How Australian Muslims understand, interpret and express Islam

The inaccuracy of the depiction of Muslims within the media as demonstrated by the self-identification of Muslim typologies


Over the last two decades, a number of surveys have been conducted to capture the views and opinions of Muslims in the West, including North America, Europe and Australia. They have examined religious identity, beliefs, views on social and political issues, as well as experiences of islamophobia and integration. The Islam in Australia study was conducted through the Centre for Social and Cultural research, Griffith University, Australia in the form of an online survey.


Of the 1034 Muslim Australian citizens who completed the survey 50.8 percent were female and 49.0 percent male. In relation to place of birth, 38.7 percent were born in Australia and 61.3 percent were born overseas. While more than half of the survey respondents were raised in Australia (56.9%), others were raised in South Asia (22.8%), Western Asia, including the Middle East (12.2%), South East Asia (7.2%), Europe (5.2%), Sub-Saharan Africa (4.7%), and Northern Africa (3.5%), among other regions of the world.

The survey allowed secondary school age children between the ages of 10 and 19 to partake upon parental approval, this demographic made up 4.6% of the participants. 53% of participants were aged between 20 and 39, 24.2% were aged between 40 and 49, and 18.1% were aged between 50 and 99.

In relation to education, the survey respondents were more highly educated than the Muslim Australian population overall (Hassan 2015). This is not unexpected as those who are more highly educated are more likely than those who are less educated to participate in surveys. Over two-thirds (68.3%) of the survey respondents had a post-secondary school qualification, includinga college certificate (7.4%), apprenticeship (1.7%), university undergraduate degree (27.0%), postgraduate degree (26.9%), or PhD (5.3%). Nineteen percent were in university at the time of the survey in an undergraduate (10.1%), postgraduate (6.0%), or PhD (3.1%) program. Six percent of the respondents were in high school and 5 percent had graduated high school, while 1.9 percent wereat college and 0.2 percent had commenced an apprenticeship at the time of the survey.

Assessment of Identification

An important factor investigated by the survey was the extent to which Australian Muslims practiced their religion publicly. An overwhelming majority (86.6%) said they “publicly/openly identify as a Muslim”
and 6.2 percent said “I consider my identity as a Muslim to be a private, personal matter”, while 3.6 percent said they “identify as Muslim within Muslim communities only” and 3.7 percent said “I share my identity as Muslim with friends/family only”.

A few academic studies have attempted to categorize Muslims according to various typologies but have not provided insight into the number of Muslims in the various categories (Duderija and Rane 2019; Saeed 2007). The Islam in Australia survey presented 10 statements, phrased according todefinitions derived from the scholarly literature across a spectrum of typologies, asking “how well they describe you as a Muslim”. In Muslim communities, stigma can be associated with labels ranging from liberal, progressive, and secular to political Islamist and militant. Based on
the number of respondents who answered “strongly agree” with each statement, the survey found a majority to be liberal (64.6%), followed by progressive (39.4%), secular (28.9%), traditionalist (26.2%), ethical maqasidi (25.8%), sufi (17.2%), legalist (14.4%), political Islamist (9.5%), cultural
nominalist (7.9%), and militant (3.3%). It should also be noted that these typologies are not mutually exclusive but overlap in various combinations.

While little comparative data are available, Goli and Rezaei (2011) found that half of the Danish Muslims included in their study adhered to some form of Islamist political thought, including those they categorized as fundamentalists (27%), radical Islamists (18%), and militants (6%), which relates to the Islam in Australia survey findings in respect to traditionalists (26.2%), legalists (14.4%), political Islamists (9.5%), and militants (3.3%). However, although legalist-political and Islamist-jihadist Muslims often loom large in media images and public discourses, they represent a minority of Muslim in reality.

Females were shown to be slightly more likely than males to identify with the liberal, progressive, ethical maqasidi, secular, and sufi typologies. Conversely, males were slightly more likely than females to identify with the traditionalist and cultural nominalist typologies but much more likely than females to identify with the legalist (males 50.1%; females 37.1%), political Islamist (males 28.2%; females 14.3%), and militant (males 9.9%;
females 5.9%) typologies. A statistically significant difference was found in relation gender within the legalist and political Islamist typologies but not the militant typology.

Questions such as “To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements regarding the reading andinterpreting of the Qur’an?” were asked within the survey. In addition to questions of identification on the likert scale in relation to statements such as “I am a devout Muslim who follows a traditional understanding of Islam.”

The survey focused on several aspects of Muslim life within it’s questions including, assessing the personal identifications with various typologies within Islam. The survey asked six additional questions concerning matters of theology and ethics to which the overwhelming majority of respondents also expressed ethical, liberal, progressive views. Adding the number of respondents who selected “strongly agree” or “agree” showed that 93.3 percent said “someone who dies attacking innocent civilians is not a martyr”, 91.8 percent said “halal certifiers should assess the ethical treatment of animals as part of the halal certification process”, 87.2 percent
said “abiding by Australian law does not equate to disobedience to Allah”, and 83.0 percent said “environmental sustainability should be given higher priority in Islamic discourse”.
These findings further demonstrate the inaccuracy of the portrayal of Muslims within the media.

When asked what they think about “engaging with non-Muslims as family, friends, colleagues and in general social interaction”, 92.2 percent of the survey respondents said this is “normal and good”, while 5.7 percent said “engaging with non-Muslims should be primarily done for da’wah
(proselytizing)” and very few respondents answered that engaging with non-Muslims “is discouraged in Islam” (N = 9, 0.9%), “forbidden” (N = 2, 0.2%), or were “unsure” (N = 11, 1.1%).
These findings refute suggestions that ideas propagated by Wahhabis and some Salafis, namely alwala wal bara (loyalty to Muslims and disavowal of non-Muslims), and interpretations that claim Islam disfavors, proscribes, or forbids friendship between Muslims and non-Muslims (Shavit 2014), resonate with Muslim Australians.

The survey concludes that post-9/11, Islam has been seen as a religion that promotes violence and intolerance of non-Muslims, and that both these narratives are rejected by the overall findings of this survey. However, this
time-period has produced a minority of Muslims who have been seemingly influenced by Islamist political ideologies and Salafist/Wahhabist interpretations that have been propagated since the latter half of the 20th century. Unsurprisingly, some respondents seem to understand and express Islamin legalistic, politicized, and even militant ways, particularly those who may be more vulnerableto radicalization due to grievances with Western military interventions, and/or the prevalence of anti-Islam. sentiments.

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