Friday, December 5, 2008

Singing From The Same Song Sheet.

There is very little which is more divisive than the suggestion that Muslims in Australia are subverting Australian values. It’s a suggestion which is pushed at every opportunity by those who object to the growing presence and influence of Muslims in our community. It doesn’t take much for the idea to take hold and to inflame otherwise reasonable and tolerant Australians into a fit of fear and distrust. The problem is that so often some members of the Muslim community appear to be doing everything they can to provoke such sentiments.

The front page story in Brisbane’s Courier Mail reports that the Australian International Islamic College has banned the singing of the Australian National Anthem because it has been deemed to be contrary to the “Islamic view and ethos”. The paper claims to have possession of a memo instructing that the “singing of the Anthem will be put on hold”, and that one teacher has been sacked for asking to have the Anthem performed by students. The school denies there is a ban, but it appears that at least one other teacher has confirmed the story.

Consequently, and understandably, there is a great deal of negative feeling in the wider community, with concerns that the school is promoting segregation and is actively promoting anti-Australian views. But this is where things become complicated. Australia is a free society. That means we enjoy the freedom of religion, the freedom of speech, the freedom of association, and the freedom of dissent. Those are among the benefits of living in our free society. They also mean that we as Australians are also free to have no religion, free to keep silent, free to choose not to associate.

It is not compulsory for schools to sing the National Anthem. It is not compulsory for Muslims to associate with non-Muslims. It is not compulsory for Muslims to approve of so called Western standards of behavior. But there is a crucially important distinction to be made here, and it is this. While Muslims, and everybody else for that matter, are free to believe whatever they like, that freedom is subject to the limitation which prevents them from imposing those beliefs upon others and more importantly denying the rights of others to hold differing beliefs.

In our efforts to be an inclusive, fair and tolerant society, the great risk is to fall into the trap of tolerating the intolerant. Most Muslims want nothing more than to peacefully go about their lives, and many have enthusiastically embraced the Australian way of life. But there remains a number of others who reject the freedoms which Australia embodies, and who seek to change the nature of our society. There are those of extreme views who may be free to hold those views, but who should be made to realize that the rest of us are free to reject them.

When it appears that a Muslim school is propagating such views, it becomes a matter of concern to all who believe in a free and open society. Now that should include those many Muslims who claim to also believe in Australian values. In fact, it is most important that they are the ones who reject any such activities by Muslim schools, or by Muslim clerics, or anyone else purporting to represent the Muslim faith. If they don’t, then they are only fueling the flames of distrust themselves and cannot claim to be innocent victims of misrepresentation.

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