Saturday, March 28, 2009

Melbourne's educational institutions vs. Muslims

Two news items have popped up in the Melbourne news in the last few days which illustrate the challenges of a multi-religious society.

Firstly, Heathdale Christian College in Werribee has refused to allow a training placement to a teaching student, Rachida Dahlal, on the grounds that she is a Muslim. Around the same time, RMIT University's city campus has refused to grant separate prayer rooms to its Muslim students and has requested that Muslim students share prayer space with students of other faiths.

There are not really any simple answers to either of these issues, but both raise important issues about the limits of religious tolerance and the right to exclusivity.

Regarding Heathdale College, they would appear to be fairly small-minded in all this. Ms Dahlal would have taught French and mathematics. How her religious faith has anything at all to do with these subjects is anyone's guess. Do they think she is going to convert the kids in between times tables, or work Islamic hadiths into her French lessons? ("Ok kids, who knows the French for 'There is no God but Allah'?")

I figure the parents of the school students would not be happy with a Muslims teaching in the school - after all, they chose a school which teaches creationism and forbids homosexuality. But they should ask themselves which society the school is meant to be teaching their kids to live in. Because in this society, there are people of different faiths, and young people would do well to have exposure to them.

Since private and religious schools, be they Catholic, Muslim or otherwise, receive funding from all taxpayers, should not all taxpayers have the opportunity to go to that school? Were I a Muslim I might resent my taxes going to fund a school that wouldn't allow Muslims. Perhaps if we just gave all education funding to our needy public education system instead... but that's an issue for another day.

Regarding RMIT's prayer rooms, the issue is that the university did originally have Muslim prayer rooms, but these were closed when the building they were in was being renovated in 2007. But now RMIT is refusing to re-allocate rooms exclusively for Muslim use. Perfectly good prayer facilities exist, but they are not open to Muslims exclusively. Muslim students have been boycotting these rooms, instead choosing to pray in corridors, the street, or whatever rooms they can find. RMIT Islamic Society president Mohammed Elraifi has claimed that some women had been harassed while praying in the open due to this situation.

Now I understand the anger among the Islamic Society that the university has acted in bad faith by not delivering the rooms as promised. But I have a problem with their attitude. Sometimes you just gotta make the best of the situation. The women allegedly harassed while praying were not praying in the open because they had no facilities, but because they were boycotting the room that was available. Of course I'm not justifying any harassment that may have occurred, but you can't blame the university for that.

Compare the two stories and you may notice a contradiction over religious exclusivity that is particularly relevant to Muslims in Australia. Is it consistent to argue that the Christian school should show inclusiveness and not be allowed to discriminate against a Muslim, yet support Muslims' rejection of inclusiveness by refusing to share a prayer room with those of other religions? Multiculturalism is all about a little give and take on both sides. In the modern globalised society, there is little place for absolutism except on the basic human rights issues. But absolutism is a key facet of Islamic belief, as it is for fundamentalist Christian belief. Hopefully, they will soon enough learn to play the game.


  1. Hi, your claim that RMIT is refusing to offer separate Muslim prayer rooms is not borne out by the facts. Please see;ID=19gbd61taf0k


    David Glanz
    RMIT Media and Communications unit

  2. Ok, well the uni is not delivering exactly what was promised, or at least what the Islamic Society believes was promised.
    Anyway, as I said I'm not overly sympathetic to the Muslim students on this issue. No problem with lobbying for something they want, but at some point they need to accept that what they've been given is really not that bad.