
It wasn't through want of trying - Australian history books are littered with noble but ultimately tragic tales of failed explorations. That was until camel drivers (collectively called "Afghans") arrived and assisted with exploration, settlement, and the ongoing supply of Australia's remote and unforgiving deserts.
A mammoth undertaking. Put in perspective, the UAE would fit comfortably into just one of Australia's smaller deserts, and four UAEs would squeeze into Western Australia?s Great Victoria Desert alone. That's a lot of desert, and without the Afghans it might have taken until the advent of the Land Rover to work out just how big and inhospitable they really were.
While the Afghans were actually made up of cameleers from the region between Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan, there are no prizes for guessing that Islam was the religion they all had in common. They had such an impact that their descendants still live in the remote South Australian town of Maree today. A town that can lay claim to the first ever mosque in Australia, built no later than 1860, which was a precursor to the Adelaide's Grand Mosque. Built in 1888 the Grand Mosque stands in South Australia's capital, and is still in use today.
So that's arguably five centuries of Muslim contact with Australia and good 150 years of unarguable, documented involvement in the shaping of post-colonial Aussie history. The Muslims are coming? Muslims have been in Australia long before Australia was even Australia, actually.
Secular? Politically, yes. Socially, no. All faiths live side by side on Australian streets, and share barbeques on the weekend. It is something I am always proud of when people talk of Australian matters of faith, because I am grateful to be part of such a mish-mash of people and ideas.
I am also very grateful for our multi-cultural barbeques, cultural and real harmony. Islam has played a vital part of discovering Australia from its earliest days and remains part of the rich tapestry of modern Australian society.
Professor Talal Yassine OAM is the Chairman of Gulf Australia Corporation