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Islamic Schooling in Australia

Siddiq Buckley

I have chosen the word schooling rather than the broad term education because in the Islamic view of the world there has been some form of Islamic education around since the time of Adam and Eve (peace be upon them both ). I would define Islamic Schooling to mean teaching the precepts of Islam in an institutional setting. This, especially in a country such as Australia, is a relatively modern phenomenon - as modern as the arrival of Muslims themselves.

My starting point is around 1860 C.E., when the first so-called Afghans came to Australia as camel- drivers for the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition financed by the then Government of Victoria.

These hardy men (for there were virtually no women ever brought with them) helped pioneer the Outback and heralded a number of significant developments in Australia's history, of which the most famous and well remembered are the construction of 'The Ghan' - the railway line from Port Pirie in South Australia to Alice Springs - and the Overland Telegraph line from Adelaide to Port Darwin.

Great as their technological achievements were at that time, what we are concerned about is their spiritual development and legacy. A number of mosques (both large and small) were established by these Muslims, of which several still function to this day in capitals like Perth and Adelaide and some for other purposes, such as the local historical Museum in Broken Hill.

We can assume that even though the men intermarried predominantly with Aboriginal women. Attempts were made to educate their children in typical " Madrassahs " connected with, at least, some of those mosques. Sadly, however, a combination of isolation, harsh immigration policies and mechanisation dealt a severe, if not fatal, blow to those Muslims. Indeed, the spectre of the almost-complete disappearance of Afghan Muslims and early Islam in Australia is often cited and paraded before contemporary Muslims as an exhortation and warning not to let history repeat itself. Reminders occasionally bubble up to the surface of the present in the form of "Afghan anecdotes" - like that of an Australian Christian family whose surname is Mohammed or an advertisement in a national magazine for South Australian wine whose grower still bears a Muslim name.

The Albanians and others from the Balkan States who migrated here earlier this century after the collapse of the Ottoman empire fared just as poorly. These European Muslims were readily, if not actively, assimilated into the host society.

Undoubtedly, the biggest impact of Muslims in Australia has followed the civil war in Lebanon in the mid 1970s, when thousands of Arabic-speaking, quasi-refugees poured into urban centres such as Sydney and Melbourne within several years. Stereotypically, here in Australia, Islam is associated with Arabs and vice-versa (despite the fact that our nearest Asian neighbour, Indonesia, is in fact the most populous Muslim country in the world). Australian society paid scant attention to the thousands of Turks, Yugoslavs, Indians, Pakistanis, Malays and South Africans who settled here around the same time, because they were not so easily identified linguistically and culturally as Muslims.

In what ways did (and do ) these Muslims develop and extend Islamic schooling in Australia ?

Their efforts and activities can perhaps best be examined or observed at four distinct levels.

1. The Mosque

The traditional form of Islamic Schooling, incorporating the "Madrassah" style of education - learning the Quran by heart, sitting in study circles, listening to the Friday sermons and talks by visiting Muslims. This level of schooling puts a special emphasis on "religious" knowledge aimed at enabling the students to know some rights and duties as well as articles of faith relating to purpose in life and destiny.

2. The Ethnic School

A language "school" or class where the National language and culture of the specific ethnic group is taught. Generally this is for a few hours per week, usually held in a public school classroom after hours or on weekends. Because Islam is an inextricable part of the ethnic culture and ethos of the various Muslim communities, there is, in varying degrees, some form of Islamic schooling taking place. Naturally, it is predominant in Arabic language groups but also occurs in all other Muslim community languages. Outcomes for the children may range from increased Islamic awareness and native language acquisition, to little more than an appreciation of aspects of their parents' culture.

This type of schooling is regarded by the public school system as distinctly "second class", even though it attracts limited government funding and some pedagogical support from community- minded, multiculturally-inclined educators.

3. The Public School

In New South Wales, at least, there is in operation what is called "Special Religious Instruction" in public schools. Any religious group is entitled to conduct weekly lessons of about 30 - 45 minutes duration for children of their own denomination during regular school hours.

The Islamic Council of New South Wales runs such an "Islamic Scripture Teaching Program" and attempts to cater to the needs of thousands of Muslim students in approximately 200 public schools in the greater Sydney Metropolitan area. Some of these schools are predominantly Muslim - their student enrolment may be 70% Muslim or more.

The "teachers" are all volunteers - concerned parents and individuals - of whom only a handful are actually trained in the profession. The Council attempts to assist them by offering inservice courses and incentives such as travel expenses, and has even gone so far as to provide - through the personal efforts of a Muslim lady teacher - an "Islamic Syllabus" ( in Arabic and English ) to provide instruction and materials for them to use in the classroom. Despite all these good intentions and resources, the Program itself is unfortunately not a success. Many factors account for this.

Principal among them is the lack of suitably qualified and experienced teachers. Secondly, the environment in which the lessons are held is often not very conducive to successful learning outcomes. The pupils themselves are frequently embarrassed, reluctant or unwilling to participate in the classes, due to low self-esteem and lack of pride in Islam. This is caused by factors such as extreme peer group pressure to conform to the dominant, secular, hedonistic and materialistic mode of contemporary society, and the desire to be accepted or integrated uniformly into that society.

Australia is sometimes described as having a distinct cultural fringe vis-a-vis Anglo-Celtic or European culture, and it appears to me that within that fringe there exists a smaller Islamic religious or Muslim cultural fringe. There is some truth in the statement - reputed to have come from George Bernard Shaw - that Islam is the best religion but Muslims are the worst followers.

Muslims now constitute the largest religious minority in Australia. They are free - according to the Australian Constitution - to practise their religion : "The Commonwealth shall not make any law ... for imposing any religious observances, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion". But the States are not legally bound to either protect or enforce this. As a result, Muslims have encountered an array of problems in obtaining and practising their God-given rights, whether personal, human or religious.

Yet the difference between our struggle here and those of our brothers and sisters elsewhere is dramatically simple - we are not dying for the sake of Islam here. The battle here is not physical but mental. It is a battle for our hearts and minds. No-one is putting a gun to our heads. It is subtle and often subliminal. The 'enemy' creeps forward insidiously and ubiquitously.

We - especially our children - are being seduced, pushed, invited and fooled into surrendering to the glamorous, glittering, exciting hedonism of the 21st century.

Does this sound reactionary? Perhaps, even (to appropriate that Christian term) "Fundamentalist"? No-one denies the fact that Australia is still a lucky country; if we compare our relative peace and security, our standard of living, our goods and services, our democratic rights and freedoms with any other country in the world, we come out very much near the top.

Yet despite all these benefits there are drawbacks. A more critical observation of this country reveals a declining moral standard, and Islam is completely opposed to this. Islam is an ethical and moral system incorporated into a distinct way of life. Its worldly view is also other-worldly. It regards the present while considering the future. Tomorrow, rather than yesterday, underpins today.

We Muslims must look forward to the Afterlife and the inescapable accountability that awaits us there. This is undoubtedly the major factor that has contributed to the creation of the fourth area or level.

4. The Muslim School

If you were to ask the founders and principals of Muslim schools the reasons why such schools were established, the answers are invariably the same. They include very broad aims or goals such as :

  1. to achieve the highest possible standard of moral behaviour and ethical attitudes.
  2. to provide the children with an Islamic environment free from undesirable social values.
  3. to develop and foster a complete Muslim identity and personality within the child.
  4. to equip the Muslim children with the necessary knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours to enable them to contribute meaningfully to the general harmony, prosperity and good of their community and the overall society.
  5. to develop Muslim Australian citizens who will be able to cope with the increasing demand and pressures of the global society and act as "Ambassadors of Islam" to the world.

Muslim schools in Australia are a newly-emerging part of the National education scene. They are part of the Independent (non-Government, non-systemic) schools system, and have been in existence for only the last 15 years.

Currently there are about 20 Muslim schools around Australia :

  1. Sydney (New South Wales) :
    1. Al-Noori Muslim Primary School (Greenacre)
    2. Arkana College (Kingsgrove)
    3. Malek Fahd Islamic School (Chullora)
    4. Noor al-Houda Islamic College (Condell Park)
    5. Suburban Islamic School (Minto)
    6. Sule College (Prestons)
    7. An-Nahaayan Islamic School (Chullora)
    8. King Abdul Aziz Primary School (Rooty Hill)
  2. Melbourne (Victoria) :
    1. King Khalid Islamic College of Victoria (Coburg)
    2. The Islamic Schools of Victoria (Werribee)
    3. Islamic College of North Western Region (Broadmeadows)
    4. Minaret College (Springvale)
  3. Perth (Western Australia) :
    1. Australian Islamic College (Booragoon)
    2. Al-Hidayah Islamic School (Victoria Park)
  4. Brisbane (Queensland):
    1. Islamic School of Brisbane (Upper Mt Gravatt)

A handful of newly-established schools have also come into existence with the recent abolition of the previous Labor Government's "New Schools Policy".

At the moment, most of these schools are relatively small and overall student enrolments are statistically tiny. But the impact of such schools has been tremendous. National attention has been focussed on these schools on many occasions. Throughout the crisis of the Gulf War, media coverage of the schools, their staff, their students and their communities has been generally favourable and has even sometimes been managed (if not manipulated ) by the Muslims for their benefit.

A classic example involved Al-Noori Muslim Primary School in Sydney. In the late 1980s a long, costly struggle through two Land and Environment Court cases brought to the surface a surprising amount of racism, bigotry, religious intolerance and ill-feeling. "Nothing new!", you might say, given Australia's historical background: its parochialism, insularity and xenophobia; its shocking and inhumane treatment of the Aboriginal population; and the even older repugnance and fear of Islam and Muslims created and propagated for the last thousand years by a "Christian Europe". However, neighbourly relations were slowly ameliorated as the School was seen to be caring and concerned for everybody - not just Muslims. In particular, action was taken when it was revealed that an elderly neighbour's grandson (a civil airline pilot) was one of the Australian hostages in Kuwait. The children were mobilised into writing directly to President Saddam Hussain and their letters were personally taken to Bagdhad by former Minister, Mr Tom Uren. The media's attitude was completely positive, supportive and even mildly enthusiastic.

It was probably the first instance ever in Australia that Muslims were portrayed as both patriotically Australian and genuinely Muslim at the same time. It did a great deal of good at a very critical and precarious moment. It also had a happy ending. The Australian hostages were all released within about two weeks and the School's targeted "hostage" made a special visit to the School upon his return to Australia to give the students a very warm "Thank you".

It had a profound impact upon the children, by making them realise that even a small effort on their part for the sake of Islam can have a tremendous, beneficial outcome. It was truly an education in itself.

It is important for Muslims - if my argument about being future-oriented is to have any currency or legitimacy - to have vision and plan ahead, if possible. For too long we have been moving forward by looking backwards, like a car being driven by looking into the rear-vision mirror only, rather than though the windscreen to the road ahead.

Let me return to the impact of these schools on the Australian educational environment. As I said, they are statistically insignificant, catering for approximately 5000 Muslim students. If we accept a total figure of 300,000 Muslims in Australia, and we estimate that 70% of them are school-age students, then these Muslim schools are catering for less than 2.5% of the total Muslim student population.

Yet in terms of fostering community pride; its sense of establishment and development; in finding its niche or being accepted into the Australian society; in being seen to be part of the social, cultural and educational landscape; in short, in becoming part of the status quo, the Muslim school is a very important part of the community.

Indeed there is a growing body of opinion amongst the various Muslim ethnic groups that schools and not necessarily mosques should have top priority in their short and long-term plans. Given Local Government constraints with their planning, environmental and building ordinances, it would be theoretically easier and more practical to put a mosque within a school than a school within a mosque.

Despite the ever-present problems of lack of funding, bureaucratic obstruction and neglect, apparent lack of concern from some quarters of our own community, and so on, these schools are persevering in their own Jihad to establish Islam as a permanent part of the Australian environment.

Their founders have surveyed the educational landscape and have found it wanting. This does not mean to say that the State Education Departments have not moved with the times. We are all aware of the term "Multiculturalism", its implications and its efforts - even if only to a limited degree. These Departments have tried to be sensitive to Muslim needs, updating their curricula and teaching materials in attempts to boost the identity and morale of Muslim students, especially at the Secondary school level.

In 1991 NSW Muslims played their part in the development of a Curriculum Resources Project (in conjunction with the Department of School Education ) about Islam. Again, this is an example of how the Muslim schools are acting as resource and information centres for the broader school system.

Spin-offs such as these materials are a natural outcome of the development of Muslim schools. What these schools are doing for their own students can be modified and applied both to Muslim and non - Muslim students within the public sector. The community as a whole will then gain the benefit of appropriate and honest information about Islam. In the broadest context, then, it can been seen that Muslim schools are both potentially and actually having much wider educational effect than their numbers suggest.

It is hoped this effect will be multiplied by the recent formation of the Australian Council for Islamic Education in Schools (ACIES ), a joint, national body comprising membership from most of the Muslim schools. This Council looks forward to the day when Muslim schools will enjoy the same status and recognition as Christian schools (especially the Catholic, systemic ones ) and Jewish schools. The fact that the Council's application to the Australian Taxation Office to be granted tax deductibility for donations (Section 78 ) has been rejected seems to fly in the face of the Australian Education Council's recommendations about the goals for schooling in Australia. "Common and Agreed Goal" number 3 quite clearly states :

"To promote equality of education opportunities, and to provide for groups with special learning requirements".

The Tax Office is, practically speaking, creating a religious apartheid, and would appear to contradict all of its own Government's rhetoric on fostering multiculturalism, excellence, equity, and equality of opportunity.

Muslims have highlighted the importance of their religious and cultural identity through the creation of their own schools. They see these institutions as their best positive defence against the perceived threat of the undermining of their religious and cultural consciousness. The Muslims of the 21st century are not going to become like the Afghans of the 19th century, if Allah wills.

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