One of the objections I commonly hear to both taking in asylum seekers and our wider immigration program is a fear that we are being Islamicised. This reflects a worry that most Muslims, if they had the chance, would vote to see sharia law imposed on the Australian population; that Muslims bring with them a violent culture; and/or that Muslim people simply won’t integrate into Australian society. Some see a conspiracy theory, believing that Muslims are plotting to take over nations such as Australia by first settling here and then having large families, so that the population eventually becomes majority Muslim.
So are they right?
The simple reality is that unless there is a radical change to our immigration program, people who identify either culturally or religiously as Muslims will not in the foreseeable future constitute a large portion of the Australian population. In 2011 the Pew Centre, a highly respected research Centre in the USA, conducted a study of Muslim demographics across the world (titled “The future of the global Muslim population”). They found that Australia’s Muslim population is growing much faster than the general Australian population. In 1990 there were 154,000 Muslims living in Australia, constituting 0.9% of the population. By 2010 there were roughly 399,000 Muslims living in Australia, constituting 1.9% of the population. Taking into account current rates of immigration, fertility, and other factors, the Pew research paper projected that in 2030 this number will have more than doubled to 714,000, or 2.8% of the population. Australia is, on these figures, becoming one percent more Muslim every two decades. The Pew Forum believes the rate of growth will taper off after 2030, but even if it did not at this growth rate the Muslim population of Australia would be about 6.5% by year 2100.
So the numbers simply don’t stack up for those who fear Australia will become islamicised. But beyond the numbers lies a misplaced perception that being Muslim is incompatible with being Australian. To be “Australian” is not to be Anglo, nor to be Christian, nor to be identified with any particular subculture. Rather, to be Australian is to be committed to the values of liberal democracy such as respect for the rule of law, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, respect for other human rights, and to be committed to the well-being of one’s fellow Australians. Within that framework there is room for great cultural and religious diversity.
I hear claims that people of Muslim faith don’t respect the type of values I have described, but I have yet to see any evidence for this. Certainly within each subculture in our community, including my own, there are those who set themselves against some of these values; and I suspect that many of us at one time or another fall short of fully embracing them. But there is simply no evidence that those who have Islamic faith are more likely to be predisposed to crime or less willing to embrace the values of liberal democracy. No statistics, for example, are kept on crime rates by ethnic or religious grouping, so anybody who makes claims in these areas is either simply making things up or generalising from a particular example. The only statistics we do have regarding criminality relate to a person’s country of origin, and these vary wildly, and provide little help in determining crime rates by ethnic or religious grouping.
Everything I hear said about Muslims I heard said about Greeks and Italians during my childhood, and about Asians during my teenage years. None of it proved true. It seems that we have a pattern in which those of us already living in Australia get anxious about whoever happens to be prominent in the current wave of immigration. We worry that they’ll bring crime, that they won’t fit in, that they won’t learn English, that they won’t embrace core Australian values. One or two generations in we discover our fears were misplaced and transfer them to another group that has suddenly become more prominent in migration. It’s now the turn of Muslims. Will we never learn?