I often consider returning to Sydney. It plays on my mind when I’m at work, at home or travelling. It dwells on my conscience, like feeling guilty for neglecting a long-time friend whom you haven’t seen in a while.
Culturally it’s slightly unconventional to move so far away from immediate family, especially parents. From an Islamic perspective, we know the weight parents have in our lives. I also have a lingering feeling that I’ve somehow abandoned my community, having spent so many years working in the grassroots.
Yet the irony is every few days I receive a call from Australian Muslims asking for advice on how they can move to the Middle East. In the last month, these calls have increased exponentially. Personally I put it down to the rise of Islamophobia and a society increasingly becoming uncomfortable with the Islamic faith. Watching on with a hawk’s eye, I can feel the reverberations — from abroad — of political parties promising to rid Australia of the growing “Islamic threat”, mainstream media outlets jettisoning their standards when it comes to Muslim-related issues, and a mainstream public discourse obsessed with Muslims.
I’ve been living out of Australia for the past three years. I’ve been blessed with a job that allows me to travel, learn and meet people from across the globe. This time has been immensely valuable. But I’ve also had plenty of time to reflect on the ongoing challenges that are confronting Australian Muslims and Western Muslims in general.
This time has allowed me to do some introspection. To really dig deep and reassess my situation and that of Australian Muslims. In light of this, I’ve penned down my thoughts and reflections. You may read this as such, others may see it as advice, a set of suggestions or recommendations. I offer these musings to everyone who has called me over the last year, and to Australian Muslims who may feel their identity is under scrutiny or who are simply fed up with the politics of the day.
Revisit some realities
1. Australia is home. Make no mistake about it. Politically, socially, economically, culturally — Australia is home. Sure there are major challenges, but we are secure. We can freely participate in society. We are able to fulfil our intentions of bearing witness to the true message of Islam, while performing our fundamental religious duties. The sooner we can confidently accept that Australia is home; the sooner we can move on as members of a growing community. When we’re comfortable with our identity as Australian Muslims, our efforts will become more strategic and less reactionary. We will stop falling into a bipolar vision, constantly identifying foes. As confident Australian Muslims, we will find partners determined to select and promote in Australian society its positive contributions, and resist its negative ones. Calling Australia home however, comes with a set of important realities that need to be considered; and that are worth discussing at a later stage.
2. Islam is not restricted by location. Just as the grass is greener where you water it, your religiosity and spirituality do not necessarily correlate with your geographic location. We believe Islam is for every time and place. Islam is dynamic enough to embrace people of every community on Earth. My travels have affirmed this for me. So if you think you’ll become more spiritual by coming to the Middle East, think again. No doubt the holy sites, historical locations, notable people and symbolic cities are important in inspiring our religiosity and spirituality but the active lifestyle is what defines us as practicing Muslims. In my experience, Muslims in Western societies who are constantly trying to reaffirm their spiritual identity are more religious than those in Muslim societies which tend to breed religious complacency.
3. Who is “Them” and who is “Us”?: In the case of “Them vs Us”, we can’t mistake “Them” as everyone who doesn’t share our faith. Just as we abhor the notion that all Muslims are terrorists, not all non-Muslims are by default racists or bigots. “Us” are those on the receiving end of injustice. “Us” also includes the millions of wider Australians who empathise with the struggles of minority groups, be they the Indigenous community, the Muslim community or groups who have suffered similar difficulties in previous generations. There are those who haven’t been afforded the opportunity to learn better. There are those whom have not met Muslims, let alone interacted with them. There are also those who understand the blatant lies and sensationalism pushed by some politicians and media outfits and those who don’t. A dichotomous worldview simply feeds the cycle we find ourselves stuck in.
Do not live in a bubble
If we confidently embrace our Australianness; and are happy for our children to grow up in Australia, then we cannot retreat to an enclave.
1. Practice, exemplify and protect your spiritual identity. Australia is not stopping us from practicing the fundamental teachings of Islam. We have the right to practice, to convene (unlike in most Muslim countries), the right to organise, and the right to autonomous leadership. An Australian Muslim has access to religious knowledge and services. We should acknowledge, celebrate and embrace this. We should protect it. We should also be grateful for it.
2. Adopt mainstream causes. I believe the sooner we normalise Muslim presence in Australia as co-citizens, the sooner we can remove the shackles of being the “other”. This will happen naturally over a few generations, but to speed the process, we need the Muslim leadership of Australia to shout this point from rooftops: after consolidating our spiritual identity, we must get out into the mainstream. We should adopt mainstream causes such as the plight of refugees, struggles of the Indigenous, the widening wealth gap, the ageing healthcare system and ideological pluralism to name but a few. To this effect, we are fortunate to have witnessed the legacy of Muhammad Ali. He is but a prime example of the result of a perfect marriage between Islamic-inspired fervour and the determination to better wider society. This is our duty as Australian Muslims — to stay true to our spiritual identity by bearing witness to the true essence of Islam and adopting a perpetual drive to better the mainstream. Otherwise we are forever “profiteers”, enjoying the benefits of Australian life without playing a role in improving the country for future generations, including our children.
I want to clarify one key point. I understand there are immense challenges. I know the struggles. I experienced the difficulties first-hand. I believe that systemic injustice requires systematic self-examination and pragmatism. I’m not preaching a meaningless sham sense of passiveness. Not at all. I’m simply saying that all things considered, Australia is home. If you’re a half-hearted Australian, you’ll never be a fully-fledged citizen; and the grass will remain to appear greener on the other side. I firmly believe that to thrive, we must embrace and come to terms with our national and spiritual identities. We must acquire the confidence that we are home and we must become more involved in wider society, which is actually our own.
This article was written by Mohammed Zaoud