Shepparton most accepting community of Muslims in country, study

By Ashlea Witoslawski

Shepparton has been praised for embracing the Muslim community.

The town has accepted the communities more than other regional cities, Melbourne and Sydney, research from the Alfred Deakin Institute has shown.

Institute research professor and Islamic Studies and Intercultural Dialogue chair Ihsan Yilmaz and associate research fellow James Barry chose Shepparton for the project as a unique and positive example of community cohesion with Muslim populations.

Despite having fewer Muslim citizens than Melbourne or Sydney, Shepparton has the largest per capita Muslim population in the country, 5.5 per cent, according to the 2016 Census.

Focusing on economic and social immigration, Dr Barry said they chose Shepparton due to the ‘‘primarily positive’’ example of Muslim migration the city represented for Liminality and racial hazing of Muslim migrants: media framing of Albanians in Shepparton, Australia, 1930-1955.

‘‘Many Muslim studies tend to focus on radicalisation in major cities but we wanted to look at something different,’’ he said.

‘‘You don’t hear a lot of negative stories (from Shepparton).

‘‘A traditional economic structure, good local government and positive media approach has created a welcoming and cohesive community.’’

Dr Barry said one of the most interesting findings was the importance of Albanian Muslims being able to ‘‘carve their own niches’’.

The Albanians are the oldest continuing Muslim community in Shepparton, with most tracing their descendants to migrants from Korçë, a city in south-eastern Albania.

‘‘As most families came from the same region throughout time, those original communities then helped the new communities,’’ he said.

Dr Barry also said one of the reasons Shepparton stood out was because the general population was ‘‘open to different kinds of practices’’, an example being Shepparton holding the oldest purpose-built mosque in Victoria (opening in 1960) and one of the oldest continually used mosques in Australia.

Another positive during the research period was no opposition in the building of mosques, of which two of the city’s four were built after the September 11 attack in the United States.

‘‘The Shepparton Muslim communities haven’t had difficulties building mosques and haven’t encountered problems like other cities.’’

Dr Barry said the Shepparton Muslim communities were fortunate to not experience large public incidences of anti-Muslim sentiment or Islamophobia, such as the Bendigo mosque protests and the Geelong mosque attack in 2015.

During earlier research periods, Dr Barry said Afghan Muslims in Melbourne’s west spoke about Shepparton as a good example of the way things could be, due to an incident inhibiting the construction of a mosque in their local area.

He said Shepparton had a good experience with immigration, which looked set to continue.

‘‘It’s not just the Muslim community that has found opportunity in Shepparton, it’s a diverse range of immigrants.

‘‘Shepparton has always been open to new communities and moving forward I believe we will see a continuation of that with celebrations and food as a common currency.’’

Dr Barry will be back in Shepparton next month to conduct interviews for his studies with local ethnic groups.