Religion and Australian Cultural Diversity

Religion and Australian Cultural Diversity

Andrew Jakubowicz

University of Technology Sydney

The current context

In August 2005, with the London terrorist bombings still ringing in the corridors of power, Australian Prime Minister John Howard ordered the appearance in the national capital of thirteen hand-picked and government defined Muslim leaders. They had been called to stand by the Prime Minister and denounce terrorism. This they did. At the same time representatives of some fifty Muslim groups who had not been invited to the meeting, possibly because they were defined as either too “extreme” or too low profile, issued a statement calling on the government to recognise the range of legitimate debate that should be allowed in the country on key issues that worried them – especially Australian government support for the American led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For the first time since the First World War ninety years before, when Irish Catholic Australians condemned Australian government involvement in Britain’s war against the Prussian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman  empires (but especially against the Irish rebels), every level of Australian politics had become saturated with debates over religion and its place in the secular body politic of the Commonwealth.  Whereas a decade before, religion had hardly ruffled the surface of multicultural Australia – the 1995 Global Diversity conference had only minor dimensions of discussion of religion – and most public interest was ethnographic rather than political – global and local events in the new millennium had located religion firmly in the centre of public concerns. It was not simply the Islamic presence that had driven this concern, but a wider sweeping of the secular polity by activist religious organizations and a national government strongly influenced by the fundamentalist Christian rightwing. Australian modernity was becoming one in which despite declining numbers of self-identifying religious believers, evangelical Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish institutions had become far more extensively enmeshed in the provision of the basic organisational necessities of modern society – education, health, welfare and so on.

Unlike the USA with its firm separation of church and state, Australian governments had supported and been supported by religious groups since the foundation of the European settlement; state aid for church schools had become bi-partisan policy in the 1960s. However it was not until the election of the conservative national government in 1996, that government preference for religious provision of services was enshrined as a policy priority.  Senior church people became major figures in government policy deliberations, and conservative clerics, such as the Anglican and Catholic primates of Sydney, were increasingly influential with senior political operatives. Meanwhile the rapid rise of evangelical churches, particularly the global Sydney based Hillsong Church, drew politicians to their national gatherings, and in 2004 delivered a critical Senate seat to the Family First Party, sponsored by a national network of these churches.

The pattern of religious identification since Federation in 1901 reveals the decline of religiosity and of Christianity, and the growth of other religions. Even so, identifying non-Christians make up less than one in twenty of the population, while Christians form three in five. The society is thus still very much Christian in its ethos and moral discourse, though overtly secular in its governmentality.


Census Year Anglican Catholic Other Total Other religions No religion Not stated/ inadequately described Total ‘000
% % % % % % %
1901 39.7 22.7 33.7 96.1 1.4 0.4 (a)2.0 3,773.8
1911 38.4 22.4 35.1 95.9 0.8 0.4 (a)2.9 4,455.0
1921 43.7 21.7 31.6 96.9 0.7 0.5 (a)1.9 5,435.7
1933 38.7 19.6 28.1 86.4 0.4 0.2 12.9 6,629.8
1947 39.0 20.9 28.1 88.0 0.5 0.3 11.1 7,579.4
1954 37.9 22.9 28.5 89.4 0.6 0.3 9.7 8,986.5
1961 34.9 24.9 28.4 88.3 0.7 0.4 10.7 10,508.2
1966 33.5 26.2 28.5 88.2 0.7 0.8 10.3 11,599.5
1971 31.0 27.0 28.2 86.2 0.8 6.7 6.2 12,755.6
1976 27.7 25.7 25.2 78.6 1.0 8.3 11.4 13,548.4
1981 26.1 26.0 24.3 76.4 1.4 10.8 11.4 14,576.3
1986 23.9 26.0 23.0 73.0 2.0 12.7 12.4 15,602.2
1991 23.8 27.3 22.9 74.0 2.6 12.9 10.5 16,850.3
1996 22.0 27.0 21.9 70.9 3.5 16.6 9.0 17,752.8
2001 20.7 26.6 20.7 68.0 4.9 15.5 11.7 18,769.2

(a) Includes ‘object to state’.  ABS Census of Population and Housing

How then does religious revivalism engage with the cultural pluralism of an avowedly secular modern country? While Christianity has been the dominant force on the religious landscape for two hundred years, three other groups – Muslims, Jews and  Buddhists – each carrying a kernel of refugee displacement and the ambivalence in identities such experiences create – have been re-shaping the public discourses of the once self-assertively secular society.


1996 % 2001 % Change %
Christianity 70.9 68.0 -1.1
Anglican 3,903.3 22.0 3,881.2 20.7 -0.6
Baptist 295.2 1.7 309.2 1.6 4.8
Catholic 4,799.0 27.0 5,001.6 26.6 4.2
Churches of Christ 75.0 0.4 61.3 0.3 -18.2
Jehovah’s Witness 83.4 0.5 81.1 0.4 -2.8
Lutheran 250.0 1.4 250.4 1.3 0.2
Orthodox 497.0 2.8 529.4 2.8 6.5
Pentecostal 174.7 1.0 194.6 1.0 11.4
Presbyterian and      Reformed 675.5 3.8 637.5 3.4 -5.6
Salvation Army 74.1 0.4 71.4 0.4 -3.7
Uniting Church 1,334.9 7.5 1,248.7 6.7 -6.5
Other Christian 420.6 2.4 497.9 2.7 18.4
Buddhism 199.8 1.1 357.8 1.9 79.1
Hinduism 67.3 0.4 95.5 0.5 41.9
Islam 200.9 1.1 281.6 1.5 40.2
Judaism 79.8 0.4 84.0 0.4 5.2
Other religions 68.6 0.4 92.4 0.5 34.6
No religion 2,948.9 16.6 2,906.0 15.5 -1.5
Not stated/inadequately described 1,604.7 9.0 2,187.7 11.7 36.3
Total 17,752.8 100.0 18,769.2 100.0 5.7

Source: ABS Census

Christian Diversity

As the Australian colonies settled into place fifty years after the British first invaded the southern continent and claimed it for themselves, a hundred year long contestation began that would affect Australian politics in critical ways. The English and Scots who dominated the political and economic life of the colonies also faced the alienation of the Irish, many of them political prisoners from various uprisings against British rule.  Catholicism then always carried this political quality, The Catholic ascendancy reached its height in early 1996, with a Catholic Prime Minister, Chief Justice, and Governor General, the first time such a triumvirate had come together – and it lasted for just three months (until the Catholic Prime Minister lost the general election).

Most recently conservative Christians in national politics have formed a coalition to press for Christian values in government policy. This coalition, known as the Lyons group, formed the heartland of support for John Howard in his challenge to the far more liberal John Hewson for party leadership in the early 1990s. Howard succeeded, and became Prime Minister in 1996 – delivering to his supporters through dramatic increases in funding for Christian schools, the appointment of key Christian advisors, and the transfer of major public sector services to Christian service organizations. Perhaps most challengingly, he appointed an Anglican archbishop as Governor General (head of state), a man who resigned in a flurry of scandal over child sex abuse by priests, whom he replaced by another Protestant believer, a retired special forces general.

In recent years tensions within the mainstream churches over progressive versus conservative directions (over homosexuality, women priests, child abuse – many to do therefore with sexuality and Christian identity), have been exacerbated by the rise of evangelical churches and the increasing presence of diverse Christianities from Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. There are now significant communities of Sabaen Mandeans from Iran, Copts from Egypt, Eritrea, Paulians from India, various orthodox groups from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and African Catholics from the Sudan, to name but a few, as well as the long established Greek, Russian and other eastern Orthodox churches. Meanwhile other tensions persist between Croatian Catholics and Serbian Orthodox, driven by events in the former Yugoslavia, and manifested in riots at inter-ethnic football games.

While ethnic Christianities are growing to reflect the pattern of immigration, a new phenomenon is the emergence of consciously multicultural Christian congregations – that is, drawing together the rising culturally diverse middle class in a cross-cultural celebration of faith. While Hillsong in Sydney has become the wealthiest and best known (Howard and his deputy have addressed its conventions) such churches exist in all cities. They are characterised by congregations that reflect the diversity of Australian society – Chinese, Indonesians, Filipinos, Taiwanese, Ghaneans, Ugandans, Chilenos, Greeks, Italians, Lebanese, the second and third generation descendants of earlier immigrations, Indigenous Australians and the “white Australia” suburbs. It is difficult to imagine any other institutional location that could collect such a cross-section; interestingly, Hillsong’s catchcry is “relevance” and it concentrates on celebrating the development of business success as a sign of the Lord’s beneficence. It has also played a key role in building the political networks necessary for the success of the Family First Party, and the cultural environments that have nurtured at least one Australian Idol TV song contest winner.

Islam and the Muslim communities of Australia

The first Muslims to have sustained contact with Australia probably pre-dated Europeans, and came as trepang hunters from Malacca in the early 18th century. Their traces still exist in the inter-related families from northern Australia and Indonesia, and the Ambonese settlers of the Torres Strait. By the mid-19th century Pushtuns and other tribal men from what is now Pakistan had come to lead the camel trains (there are an estimated 600,000 wild camels in the centre of Australia today) that opened up the Australian inland. Many intermarried with Indigenous women and their descendants can be found all over the north. Syrian traders from the Levant, some Muslim, some Christian, became itinerant traders through northern and eastern Australia.

In the past decade Islam has been one of the fastest growing religions, primarily from Australian-born children of Muslim immigrant parents. In parallel with that growth strong anti-Muslim sentiment has appeared in older parts of the Anglo-Australian and longer established immigrant communities,  exacerbated by international tensions generated by 9/11, asylum seekers from Muslim countries, the growth of Jemaah Islamiha in Indonesia and lethal attacks on Australians, and the various crises in the Middle East. Local factors have also exacerbated inter-communal relations, including a series of so-called “race rapes” by young Lebanese Muslim Australian men in Sydney, and deadly inter-family feuds relating to drug sales and organised crime in the same community.

While there was a Muslim presence in Australia throughout the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, the growth in Muslim communities followed three different types of decisions regarding population and national interest in the 1960s and 1970s. The first decision reflected the move to end White Australia and the related assumption that such a move would allow Australia to accept members of the global professional classes – doctors, engineers, academics and business people – some of whom would be Muslims. The second decision reflected the immigration crises of the 1960s , and the need to replace the working class immigrants of the 1950s who were returning to their European countries of origin, with other industrial workers – primarily Turks. The third decision reflected Australia’s humanitarian policy commitment, and the response to pressures to admit refugees from the Lebanese civil war, and other Middle East conflagrations during and after the mid-1970s.

Together this created a Muslim population of immigrants and their descendants that as declared in the 2001 Census, numbered some 280,000, or 1.5% of the total population (up from 200,000 or 1.1% in 1996 and 147500 or 0.9% in 1991). Newspaper stories vary – some claiming up to 450,000 Muslims when reporting some community leaders (Chulov The Aust 17 Sep 2001).

While Muslims come from over sixty national backgrounds, the two largest groups are the Lebanese and Turks, most of whom are working class and concentrated in quite tight pockets in south western and western Sydney, and in parts of Melbourne. A Druse minority tend to be based in Adelaide.

The Muslim population rose some 40% between 1996 and 2001 (the latest Census years); some communities rose rather more rapidly than this while others remained stable. The most significant increases took place at either ends of the economic ladder – impoverished refugees and well-off professionals and business people.  The most significant group of Muslims are those born in Australia who contributed about 50% of the increase – many of whom are the children of the two largest communities, while some are converts.

Table 1: Muslims by birthplace, Australia, 2001

Birthplace Australia


Percentage all Muslims
Australia 102566 36.43
Afghanistan 9923 3.52
Bangladesh 7596 2.70
Bosnia & Herzeg. 9892 3.51
Cyprus 3708 1.32
Egypt 3061 1.09
Fiji 5772 2.05
India 2819 1.00
Indonesia 8087 2.87
Iran 6353 2.26
Iraq 7749 2.75
Jordan 1348 0.48
Kuwait 1610 0.57
Lebanon 29321 10.41
Malaysia 2975 1.06
N-W Europe 2668 0.95
Pakistan 9238 3.28
Singapore 2091 0.74
Somalia 3585 1.27
Syria 2261 0.80
Turkey 23479 8.34
Sub-total 246102 87.4
All 281576

Source: (DIMIA 2003)

Selected source countries with Muslim populations NSW – all nationals Birthplace 1996 Birthplace 2001 % change
Afghanistan 5826 11296 93.9
Bangladesh 5077 9078 78.8
Bosnia 13610 23848 75.2
Iraq 14004 24832 77.3
Lebanon 27000 (70224) 29300 (71000) 2%
Pakistan 8358 11917 42.6
Somalia 2055 3713 80.7
Turkey 28869 29821 3.3%
Muslims in NSW 102,288 140,907 38

Source: (ABS, 2003)

The Lebanese community was predominantly Christian (Maronite, Melkite and Catholic) until the 1960s. The early Muslim arrivals were Sunnis from northern Lebanon, around Tripoli, who settled in Canterbury in Sydney’s inner west. They established the first mosque in Lakemba in the early 1960s. By 1971 about one in seven Lebanese-born residents were Muslims (3500), five years later one in five (6500), by 1981 one in three (16000), by 1996 two in five (27000), and by 2001 slightly more than that (29300). In the period 1975 to 1977, some 14000 Lebanese arrived in Australia from the civil war, being admitted as immigrants rather than as refugees. Nearly three quarters of Muslim Lebanese live in Sydney.

Muslim immigration from the post-1965 period has therefore had dramatic effect on the wider Australian awareness, and in particular has pushed the debate on multiculturalism in the wake of the waves of terror bombings after 2001. The London bombings, revealed as the work of “home-grown” terrorists, has had the greatest impact, leading the prime Minister to hold a controversial summit of selected “moderate” Muslim leaders (August 2005) to stand with him against terror.

One focus of debates about Islam has been the public persona of the so-called “Mufti” of Australia, a Sydney-based Egyptian-born cleric Sheik Al-Hilaly mainly associated with the large Lebanese Muslim community. He has been a controversial figure since his appointment in the 1980s; he has been accused of gross anti-Semitism, support for terrorists, and corruption. On the other hand he has been a major opponent of Wahabi Islamist forces (his mosque may have finally succumbed to them in mid-2005), and has stressed the importance of cultural diversity and multiculturalism. In May 2005 he emerged in the national media as the “arranger” of the release of Douglas Wood, an Australian businessman held by kidnappers in Baghdad. Hilaly had appeared to claim he was the reason that Iraqi troops found Wood and were able to release him. Australian government sources appeared unwilling to either support or undermine his version of events.

Hilaly was also conspicuously out of Australia during the Prime Minister’s Muslim summit, apparently because he did not want to be compromised by appearing in it, and did not want to alienate himself from the government by refusing to accept the PM’s invitation. For the popular media he remains the weather-vane of the Muslim presence, and a constant target of criticism. The discourses about him reveal much about Australian community disturbance in a period of social unease and fear.


While religious diversity in Australia is far wider than just Christianity and Islam, these religions have been at the heart of most recent debates about multiculturalism. The debate has ballooned into a fairly vigorous argument about Australian values and the demand that Muslim schools in particular be policed to ensure they are serving up the fare demanded by the more populist demagogues and right-wing politicians. At its height one politician demanded that the hijab be banned in public schools – a demand rejected by conservative leaders, though not without sustained pillorying of Islamic schools as centres of un-Australian values.

On the other hand, a few inter-religious coalitions such as those between imams, priests and rabbis to build bridges between school students of the Abrahamic faiths, and initiatives by young westernised Muslims to distance themselves from terror, suggest some areas of autonomous community activity are bearing fruit. Yet the national discourse increasingly aligns multiculturalism with Muslim fundamentalism, and proposes ever more rigid definitions of acceptable behaviour and belief.

The overarching trend suggests that religion has moved back into the mainstream of the political flow, even if the urban elites find it bemusing and possibly pre-modern. Religion has become the central arena of dispute for Australian multiculturalism, the arena most fraught with anxious hostilities.


Adam, Enid L., Philip J. Hughes, and Australia. Bureau of Immigration Multicultural and Population Research. 1996. The Buddhists in Australia. Canberra: Australia Govt. Pub. Service.

Australia. Dept. of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. Central Library., and Australia. Bureau of Immigration Multicultural and Population Research. 1996. Migrants and religion : an annotated bibliography. Canberra: Australian Govt. Pub. Service.

Burnley, I. H. 2001. The impact of immigration on Australia : a demographic approach. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Burnley, Ian. 1999. “Levels of Immigrant Residential Concentration in Sydney and their..” Urban Studies 36:1295.

Jakubowicz, Andrew. 2005. “Multiculturalism in Australia: Apogee or nadir?” Canadian Diversity 4:15-18.

Kampmark, Binoy. 2003. “Islam, Women and Australia’s cultural discourse of terror.” Hecate 29.

Maddox, Marian. 2005. God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics. Sydney: Allen and Unnwin.

Manning, Peter. 2004. Dog whistle politics and journalism: reporting Arabic and Muslim people in Sydney newspapers. Sydney: Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.

Rubinstein, W. D., Philip J. Hughes, and Australia. Bureau of Immigration Multicultural and Population Research. 1995. Judaism in Australia. Canberra: Australian Govt. Pub. Service.


4 thoughts on “Religion and Australian Cultural Diversity

  1. Hello Andrew,

    My name is Pierre, I have just graduated from Macquarie University,
    with a Master of Commerce (human resources management).

    I would like to conduct a doctorate research, within the realm of cultural diversity, and demography. In this sense, this potential research will be discussing trends of the Lebanese Maronite in Australia, since the Federation till now. Similarly, this research will
    be covering the economic impact of these migrants into the Australian society.

    Is it possible to supervise me in this case? As I explored that yourself is a valuable person to supervise me in this matter.

    Please feel free to answer me back on my e-mail:
    0411 893 027

    Kindest regards,

    Pierre Chahoud

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