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Racism Towards Muslim Immigrants Is Not A New Concept

The Australia we know today is far more diverse, accepting and progressive than it used to be.

17/02/2017 6:30 AM AEDT | Updated 17/02/2017 9:53 AM AEDT
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"Surprisingly, this racism and negative rhetoric against Muslims and other minorities is being hailed as something unconventional and modern."

As anti-immigration sentiments continue to rise across Australia and the West, I cannot help but ask myself what my place, or the place of other people like me (POCs and minorities), is in the Australia of today.

After all, the rise of our very own One Nation Party, Donald Trump, and various far-right neo-Nazi groups in Europe, along with their increasing belittlement of immigrants and the rhetoric and vitriol against diversity, is imposing an idea upon minorities that we are not welcome here.

Despite this being such an intriguing part of history, it was quite difficult to find material regarding the history of the 'Afghan' Cameleers.

Surprisingly though, this racism and negative rhetoric against Muslims and other minorities is being hailed as something unconventional and modern. However, upon reassessing our history, one particular story regarding immigrants and this nation comes to mind -- the Afghan Cameleers. They were a group of immigrants who helped in discovering the outback and building Australia as we know it today, yet we often forget that they too faced severe racism, far worse than what we can now fathom, despite their various contributions to this nation.

The cameleers were shipped to Australia from regions under British colonial rule during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their primary job was to tend to the camels that were needed to cover vast distances across the Simpson Desert. This, of course, was due to the fact that cameleering skills were not found easily among the colonial population.

TonyFeder via Getty Images
The 'Afghan' Cameleers were a group of immigrants who helped in discovering the outback and building Australia as we know it today, yet we often forget that they too faced severe racism.

Contrary to popular belief, though, the vast majority of the cameleers hailed from what we know as Pakistan today (the Northernmost regions of British-India) and Northern India, but they also originated from parts of Southern Afghanistan, Turkey and Egypt. Similarly, the cameleers were not a homogenous group of people. In fact, their roots encompassed lands as far off as Peshawar all the way to Cairo, and several cameleers also followed faiths aside from Islam, such as Hinduism and Sikhism.

Therefore, despite this being such an intriguing part of history, I was surprised to discover through further research that aside from a few sources of information, it was quite difficult to find material regarding the history of the 'Afghan' Cameleers. However, as I continued to dig deeper into the topic, I also began to realise that the major reasons behind this lack of detail and material were the concepts of race and racism.

After all, leaving aside the obvious colonial injustices -- oppression and killings of the Aboriginal population -- in 1901 the government introduced the White Australia policy, an immigration act that discriminated against specific peoples (immigrants from Asia mainly) and barred them from migrating to Australia. Immediately after this policy was passed, the cameleers were not allowed to gain citizenship to the country, and in almost all instances their families did not travel with them either, for similar reasons. Hence, most of these people began returning to the subcontinent, as they had no other choice, and eventually, their numbers dwindled on the Australian continent too.

TIM WIMBORNE / Reuters
At over one kilometre in length, the outback Australian train known as the Ghan, heads north about 120 kilometres (85 miles) south of the town of Alice Springs in Australia's Northern Territory, February 2, 2004. The train which runs 2,979 kilometres (approx 1860 miles) to Darwin from Adelaide and is named for Afghan camel drivers who used their animals to carry goods over a similar route more than 150 years ago.

Secondly, the British found an advantage in this situation, as the subcontinent was heavily exploited for its cheap labour (arguably, as it still is), particularly in the form of the cameleers. Since the vast majority of these people were not literate, it was easy to bring them on board for this task, especially as the physical geography of the outback was much like that of their own regions within the subcontinent (such as parts of Balochistan and Rajasthan) and also due to the fact that they would be earning far more money than they ever could back home.

On the flipside, this only cost a fraction of the amount that the colonists would be paying their own people, and the government would not have to bear any training expenses either. Moreover, the low cost of labour allowed the government to hire cameleers to work on specific projects, which resulted in protests among the colonists who believed that these 'aliens' should not be working on government projects at all. And this rhetoric contributed to the development of the aforementioned White Australia Policy.

Even in the case of the merchants and hawkers (often mistakenly grouped as camel drivers as well) who travelled from South Asia along with the cameleers, racial discrimination was rife. One such example, as expanded upon by Peter Scriver in his work on the subject, was the case of Abdul Wade (anglicised from Wahid, Wahidi or Wadi). Wade, who travelled from South Asia to Australia, was one of the leading entrepreneurs in the camel importing and breeding business, and despite being well reputed for his 'British qualities', such as his grasp of English, his sense of dressing, and his skills as a businessman, he could not successfully gain his son admission to the Australian Military College. His son's mixed heritage (as his mother was Irish) was cited as the reason for this failure, as he was not deemed 'white enough' by the relevant authorities.

They were often called 'aliens' by certain members of the population.

Moreover, his support of the British during World War I was not acknowledged either, and today he is almost unheard of in history books, despite his contributions to the country, and in particular to North Sydney. Nonetheless, Wade was eventually granted citizenship, but a lot of his fellow South Asians (be it cameleers or the merchants) never had this benefit. In fact, they were often called 'aliens' by certain members of the population. Some people believed that it was only a matter of time before they (Australians) would be overrun by 'Mongolian hordes', and therefore it was their duty to protest the cameleers and protect their own interests in Australia.

Hence, it is no surprise that this history is buried deep in some of the lesser-known history books today, with minimal awareness or discourse on the topic. However, the fact that there is such knowledge and information buried away in the first place should make us question whether our current situation here in Australia, really is as bad as it was for the cameleers, whose numbers only ranged in the few thousands. As they were probably one of the most significant immigrant minorities in this country, with contributions that have lasted over a century.

After all, the Australia we know today is far more diverse, accepting and progressive. And through the various opportunities that we have today, educating specific people on their perceptions and biases towards people of colour and religious minorities should be far easier to overcome than what we may think, especially when considering this nation's past.

Perhaps this is best summed up in the words of Mandawuy Yunupingu, the famous Aboriginal musician, who stated: 'Racism is a disease in society. We're all equal. I don't care what their colour is, or religion. Just as long as they're human beings they're my buddies.'

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