Islam part of Australian history

icoller_thIan Coller


In the wake of the recent clashes between protesters and police in Sydney, commentators have assured us that the rioters don’t represent the majority of Australian Muslims.
They are right of course. But if that’s the case, why do we still call upon “mainstream” Muslim leaders to denounce the actions of Muslim extremists? Quite simply, we Australians have not acknowledged Islam as part of our national fabric.
Muslims are asked repeatedly and frequently to prove their credentials as right-thinking Australians. To thecontrary, we don’t line up “mainstream” Christian Leaders when Christians blow up abortion clinics in the US to denounce those actions.
Part of the reason Muslims are on notice in Australia is that we have not yet accepted Islam as part of our history and our identity. This is one of the underlying factors fuelling protest, anger and violence, and we ignore it at our peril.
We have failed to include Muslims in our national narrative. Lakemba is the epicentre of a more widespread instability. Of course most Australian Muslims are horrified by these violent protests, and ideas behind them, but many Muslims would be hard pressed to repudiate a faint echo of that anger. They too have experienced exclusion and prejudice in their everyday lives as Australians. 
That sense of exclusion is fed by a view of our past that is impoverished by a failure to recognize diversity. We have told ourselves many stories about our origins and our identity, from the First Fleet and Eureka to Gallipoli and White Australia, and we have bristled at challenges.

In 1988, Aboriginal protests were viewed as violent and unacceptable. Now they seem a painful step toward removing the blindfold that prevented us from seeing our past mistakes.
But if the blindfold has slipped in some places, in others it is still quite firmly tied.
Islam and Muslim protests are still largely viewed as novel phenomena in Australia even though Muslims have had an important presence throughout our history. They were there, above all, in the moment many Australians consider our “national awakening”.
In 1915, Australian troops were mobilized to invade a Muslim country that had not committed a belligerent act against our nation. Australians were called upon to sacrifice their lives for the British Empire, and the Turkish Sultan called upon global Muslim support, declaring the hostilities to be an aggression against Islam.
The consequences were felt not only in the Middle East, but also in Australia as it ignited what we have come to call the Battle of Broken Hill.
On New Years’ Day of that year, two men variously described as “Afghans” or “Turks”, opened fire on a trainload of picnickers heading off to enjoy their holiday just outside Broken Hill. They killed four people and wounded several more. One of the gunmen was killed almost immediately, and the other, riddled with bullets, died shortly afterarriving at the hospital.
One of the men, Mulla Abdulla­—a butcher who practised halal slaughter—had been systematically ridiculed and abused, and slapped with a fine that he could not pay. According to sources, it was not hard for the other gunman, Mohamed Gool, an ice-cream seller who had served in the Ottoman army, to convince him that they should die together defending Islam.
Gool left a letter declaring that he had no enmity against anyone. He seems to have been a misfit whose disconnection from society had tragic consequences.
But Gool and Abdulla were not the only Muslims in Broken Hill. Other Muslims helped police defeat the gunmen,risking their own lives in the process. One Muslim carried water to a wounded policeman under a rain of bullets. Muslims found themselves on both sides of this conflict, as they did elsewhere.
Back in 1915, no-one really bothered to ask why these “Afghans” were so angry—instead, the townsfolk gathered with torches and burned down the German Club, completely misplacing the focus.
The “Huns” were made out as villains in this tragedy. Germans and Austrians were arrested and interned for the duration of the war. It seems both sides were caught up in distorted fantasies about world politics, and projected their paranoia and suspicion on to their neighbours.
Today, we might hope that we are a little more evolved than our predecessors of 1915. But that does not always seem to be the case. We still look for cartoon villains and still project global fears onto local conflicts.
Perhaps we are closer to acknowledging Muslims as neighbours, colleagues and friends and that familiar “we” might soon include Muslims, so that we can stop talking about “us” and “them”.
But for that to be the case, we—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—have to be prepared to acknowledge Muslim anger and protest along with other expressions of dissent, even as we deplore violence.
If we simply write protesters off as a “lunatic fringe”, and demand that the “Good Muslims” line up to make a public obeisance, we may well find ourselves just as disconnected in another hundred years.
Ian Coller is Lecturer in History at La Trobe University. His area of research is the relationship between Europe and the Muslim world in the modern age.