‘Taken for granted’: western Sydney’s Muslim community rethinks a fractured Labor relationship

·6 min read

Amal Naser initially believed the election was a chance for change, particularly for the Muslim community, and for western Sydney.

But as the election enters its final week, Naser now says it is a choice between a “lesser evil” and Scott Morrison.

“No one sees Labor as a party they would feel very incentivised to vote for, except for the fact that they want to vote the Liberal government out,” she says.

The 21-year-old law student says that while Labor has a “longstanding relationship” with the Muslim community, that relationship is now “hanging by a thread.”

“There are barely any policies, definitely nothing radical, proposed by the Labor party that is actively mobilising the Muslim community, particularly younger Muslims.”

Naser reflects a changing attitude within western Sydney’s Muslim community, one that is less afraid of raising concerns and demanding better representation.

But there is a frustration at the level of engagement from both parties, largely attributed to the fact that many of the electorates where Muslims live in New South Wales are largely Labor safe seats, such as Blaxland, Fowler and Watson.

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The same dynamic plays out in Victoria, with Muslims concentrated in the Labor safe seats of Wills, Calwell and Maribyrnong.

According to the 2016 census, 59.2% of residents in Lakemba identify as Muslim, and at the 2019 election, Labor won Watson (which includes Lakemba, Greenacre, and Punchbowl, all with sizeable Muslim populations) by 13.5%. Some polling booth results in Lakemba showed the Labor vote at over 75%.

But neighbouring seats in western Sydney with smaller Muslim populations, such as Lindsay and Banks, have already flipped, with many others in the region becoming marginal.

A recent report from the Centre for Western Sydney found a growing “electoral volatility” in western Sydney, predicting that the region will no longer be a stronghold for either major party.

It listed growing political literacy combined with lower levels of education attainment, and higher rates of multilingualism, cultural diversity and religious faith as major reasons for the shifting landscape.

Naser, who lives in the seat of Banks, thinks the shift can be somewhat attributed to Labor’s attitude toward the community.

“If the Labor party hadn’t taken our community for granted for so many years, and actively work with our community on the plethora of issues that we face, and a more radical platform, then people might have felt a greater need to vote for them,” she said.

A generational shift in the community, from early migrants seeking to establish themselves in the 80s and 90s to a second and third generation that is wealthier and more educated, is also reshaping priorities for Muslim voters.

Dr Lobna Yassine, lecturer in social work and policy studies at the University of Sydney, says that she is voting for the Greens at this election, breaking away from a family tradition of voting Labor.

“I voted Labor without thought or question because my parents voted Labor,” she said.

“People of my parents’ generation tried very hard to influence policies, without causing too much discomfort or disruption. I think this makes sense in the context of their limited power, and by the fact that they were pretty much limited to the two major parties.”

“Liberal positioned as more conservative on issues like immigration, and Labor more compassionate on issues of immigration and welfare policy.”

Yassine explains that the changing demographics of the Muslim community was causing the electoral landscape to shift, with growing rates of education, more professionals and greater wealth resulting in changing priorities.

“We are now in a position to say “if you do not share our priorities or our concerns, we will take away our vote and place it with a party that does”.

“In my community, a lot of us are constantly talking about other issues of concern such as atrocities committed by Israel, equality for First Nations people and Black Lives Matter, climate change, and gender equality.”

Yassine says the changes are creating a “split” within the community, between those who want to maintain the traditional relationship with Labor and power, and those who want to take charge of their vote.

And it is resulting in changes to their expectations of religious leaders.

“There is conflict within the community about whether or not we should be continuing to invite parties into our community events, despite their lack of commitment to the issues that concern us directly.”

She says hundreds of people have boycotted Lakemba mosque, one of the most prominent mosques in the country, for inviting politicians without attempting to hold them to account.

These divisions have left the community without a clear sense of who to support, and which party would actually act in their interests.

Lakemba mosque did not respond to requests for comment.

A Labor spokesperson denied the party had taken the community for granted, and blamed Scott Morrison for communities feeling disenfranchised.

“It is understandable that multicultural communities would feel disenfranchised when they see Scott Morrison turning up only for photo ops and pork barreling.

“What we’ve heard is the issues that are concerning Muslim Australians are the cost-of-living crisis, housing affordability and job stability.”

“Of course there’s always more we can do – and we don’t take our relationships with Muslim communities for granted.”

Criminologist and former executive director of the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) Mohamad Tabbaa calls it a “double bind”, explaining that Muslims don’t fit neatly on a political spectrum between the left and right.

“They must vote in one direction or another, and yet doing so necessarily brings a harm to themselves and to their communities,” he said “The double bind puts Muslims in unhealthy relation with themselves and their communities.”

“Muslims do not face a general lack of choice, they face a lack of choices that understand their concerns and needs, that allow them to vote with the dignity of not betraying themselves, their communities and their values.”

A growing distance between assumptions made of the community, and approaches made by the major parties was reflected in a recent community survey that showed rightwing extremism and Islamophobia were two major concerns they held.

Related: Revealed: how the top issues voters care about are not getting aired in election campaign

My Vote Matters ran the survey, and found 53% of respondents said they were “extremely concerned” about Islamophobia, with 46% saying they were just as concerned about rightwing extremism.

Religious freedoms were also overwhelmingly supported, with 96% saying they wanted to see legislation that protects their ability to live by their religious principles.

Adel Salman, current president of the ICV, the organisation behind My Vote Matters, defined religious freedoms for Muslims as being about preventing vilification and discrimination on the basis of religion, as well as preserving their right to live by their values.

“At its core, it is about preserving your rights and upholding the rights of people of faith to live by their values, and to educate and raise their children according to those values.”

“Those things are under assault at the moment,” he added.

Salman says that while there is greater interest in the Coalition, the relationship between the Muslim community and Labor has been fracturing for some time.

“It fell apart at the last election,” he says “Muslims have been feeling betrayed by Labor, in that they are not representing their views or values.”

“Among the Muslim community, you’ll still have those who are diehard Labor, but the Labour party is on notice now, they cannot take the Muslim vote for granted.”

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