The 2011 Report Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century Australia released this week by the Australian Human Rights Commission notes “high levels of unprompted expressions of concern about Muslims” (p. 71). In the 2006 census, 1.7% of the Australian population identified as Muslims but 17% of the submissions on which the research for the report was based expressed fear that Muslims were seeking to introduce Sharia Law in Australia or undermine “Australia as a free society with a Christian heritage” in other ways.
While the report identifies entrenched hostility towards Muslims in contemporary Australia, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils identifies Muslims as among the most disadvantaged Australians:
[…] one of the most disadvantaged communities in Australia is the Muslim community, many of whom are newly arrived from war ravaged parts of the world, some with little or no English language skills. (p. 72)
Paranoid fear of the religious and linguistic other is nothing new in Australian society, as Robert Hughes explains in The Fatal Shore. In the very first years of the colony, a division between English-speaking Protestants and Gaelic-speaking Catholics emerged where nothing more than having a conversation in Gaelic could become a punishable offense. In 1793, for instance, just five years after the beginning of the European occupation of Australia, two Irishmen, Maurice Fitzgerald and Paddy Galvin, were sentenced to 300 lashes each for nothing more than the following deposition by Hester Stroud, an illiterate English convict:
From what she saw of the Irishmen being in small parties in the Camp of Toongaby and by their walking about together and talking very earnestly in Irish, deponent verily believes they were intent on something improper. (Quoted from The Fatal Shore, p. 188)
Many of the Irish convicts shipped out to Australia in the late 18th and early 19th century would not have spoken any other language than Gaelic. As Catholic rebels against the British colonization of Ireland, they were under blanket suspicion in the colony, too. The chief Anglican clergyman of NSW at the time, Samuel Marsden, offered this assessment of Catholics:
Their minds being destitute of every principle of religion and morality render them capable of perpetrating the most nefarious acts in cold blood. As they never appear to reflect upon consequences but to be always alive to rebellion and mischief, they are very dangerous members of society. (ibid, p. 188)
Today Catholics have of course entered the Australian mainstream. In fact, as the AHRC report also shows, Catholics are now the largest denomination in Australia accounting for 25.8% of the population, followed by Anglicans and those without a religion with 18.7% each. The similarity between the paranoid fear of Catholics in the early colony and the contemporary paranoia about Muslims should give us pause to reflect. We’ve come such a long way from the dark days of “the fatal shore” that surely we should be able to learn the lessons of history and overcome the paranoid fear of the supposed strangers in our midst.