Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Muslims, the Koran and secular law

Shahram Akbarzadeh is deputy director of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, University of Melbourne. He is therefore well-qualified to write on Muslims in Australia.

In a piece in today's Australian newspaper "Muslim majority wants secular law" Akbarzadeh writes:

"There is a presumption about Muslims' inability to live under secular rule that rests on the view that they live by strict Koranic codes that are incompatible with the modern way of life in Australia. This is false on two grounds.

First, most Australian Muslims are not affiliated with any religious organisation, do not attend mosque or send their children to Islamic schools. They may pray in the privacy of their homes but would not wear their religion on their sleeves. This group is best described as cultural Muslims.

Islam is the religion they are born into and proud of, and anything short of this would be tantamount to rejecting their heritage. Islam is part of their identity, as is social-familial status, political affiliations and ethnic background. But Islam is not the sole pillar of identity. This group is as comfortable with the laws that govern Australia as any of their non-Muslim neighbours; that is, they drive over the speed limit on occasion and try to dodge taxes if they can.

A lot of public debate about Muslims ignores this large demographic group. Instead, the focus is often on the more religiously devout and organised sections of Australian Muslims. There is a good reason for that. Cultural Muslims are the silent majority, as they don't organise and present their case under the rubric of Islam. It is not that cultural Muslims lack organisational skills. But as far as they are concerned, why form an Islamic society when they could form an ethnic or social club? The latter is more inclusive and allows for a broader cultural appeal than religiously oriented associations.

But by going down this path, cultural Muslims have been excluded (wittingly or unwittingly) from the public debate on Islam. The Coalition government effectively ignored ethnic Muslim groups when forming the Muslim Reference Group. These communities were not seen as representing the interests of Australian Muslims. But the reality was the reverse. The appointed reference group was drawn from a small pool of religious leaders and had little authority in the ethnically diverse Muslim communities, least of all among youth. This was a critical flaw."

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