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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
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 Council.
The local spokeswoman for the opposition there, Kate McCulloch,
“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 saying.
“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 interfaith 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.
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 prayers.
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 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 Ultra-Orthodox 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.”
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 home-grown Islamic
curriculum for sexual health which she hopes schools will take up
and develop.
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.