History, harmony, and the only Muslim island in Australia

There is something positive about the isolated existence of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, 2,000km from the West Australian coast and shielded from anti-Islam rhetoric

 
 
 

We pull up to the front of the mosque in Nek Su’s golf cart. Through the open window I see him join thirty men in bright robes and embroidered Taqiyah head coverings as they kneel to face the Kaaba cube in Mecca. The soft call to prayer fills the street. Everything else is silent. Two girls in hijabs walk past as a young, robed man pulls up to the mosque and shuffles inside, late.

Hayya ala Salahhhhh,” drifts from the speakers.

The call to prayer is normally something Australians associate with travelling and the exotic: being in a rooftop cafe in Marrakesh sipping mint tea, in a hotel in Agra looking at the Taj Mahal before sunrise, or walking the shores of the Bosphorus during an Istanbul winter. It is always something I have experienced as an outsider

I look across the lagoon, past the school and the jetty to the twinkling lights on the water and I’m reminded that I haven’t travelled far at all. This is still Australia; it’s just a part that many people don’t get to see. I am a guest of Nek Su, the builder, fisherman, grandfather, imam and elder of Home Island, the only Muslim island in Australia.

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are an iridescent tropical atoll 2,000km from the West Australian coast, yet they are still part of Australia as one of the Indian Ocean Territories (along with Christmas Island). Interestingly the Muslim population here outnumbers the other inhabitants four to one.

The islands have a strange relationship with Islam. They were discovered by Captain William Keeling of the East India Company in 1609 and weren’t properly settled until Scottish trader John Clunies-Ross and merchant Alexander Hare both arrived in the early 19th century. Clunies-Ross was an empire builder and brought in Malay, Chinese, Papuan and Indian workers to harvest copra – they were the first Muslims on the islands. Hare wasn’t quite as pragmatic. He was accompanied by slaves and a harem of 23 women from the East Indies, New Guinea and Mozambique to populate his desert island fantasy.

 Nek Su on Turtle Beach. The island’s imam grew up collecting coconuts for fo husking for the Clunies-Ross family. Photograph: Ben Stubbs for the Guardian

Hare’s harem didn’t work out, so he left and Clunies-Ross assumed control as the self-appointed “king” of the islands. The islands operated as the family’s fiefdom until they were passed over to Australian control in 1955 and the people voted for proper integration in 1984. As the colonialist leanings of the Clunies-Ross clan loosened, the former indentured population, who were nearly exclusively Sunni Muslims, settled on Home Island and the predominantly expat population set up on West Island across the water.

I take the ferry across the aqua lagoon to Home Island. Waiting for me on the jetty is a tall man wearing a brown fedora. He has an open and friendly face; he looks fit and slim for a 73-year-old man. “Call me Nek Su,” he smiles in reply. It means grandpa, and it is what all the Home Islanders know him as.

We drive from the jetty towards his house. The paved lanes are populated by bikes and golf carts sitting under coconut palms. There is an identical layout to the houses, with big breezy rooms and outdoor kitchens. They are all connected by narrow laneways that wouldn’t look out of place in Kuala Lumpur or Java. The afternoon air smells of spices and samosas.

Nek Su points to the elevated cyclone shelter as we drive: “I built that.”

We continue along the narrow lanes and he points to the luminescent yellow school: “That too.”

Nek Su isn’t much of a conversationalist, at least not in English. His first language, like most of the Home Islanders, is Malay. Their language is unique and has evolved since it came across the water with the first indentured workers.

 


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