The resilience of Australia’s First Peoples has afforded other Australians, who have all migrated since British colonisation, time to awaken to our own reality of residing on land that was never ceded but taken by force.
Muslims have a vested interest in reconciliation and a treaty with Indigenous Australians. The homes we live in are on stolen land. The food we eat is grown and raised on stolen land. Our existence here is highly problematic and doubtful as to its lawfulness in the absence of a treaty and reconciliation.
Muslim Australians are particularly supportive of Indigenous Australian peoples. The Islam in Australia survey conducted in 2019 found 94 percent agree or strongly agree that Indigenous Australians should be recognised in Australia’s Constitution.
Indigenous Australians’ relationality with Islam and Muslims is more enduring and mutually respectful than most Australians and many Muslims realise, dating back centuries before British colonisation.
Yolngu and other Indigenous peoples in the north of Australia traded and engaged in cultural exchanges with Makassans from Indonesia. Islamic references identified in Yolngu mythology and ritual include “the ‘Dreaming’ creation figure, Walitha’walitha, also known as Allah.”
Outward signs of the Yolngu adopting aspects of Islam include spiritual chants, creative representations, names, and customs. Their engagement with Islam, whether through conversion or conversation, was occurring but was interrupted by British colonisation.
Many Indigenous Australian women married Afghan cameleers who were brought to Australia in the 1800s to help traverse the country’s interior arid and desert regions. Others intermarried with early Muslim Australians, particularly Indian ‘hawkers’, also who came to Australia as ‘guest’ workers in the late 1800s.
Many Indigenous Australians are reconnecting with their Muslim heritage. Today, Islam is the only religion that is increasing among Indigenous Australians, while other categories of religion are unchanged or have declined according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2021 Census data.
Indigenous Australians and Muslims have a shared history of respectful relations, we share cultural and spiritual affinities, and have traditions of building peaceful coexistence through mutual agreements or covenants that govern relations with a higher power and other peoples.
Covenants are central to the Qur’an and Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (s). They define the Islamic view of human existence and coexistence and were the foundation of early Muslim diplomacy and peaceful relations with non-Muslims.
Makarrata is a Yolngu word for agreement-making and intended to advance the process of reconciliation. Through the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Indigenous Australians extended an invitation to the Australian people to reconcile by enshrining an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the Australian Constitution and establish a Makarrata commission for the purpose of treaty-making and truth-telling.
There are widely held views that a ‘Yes’ vote would give the Parliament of Australia a direct and official Indigenous voice to establish a treaty and advance the process of reconciliation.
Distinguished Indigenous Australian academic Marcia Langton said in support of the Voice: “we know from the evidence that what improves people’s lives is when they get a say. And that’s what this is about.”
Although recent polling shows over 80 percent of Indigenous Australians support a Yes vote, veteran Indigenous rights activist Gary Foley cautions that parliament will not deal with the Voice in good faith pointing to a long history of government failures in regard to Indigenous Australians’ rights and justice.
The Victoria University professor also raises concerns the Voice could undermine Indigenous people’s struggle for self-determination. Another Indigenous Australian activist, federal senator Lidia Thorpe calls for a treaty and truth-telling to be priorities over the Voice.
Drawing on our sense of compassion and justice, tradition of agreement-making for peaceful coexistence, and shared positive historical relations with Indigenous Australians, Muslim Australian support for the Voice is likely to be strong.
Whether the referendum is successful or not, Indigenous Australians will need the support of Muslims and other Australians to maintain pressure on the government to approach the critical issue of reconciliation in good faith, with compassion, and a genuine commitment to truth-telling and treaty-making so that Indigenous Australians and the nation, as a whole, can begin to heal from the horrific treatment of its First Peoples.
Prof Halim Rane is a Professor of Islamic Studies at Griffith University, Queensland, and a fourth-generation Muslim Australian. His latest published research article is: Rane, Halim. 2023. “Higher Objectives (maqāṣid) of Covenants in Islam: A Content Analysis of ‘ahd and mīthāq in the Qurʾān” Religions 14, no. 4: 514.
A/Prof Debbie Bargallie is a Kamilaroi and Wonnarua Indigenous Australian Muslim. She is an Associate Professor, Centre for Social and Cultural Research and the Institute for Educational Research, Griffith University, Queensland.
Dr Troy Meston is a Gamilleroi Indigenous Australian Muslim. He is a Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, Queensland.