Imagine if you could stand on census day next to each person who ticks the “Muslim” box on their census form. Just as they were about the place their tick, you gave them a sheet of paper and had them write down the 5 most important actors that define their “Islam-ness”. Do you think each person would list the same five factors and in the same order?
Australian Muslims may share a common faith but they also come from over 160 different nationalities. The basis for our religious affiliation will never be the same. Indeed many of us don’t place religion first all the time. Instead, we place language or ethnicity or nationality or something else.
Back in 1999, Sydney scholar Katy Nebhan described Australian Muslims as being more like nationalist “cells” than an ummah. Is this still the case? It’s hard to say. What I can say is that you would find very few mosques in Sydney or Melbourne where the sermon is given in English, the language of at least 60% of Australian Muslims.
Yet the term ummah, that supposedly international brotherhood and sisterhood of Islam, gets bandied about so much from the imams’ sermons to the impassioned dinner part discussion.
Ummah appears in the Qur’an some 60 times and has been used by traditional scholars, by more modern “Islamist” thinkers and by violent wackos. The idea of ummah may go to the heart of Islamic identity, but its implications and applications are hotly contested across sects, schools of thought and Islamic movements.
Making matters worse, any open manifestation of ummah -consciousness, especially by young people, is now viewed by many as a predictor of “radicalisation” or “extremism” more so than a sense of membership of the Anglosphere or the allegedly Christian West or some other identity that crosses national borders.
British writer Ziauddin Sardar says the ummah is “a concept much abused nowadays. For extremists, the ummah is a sort of monolithic entity that must be ruled by a global Caliphate. For some non-Muslims, ummah suggests that Muslims living in the West cannot be trusted, indeed represent a fifth column or potential enemy within, because they can never be fully loyal to the country they have adopted as their home.”
When mentioning extremists, I may as well throw a few names around – ISIL, Boko Haram, al-Shabab. These groups speak of avenging the ummah and attacking its enemies. But given most of the victims of these groups are Muslims themselves, it’s obvious their definition of ummah is unlikely to include myself or readers of this newspaper. Already ISIL has at least four Australia Muslim religious figures in its sights.
And yet Muslim communities, their alleged ummah fixation and subsequently their assumed disloyalty to the nation are often viewed by governments, policy makers and many in the press through the prism of national security and radicalisation.