Muslim Australians

Current Issues

Muslim Australians

E-Brief: Online Only issued 6 March 2007

Janet Phillips, Social Policy Section


There is currently a great deal of interest in, and misunderstanding about, Australia s Muslim communities. Muslim Australians are not a homogenous group as some media reports might lead us to believe, but make up a small, culturally diverse section of Australian society.

Over a third (36 per cent) of Muslim Australians are Australian-born, while those who have arrived here as immigrants come from all over the world from Lebanon and Turkey to Bangladesh and Fiji. Some come from countries where women wear a burqa or a veil, most do not. And despite concerns expressed by some, many others argue that the vast majority of Muslim Australians see no conflict of loyalty between Islam and Australian citizenship.

This electronic brief is a guide to some of the recent research, statistics and information on Australian Muslims which highlights those issues and provides a more accurate overview of Australia s Muslim communities.

How many Muslim Australians are there?

A statistical snapshot on Muslim Australians is available from a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) fact sheet that includes unpublished 2001 Census data on birthplace, ancestry, sex and geographic distribution in Australia. The fact sheet shows that Australian residents who identify themselves as Muslim (281 578 individuals), make up approximately 1.5 per cent of the population and that 36 per cent of all Muslims in Australia were born here. Almost 50 per cent of Australian Muslims are aged 24 and under.

The HREOC report Ismaع Listen: National consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians, includes further statistical data on Arab and Muslim Australians in its appendices. According to this report, of the 102 566 Australian-born Muslims around 30 per cent claim Lebanese ancestry, 18 per cent claim Turkish ancestry and 3 per cent claim broadly defined Arab ancestry.

Major countries of birth of Muslim Australians

Australia 36 per cent
Lebanon 10 per cent
Turkey 8 per cent
Afghanistan 3.5 per cent
Bosnia-Herzegovina 3.5 per cent
Pakistan 3.2 per cent
Indonesia 2.9 per cent
Iraq 2.8 per cent
Bangladesh 2.7 per cent
Iran 2.3 per cent
Fiji 2.0 per cent

(Source: HREOC fact sheet, ABS unpublished 2001 Census data)

Another statistical snapshot from the Conference of Australian Imams held in September 2006, includes age profiles of Australian Muslims.

Other more detailed statistical information is available from a 2004 report, Muslim Australians: their beliefs, practices and institutions. This very comprehensive report was produced under the government s Living in Harmony initiative by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) and written by Professor Abdullah Saheed from the University of Melbourne in association with the Australian Multicultural Foundation.

The report, plus two others on religious and cultural diversity are available from the Australian Multicultural Foundation website. The three reports are; Religion, cultural diversity and safeguarding Australia, Muslim Australians: their beliefs, practices and institutions and Constructing a multi-faith network.


At the time of the 2001 Census there were 16.5 million Australian citizens, 3 million of whom were born overseas. For more detail on citizenship statistics by country of origin visit the government s citizenship website.

Muslim Australians: their beliefs, practices and institutions includes citizenship data. It states that the majority of Muslims in Australia (79 per cent) have obtained Australian citizenship (221 856 out of a total of 281 578).

The citizenship take-up rate is even higher for immigrants from some Middle East countries such as Lebanon and Egypt, although not all immigrants from these countries would necessarily be Muslim:

Australian citizenship rates for select birthplace groups, 2001

Country of birth

% of ethnic group who are Australian citizens


91.6 %


91.3 %







Other Middle East


Other N Africa


All Overseas-born people


Source: HREOC, Ismaع Listen: National consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians, Appendix 2, ABS unpublished 2001 Census data.

English language proficiency

The majority of Australia s Muslims are proficient in English according to Muslim Australians: their beliefs, practices and institutions. Those aged 21 39 are the most proficient in English, while the least proficient group is aged over 60. Almost 50 per cent of Australian Muslims are aged 24 and under.

The three main languages spoken at home by Australian Muslims are Arabic, Turkish and English. Most Australian Muslims (87 per cent) speak English in addition to another language such as Arabic, Turkish, Persian (Farsi), Bosnian, Indonesian, Bengali, Malay, Dari, Albanian, Hindi, Kurdish, and Pashto. Approximately 11 per cent of Australian Muslims speak only English (Ismaع Listen: National consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians, Appendix 3).

Another DIMIA publication, Statistical Focus: 2001 Classification of Countries into English Proficiency Groups, 2003, gives detailed proficiency data for immigrants by geographic regions, including the Middle East.

Religious affiliation

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Year Book 2006, between 1996 and 2001 there were just over half a million new arrivals to Australia. Although Christianity is the most commonly reported religious affiliation for the majority of immigrants, followers of other religions have shown the largest proportional increases since the 1996 Census. The number of persons affiliated with Buddhism increased by 79 per cent, with Hinduism by 42 per cent, Islam 40 per cent and Judaism 5 per cent. Of all people affiliating with Hinduism in 2001, 82 per cent were born overseas, with 34 per cent born in India and 11 per cent in Sri Lanka. Similarly, nearly three-quarters of all those affiliating with Buddhism were born overseas 26 per cent in Vietnam and 8 per cent in China. Of persons of all ages affiliating with Islam in 2001, 62 per cent were overseas born, with almost 11 per cent born in Lebanon and 9 per cent in Turkey.

Another ABS publication, Australia s most recent immigrants, by Professor Graeme Hugo, contains information on the religion of both recent and longstanding migrants. Hugo argues that one of the most dramatic changes in Australian post-war society has been the massive increase in the diversity of religions practiced in Australia. He states that each of the last five post-war censuses has seen an increase in the amount of diversity of Australian religions and that immigrants arriving in Australia during 1996 2001 were more diverse with respect to religious adherence than either the Australian-born population or migrants of longer standing in Australia, (with non-Christian groups more representative among recent arrivals). Muslims made up 8.8 per cent of recent immigrants, but only 3.2 per cent of their longstanding counterparts and more than one-fifth of Australia s 281 578 Muslims in 2001 had arrived in Australia in 1996 2001 or were children born in Australia to those immigrants.

For a background on Islam, plus lists of the major Mosques, Islamic organisations and Islamic schools in Australia see Muslim Australians: their beliefs, practices and institutions, or the Islamic schools and Mosques pages on the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils website.

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According to Ismaع Listen: National consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians, overseas-born Muslims are more likely to be unemployed than Muslims born in Australia. Immigrants who come to Australia from the Middle East, Africa and Vietnam also have rates of unemployment much higher than other overseas-born immigrants. See High unemployment at a time of low unemployment (T. Kryger, Parliamentary Library, Research Note, 2005). This trend is mirrored internationally in Europe, for example, Muslims face high unemployment in many countries.

For Australian Muslims in the labour force, earnings are not comparable with the Australian average. According to the 2001 Census, 43 per cent of Australian Muslims make less than $200 per week compared with 27 per cent of all Australians. Only 5 per cent of Australian Muslims have income of more than $1000 per week compared with 11 per cent of all Australians. For more detail on employment and occupation status see Appendix 3 of the HREOC report Ismaع Listen: National consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians.

For more detail on unemployment and possible solutions see the Muslim Community Reference Group report released in September 2006 Building on social cohesion, harmony and security: an action plan by the Muslim Community Reference Group.

Muslim women

Concerns are often raised that Muslim women may be oppressed by their families and their communities. The custom of the wearing of a veil and reports of the treatment of Muslim women in some Middle East countries contribute to this. However, both within Muslim communities and the community at large, different views and opinions exist about this complex issue:

It could be argued that Muslim women face more challenges in Australia than their male counterparts. As some of the media accounts above show, many women find themselves facing obstacles and discrimination from both their own communities and non-Muslims as they struggle to find a place in Australian society. Conflict issues for Muslim youth and young women are outlined in the communique from the Muslim Youth Summit held in December 2005.

Newly arrived Muslim immigrants and particularly Muslim women refugees can face even greater challenges, as reported in Breaking the isolation cycle: the experience of Muslim refugee women in Australia, (Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, vol. 15 no. 2, 2006).

For examples of international discussion on Muslim women and their role in Islamic society from a variety of viewpoints see:

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According to consultations conducted by HREOC and reported in Ismaع Listen: National consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians, Muslim Australians commonly experience discrimination, racial vilification, threats of violence and actual violence. Others reported a general insensitivity towards Muslim cultural practices such as a refusal to allow prayer breaks or negative comments about Muslim names or dress.

In August 2007, researchers at Edith Cowan University released preliminary results from a National Fear Survey funded by an Australian Research Council (ARC) 'Safeguarding Australia' grant. One of the major findings of this survey was that fear is isolating many Muslim Australians. Where non-Muslim Australians reported generalised fears of such things as travelling in planes, Muslim Australians reported specific fears for their personal safety in public places and a mistrust of our society. See ‘Muslims feel cut off, left isolated by fear’ (C. Levett, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August 2007).

Muslim Australians are highly likely to experience discrimination along the following three main themes:

  • that Muslim Australians are potential terrorists
  • that there is no place in Australia for Muslims
  • that Muslims should abandon their cultural practices and assimilate

Muslim women and children are particularly vulnerable and reported feeling afraid of attack or abuse in public places and even at home. Women reported being physically and verbally abused on a regular basis with threats such as 'I am going to rip that scarf of your head and smash your bag over the top of head, smash it in', as described in When cultures collide: planning for the public spatial needs of Muslim women in Sydney, (paper from the State of Australian Cities Conference 2005).

Ismaع Listen: National consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians gives detailed accounts of children experiencing bullying and intimidation at school, with many parents saying that they feel that they are forced to send their children to Islamic schools, not necessarily for the education, but for their safety. Young Muslims reported feeling a high level of fear, anger and stress: A lot of young people are struggling and parents are saying 'We have our culture, but how can we pass it on to our children without them having to go through such a huge struggle?' We are creating a very angry generation who will eventually end up with psychological repercussions. I don't believe that anyone can endure this kind of pressure and come out feeling ok. See the communique from the Muslim Youth Summit, held in December 2005, outlining other conflict issues for Muslim youth.

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The Muslim problem and the multiculturalism debate

There has been significant public debate on multiculturalism, Islam and Australian society in the past few years, particularly since the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001. In Australia, concern has heightened since the Bali bombings and the attention given to the controversial sermons given in Sydney by Sheiks Taj el-Din al Hilali and Feiz Mohammed. Some commentators speak about the Muslim problem and the need for Muslim Australians to assimilate, while others argue that Australian society should continue to embrace multiculturalism. There are many examples online and in the media offering different views:

Initiatives and dialogue

Since the establishment of Australia s first Department of Immigration in 1945, around 6.5 million migrants and refugees have settled in the country. Source countries have shifted in that time from the UK to Northern and Southern Europe, to the Middle East and Asia. Today, 24 per cent of Australia s population is overseas-born, and 40 per cent has one or both parents born overseas.  Australia s population is drawn from about 185 countries and over 200 languages are spoken at home. While some may find the concept of such cultural diversity confronting, many argue that the majority of Australians are not unduly threatened by it. See, for example, If there is prejudice, there is also tolerance, (Andrew Norton, The Australian, 22 December 2005) and Immigration and public opinion: understanding the shift, (Katherine Betts, People and Place, vol. 10 no. 4, 2002).

In September 2005, the Muslim Community Reference Group was established for a one year term to advise the government on Muslim community issues. Speeches and media releases from this group are available on the website. On 14 July 2006, the Ministerial Council on Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (MCIMA) endorsed the development and implementation of a National Action Plan to Build on Social Cohesion, Harmony and Security (NAP). This endorsement was followed in September 2006 by the release of the Muslim Community Reference Group report, Building on social cohesion, harmony and security: an action plan by the Muslim Community Reference Group. This report offers recommendations on ways forward and community building in such areas as education, employment and youth support. A list of government media releases, speeches and initiatives for Muslim Australians is available on the Muslim Community Reference Group website

In January 2007, the Minister for Education Science and Training, the Hon. Julie Bishop, announced that the University of Melbourne, Griffith University and the University of Western Sydney will host a National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies to advance knowledge and understanding of Islam. The federal government has committed $8 million to establish the centre as part of its National Action Plan to Build on Social Cohesion, Harmony and Security.

Other initiatives include a Muslim Youth Summit held in December 2005, which released a communique outlining conflict issues for Muslim youth suggesting solutions, and in September 2006, a Conference of Australian Imams was held.The idea for the conference came from members of the Muslim community and was put forward at a meeting of the Muslim Community Reference Group. The conference website includes a brief report and a communique condemning terrorism and promoting tolerance. Many other initiatives such as the Unlocking Doors: Muslim communities and police tackling racial and religious discrimination and abuse project, funded by the federal government, aim to facilitate racial tolerance and understanding at the local level.

Chapters 4 and 5 of Ismaع Listen: National consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians outline some of the many strategies that have been initiated in recent years at the state, federal and community levels to promote tolerance. The federal government s Living in Harmony initiative, for example, included the 'Towards a Better Understanding of Islam and the Muslim Community in Australia' project with the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils in 2002, and in 2004 produced the report Constructing a multi-faith network in conjunction with World Conference on Religion and Peace. The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils is also involved with other religious groups such as the National Council of Churches of Australia, World Conference on Religion and Peace and the Uniting Church in establishing interfaith dialogues.

While Australians might continue to be concerned about new arrivals fitting in , there appears to be a general optimism in the community about the positive contribution that immigrants bring to Australia and the capacity for our multicultural society to accommodate these new arrivals. There is evidence that many of our immigrants view Australia as a tolerant country. An opinion poll, Living in Diversity, conducted by SBS in 2002, found that while only 40 per cent of the national population considers Australia a tolerant or very tolerant society, all five NESB samples gave much higher marks to Australia s tolerance levels, ranging from 47 per cent of Lebanese to 63 per cent of Somalis and 67 per cent of Vietnamese.

Since this survey was conducted, the world has experienced the Bali and London bombings and other incidences of violence. Many Muslim and non-Muslim Australians are now concerned that the negative consequences of these incidents may impair or delay our future development as a culturally diverse nation.

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Key references

Key links

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