Finding direction … Anthony Mundine converted to Islam after his manager gave him a book about Malcolm X.
May 4, 2007
More Aborigines are finding similarities between their culture and Islamic principles, writes Linda Morris.
A FLAG is soon to flutter above the troubled suburb of Redfern, proclaiming a new religious face to Aboriginal Australia. At the centre of a backdrop of equal halves of black and red, the colours of the Aboriginal people, is a yellow crescent moon and star. It's to be the symbol of the Koori Muslim Association, which will open the only Aboriginal mushalla in NSW at a shopfront location on busy Regent Street next month.
Conversion among indigenous Australians is growing, driven by the higher visibility of Islam, a rejection of Christianity as a post-colonial religion, identification with Islamic principles, and conversions in prisons where Aborigines dominate the population.
While no one knows how many indigenous Muslims there are in Australia, Aboriginal Muslims reject suggestions they are converting to the faith in droves. Some are descendants of Afghan and Baluch cameleers, North Indian traders and Malay pearl divers and have grown up in the faith.
Many converts are from cities. The boxer Anthony Mundine is the most famous of these and has become a role model. Their first contact with Islam sometimes, but not always, comes in jail, where as many as 22 per cent of inmates are indigenous Australians.
Rocky Davis, known as Shaheed Malik, converted while serving 14 years for armed robberies and other offences. It was the story of Malcolm X, the gangster and black American nationalist leader who became a convert to Islam, that first inspired Davis.
"What does Islam stand for? Islam offers a faith untainted by colonialism and racism. It is a liberating religion," says Davis. "Though the Bible said you shalt not kill, they killed, thou shall not rape, they raped our women, thou shalt not steal, they stole our land. Islam at its essence is pure. My forefathers had no army and no guns and lived in Aboriginal townships and camps. That's the difference between the Muslim and Christian faiths: one is for the oppressed and one's for the oppressor, one's for the coloniser and one for the colonised."
Peta Stephenson, a doctoral fellow at the University of Melbourne's Asia Institute, says Islam doesn't share the baggage of missionary Christianity, and has become one path by which Aborigines can affirm their pre-colonial identity.
"Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X are role models," she says. "A lot of people see Islam as an answer to the ills of Western society. For communities suffering chronic levels of unemployment or underemployment and substance abuse it might have special appeal for those wanting to break away from the statistics."
But Eugenia Flynn, an Adelaide IT worker, says it would be a mistake to think that every Aboriginal convert has come to the faith via the narrative of Malcolm X. For many of its adherents, Islam answers a spiritual yearning, and that search is something inherent in all individuals, indigenous or not, she says.
Brought up a Catholic, Flynn, 24, converted to Islam five years ago after finding in it an intense experience of God. She would be disappointed if Islam was held to appeal solely to indigenous Australians as a marginalised community.
"My issue is that people like to stereotype black Muslims as angry militants who did jail time and left behind a life of crime and violence. The more typical story is an indigenous person was searching for a spiritual way and found Islam to be incredibly liberating."
Mundine's walk to Islam came a decade ago at the end of his football playing days. Like Flynn, his motives were spiritual, not political, and his closest friends say his faith is genuinely held.
Life was good but his soul was empty, he says. He was bought up a Christian but was not overly religious. He rejected Christianity because he could not understand its complex trinitarian theology. His manager, Khoder Nasser, introduced him to Islam by lending him a book about Malcolm X.
"Islam's given me a new perspective on the hereafter and what life is about. It's black and white and pure. We've got to ask the question, 'Where are we going and why are we here?' If you have a faith and belief in God there'd be less suicide, stress and sickness. You have a feeling and a purpose, and if you will take one step He will take two steps to you. Islam is my life, it's helped every aspect of it. Every time you see my life, my sporting successes, know that Allah is the greatest."
Flynn sees "lots of similarities" between Aboriginal culture and Islam, including Islam's emphasis on modesty and the segregation of men and women. "I think a lot of people think indigenous spirituality is based around animalism but in Aboriginal culture there is a creator god, and the way I express my spirituality is through Islam. I don't see the two as mutually exclusive. For me I choose Aboriginality as my culture and Islam as my faith."
Islam has proved a neat fit for Aboriginal Australians, says Stephenson, who is writing a book on the topic.
"Islam is a very accepting religion, no matter the race, and it's reaffirming for Aboriginal people who might not find that same sense of belonging in Australian culture," she says.
"Some Aboriginal people appreciate that Islam gives them strict guidelines on how to live their lives, especially for those who have been forced to move off their lands. Traditional indigenous culture also has codes and ethics that members are expected to follow for the betterment of the community. Those identifying with Islam have not only found some direction in their life, they are following a faith that shares many cultural overlaps with their Aboriginal identity."
Although Mundine is hailed as a role model for other Aboriginal converts, he doesn't see it as his job to bring people to faith. Kinsmen who approach him about Islam are told to educate themselves. "God willing, we do see more Aboriginal Muslims."
Flynn knows only a handful of converts in her home town. Just as Flynn is strict, Mundine is relaxed about religious practice. He tries to pray five times a day, before a bout and after, doesn't wear a beard because it interferes with his boxing, and long boxing shorts and T-shirt stand for modest dress around the home. He went on his first visit to Mecca last year and hopes to repeat it one day soon, and he tries to avoid training during Ramadan.
Islam, says Stephenson, has proved a positive experience for males. "I've consistently found men who say they were once angry but having identified with Islam they come away with a sense of peace and a real need to do good in the community. Islam teaches you to be the best person you can."
Nevertheless, the NSW Commissioner of Corrective Services, Ron Woodham, has expressed fears that inmates are falling prey to Wahabism - a fundamentalist branch of Islam practised by Osama bin Laden, without sampling more progressive traditions.
Because their first encounter with Islam is not within their community, Aboriginal converts tend to adopt the ideologies of those with whom they first connect. Davis wants it to be with an orthodox interpretation of Islam.
He does not believe Islam will become a platform for black nationalism in Australia, rather one for demanding human rights. He thinks it is likely to grow in stature within the indigenous community as a cure for economic and social disadvantage. He wants to establish a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, a support scheme for released inmates and a program in juvenile detention centres.