IHSAN YILMAZ AND JAMES BARRY

Prof Ihsan Yilmaz and Dr James Barry are collaborating on a number of projects, including
research on Muslim identity in Australia and on Turkish minorities. In this piece, Prof Yilmaz
and Dr Barry showcase their recent research on the Muslim community of Shepparton,
Victoria.
Most existing research on Muslim communities in Australia focuses on Melbourne and
Sydney, and the regional dynamics which foster Muslim communities outside of capital cities
are rarely explored.

The city of Shepparton, for example, is unique in several ways. Despite having a lower
number of Muslim citizens than either Melbourne or Sydney, Shepparton has the largest per
capita Muslim population in the country, at 5.5% according to the 2016 census. Shepparton’s
Muslim community is a century old and has not experienced large public incidences of anti-
Muslim sentiment or Islamophobia as has been seen in other regional cities, such as the
Bendigo mosque protests and the Geelong mosque attack of 2015. There has been no
opposition to the building of mosques and two of the city’s four mosques have been
constructed since in the 9/11 era.

As a social, cultural, religious and political survey of Shepparton’s Muslim community, this
project looks at the five main Muslim (Albanian, Turkish, Iraqi, Afghan and South Asian)
communities in the Goulburn Valley region.

Albanian Muslims

The Albanians are the oldest continuing Muslim community in Shepparton. The vast majority
trace their descent to migrants from Korçë who arrived to work in the orchards in the 1920s.
Two other waves of migration occurred, in the aftermath of World War II and after the fall of
communism in 1991. Shepparton’s Albanian xhami is the oldest purpose-built mosque in
Victoria (opening in 1960) and one of the oldest continually used mosques in Australia.
While technically Sunni Muslims with Bektashi influences, the Albanians do not identify
with any sectarian group. For this reason, the Albanian mosque has the most diverse
congregation in Shepparton, most of whom are non-Albanian Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and
therefore has the de facto role as the city’s Friday mosque. The Shepparton community has
strong ties with other Albanians around Australia, especially in Melbourne and Far North
Queensland. Prominent members of this community include Cr Dinny Adem (Shepparton
mayor from 2015-2017), former AFL footballer Adem Yze, and Haset Sali, a founding
member of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC).

Turkish Muslims

Most Turkish residents of Shepparton arrived to work in the orchards from the early 1970s
onwards as part of Australia’s post-World War II migrations. The Turkish community is
mainly rurally based outside of the main city, and their mosque is in the satellite town of
Mooroopna. The imam of the Turkish mosque delivers his sermons in Turkish, Arabic and
English in order to be more inclusive. Like the Albanian community, many Turkish families
have made the transition from farming to other businesses, and many prominent local
entrepreneurs and philanthropists are of Turkish origin. The Turkish community has declined
as many younger members move to Melbourne, but still remains relatively strong and has
significant ties with other rural Turkish communities, particularly in Mildura and Griffith.

Iraqi Muslims

The core of the Iraqi community are Shi’a and mostly refugees or relatives of refugees who
arrived in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This community has experienced more challenges
than most others as many of its members arrived over the age of forty and have struggled to

learn English. Nevertheless, Iraqis are well integrated into the workforce and have strong ties
with Iraqi communities in Cobram, Melbourne and elsewhere. The younger generation is
heavily involved in local volunteering and first generation Iraqi Australians are the founders
of a Shepparton chapter of the charity group, the Al Kasem Youth Organisation. Members of
this group have been active in reaching out to the non-Muslim population through their
organisation of candle light vigils during national tragedies, blood drives and passing around
free bottles of water on hot days. The Iraqi community has a mosque which is also used for
religious and Arabic language classes, and was built in the past decade.

Afghan Muslims

As with the Iraqi community, the majority of Afghans in Shepparton are refugees or relatives
of refugees. The Afghans are predominantly of Hazara ethnicity, speak the Hazaregi
ethnolect of Persian alongside Dari (standard Afghan Persian), and are Shi’a Muslims. The
Afghan community is well integrated into the workforce, with many taking jobs in the
orchards or in the meatworks in nearby Seymour. The most prominent member is Nabi
Baqiri, an asylum seeker who was detained on Nauru before being granted refugee status, and
has worked his way from orchard worker to owner, and from penniless to millionaire in the
space of a decade. Many of Shepparton’s Afghans came to Australia via Pakistan or Iran, and
the community has strong links with Hazara communities in other parts of Australia,
including Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Geelong, Young and Katandra. The community has
their own mosque, opened in 2014, and their own football team.

South Asian Muslims

South Asian Muslim residents of Shepparton have been present in the Shepparton area since
the late nineteenth century when the “Afghans” (predominantly Muslim and Sikh Punjabis
originating from modern day India and Pakistan) settled in the area as travelling salespeople.
However, most of the present South Asian Muslim population migrated to Shepparton in the
past two generations, and are made up of university educated professionals. The South Asian
community is ethnically and religiously diverse (being both Sunni and Shi’a) and do not have
their own mosque; those who do attend the mosque for Friday prayers generally attend the
Albanian mosque. The South Asian community is well represented in business and local
politics, with the current Deputy Mayor, Cr Seema Abdullah, being the most well-known.

Prof Yilmaz and Dr Barry hope that through this project they will be able to contribute to
growing knowledge about the diversity of Islam in Australia, as well as providing a historical
record that will be useful for the community for generations to come.
Professor Ihsan Yilmaz is a Research Professor and Chair of Islamic Studies and
Intercultural Dialogue at the Alfred Deakin Institute, Deakin University. His research is
focused on Turkish politics, especially the issue of religion and the secular state, along with
research into political participation and legal pluralism in Muslim minority communities,
particularly in the United Kingdom and Australia.
Dr James Barry is an Associate Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute. His research
is on the intersections of ethnicity, religion and identity among minority groups. Specifically,
he has researched ethnic and religious minorities in Iran, as well as the role of ethnicity and
religion in Iran’s regional policies.