By Kathy Marks in Sydney
28 February 2003
Militant young Aborigines are converting to Islam in increasing numbers, and some are flirting with the fundamentalist ideologies that have inspired recent terrorism.
There are an estimated 1,000 indigenous Muslims in Australia, including new recruits and descendants of mixed marriages. Some Aborigines are embracing Islam for spiritual reasons, but many say it gives them a sense of worth that they have lacked as members of an oppressed minority.
The religion has particular appeal for disaffected young men who feel impotent after generations of injustice and their position at the bottom of Australian society. Solomon, a 23-year-old man interviewed for a television documentary aired last night, said: "It's not a part of our religion to stand there and get stepped on. That's why Islam is so good for the Aboriginal people."
The documentary, made by Australia's SBS Television, featured some recent converts who profess to support Osama bin Laden. Khalid, who converted to Islam more than a decade ago while in prison, said: "Wherever you are, Osama bin Laden, I love you, brother, and I pray for you, because to me you're just a spiritual warrior standing up for Islam and propagating freedom around the world." Khalid, who has grown a beard and wears an Islamic skullcap, claimed there were thousands of budding Bin Ladens in Aboriginal communities. "If they ever find Osama bin Laden, another 1,000 will pop up," he said.
Most Aborigines have been Christians since missionaries arrived with the convict fleets two centuries ago. But, like African American Muslims, angry indigenous men are finding Islam empowering. They have attracted the attention of the authorities, which have been closely monitoring radical Muslims in Australia since the 11 September attacks and last year's bomb in Bali.
Solomon, who was introduced to Islam by workmates, said he was told by the domestic intelligence agency, ASIO, that if he left the country he would probably not be allowed back under counter-terrorism laws. He had wanted to go overseas to learn Arabic so that he could read the Koran in the original, he said, but ASIO suspected him of planning to attend a terrorism training camp.
Karander Seyit, editor of the Australian Muslim News, said: "The white Australian government has neglected them. They need spiritual guidance and, if Christianity is not willing to treat them like human beings, I know Islam would. Society has marginalised these people."
Justin, a law student in his early 20s, said: "I feel that in Australia I don't have the right to exist as a human being. Islam gives me the faith to think that I'm a man ... it gives me strength to endure and not lash out at all the things that we've been through."
But the experience of indigenous converts has not been wholly positive. Some have been shunned by Aboriginal communities, who reject them as traitors, and by mainstream Muslims, who treat them with hostility at the mosque.
Australia's most famous Aboriginal Muslim is Anthony Mundine, a former rugby league star turned boxer. Mundine caused a storm by asserting after 11 September that the United States had brought the terrorist attacks upon itself.
Those views were repeated by the men interviewed last night. "America and Britain have been running around too long as bullies," said Khalid. "Now they're getting a bit of their own medicine back."