Manufacturing Moderate Imams in Australian Universities

The Australian is running with the story today that a new $8 million dollar National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies is being established as part of a government attempt to confront ‘extremism’.

From next year, university students at Melbourne, Griffith and Western Sydney will be offered accredited courses ranging from Muslim theology to art and commerce as part of the federal Government’s $35 million strategy to fight extremism.

“The centre’s religious teachings will be taught in an objective manner and produce homegrown imams,” Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs Andrew Robb said yesterday.

The centre is cast in the article as providing some ‘alternative’ to the likes of Sheikh Feiz and, in the words of the Courier Mail, “Muslim firebrands who preach intolerance and hate.” Teachers will naturally be subjected to a “proper background check” to make sure the program isn’t infiltrated by extremists or other reactionary forces.

Yasmin Khan, a member of the Prime Minister’s Muslim Reference Group, yesterday said proper background checks would be needed to make sure it was not hijacked by radicals.

“I would hate to think that was a remote possibility,” she said.

The course will offer a “western perspective” on Islam, and provide an alternative for people who might otherwise have gone to study abroad at the Islamic University of Medina, in Pakistan or elsewhere.

At the moment, anyone seeking advanced knowledge and understanding of Islam has to travel to the Middle East.

The idea that a local alternative is needed is, of course, predicated on the belief that overseas study is problematic. However, this is generally not the case — particularly when it is Western students going abroad to study as opposed to merely importing people. Indeed, even in the case of a so-called ‘conservative’ institution such as the Islamic University of Medina, the overwhelming majority of graduates do not return to Australia breathing fire and brimstone. The fact that a number of the individuals involved in overseeing this project are themselves graduates of Umm al-Qurra and Medina puts this idea to rest.

A possible problem with this approach is that people overlook the reasons for the appeal of the so-called “radical sheikhs” and that is that these people are offering what their followers perceive, rightly or wrongly, as a more authentic expression of Islam. These figures speak Arabic, can often quote Qu’ran and hadith chapter and verse, and seem to have a depth of religious knowledge that many perceived moderates do not. If any local institution is going to be successful, it will need to produce people of an equivalent or greater level; which means, at the very least, it will need to produce people fluent in Arabic because without Arabic it is impossible for someone to access the classical texts from which authenticity and authority is derived in this religion. The importance of Arabic to scholarship cannot be understated when even a book such as Ibn Hajr al-Asqalani’s Fath ul-Bari, an explanation of Sahih Bukhari, is available only in Arabic.

A further possible problem is that there is a contention between what the government sees as moderation and what many, even nominal, Muslims will see as the moderate Islamic position. Given this is being born out of an effort to confront religious extremism and will therefore, one can assume, be measured against its funding objective, would the government tolerate or be satisfied with positions which, although Islamically valid, may seem ‘extreme’ compared to the majority-held values of the community?

And, given the project has been linked quite clearly to the government’s campaign against ‘extremism’, how would religious figures — schooled in such a project — be perceived by communities for whom animus against the government and government foreign policy is one of the principle attractions of the independent ‘radicals’? There could end up two classes of scholar or leader: the ones who are seen as ‘government scholars’ produced as part of this program; and others who remain independent.

There is nothing wrong with offering university degrees or courses in Islamic sciences, but perhaps it would be better and more effective if these courses were not linked to the War on Terror and were not, somewhat unrealistically, being cast as schools capable of producing Imams and scholars.