Muslim University Students in Australia

Dr Ali White

Muslim University Students in Australia - an Inside View 

Of all Australian Universities, UWS probably has the largest number of students who are both Muslim in religion and Australian in citizenship[1]. And, two of the areas where UWS has campuses - the Canterbury-Bankstown and Parramatta regions - are among the largest Arabic-speaking populations in Sydney (NSW Premier's Department, 2003: 10-11)[2]. This contribution hopes to give a view from the inside on some of the needs and outlooks of these students, while also looking more generally at the needs and views of Muslim students at Australian universities. I will begin with a discussing certain erroneous assumptions underlying much of this discourse, then move to examination of stereotyping of Muslim youth in Australia in theory and reality. This lays the basis for establishing the social basis of the stigmatisation of these Muslim youth and to the consideration of some elements in a practical framework for worthwhile engagement by Australian universities with Muslim students.

'Muslim Australians' and 'Muslim special needs' 

Before commencing, it is important to nip in the bud a couple of assumptions. At one, highly practical, level, it makes good sense to speak of 'Muslim Australians' and 'Muslim special needs'; we are in Australia, after all, and Muslim students do have some unique needs. But we should neither exaggerate nor essentialise these two facts, into abstract meta-theories disconnected from reality.

Muslim youth brought up in Australia are obviously 'Muslim Australians', in the sense that they are both Australian (whatever that means culturally) and Muslim. But that is all it means. A 'Muslim Australian' is not qualitatively different in his or her religious beliefs or practices from a Muslim anywhere else. (And, if they are, they have ceased being Muslims, and become something else.) Muslim students do generally adhere to the Islamic dietary code and pray five times daily. These facts generate specific needs, when large numbers of Muslim students present at an educational institution. But these requirements are easily accommodated by institutions and do not require grand philosophising. Nor do the Muslim dress code, or the Islamic practice of not physically touching persons of the opposite gender, require symposia to be convened. All these 'differences' call for is simple respect.

Australia has over 200 different ethnic and cultural communities and we have all learned fairly easily to live together and accommodate each other's peculiarities. Essentialising Muslims as the exotic 'Other', is to fall into the old 'Orientalist' trap, which constructs non-Anglo realities as essentially inscrutable and thus unfathomable. This essentialising is not politically constrained: it can have either a right-wing (racist) or left-wing (patronising, 'politically correct') face[4]. In either manifestation, it is both ugly and terribly limiting. As Lila Abu-Lughod (2002: 790) puts it, we need to 'break with the language of alien cultures'. Muslims are not qualitatively different from other human beings and deserve to be understood in all their living human complexity, instead of essentialised - that is, instead of being marked as utterly different and put in metaphoric glass cases.

Look at it this way: youths of Anglo-Celtic background are never subject to speculation on their religious or cultural practices, when society attempts to understand their behaviour. We take it for granted that they are all discrete personages, with individual personalities, likes, dislikes, education levels and abilities. Similarly, youths of Muslim background cannot be understood by essentialising of either the right- or left-wing varieties.

Unfortunately, Australia's largest single cohort of Muslim students at the University of Western Sydney (Lebanese Muslim Australian youth) has experienced relentless essentialising of the right-wing type in recent years. Muslim students at UWS therefore do not inhabit a vacuum, but are affected by this racist essentialising. It is therefore worthwhile considering some of the effects this stereotyping has on Lebanese Muslim Australian youth in Sydney.

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Discrimination and accepting difference 

Media treatment of Lebanese Muslim Australian youth in Sydney over recent years has clearly been marred by ethnic and religious (Muslim) stereotyping, which links these elements inextricably to criminal and socially deviant behaviour. Worse, Sydney's Lebanese Muslim community has been held collectively responsible by the media, acting often in conjunction with the State Government and the police, and ordered to 'resolve' these problems. One media report even stated: there is a Lebanese 'way of crime' (Parnell, 19 January 2004).

Nathalie Wan (2003: 279-80) remarks that humans generally perceive differences between each other. It is only 'when particular human differences are evaluated negatively and viewed with negative moral meaning, [that] the basis for stigma is created'. Erving Goffman (1963) argues that all human differences are potentially the basis for the stigmatisation of individuals or groups by society as a whole. Demonstrating the theoretical framework for investigating the phenomenon of social stigma, he asserts:

Society establishes the means of categorizing persons and the complement of attributes felt to be ordinary and natural for members of each of these categories. Social settings establish the categories of persons likely to be encountered there (Goffman, 1963: 2).

Irwin Katz (1981: iii) notes that the stigmatised can include a multitude of different societal groups - each of which comprises individuals with 'attributes that do not accord with prevailing standards of the normal and good. They are often denigrated and avoided' either overtly or covertly' (Katz, 1981: iii). Goffman (1963: 48) argues that the 'visibility' of a given stigma is 'crucial' in deciding whether an individual (or group) is stigmatised or not. Wan (2003: 281) suggests:

Attributes such as skin colour and particular physical impairment provide visible evidence of stigma, so [that] their bearer can be immediately discredited. The more prominent the stigma, the more likely it will effect the individual's social interactions.

Given that social settings contain implicit 'categories of persons likely to be encountered there' (Goffman (1963: 2), Goffman asserts: 'We lean on these anticipations that we have, transforming them into normative expectations, into righteously presented demands' (Goffman, 1963: 2).

This process is largely unconscious. We only become aware of our assumptions when confronted with individuals or groups who do not meet them. In practice these assumptions become demands. Goffman (1963: 3) describes stigma as 'an attribute that is deeply discrediting' within a particular social interaction. Focussing on societal attitudes towards people with attributes that fall short of public expectations, he argues that a stigmatised person is 'reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one' (Goffman, 1963: 3):

By definition, of course, we believe the person with a stigma is not quite human. On this assumption we exercise varieties of discrimination, through which we effectively, if often unthinkingly, reduce his life chances. We construct a stigma-theory, an ideology to explain his inferiority and account for the danger he represents, sometimes rationalizing an animosity based on other differences, such as those of social class. We use specific stigma terms such as cripple, bastard, moron in our daily discourse as a source of metaphor and imagery, typically without giving thought to the original meaning (Goffman, 1963: 5).

Goffman (1963: 7) adds that a 'stigmatised individual tends to hold the same beliefs about identity that we do. The rub here, of course, is that such an individual understands that others (so-called 'normals') do not accept him as an equal, causing him 'to be intimately alive' to his failure to live up to his failure to meet the norm. The stigmatised individual can then become dominated by shame, 'arising from the individual's perception of one of his own attributes as being a defiling thing to possess' (Goffman 1963: 7).

A climate of hostility and divisiveness, intolerance - dichotomies of 'us' and 'them' - can then emerge. In the case of young Muslim Lebanese-Australians in NSW, the atmosphere has been set since 3 March 1998, when the then NSW Premier Bob Carr denounced so-called 'Lebanese gangs' in Sydney's South-West on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. Crimes by persons of Lebanese ancestry - especially if they happen to come from Muslim families - have been showcased by the NSW media ever since. The NSW State Government, the Commonwealth Government and a few senior NSW Police spokespersons have been keen to feed this media frenzy for their own purposes. These powerful entities have collaborated to craft and perpetuate the stereotype of Lebanese so-called 'Middle Eastern youth gangs'.

As Paul Tabar (2002) explains, these powerful entities (he calls them 'identity definers') do so because it empowers them:

to criminalize particular cultures by assigning to these cultures the mysterious power to generate criminal elements in society despite structural problems of unemployment, economic globalisation and institutional racism that are all encountered by migrant communities and migrant youths.

The September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the 2002 Bali bombing frame the international political environment for this stigmatising atmosphere. These international atrocities only exacerbate the demonisation of young Lebanese-Australians in NSW, as the 'identity definers' utilise them, to buttress their supposed 'case' against these young people.

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From stigma to social disaster? 

Yet, if we stop and ponder for a moment, we can observe that it is not unusual in modern society for young people of any faith community or ethnic origin to face problems 'fitting-in'. Like all youth in Australia, young Muslim Lebanese-Australians must contend with many challenges impacting on their identity - including stress and low self-esteem, stereotyping and stigmatisation. A kind of internal war is frequently played out, within the bodies of these stigmatised young people, between their own perceptions of themselves and those that society has formed about them. Rejected as equals by society, they can feel that society assesses the very attributes that make them what they are (their Muslim and Lebanese-Australian identities) as sources of shame. It is little wonder, then, that many of these youth conclude that 'normals' typically think negatively about them.

A dangerous vicious circle exists: marginalised and stigmatised by powerful sectors of Australian society, some young Lebanese-Australians feel pushed to deny their 'Australianness'. Ironically, this opens them up to the assertion that they refuse to participate in this society. This accusation is then used as a pretext to further marginalise these young people. Here is a recipe for social disaster.

Muslim 'special needs'

The purpose in raising these issues is not to evoke pessimism; it is simply to point out that a certain living context exists for this conference's discussion of the 'specific needs of Muslim students' - such as praying space and halal food, and acceptance of the Muslim dress code and the Islamic practice of not physically touching persons of the opposite gender. Despite the pervasive anti-Muslim media discourse, by the way, you might be surprised to learn that the Holy Qur'an instructs Muslims: [2.256] 'There is no compulsion in religion'. So, despite what the right-wing essentialists assert, requests by Muslim students for prayer space and other so-called 'specific needs' mentioned earlier are not part of a sinister jihadi plot to impose creeping Shari'ah Law.

Such requests are merely a statement of needs, and granting such requests is merely meeting the needs of UWS's most sizeable group of students. Non-Muslim students demand bars on campus and get them. Students of all backgrounds want subsidised sporting facilities on campus and get them. No-one has ever suspected a fiendish plot behind lobbying for such 'specific needs'. No Muslim student at UWS has ever demanded that non-Muslims be forced to pray or to eat only halal food! There is nothing extraordinary or even exotic in catering for the needs of a group (in UWS's case the largest single identifiable group) in one's student body.

UWS promotes itself very much as the university for Western Suburbs students and sees its chief market for students to be the Western Suburbs.3 The pronounced 'Muslim' character of much of the Western Suburbs means that UWS must address the requirements of students from the Western Suburbs, just as it must ensure that international students have assistance with accommodation and settlement problems. In both cases, this is only showing due respect and acceptance, not to mention displaying sound business acumen.

To pose the assessment of Muslim needs on university campuses as a matter of 'Fair Adjustment', as the Call for papers of this Conference puts it, is therefore bewildering if not, perhaps, faintly insulting. To add to this 'Why, and to what extent, secular universities should accommodate the specific needs of Muslim students?' simply beggars belief. Muslim students are present in growing numbers at virtually all Australian universities. At the university convening the present Conference, the University of Western Sydney, literally hundreds of Muslim students are enrolled. It has already been shown that meeting the needs of these students is simply common sense, not to mention common decency.

Nor should addressing the specific needs of Muslim students be (mis)understood via the left-wing essentialist model of 'disadvantaged groups' - such as disabled students, or persons of unconventional sexuality. Muslim students are thoroughly fed up with being treated as 'disadvantaged', merely due to their religious convictions. Once again, Muslims are human beings, to be understood in all their living human complexity, not essentialised.

The Conference aims of 'combating discrimination and prejudice', and of developing 'inclusive practices and strategies' begin at home. That is, our universities and other Australian institutions need to face up to the systemic racial realities that have always dogged this country's history. Otherwise, we shall never as a nation come to terms with Sydney's so-called 'Lebanese Muslim problem'.

No ethnic groups are born blameless. In my experience, young Muslim Lebanese-Australians are generally the first to admit this about themselves. Thuggish behaviour by a tiny handful of Lebanese-Australian youth in Cronulla was the justification used by open racists to declare war on all Muslim Lebanese-Australians. Yet, unless the rest of Australia is able to raise itself to the point where it rejects the essentialisation of the ethnic and cultural 'other' in its midst, we only have ourselves to blame for the consequences of the continued alienation of Muslim Lebanese-Australian youth. The stigmatisation of these youth is a recipe for social disaster. The solution is in our hands.

Goffman (1963: 2) showed beyond any doubt that it is society which establishes how persons are categorised. One of the big challenges facing Australian universities in the first quarter of the twenty-first century is whether they are capable - or willing - to play a positive role in helping reverse the current dangerous stigmatisation of Muslim Australian youth. If they want to, Australian universities, especially those with high Muslim student enrolments, have the potential to do much good in this regard. Some Australian academics (most notably, Scott Poynting, Greg Noble, Paul Tabar and Jock Collins) have already done some pioneering work that contributes towards this worthy goal. The work of these scholars is effective because it seeks to fearlessly address the real issues, avoiding narrow stereotypes of the right or left.

University hierarchies can learn from this, by resolving to avoid all manifestations of essentialism. This is the precondition for achieving the stated Conference aims of 'engag[ing] the Australian Muslim community in partnership and dialogue about educational aspirations, and local involvement' (UWS: 2007).

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In other words, practically speaking, such engagement:

  • Must avoid essentialist language and frameworks of all varieties, including left-liberal politically correct jargon, that relegates the vibrant and complex reality of Muslim students to a uniform patronising category as an 'oppressed group', that only makes any educated Muslim cringe;
  • Must shun the temptation to impose agendas and projects which imply that Muslim students (if not Islam itself) are misogynist, tyrannical and perhaps even inherently violent. Practicing Muslims - that is, Muslims committed to embodying the universal values of the Holy Qur'an - are aware that Islam advocates precisely the opposite values and will only recoil from projects implying the opposite. And, as the Turkish woman academic Lila Abu-Lughod (2002: 790) pithily observes: 'Missionary work and colonial feminism belong in the past'. Universities should leave such political games to the politicians and the media; they are paid to push such barrows, after all!
  • Must not take the form of talking only to hand-picked so-called 'leaders' recognised by no-one (as in the Commonwealth Government's failed 'Reference Group' model), but engage in serious dialogue directly with elected Muslim student representatives, in the campus Muslim Student Associations.

I am certain that a number of my colleagues here today will find some aspects of what I have said today to some extent challenging. Welcome to the world of real dialogue with real Muslims! Muslims are predisposed by their worldview to engage in genuine dialogue and ask only that universities interact with them frankly, without branding them as utterly different from other humans, and at all times respect what they believe to be their Divine set of values.

The author is the Researcher/Muslim Advocacy Worker for the University of Western Sydney Students' Association (UWSSA). He has a PhD in Middle East Politics and has researched the effects of racism on Lebanese Muslim youth in Sydney. Prior to taking his current position, he taught Islamic and Middle East Studies and Politics at Australian universities.


  1. The University of Western Australia may well have a higher number of Muslim students enrolled; nevertheless, the majority of these are international students.
  2. According to the NSW Premier's Department (2003: 10-11), Canterbury (18,819 persons), Bankstown (26,719 persons) and Parramatta (14, 420 persons) 'have the largest Arabic-speaking populations in Sydney (NSW PD, 2003A: 10-11).
  3. For instance, a paper by 3 UWS Educationalists (Bollard et al, 1996) states: The University of Western Sydney aims to fulfil an important role in preparing future teachers for schools in the outer western suburbs which invariably serve communities in poverty with ethnically diverse students who historically suffer from low educational standards.
  4. The UWS press release announcing this Conference contains a hint of this, when Professor Janice Reid speaks about 'those who experience disadvantage or ethnic/religious minority status'.


Abu-Lughod, Lila (2002) 'Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others', in American Anthropologist, Vol. 104, No. 3, September, pp. 783-90.

Bollard, Sheila & Harrison, Jason & Munns, Geoff (1996) "Who's on top?" A Challenge to Canter from the Research of Undergraduate Students

Goffman, Erving (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Engelwood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall.

Katz, Irwin (1981) Stigma: A Social Psychological Analysis, Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc Inc.

NSW Premier's Department (2003) Al-Ostrali: Arab Australians in NSW, Sydney.

Parnell, Aaron (2004) 'Middle East Gang Unit Back on Agenda', Sydney Morning Herald, 19 January.

Tabar, Paul (2002) Youth Identity: A Site of Contestation, paper delivered at the 2002 NSW Young Labor Conference.

UWS (2007) 'UWS to Host Muslim Students Conference', 24 May

Wan, Nathalie (2003) '"Orange in a World of Apples": the Voices of Abinism' in Disability & Society, Vol. 18, No. 3: 277-96.

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