Sharing Our Achievements: Symposiums on Australian Muslims

Dr Farhad Reza

Sharing Our Achievements: Symposiums on Australian Muslims and their complementary expos was a project under the Bringing Communities Together Strategic Framework. Sharing Our Achievements is a response to a recommendation by the former Family and Community Subgroup of the Prime Minister's Muslim Community Reference Group. It fits under the Ministerial Council on Immigration and Multicultural Affairs' (MCIMA) National Action Plan to Promote Social Cohesion, Harmony and Security (NAP) which was presented to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in 2006. 

The Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaCSIA) led this whole-of-government project with active support from the community, academia and the not-for-profit and business sectors. Eight symposiums and expos were organised throughout Australia to share success stories and discuss issues of concern with local communities.

Eight symposiums, which were supported by complementary community service expos, were held between February and June 2007 throughout Australia under FaCSIA's Bringing Communities Together Strategic framework. The events were designed to raise public awareness of the positive contributions of Australian Muslims to Australian society, as well as provide opportunities for the wider community to identify gaps in service delivery by government and non-government agencies. The events were also intended to produce appropriate and effective outcomes and a sustainable exit strategy. The project addressed issues identified in the NAP, in particular:

  • the lack of access to information on government and community services;
  • negative media faced by Australian Muslims;
  • the impact of world events;
  • misconception in the wider community about Muslims; and
  • conflicts within Australia, such as the Cronulla race riots.

The Strategy

FaCSIA adopted a whole-of-government, community strengths-based approach to implement this initiative, as reflected in the title Sharing Our Achievements.

The project also incorporated:

  • a whole-of-government focus, involving federal, state and local governments;
  • consultation and funded partnerships with Islamic Councils;
  • a National Steering Group with government, business and Muslim community representation;
  • independent academic analysis of the results of workshop discussions;
  • face-to-face meetings, a level of autonomy for Islamic Councils and encouragement to find local solutions;
  • a focus on achieving outcomes;
  • an understanding of the depth and sensitivity of the problem; and
  • the building of trust and confidence with hands-on assistance, a transparent process, empowerment and the identification of mutual benefit.

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Expectations of the Project

Once the outline of the project was developed, reasonable expectations began to emerge. It was hoped that Sharing Our Achievements would:

  • highlight Australian Muslim's positive contribution to Australia, causing a cultural shift in perception among the wider community;
  • minimise misconceptions about Australian Muslims through the publication Bringing Communities Together: A statistical representation of Australian Muslims 2007;
  • provide accessible information on community services and the opportunity to identify gaps in service delivery for both providers and recipients;
  • create partnerships with communities, not-for-profit sectors, businesses, academics and all levels of government through active participation;
  • encourage Australian Muslims to take part in community activities;
  • increase demonstrated participation by Australian Muslims in mainstream events; and
  • encourage co-operation between businesses and Australian Muslims to establish a sense of inclusion.

Muslims in Australia

The Muslim population in Australia has grown from 21,000 in 1971 to 340,000 in 2006. Australian Muslims originate from around 70 diverse cultural backgrounds and traditions. The 2006 ABS Census indicates that nearly 40 per cent of Australian Muslims were born in Australia and around 67 per cent are under the age of 35. There is also a higher percentage of Australian Muslims with Bachelor and Postgraduate qualifications compared with the total population in Australia.

Australian Muslims have made a significant contribution to Australian society over the past 150 years. In the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, Macassan merchants from Indonesia traded harmoniously with Indigenous Australians in northern Australia. Afghan cameleers, pearl divers from Southeast Asia, and Bosnian and Kosovar workers on the Snowy Mountains Scheme were among the early Muslim settlers who helped build Australia. While Australian Muslims have contributed to the economic and physical infrastructures of Australia, there have, in recent times, been general misunderstanding about Islam and the Muslim community in Australia.

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Key Findings

The project clearly showed that the Australian Muslim community is generally proactive, articulate, educated, vital and positive, with high human capital and a large youth component. The Australian Muslim community welcomed the opportunity to engage in Sharing Our Achievements and the symposiums and expos were well attended and appreciated by the non-Muslim community.
The eight symposiums and expos confirmed the following:

  1. Australian Muslims come from around 70 diverse cultural backgrounds and traditions and would prefer to be identified simply as 'Australians';
  2. Not all Australian Muslim women wear the hijab and Islam does not degrade women;
    Australian Muslims do not support terrorism;
  3. Not all Australian Muslims are new arrivals. Nearly 40 per cent of Muslims were born in Australia and some families have lived here since the 19th century, and have made significant contributions to Australia;
  4. There is a higher percentage of Australian Muslims with Bachelor and Postgraduate degrees compared to the total population; and
  5. Australia is a largely secular country and religious affiliation is not necessarily an accurate identifier of any citizen.

The workshops identified key barriers, impacts and responses to social inclusion, such as media bias and misrepresentation, the impact of international politics and a general lack of understanding about Islam in the wider Australian community. Employment issues were also considered important. There is some employment that is not suitable for Muslims, such as in the gambling industry and jobs involving the direct handling of alcohol, and other types in which they are interested but are not getting the opportunity to participate, such as the Defence Forces.

The latter issue was raised in Darwin, and stands in contrast to other government organisations, such as the Victorian Police, which has employed the first Muslim police officer who wears the hijab as part of her uniform and which also established the first Multicultural Unit for police.

The questionnaire, which was open to the public, highlighted areas of government service provision that respondents considered could be improved, including education, child care, health, transport, law enforcement, settlement services for new arrivals and housing, but nothing Muslim specific except some of the service delivery mechanisms. There is a preference for having some women-only swimming pools, cross-cultural content in primary and secondary school curriculum, including the history of Muslims in Australia, and more constructive initiatives to promote dialogue on interfaith issues.

Around 10,000 people attended the community service expos and around 2,000 people attended the symposiums across Australia from both Muslim and non-Muslim communities between February and June 2007. On average 30 non-government and 10 government stalls were set up at each expo. Around 400 people attended the national workshops to discuss social participation, challenges for youth and women's empowerment. More than 200 questionnaires in relation to government services were completed by expo attendees. More than 100 success stories were told and documented through the symposiums including the:

  • socio-economic contribution of the Halal Meat Industry, contributing around $5.0 billion to the Australian economy and employing around 30,000 people;
  • success of Muslim players in sports, such as the AFL in Victoria;
  • active involvement of Muslim women in the police force, such as the Victorian Police;
  • donation of nearly $50,000 by the Muslim community to the Leukaemia Foundation in Queensland;
  • contributions by people, such as Imam Sabri Samson, in building communities in Tasmania;
  • early work of the Afghan cameleers in NSW and Western Australia;
  • importance of women's groups in providing programs like the Self-esteem, Identity, Leadership and Community (SILC) program in Victoria; and
  • sharing of community-business partnership experiences with people like Rob Hunt, Chief Executive Officer, Bendigo Bank.

The partnerships built as part of the Sharing Our Achievements initiative have contributed to its potential to become sustainable. The strong interest expressed by the major sponsors and organisers, the Muslim Community Cooperative (Australia) Ltd (MCCA) and the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC), in continuing the momentum set by the symposiums and expos in the future is evidence of the success of the project.

Recommendations

A number of recommendations came out of the symposiums and expos. The key recommendations are:

  1. Continue awareness-raising about the positive contributions of Australian Muslims through similar national events and regular publications to attract the wider community, particularly the younger generations, and to minimise misconceptions about Australian Muslims.
  2. Continue annual events to share information on community services provided by governments, community groups and the not-for-profit sector, and to establish constructive dialogue between service providers and recipients.
  3. Deliver appropriate and effective leadership and other skills development programs for Muslim women through community organisations with assistance from government and the business sector, to overcome misconceptions about the role of Muslim women in Australian society.
  4. Initiate appropriate programs to support a sense of identity and employment opportunities for young Muslims, based on current best practice and culturally sensitive youth programs.
  5. Reinforce networks and partnerships between Muslim specific and mainstream organisations to allow for an interchange of ideas and enhanced understanding between different segments of Australian society.

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