Nora Amath has two degrees and a PhD and has lived in Australia for 23 years.
But sometimes people speak to her in broken English or assume she’s uneducated, she can’t work or she’s “under her husband’s thumb”.
- Australian Muslims come from all around the world, with many different ethnicities, cultures, languages and beliefs
- A focus on radical ideas and extremism can perpetuate Muslim stereotypes
- Both Sunnis and Shias have been persecuted for their beliefs
Dr Amath comes from a proud matriarchal lineage of Muslim Chams – an Indigenous South-East Asian minority – and has instilled this strength in her own daughter as her mother did before her.
While she proudly wears the hijab as “an expression of faith” and a symbol of empowerment, it can lead to stereotypes and discrimination.
“Muslim women who are identifiable as being Muslim like myself, we probably bear the brunt of most Islamophobic incidents,” she told the ABC.
Dr Amath has faced some confronting situations in her senior role at IWAA – a national community and refugee support organisation led by Muslim women.
On one occasion she was prevented from speaking at an interfaith event by protesters holding signs and chanting what she described as “really awful language”.
Another group of protesters stopped her from speaking in Ipswich, where she was supposed to deliver a training session on Islamic beliefs and customs to assist those helping refugees resettle in the area.
“They just made it physically impossible for me to actually deliver it because I was heckled and, you know, insulted every bit of the way. So I actually had to have a police escort.”
In this year’s Australia Talks National Survey, 80 per cent of the 60,000 Australians surveyed by the ABC said they believed discrimination to be a problem for Australia generally, while just over a quarter consider discrimination a problem for them personally.
People with non-European ancestry were more likely to experience racial profiling and racial slurs, and 79 per cent said they faced subtle forms of discrimination, like the stereotyping Dr Amath and many other Muslim women face.How do your views compare?We asked 60,000 Australians about their lives. See where you fit on the issues that matter.Read more
“It is a little bit frustrating when people just assume things of you because identifiably you fit a stereotype that is orientalised or fetishised in mainstream political or media discourses,” she said.
While almost two-thirds of the world’s Muslims come from Asia, Dr Amath said Islam was often misrepresented as “monolithic” or a Middle Eastern religion.
In Australia, Muslim communities come from all around the world, with many different ethnicities, cultures, languages and beliefs.
That diversity includes two main branches of Islam — Sunni and Shia — and within both there are a variety of different practices and traditions.
There are also those who are born into traditional Muslim families and those who convert to Islam as a personal choice.
Indigenous Australian Muslims
Among the first Muslims to settle permanently in Australia were the Afghan cameleers in the 1800s, who worked the inland tracks and developed relationships with local Indigenous people.
One of them was the great-grandfather of Shahnaz Rind, 28, an Indigenous Yamatji woman who is also Muslim by birth.
Her great-grandfather helped build one of the first mosques in Perth.
“At times, it’s not easy being an Aboriginal Muslim, you do face a bit of discrimination,” she said.
When she first told her work colleagues that she was Muslim “their faces dropped”.
“Being Aboriginal and Muslim isn’t so common … Islam is a religion, and it’s a faith just like Christianity. Just like being Jewish, being Aboriginal is your bloodline and who you are,” she said.
“Aboriginal is who I am and Islam is my religion, it’s my faith, it’s my belief.”
According to Australia’s 2011 census, 1,140 people identify as Aboriginal Muslims. The number almost doubled from the 2001 census.
Ms Rind’s father comes from the Yamatji people in Western Australia, while her mother’s ethnic origins are from the Balochi people, who are a cross-border ethnic minority divided between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.
She said her spiritual Indigenous culture can sometimes “match up” with her Islamic beliefs.
She pursued her career as a registered nurse after seeing her family’s health deteriorate from diabetes and eye disease, which also influenced her post-graduate study in optometry.
Despite moving to Melbourne eight years ago, Ms Rind said when she goes back home to Perth she feels “grounded” — especially when she visits the mosque.
“You feel homely [at the mosque], it’s like being re-energised,” she said.
The Sunni-Shia divide
Halim Rane, Dr Nora Amath’s husband, is an associate professor of Islamic Studies at Griffith University, specialising in contemporary Islamic thought and Muslim communities in the West.
He said a focus on radical ideas and extremism in media and political discourse often perpetuates Muslim stereotypes.
But within Muslim communities, there can be tensions that spill over from ethnic and religious conflicts back home.What is Eid al-Adha?In the final month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Muslims around the world celebrate Eid al-Adha.Read more
While the divide between Sunni and Shia has historically fuelled many conflicts, Dr Rane said Sunnis and Shias are “not significantly different in terms of religious belief or practice”.
“There are differences within the Sunnis that are as great as the differences between the Sunnis and the Shias,” he said.
The Sunni-Shia divide occurred over the succession of leadership after the prophet Mohammed’s death, so the division is more political than religious, he added.
Shia Muslims believe the prophet Mohammed appointed Ali, his son-in-law and cousin, and divinely chosen descendants as guided successors, while Sunnis believe that the companions of the prophet were the rightful successors.
But while their teachings are all based on the same holy book, the Koran, the difference in interpretation has sometimes resulted in conflict.
In Afghanistan, the ethnic Hazara minority, who are predominately Shia, have been largely persecuted by the Taliban, who are Sunni Muslims.
Many from both sides have fled to Australia since 2001 when the US invasion of Afghanistan began, with many from the Hazara community relocating to regional areas.
Zahra Haydar Big, a prominent leader in the Hazara community in Shepparton, said her father “sacrificed his life” to bring his family to Australia.
In 2000, after finally reaching Australia from Afghanistan by boat, he sent for his wife and children to follow in 2008. But only a few short years after they were reunited, he died of stomach cancer.
“He brought us here [to] Australia, he put his life at risk, and he was glad he made it to Australia and he did not die in the ocean,” she said.
Ms Haydar Big said there are around 400 Hazara families that live in Shepparton, and with the help of local services, she works to break down the cultural stigma around mental health and to champion women’s rights.
In 2020, she was the first Hazara woman in Australia to run for local council in Shepparton, where she drew inspiration from her father’s legacy.
She said it’s important that they identify with their Hazara ethnicity, rather than being cast under the “Afghan community”.
“Hazaras are the minority community [that] were disadvantaged back in Afghanistan, but here in Australia, they have their voice and they want to be heard as Hazaras,” she said.
“We come from a war-torn country where we did not have access to any educational opportunities or employment opportunities, but here in Australia I can see women coming from Afghanistan are very passionate and very keen to take these opportunities.”
‘Here we’re a lot more integrated’
Elsewhere, both Sunnis and Shias have been persecuted for their beliefs.
The Sunni Rohingya minority in Myanmar are denied citizenship and more than 700,000 have been displaced in what international human rights groups have described as genocide.
In Iraq, Islamic State brutally killed and displaced Shias and other religious minorities.
Amid years of war and unrest, thousands of Iraqis from different religions, including both Sunni and Shia, migrated to Australia.
In 2016, a Shia community centre operated by the Iraqi community in Melbourne was burned to the ground by Islamic State supporters.The design of the inside of the mosque is influenced by the Shia mosques in Iraq and Iran. (Supplied)
The community was forced to start again and build the first official Shia mosque in Melbourne, the Ahlulbait Mosque.
Mosque manager Hassan Al-Khirsany said many years after the first centre was torched, he received messages from IS supporters, threatening to also burn this new mosque.
But Mr Al-Khirsany said the mosque has a close relationship with the Sunni community, and it was “very rare” that they received threats from Sunni “extremists”.
Security at the mosque has improved and police come and check in from time to time.
From the outside, it may not look like a typical mosque with a dome.
But the intimately lit mosque has been a central point for faith in the community, draped on the inside with chandeliers and Islamic art and calligraphy.
Mr Al-Khirsany said Shia Muslims — who pray differently to Sunni Muslims — can feel more at home at this mosque.
Mr Al-Khirsany estimates in Victoria there are about 70,000 Shia worshippers from different ethnic backgrounds.
Syria’s Alawi community are also a Shia minority, currently engulfed in a conflict with both political and religious roots.
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is Alawi, and the uprising against his rule has been largely dominated by Sunni militant groups.Australia’s mosques cautious of repeated hate crimes amid holy month of RamadanWith the holy month of Ramadan starting this week, Australia’s Mosques will be filled with worshippers, but community leaders and research shows many Muslims feel less safe than ever. Read more
But here in Australia, where an estimated 43,000 Alawis live, those divisions do not apply, according to Yousef Halabi from the Alawi Islamic Association of Victoria.
“Here we’re a lot more integrated, keeping our beliefs inside our own homes,” he said.
“Basically we have a really good relationship with most religious sects here in Australia. We integrate quite well — we work together.
“You get the occasional few that would say as Alawis we are not Muslims. It’s just a lack of education or a lack of intellect.”
Unity among the community
While some mosques in Australia can be quite rigid, Dr Rane said most are “very welcoming of diversity”.
“A man can probably go into a mosque anywhere and not have an issue … but there may be occasions where women might go to a mosque and there won’t be a space for women, or they might not feel welcomed,” he said.
“There’s a lot of effort to change that, but there’s still problems remaining in that space.”
One of the most diverse mosques in Australia is the Afghan Mosque in Alice Springs.
The mosque, originally built by Afghan and Pakistani immigrants in Australia in late 1800s, closed during World War II and was rebuilt in 1993.
Among a host of ethnic communities — including Pakistani, Indian, Sudanese, Egyptian, Tanzanian, Indonesian and Malaysian — there are also many Indigenous Muslims that come to pray, said Imam Hamdullah Bin Ataullah.
“People pray in their own different ways,” he said, adding that the community is united by faith, regardless of any cultural divides.
“The prayer is offered according to a certain jurisprudence. If someone follows any Islamic jurisprudence in his prayers, he is welcome. She is welcome.”
‘Coming out’ as Muslim to the outside world
Within the Sunni sect, Sufism is often described by Islamic scholars as the “heart” of Islam, but Sufis are a minority group that can often be misunderstood.
There are estimated to be about 5,000 Sufis from diverse cultural backgrounds practicing in Australia.
Members of Sunni and Shia communities may adopt elements of Sufism within their faith, but there are some Sunni Muslims that dismiss Sufism as a legitimate branch of the religion.
For Australian-born Muslim convert Jessica Swann, the Sufi path resonated with her the most.Why the term ‘feminism’ carries baggage for some Muslim womenHalf of Australians consider themselves feminists, but for Muslim women the word can carry mixed emotions.Read more
Studying a post-graduate law degree, Ms Swann, 47, describes herself as a “seeker” and said her journey to becoming a Muslim meant she was “still the same Jess,” just “spiritually evolved”.
Ms Swann became a Muslim 17 years ago after moving to Bahrain for work.
She had an innate desire to understand Islam after the media backlash against Muslims post-September 11.
She left her life in Australia behind, broke off her engagement, and began on her quest to “find out about God”.
Born into an Anglican Christian family, she first converted to Catholicism at 18, which she described as a spiritually nourishing journey.
However, she said her inherited Christianity had left gaps, a feeling she described as a “sense of being spiritually hungry and heartbroken combined”.
Whether God existed was never in question, but she felt the need to understand what God meant to her and Islam, and Sufi teachings made sense to her.
“I have not run from anything, I have not converted or reverted. I have evolved in the spiritual journey that has taken me into Islam,” she said. Victims of hate crime speak outA rise in right-wing extremism is fuelling anxiety among victims of racist attacks, as advocacy groups call on social media to tighten policies around misinformation.Read more
Ms Swann said she hasn’t had an easy journey with her Muslim identity, adding it was like “coming out of the closet” to the outside world.
“I am blonde-haired, blue-eyed. I have never experienced marginalisation as a result of my race in this country,” she said.
“One of the biggest challenges being an Australian Muslim has been navigating the cultural proprietaries that are imposed upon Islam.”
Ms Swann said she struggles with wearing a hijab all the time — even though she enjoys the experience, she said she worries about judgment from others.
“Nobody knows that I’m Muslim. You walk down the street and see a Muslim, but what does a Muslim look like? You think, oh, a hijab,” she said.
“[A hijab] is so identifiable, it becomes the narrative rather than just being Jess as I am, whether it’s on or whether it’s not, I’m seen as something else.”
When others don’t see you as Muslim
The Ahmadiyya community, which many mainstream Muslims do not consider a part of Islam, are no strangers to isolation.
While most of the Muslim world sees the prophet Mohammed as the final messenger of God, the Ahmadiyya believe in an additional Messiah — Indian religious leader Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, which deviates from mainstream Islamic belief.
But minister of religion for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Victoria and Tasmania, Syed Wadood Janud, said that whether the wider Muslim community was accepting of them or not, it did not change their beliefs.
“Their recognition or lack of recognition doesn’t bother us, it doesn’t affect us, because we are self-proclaimed Muslims.”
Mr Janud said the Ahmadiyya community has tens of millions of followers from India, Pakistan, and Africa.
The Ahmadiyya community is a persecuted minority globally, and while Mr Janud said that is not the case in Australia, he said their faith is often misunderstood.
“In Australia, there is that feeling of being an outsider, amongst the mainstream Muslims, who still do not recognise us as Muslims,” he said.
“I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there in regards to the Ahmadiyya community, and on top of that, I think it’s just a general apprehension or a general feeling of disassociation.”
Despite the criticism from the outside, the Ahmadiyya mosque holds regular interfaith events, encouraging unity, while also repelling “misunderstandings and misconceptions that exist about Islam.”