What does the average Australian know about the Islamic faith and Muslim communities? The simple answer is: mostly what the media report.
Media representation of Muslims has not been particularly balanced. The ongoing post-9/11 waves of political debates on terrorism have ushered the narrative of Muslims as the dangerous or deviant “other” into the public imagination. This has aggravated pre-existing Orientalist allegations of misogyny, fanaticism, proneness to violence and illiberal views.
At the same time, some centre-left media outlets tend to portray Muslims as the passive, faceless and voiceless victims of racism and Islamophobia. Muslims experience high levels of discrimination and racism in Australia. Violent extremism exists to a minimal extent at the very fringes of the Muslim community.
But one important fact has largely escaped the general public: Australian Muslims are first and foremost “ordinary” – and often committed and active – citizens.
My recently concluded international study investigated how Muslims in Australia and Germany participate within their own community structures, in non-Muslim civil society and in the political arena.
The study was based on biographical, in-depth interviews with 30 self-declared Muslims who were actively engaged in various forms of civic and political participation. It offers unique insights into the many ways in which Muslims enact their citizenship.
Community-based volunteering builds wider networks
Most of those interviewed had been actively involved within a Muslim community context. But a biographical analysis of their “citizenship careers” highlights that this engagement is anything but an isolated or isolating intra-community experience.
Each interviewee reported strong – in most cases increasing – cross-community collaborations as part of their community-based participation. This also applies to those whose civic attention has been focused primarily on Muslim community work, seeking to advance the status and recognition of fellow Muslims.
Thus, Muslim community-based activism has not created walls of self-segregation but rather built cross-community networks of trust, generating bridging and linking social capital. This commonly leads to a higher sense of civic efficacy, which further promotes active citizenship.
In addition to these bridge-building effects, Muslims’ civic engagement within their own community has served as a gateway for their subsequently unfolding political participation.
In many cases, active Muslims would start volunteering in a community organisation, move into leadership positions and gain recognition within as well as beyond community boundaries. Their enhanced public profile then leads to their recruitment into institutions of political decision-making such as advisory boards and committees.
Active Muslims and the republican agenda
The study identified four types of goals that interviewed Muslims pursue through their active citizenship. Many Muslims expressed several of these civic agendas, often complexly intertwined:
serving humanity and bettering society (republican agenda);
helping disadvantaged population groups other than Muslims;
redressing widespread negative misconceptions of Muslims and Islam; and
communitarian goals of serving the Muslim community.
Despite the prevalence of Muslim community-based participation, Muslims’ active citizenship is rarely aimed primarily at advancing the well-being of the Muslim community. Only very few interviewed Muslims expressed such a communitarian agenda.
Instead, republican goals prevailed. Most participants become active citizens because they are keen to contribute to the betterment of the wider community, society at large or, more generally, promoting social justice.
One Muslim community worker from Melbourne, for example, explained her civic commitment as a service to all people:
It is a deep concern for humanity as a whole to be proactive and try to create change. And it is not service to Muslims [only].
She described her general goals in religious terms. She argues that she aspires to follow the Prophet’s example:
His number one concern was not himself, was not the Muslim community, it was humanity.
The Islamic faith and Australia’s liberal democracy
Contrary to a widespread perception that Islam is at odds or even ultimately irreconcilable with core principles of liberal democracies, Islamic theologians and political scientists have long argued that the Islamic faith is no obstacle to active citizenship in Western democracies.
The empirical findings of a representative US survey of Arabic Muslims backed up these theoretical arguments. This demonstrated that their:
… religious identity is generally associated with greater levels of civic engagement.
My study not only confirmed this general conclusion, but provided deeper insights into Muslims’ personal views on their Islamic faith as a key driver for their participation. One Muslim community activist from Sydney expressed this very powerfully:
We are part of the community. We are not going to sit on the periphery. We are not non-Australians! We are just as Australian as everyone else! We have a faith that will enhance our citizenship, our participation as Australians.
While a majority of those interviewed emphasised that their faith plays a key motivating role for their citizenship performance, their personal accounts on how Islam drives their activism differ. Some participants referred to their faith as an essential source of empowerment and resilience. One Muslim community worker from Sydney said:
If I didn’t have my faith and my Creator, I don’t think I would be able to overcome all the negative things.
Many described their civic contribution to the well-being of others, both Muslims and non-Muslims, as a core principle of their religion. A teacher and community activist from Melbourne explained:
Being useful to others is such a strong concept in Islam. [My civic engagement] is how I show that – being a useful human being. That’s all. I know in our faith our God is pleased when you make another human being happy, whoever that may be.
This principle was often framed as a religious obligation. Several participants made explicit references to an Islamic reward system according to which Muslims will get rewarded in the afterlife for their good deeds. A participant from Melbourne, active both in cross-community political participation and Muslim community work, made this very clear:
As a Muslim I believe that this life is a short life and … in the hereafter you will be rewarded the way you were acting in this life. So … the more [Muslim] youth I bring towards the religion and away from trouble … the better I am, the more reward I will have. The more I contribute to the betterment of the society, the better my reward will be. We believe [that God] created us to be good in this life, to do the good.
Recognising civic resources and potential
Although the study’s findings are explorative and cannot claim to represent all Muslims, they challenge many widespread misconceptions in Australia about Muslims as citizens in liberal democracies.
There are political lessons to be learned by all who are committed to promoting positive intergroup relations, social cohesion and a vibrant democratic multicultural society. Muslims need to be recognised as full and equal citizens whose faith is not an obstacle to citizenship. Rather, it is a civic resource.
On the institutional level, Muslim – and probably also other ethno-religious – communities have enormous potential as low-level entry points for Muslim civic engagement, as mobilisers and gateways to political participation and platforms for building cross-community relationships. Acknowledging and strengthening this potential is key to promoting a cohesive diverse society in Australia.