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Muslims in Australia or Australian Muslims?
King Khalid Islamic College of Victoria aims to develop inquiring knowledgeable and
caring young people, who are well prepared and self motivated to participate
effectively as world citizens with Muslim values. Our programmes encourage students
to become activer compassionate and lifelong learners.” Banner at the Junior School
in Melbourne.
The recent census indicated that there are now around 340,000 Muslims in Australia
or 1.7% of the population, with Islam the third largest faith community after
Christianity and Buddhism. The actual figure is probably higher as many Muslims
were reluctant to register their faith given the hostility to Islam evident in the
Australian community in recent years.
Not surprisingly, with the growth of faith schools encouraged by the Howard
Coalition government, there are now thirty Islamic schools in Australia, with half of
them in the Sydney area. The others are in Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and
Canberra. Most are K-12 schools but a number in Sydney in particular, are only
primary schools. A number of them are hoping to become K-12 schools in due course
but are often constrained by lack of space while others start at the lower age end
aiming to build up a new class each year.
The first two Islamic schools were established in 1983: Noor al Houda in Sydney,
subject of an ABC Compass programme “Silma’s School” in 2006, and King Khalid
College in Melbourne, now the Australian International Academy with branches in
Sydney and the UAE. AIA is also the only Islamic school in Australia to offer the IB
(International Baccalaureate).
While these schools cater for about 10% of Muslim students in Australia, there is a
huge waiting list, and the schools hope to double this number within the next decade
or so. All of them are financially supported by the federal government and because
their students tend to come from lower socio-economic areas in the big cities, they
qualify for up to 80% grants. Fees vary a great deal and so does the strictness with
which they are collected. Bursaries exist but can never meet the demand. In the early
years, the Arab oil states were approached for financial support, which is why several
schools are named after individuals who gave them such backing, but nowadays
capital is raised locally, and several schools have changed their names, e.g. King
Khalid College in Melbourne is now the Australian International Academy.
Not surprisingly the schools have been in the news for various reasons, especially
since the events of September 2001 in the United States. There have been attacks on
buildings and individual students and school buses have been abused while planning
authorities have blocked plans for new schools or extensions, especially in Sydney.
The most recent proposal for a school in Camden was blocked by the local Council
after vocal opposition in the community egged on by the Christian Democratic Party,
Australia First, Pauline Hanson and the Anglo-Australian National Community
The local spokeswoman for the opposition there, Kate McCulloch, stated,
“When is someone in this country going to just say the truth? They don’t fit in our
community or country.” (Sydney Morning Herald, May 31, 2008. p.29). “I don’t
want people coming to where I live who come from a culture where it’s acceptable to
use women and children as suicide bombers against their enemies,” she was quoted as
“The school is just the thin end of the wedge. You only have to look at those countries
that have accepted Arabs and other Islamic people to see how they’ve come in and
waged violent campaigns to try and displace locals.”
Her arguments raise the question of what is taught in Islamic schools although figures
about Muslims in Australia can easily be found in the recent 2006 census data so it’s
not a question of sending students “back somewhere.” 38% of Muslims were born in
Australia with the largest migrant groups coming from Turkey, Lebanon and Bosnia.
Muslims are as diverse as any other faith in the world and this is reflected in Australia
where schools and mosques are sponsored by a variety of different individuals and
organisations, with the students coming from very diverse backgrounds.
Like other faith schools, they are begin in many different ways. Some are affiliated to
an ethnic community or particular mosque, others are initiated by an individual or
organisation. The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) aims to
eventually have a school in each capital city. Most of the schools are now affiliated to
the Australian Council for Islamic Education in Schools (ACIES).
In fact the schools bend over backwards to prove their adherence to Australian
Values. The Values Charter is displayed in schools while the Australian flag flies
outside. Some have specific lessons in Values and students asked about them are
puzzled why anyone would think Islamic Values are different from the “official”
Australian Values as proclaimed by the Howard government when Dr Brendan
Nelson was Minister of Education.
For those who allege that Islam an illegal religion in Australia because the Koran
preached violence against Christians and Jews, as was alleged in the Catch the Fires
Ministries vilification case in Victoria in 2002, it is worth noting that the ACIES
Muslim Schools Charter specifically states:
“We are against those who preach violence and hatred in the name of any religion,
including Islam.”
“We reject and condemn all violent acts that target civilians, children and old people
in order to promote a cause because it is against Islamic principles.”
Many of the schools have close links with other local faith schools, both Jewish and
Christian, and students often participate in inter-faith dialogue with the other
Abrahamic traditions. There are joint conferences, visits from organisations like the
Goodness and Kindness Partnership in Victoria (two young Christians, two young
Jews, two young Muslims), and visits to each others schools.
In South Australia, a Muslim-Jewish initiative led to Project Abraham when students1
met to discuss how they prayed, what their rites of passage were and compared
dietary rules. A second round involved Christianity and discussed the position of
women as well as how they treated death as a final rite of passage. A travelling
exhibition contained different religious texts, aids to prayer like beads and different
headgear covering used by the different faiths.
As other schools do, students at Islamic schools collect for charity, ranging from the
tsunami and cyclone victims, to refugees in war torn countries in Africa and Asia.
Social justice is central to Islam stressed through the key Islamic concept of Zakat,
when practising Muslims give one fortieth of their capital to those less fortunate or for
mission work each year, and are encouraged to give regularly at all times. Muslim
students are no exception of the Australian tradition of giving to charity and
responding to disaster appeals.
In terms of religious practice, there is a morning assembly or daily noon prayers,
usually in a hall but sometimes outside, weather permitting, as only a few schools
have their own mosque. Some schools encourage their older students to lead the
The main two Islamic festivals are celebrated – the Eid ul-Adha and Eid el-Fitr –
while Ramadan usually means an hour off the school day or less homework. Younger
children are not expected to keep the full daytime fast but many are eager to do so,
though they usually start off with a few days of the month, gradually extending it.
Ramadan is in September this year but it is not long ago that Muslim students were
taking their final school exams when Ramadan was in November and no exemptions
were sought.
Staff are a mixture of Muslim and non-Muslim with around 50-50 the usual balance,
but while the principal is generally a Muslim, some schools have or have had
Christians as the principal.
The buildings that house the schools vary. In Victoria, several are former schools
closed by the Kennett government, while others like Al-Taqwa College at Werribee,
are built on the outskirts of the urban conurbation where there is more space to build
on but 80% of students need to be bussed in every day. In Sydney, space is even
more at a premium and there have been problems with local councils over planning
encountered by a number of schools, some of which were described by Silma Ihram
in the Compass programme. Some schools started in the grounds of a mosque, while
the Australian International Academy in Sydney is housed in a complex with a Hindu
temple and a surgery.
Most schools are co-educational though some older age-group classes are segregated
and the Australian Islamic College in Perth, the largest Islamic School with over
2,000 students, has two separate campuses for older girls as an option. Obviously
physical education is segregated for high school students but although the girls still
There is one Islamic School in Adelaide (1998) and one Jewish School though many
Christian schools.
wear a hijab and a long skirt or trousers, in a number of schools with adequate
facilities, they still play cricket or do athletics and cross country where possible.
Girls also have access to all-female swimming sessions when these can be made
available but many of the schools have little access to physical education space,
especially in inner city areas. While there are inevitably critics of this situation, it
should be remembered that there are conservative Christian schools and UltraOrthodox Jewish schools where there are similar restrictions or even ones even more
limiting for girls physical activity.
All the schools teach the usual range of the normal Australian curriculum but like
other faith schools, they also include six hours or so a week of extra teaching on
Islam: this normally takes the form of two hours of Arabic, two hours on the Holy
Qur’an and two hours on Islam. A variety of staff teach these subjects with texts
tending to come from the USA, UK, or South Africa. The Malek Fahd Islamic School
in Sydney has produced a primary school text which emphasises various hadith that
enjoin kindness to animals, the important role of women in Islam, obedience to
parents, and an interesting injunction not to overeat – “one third of our stomachs for
food, one third with water and one third with air.”
In one typical K-12 school, children are taught some Qur’anic verses in Prep, and
learn about the Prophet Muhammad and some of the attributes of Allah by Grade 2.
They are expected to be able to recite by memory five verses of the Qur’an by Grade
3, learn more about Muhammad in Grade 4 and more repetition and memorising by
Grade 5. They are also taught how to pray and recite from Prep onwards and start
taking part in the daily Zuhr (noon) assembly prayers in Grade 3. The imam teaches
the meaning of the verses as they go along. In addition there are classes in Arabic and
Islamic Study when they learn about Muslim identity.
By Year 10-12, students are learning about the other Abrahamic faiths as well as more
Arabic and Islamic Studies although this can be subordinate to exam subjects. In
Victoria, Qur’anic Studies is now a VCE option (since 2003). The assistant principal
of one Islamic School, Minaret College, the first to take it up, commented that the
students would now be able to learn to integrate the text in a way beyond even most
mullahs. “Students have to know interpretations from different views, whereas
mullahs usually go to only one school of thought. This gives a broader
However the stress is very much on the Abrahamic faiths and former students
interviewed at one school that I spoke to commented that they only learned about
Buddhists and the Baha’i faith after leaving school, adding that maybe this was
“something our school could improve on.”
Science teaching varies when it comes to the issue of Creation Science in keeping
with a Qur’anic view of evolution but senior students are well aware of the different
views on this contentious issue and ready for university science classes. Islam
encourages the acquisition of knowledge, as several hadith testify, and the K-12
schools are proud of the increasing number of their students who are gaining
university entrance, both boys and girls.
Islamic tradition does place restrictions on what is variously termed in schools as
“social education” or as teenagers usually refer to it, “sex and drugs.” Muslims do not
accept sexual relations out of marriage or homosexual relationships and the
consumption of alcohol or use of drugs is ‘haram’ or forbidden, just as in a number of
other faith schools in Australia. Sex education is regarded as a matter for parents but
Fida Sanjakdar in Melbourne recently completed a thesis on Australia’s first homegrown Islamic curriculum for sexual health which she hopes schools will take up and
While religion teachers have invariably been trained overseas, the National Centre for
Excellence in Islamic Studies, based at the University of Melbourne and run by a
consortium of three Australian universities, is developing a programme to train
Australian imams. Islamic schools are very conscious of the need for more Australian
material and are keen to recruit former students back onto their staff where they have
reached K-12 levels. Academic results published annually in the states indicate that
K-12 Islamic schools perform well and graduating students go on to achieve high
standards at university.
Just as with all faith based schools, there have been problems and scandals that the
media has been eager to jump on, and it has not been easy for the schools to always
find competent and experienced principals or remain clear from differences in the
diverse Muslim community in Australia. A number of the Islamic schools have large
ESL classes to cater for refugees arriving from war torn areas of Africa and Asia.
However many Muslim parents, many of whom struggled to survive as first
generation migrants, are now eager for their children to get a Values education in
addition to a general education, a trend reflected in the wider Australian community
in recent years with the drift to faith based schools and a search for values in an
increasingly secular society that leaves many young people floundering for direction.
While there is some disagreement as to whether or not Islamic schools are the best
way for Muslims to integrate into modern Australian secular society – many wealthier
Muslim parents for example are happy to send their daughters to Catholic girls
schools, while other Muslim students try to hide their background within the state
system so as not to appear different in any way – most of the Islamic schools cannot
meet the demand for places and new schools are starting up every year, despite the
various constraints they face.
As opinion surveys indicate, the more Australians know about Islam, the less they
fear it, and Australian Islamic schools have a growing role in building these bridges in
the Australian community.
Peter D. Jones
Peter D. Jones teaches Comparative Religion at The Friends’ School in Hobart and
tutors in Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania. He has a Graduate Diploma in
Islamic Studies from the University of New England where he wrote his thesis on
Islamic schools in Australia and is currently engaged in extending his research into a
part-time Ph.D. as part of his professional development.