Islam in Australia: Reconnecting with our humanity

“Islam is the religion of one in five people on earth. Five times a day millions of people – from Cairo to California, and from Damascus to Paris – face Mecca to pray. Yet, Islam is, without doubt, the most misunderstood of all religions. Unfortunately, what people think they know is invariably wrong, often horribly wrong – a creation of an ethnocentric media fuelled by a very unrepresentative group of alleged Muslims.”

So explains Charles Sturt University’s Associate Professor Mehmet Ozalp in his book 101 Questions You Asked about Islam, published in 2005. Fast forward almost 15 years and Associate Professor Ozalp believes there are still many issues which need to be addressed if there’s to be true harmony between Muslims and the western world.

Associate Professor Ozalp is a theologian, author, academic and founding director of Charles Sturt University’s Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation. He has worked in the interfaith and intercultural field in Australia since 2000.

Time to ditch our silos

As the first plane flew into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11 2001, the world was set to change. And, for many Australians, these terrorist attacks were an unfortunate introduction to Islam and Muslims. Since then, worldwide retaliatory terror attacks – in the name of both Islam and Christianity – have surged. Similar to the US gun massacres, the sheer number of religiously-motivated attacks means we are in danger of becoming somewhat desensitised to these events.

So, as more and more people die in the name of religion, more and more people become desensitised. Meanwhile, almost two billion Muslims around the globe battle to disassociate themselves from the extremist element dominating the headlines. They are anxious to clarify the misconceptions surrounding true Islam and take control of the discussion. We asked Associate Professor Ozalp, will the divide between Muslims and the west ever be closed?

“In light of 9/11, and in conjunction with today’s global politics, there are many issues which need to be addressed.

Associate Professor Mehmet Ozalp

“In 2000, when I started to have discussions in Australia, people were living in cultural silos. We were living in the same society but we weren’t interacting – we were transacting. Relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims were almost solely transactional. The interactions lacked meaningful engagement at the human level and so there was a lack of knowledge and understanding. Then 9/11 happened and certain fears and antagonisms embedded in our respective ignorance came out.

“What I observe today is one problem that remains to be overcome. And that’s the fact that western societies don’t have a history of living with a large population of minorities who are culturally and religiously different. Similarly, Muslims don’t have a history of living as a minority in a non-Muslim country. Living as a minority in Australia is a relatively new experience for Muslims. So, I feel that we are all unprepared for a really meaningful interaction. But that just means there is plenty of room to grow.

“However, we should stop saying ‘we need to build bridges’, as if we are living in different lands. We have to get out of that paradigm and start to ask ‘how can we have more meaningful interactions with each other as equal citizens of the same country and nation?’”

The many layers of true integration

Associate Professor Ozalp says meaningful interaction will only begin when the 2.6 per cent of Australia’s population who are Muslims feel comfortable to integrate into the community. And, he says, integration occurs on various levels: economic, social and identity.

“An issue we have is that some segments of the Muslim population tend to resist integration into the community. Economically they are integrated well. Socially they are, maybe, halfway there. But identity integration is not there at all.”

Identity integration is when you feel completely Australian. Seeing the land of Australia and her people as your own land and own people. Feeling like you belong.

“Simply put, it’s a sense of belonging. And it’s not that all Muslims are necessarily resisting this type of integration, it just takes time. It’s a natural progression. And we have to remember we’ve, on average, had two generations of Muslims living in Australia.”

The other side of the coin, explains Associate Professor Ozalp, is that non-Muslim Australians must make Muslims feel they belong. And this can be extremely difficult given the levels of unconscious bias or religious hegemony that come into play.

“Religious or cultural hegemony breeds thoughts like ‘if you don’t accept our values, go back to where you came from’. Such language, together with a dose of discrimination and racism, will make Muslims feel they aren’t accepted as Australians and they just don’t belong. If people are always reminded that they don’t belong to this country, eventually they’ll start to think ‘maybe I don’t’.

“My approach has always been that this is an issue that needs to be addressed by both sides. Having said that, I believe there is greater responsibility for the majority of society to facilitate the progression. Realistically, it’s extremely difficult for a minority to have its voice heard.” 

Two significant roadblocks

Associate Professor Ozalp has identified two other significant roadblocks to seamless and harmonious Muslim integration into Australian society. They are ignorance, and the fact that some groups have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Ignorance

“Most Australians don’t know much about Islam or Muslims. What’s worst, the knowledge they do have is based on what is presented to them by the media. And the media will only ever cover the sensational or that which is out of the ordinary. So people’s knowledge of Muslims and Islam will always be skewed.

“Where you have a lack of knowledge you have a lack of understanding. That means social interactions are less likely to happen and so harmonious co-existence is prevented.”

The status quo

“There are certain groups that benefit from the lack of relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims. The small minority of extreme elements (radicals and those on the far right) are pretty loud and they steer the conversation. Their discourse invariably influences the rest of us. And that prevents proper communication from occurring.

The extremists on each end are very effective at creating a communication impasse.


Associate Professor Mehmet Ozalp

“For example, take a person who is not racist, but they say ‘Muslims cause a range of problems and they don’t seem to integrate’. But when you dig deeper to find out why they are critical of Muslims, they have often actually never met a Muslim. And what that means is that this reasonable person is being influenced by the limited discourse.

“Conversely, some Muslims will say they are happy to live in Australia and then are critical of Australians, or sceptical of the western world. But have they ever had a meaningful conversation with an Australian?”

These types of generalisations lead to closed minds, an unwillingness to converse in constructive ways and actively listen to each other. To counter this noise, Associate Professor Ozalp says we need to ensure communication channels are always open and managed really well.

“Otherwise those radical elements will continue to dominate the conversation.”

Destructive or constructive? It’s our choice

In a nutshell, missing or ignoring the opportunities we all have for meaningful discussion and collaboration will mean the “perpetuation of the problems”. And that includes radicalisation, more loss of life, and a colossal waste of government resources.

“To address radicalisation we must collaborate – otherwise it won’t go away. And currently our government spends billions on security measures, without any real solution.”

Fortunately, there are people, such as Associate Professor Ozalp, who continue to bridge the divide and create a world worth living in – for people of all faiths.

“Thankfully, there are always courageous people from both sides who want to change things and they will continue to be active. I guess I put myself among those people. Hopefully, over time we can reverse the extremism.

“Destructive behaviour is easy. It only takes one gunman. But constructive behaviour is more difficult. It demands time, energy and resources. And a lot of skilled people have to be involved and collaborate." Associate Professor Mehmet Ozalp

 “Constructive change – especially when it spans across the globe – can sometimes take generations. But we have to be courageous, we have to continue and have the confidence that we are on the right side. Then those who come after us can build upon what we have done.”

There is more that unites us than divides us

Associate Professor Ozalp feels it is time to reconnect with our humanity.

“We’re all human beings and need to interact with each other. That’s why I’m highlighting the need for interactions or links, not ‘bridges’. We need to have a tapestry of these links – and the world of social media will make it possible.  

“I wish people could really appreciate the rich traditions from which Islam has developed. And understand that Muslims come from a strong civilisation, built in the Middle Ages, which Europe benefitted from and from which came modern civilisation. Having that knowledge, I find, really humbles everybody. It helps people see Muslims in a different, productive light.

“Interestingly, in his book The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, Richard Bulliet argues there is more commonality between the Christian-Europe and Muslim world than Judaism and Christianity. Especially from a social, cultural, economic and knowledge perspective.”

Practical ways to build understanding

Individuals, organisations and governments all have roles to play if relationships between Muslim and non-Muslim Australians are to progress. And, Associate Professor Ozalp says, everybody bears some responsibility. Individuals can only do so much – but they can make a difference.

“For example, if you’re in a social setting and someone is speaking negatively about Muslims you can challenge the generalisations and stereotypes. You can speak up wherever you are.


Associate Professor Ozalp

“And those who lead organisations and have greater resources and greater access to people can incorporate programs, projects and initiatives.”

Across the board there are some must-dos.

  1. Education at all levels, but it must begin at the high-school level.
  2. Collaborate in tangible projects and initiatives. Actively identify issues that raise barriers to integration and then work together as a community to address them.
  3. Social interactions should be encouraged. Examples include Church leaders and Imams helping their followers and congregations to engage in constructive dialogue. And governments should fund ‘harmony workers’.

Government settlement officers help migrants, in their first five years in Australia, with the practical elements of moving to a new country, like mastering the language and finding employment.

Associate Prof Ozalp advocates for the introduction of harmony workers, who would pick up where their colleagues– settlement officers – left off and help migrants with identity integration. Help them to belong.

The role of Charles Sturt’s Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation

The centre is a collaboration between Charles Sturt University and the Islamic Sciences and Research Academy of Australia, and offers accredited Islamic Studies courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Founded by Associate Professor Ozalp, this centre was the first of its kind in Australia.

“In the 2000s I saw a need to provide educational information services on Islam and Muslims for the general public. At the same time I was arguing that one of the ways to address and prevent issues within the Muslim community was to provide Muslims in Australia the opportunity to study Islam at the university level without having to go overseas.

“Of course, it was not the only contribution and rather a longer-term solution. But it’s one which has seen more than 1600 students undertake our courses during the last 10 years.

“I am a person who wants to try and change the world for the better. I can’t just watch things unfold. And I want to make it clear which side I’m on. Not the destructive side or the side of the fence-sitters. I will do something – even if there is no guarantee that I’ll succeed. And that gives meaning and purpose to my life.” 

Creating a world worth living in

What does a better world look like to you? Does it mean finding a cure for illnesses, improving education, making new discoveries, leading a movement or developing innovative technologies? Or is it about having an impact in your local community and making a difference, just like Associate Professor Ozalp?

Our wide range of courses will give you the skills and industry knowledge so you can be the change you want to see in the world. Learn more about Charles Sturt’s undergraduate and postgraduate courses in Islamic Studies. Follow your heart, get qualified and land a job you’ll love with Charles Sturt University. Let’s get to work!