Lebanese Muslims in Australia and social disadvantage.

Author:Betts, Katharine

Recent events have focused public attention on people of Muslim Lebanese background (most of whom live in Sydney) and the possibility that they may suffer social disadvantage. Using data from the 2001 Census, this paper finds that Lebanese Muslim households are large and much more likely to be poor than are all households, or than Lebanese Christian households. It also finds that Lebanese Muslim men have low levels of education, relatively high levels of unemployment, and a very high tendency not to be in paid work. The second generation is doing rather better than the first, but it is still not doing very well.


People from the area now known as Lebanon have a long history of migration to Australia. Jim McKay identifies three main waves. First, small groups arrived, beginning in the late nineteenth century up until World War II. They worked as hawkers, traders and shopkeepers and established a thriving settlement in Redfern in Sydney. Though Christian, nearly all were illiterate peasants but, despite this, they integrated well. They and their children prospered and, within a couple of generations, had almost completely assimilated. Their numbers (counted in terms of those born in Lebanon) never went much beyond 2000. (1) A second stream arrived from 1947 to 1975, most of them after 1966 and the Arab/Israeli war of 1967. At the 1976 census the Lebanon-born population reached 33,000. More of this second wave came from urban areas than before, but most were still Christian. After 1975 the third stream arrived, people displaced by the Lebanese Civil War. They came from both sides of the conflict--Christian and Muslim. Muslims were now present in substantial numbers and, between 1976 and 1981, the Muslim Lebanon-born population grew from just under 7000 to around 15,600. (2)

In 1971, 14 per cent of the Lebanon-born population in Australia had been Muslim; in 1981 the Muslim share had grown to 31 per cent. (3) Though Muslims in Lebanon are disproportionately Shi'ite, Michael Humphrey (writing in 1988) estimated that Lebanese Muslims in Australia were about two thirds Sunni and one third Shi'ite. (4) Most of the Shi'ites came from the poverty stricken South of Lebanon, but via Beirut. Even though their region of origin was poor, those who reached Australia were from a higher socio-economic bracket than the Sunnis, who came from the North. For example Shi'ite women were better educated, more likely to have paid work, and lived in slightly smaller households than Sunni women. (5) While most settled in Sydney, especially in the South-Western suburbs, the Sunnis established the Imam Ali Mosque in the suburb of Lakemba and the Shi'ites the Al-Zahra Mosque in Arncliffe. (6)

By 2001, there were 62,334 Lebanon-born people in Australia, constituting more than one third of all immigrants from the Middle East, (7) and the children of the third wave, most of them Australia-born, had reached adolescence and early adulthood. Sydney and Melbourne have been the two main regions of settlement, especially the Canterbury/Bankstown region of Sydney (which includes Lakemba). Of all overseas-born Lebanese people in Australia in 2001, 72.4 per cent lived in Sydney. (8)

The migrant intake from Lebanon since 2000-2001 has been between approximately 1100 and 1600 per annum, most entering as spouses or fiance/ees. While the current program focuses on skills, including proficiency in English, these criteria are not taken into account with spouses and fiance/ees. As before, most still settle in South-Western Sydney.


The history of social and political dislocation in Lebanon may have given the second and third waves a poor start in Australia. The parental generation has had difficulty finding work and, unlike the children of the Southern European migrants who arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, the second generation may not be doing well either. The third, post-1975 wave, suffered all the problems that come with refugee status and forced departure, while the Muslims among them lacked the pre-existing ethnic institutions of church and community networks that had been established by earlier waves of Christians. (9)

Headlines over the last eight or nine years have drawn attention to Lebanese crime and to police searches for suspects 'of Middle Eastern appearance'. (10) Lebanese Muslim clerics such as Sheik Taj el-Din al Al-Hilali, known as the mufti or spiritual leader of Australia's Muslims and imam of the Sunni Mosque in Lakemba, (11) or Sheikh Abdul Salam Zoud, are often in the news in disquieting contexts. (12) And on Sunday 11 December 2005 gangs of locals assaulted Lebanese youths at Cronulla beach (see Barclay and West this issue), followed by revenge attacks on beachside suburbs by Lebanese gangs the following evening. (13)

A number of commentators have concluded that Sydney has a Lebanese problem and that this is largely a Lebanese Muslim problem. (14) This perception comes at a time of growing apprehension about Islamic fundamentalism and its links with terrorism, especially as some terrorists have been brought up in the countries they attacked, or planned to attack. Three of the four London suicide bombers of 7 July 2005 were British-born and, of the 19 suspected terrorists arrested in Australia in November 2005, all but one was Australian-born. (15)

No one is suggesting that the Lebanese men who frequented Cronulla Beach or carried out the revenge attacks were motivated by Islamist beliefs. On the contrary, observers have remarked that, if any culture influenced them, it was American rap music and the alienated hip hop culture from which this stems. (16) A few, however, argued that this culture, together with a deprived background, may provide a recruiting ground for Islamists. (17)

A culture of victimhood appears to animate many Muslims, including Islamists. Tariq Modood writes: '... there is a sense that Muslim populations across the world are repeatedly suffering at the hands of their neighbours, aided and abetted by the United State and its allies, and that Muslims must come together to defend themselves'. (18) And Shahram Akbarzadeh writes that:

It is no secret that Muslims in Europe, Australia and North America feel besieged. ... Street vandalism is a manifestation of frustration and an ingrained sense of injustice. It reflects the extremely debilitating culture of victimhood ... [which] dooms Muslims to helplessness and outbursts of frustration. (19) Feelings of oppression and alienation may draw some young people to a rap culture which is also fired by the themes of 'rejection, victimhood and revenge' (20) or may even attract them to more extreme forms of alienation. ASIO reports that, while most Islamic extremists in Australia are influenced by foreign events, others believe they do not really belong to Australian society or to their parents' society. They see the world as a battle between Muslims and unbelievers and are filled with 'a sense of isolation and rejection'. (21)

Feelings of victimhood felt by many Muslims are relevant to understanding the Lebanese in Australia. The Lebanese Civil War was grounded in a growing sense amongst Muslims that Western models of government had failed and that the revival of an authentic Islam would provide a viable alternative. (22) Thus the war saw a growing hostility between revivalist Islam and Western culture. With eyes turned to Europe, many Lebanese Christians saw Lebanon as the eastern limit of Western culture. By contrast, Lebanese Muslims often saw it as the Western-most limit of Middle-Eastern culture. They saw Western culture as aggressive and 'often felt threatened, offended, and angered as they saw their traditional culture being overwhelmed by Westernisation'. (23)

A sense of marginality in Australia could lead to Islamist extremism or merely to poverty and the risk of criminal activity. But is the popular belief in disadvantage among Lebanese Muslims, extending to the second generation, well founded? We know quite a lot about the first generation and something about the second generation, but official data seldom distinguish between Christian and Moslems. (24) Given the history one might expect the two communities to have kept themselves apart in Australia. But journalists report contradictory findings. Sometimes they write that Christian and Muslim Lebanese youths are similar in the way they present themselves to the world, 'sporting the same trendy haircuts and Western-style clothes'; (25) at other times they claim that remnant Christians in Bankstown have been moving out to get away from Muslims. (26)

In this paper we draw on data from the 2001 census to look for answers to four key questions: do Lebanese Muslims in Australia suffer from social disadvantage relative both to Lebanese Christians and to the wider population; do Christians and Muslims of Lebanese ancestry live in the same areas, or are they geographically dispersed; if Lebanese Muslims are disadvantaged, does this disadvantage persist among the second generation: and are disadvantaged Muslims (and Christians) concentrated in particular areas. Note that from here on we will use the term Lebanese to refer to people who gave their ancestry in the 2001 Census as Lebanese. (27) We will continue to use Lebanon-born for people born in Lebanon.


While Lebanese Muslims account for a significant proportion of Australia's Muslim population, other Muslims have immigrated as well. Many others have been born here, while a number have become converts. The first two of these factors have lead to a rapid growth in numbers. (28)

Table 1 shows a small Muslim population of 22,000 in 1971 but one that had expanded to 1.5 per cent of the total population, or 282,000 people in 2001, an average annual growth rate of 8.88 per cent. (29) The Muslim population had begun to increase in the late 1960s with immigration from Turkey as well as...

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