By Ridwaan Jadwat, Special to Arab News
RIYADH, 25 October On Monday, Oct. 7, I had the honor to represent Australia and hundreds of thousands of Australian Muslims at the washing of the Holy Kaaba ceremony in Makkah. It was the fourth time that I have been granted the privilege of entering the inner sanctum of the Kaaba and performing prayers inside Islam's holiest site. It remains a vivid and deeply moving experience.
My invitation to Makkah and the warm welcome that I received from my Saudi hosts and diplomatic colleagues, represents a symbolic acknowledgment that Australia's cultural and religious diversity is recognized throughout the world.
Islam's presence in Australia predates European settlement. In the early 16th century, Makassan fishermen from the east Indonesian archipelago were the first Muslims to visit Australia and trade with the indigenous Aboriginal community. In the 19th century, Afghan Muslim camel drivers played an important role in the exploration and opening up of the interior of the Australian continent. Today, Islam is one of the fastest growing faiths in Australia, and Muslims are a vital and integral part of the rich mosaic of Australian society.
In the past 25 years, the Australian Muslim community has significantly expanded. According to the 2001 census, the Muslim community constituted 281,578 people, an increase of 40 percent since the 1996 census and an overall rise of 91 percent in the last decade. And these figures may be very conservative. Some recent estimates suggest Australian Muslims now number between 350,000-450,000.
Australian Muslims are ethnically diverse and come from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures. Some 35 percent of Australian Muslims were born in Australia, and the rest immigrated to Australia from over 70 different countries, including Lebanon, Turkey, Indonesia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
There are almost 100 mosques and over 20 Muslim schools in Australia. Reflecting the increasing recognition in Australia of the Islamic faith, Commonwealth and state governments have introduced flexible work hours on Fridays to make it easier for Muslim workers to attend a mosque and observe Juma prayers. Public streets are closed every year of Eid-ul Fitr and Eid-ul Adha to accommodate the tens of thousands of worshipers who attend Eid prayers at mosques such as Lakemba Mosque in Sydney, home to Australia's largest Muslim congregation.
Islamic community centers, student associations, halal butchers and restaurants are found in every major city in Australia. The peak Islamic authority in Australia is the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC), which is the umbrella organization of Islamic councils from Australia?s various states and territories.
The Australian government recently announced a partnership program with AFIC. The partnership will include employing a journalist to work with the media toward a better understanding of Islam and Muslims in Australia, through facilitating informed and accurate reporting and producing information, articles, and media releases on Islam and Muslims.
Australian Muslims are doctors, lawyers, academics, diplomats, police officers, members of the defense force, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, and laborers. Muslims have contributed much to Australia?s political, economic, and social life, and have cemented their place in Australia?s religious and cultural landscape.
They occupy an increasingly important place on the Australian public square, and are embracing opportunities to participate in a tolerant, inclusive and culturally diverse Australia.
(Mr. Ridwaan Jadwat is second secretary at the Australian Embassy in Riyadh)