The Federal Government has flagged an action plan worth $35 million with the noble aim of promoting national security and community cohesion. Yet the sole action detailed so far is for $8 million to be spent setting up an institute of Islamic studies.
But at the core of the Federal Government's solution lies the additional problem that when an initiative has a religious identity and mission, it is bound to benefit those who organise religious life. In turn, the alienation of the moderates and progressives of the Islamic community is set to continue.
The idea of introducing "moderate" Islam via an Australian institution is naive, if not risible. There are many models and interpretations within Islam, which is why there is bound to be conflict between religious forces over whose model should succeed.
What brand of Islam will this institute teach: Sunni, Wahhabi, Shiite, Ahmadi, Alawi or one of the dozens of other schools of thought?
The initiative may be well-meant, but it is hard not to be sceptical when it is flagged to help Australian Muslims in the name of national security.
Initiatives such as the planned institute are likely to play into the hands of the religious conservative fringe, rather than promoting self-help within the broader Islamic community, by giving them unwarranted credibility.
Further, it would be difficult for a government-initiated religious institution to teach Muslims about moderate Islam while the Government itself continues to support US-sponsored aggression in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Islamic world.
Is this institute going to be an autonomous and inward-looking theological college like most Christian colleges? Or would it take the form of a faculty of Islamic studies at a university run by an academic board and subject to standard academic rigour?
Any number of local universities already teach Islamic studies and some are even equipped to produce imams. So, why not support these existing programs rather than spending millions of dollars setting up a new institute?
Religious education often starts at home and children are usually educated in their parents' religion. Hence, the proposed institute is not likely to change anything in the medium term.
With the establishment of the Muslim Community Reference Group to deal with the issues facing Australian Muslims, from the outset the Federal Government has taken a narrow view of the community. By engaging almost solely with the religious leaders of the community, the predominantly moderate and already well-integrated Islamic community is now suffering from a religiously conservative stereotype.
What is the difference between a moderate and a religiously conservative Muslim? For moderate Muslims, like most members of our society, religion forms only a small part of their identity.
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