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The history of Muslims and Islamic influences in Australia predates European settlement. Since the 1600s, Muslim fishermen sailed south from what is now Indonesia in search of trepang, green snail, shark fin, and trochus shell, among other sea products. They made contact with the Australian Aboriginal people along the northern part of the country. Evidence of this is found in Aboriginal language, art, song, and even in the genetics of people along the northern Australian and southern Indonesian shores.

Soon after the first European settlement at Sydney in 1788 under Captain Arthur Phillip, small numbers of Muslims were brought to Australia as convicts for “disobedience”. Early ships used Muslims from Africa and from British territories as navigators and labourers. They didn’t leave much evidence as they tended to marry and integrate into the larger community.

From the 1860s to about 1910, several thousand Muslims from Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries brought their camels to Australia and headed inland where the animals became an important means of transport before motor vehicles. These people were used to hot, arid climates. They assisted European explorers, helped to open up the country, and were instrumental in the development of railway and telegraph services. Many of these Muslims settled in Central Australia and inter-married with Aboriginal people. Australia’s first mosque was built by Afghan camel drivers at Renmark in South Australia in 1861.

In the 1870s, Muslim divers from Malay and other British and Dutch colonies in south-east Asia were hired to work in the pearling grounds off Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Some 1,800 Muslim divers were in the industry in Western Australia in 1875. It was a hazardous occupation and deaths and injuries were common. Most of these people eventually returned to their homes.

The White Australia Policy limited the number of Muslims coming to Australia in the late nineteenth century until around the middle of the twentieth century. However, the policy was gradually relaxed and in the 1920s, about 1,000 Albanian Muslims migrated to Australia. They worked mainly as farmers. Australia’s post-World War II immigration policy allowed displaced European Muslims to move to this country in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Muslims from Bosnia and Kosova worked on Australia’s huge Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme in the 1960s. About 10,000 Turkish Muslims arrived in Australia between 1967 and 1971, mainly settling in Melbourne and Sydney.

A dismantling of the last remnants of the White Australia Policy in 1973 heralded large-scale migration of Muslim people. Thousands of Lebanese Muslims came to Australia in the mid 1970s to escape their country’s civil war. Many settled in Sydney, where about half of Australia’s Muslim population live. Muslims fleeing the Somali civil war migrated to Australia in the 1990s. Most Muslims arriving in Australia in recent decades have come here as part of normal migration processes. Their cause has been helped by an Australian policy of multiculturalism rather than assimilation.

The Australian Federation of Islamic Societies was formed to 1963 to serve the needs of the Muslim community, such as building mosques and providing education. The structure was changed in 1976 to better serve the rapidly growing community. A hierarchy of Islamic societies was established at local and state level under this national body.

The first Islamic school in Australia opened at Coburg, Melbourne, in 1983. Since then, Islamic schools have been established around the country. For example, the Australian Islamic College in Perth has about 2,000 students. Many of the international Islamic students in Australia settle here after they finish their studies, as part of the “skills migration program”. These people now work here in various occupations, such as doctors, scientists, teachers, and tradespeople. A number of Islamic cultural centres, often attached to mosques, have also been set up.

By the twenty-first century, Muslims had come from over sixty countries to live in Australia, mainly from Lebanon and Turkey, but also from Afghanistan, Albania, Bosnia, Egypt, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Palestine, Sudan, and other countries. In 2011, about 476,000 Muslims were living in Australia or 2.2 per cent of the population, up from 340,000 or 1.7 per cent in 2006. The number has grown from around 280,000 in 2001 and 200,000 in 1996. This compares with just 41,000 in 1981.

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