Engage with Islam, scholar urges

ELISABETH TARICA – August 9, 2010

MANY
teachers lack a basic understanding of Islam and are left feeling
uncomfortable and in urgent need of guidance on issues that involve
Muslim students, according to a visiting British scholar.

Peter
Vardy, a specialist in religion and values education, says non-Muslim
teachers are keen to be better informed to deal with a range of
dilemmas.

"I think, to be honest, the biggest
thing is ignorance," he says. "They just don’t know where to turn and
they haven’t had any training, so they find it difficult to actually
engage with the questions young people raise because they don’t have
the knowledge base. There is a thirst to be trained and better informed
than they are."

Dr Vardy, vice-principal of Heythrop College,
a specialist philosophy and theology college at the University of
London, was a keynote speaker at a workshop held at Ivanhoe Grammar
last week to help non-Muslim teachers better engage with and teach
Islam.

The grammar school’s director of world
studies, Tim Bush, says often the responsibility for fostering
community cohesion is handed over to schools but teachers are unsure
what they can do to improve understanding.

"In
many respects, teachers don’t necessarily have the resources,
facilities or time to develop that, so workshops like this are
absolutely critical," he says.

Dr Vardy is passionate about using education to reduce misunderstandings about the Islamic faith.

"Islam
is only one world religion . . . but it’s hugely important that young
Australians have an understanding which goes beyond the superficial,"
he says.

In an globalised world, it is vital that
local students appreciate diversity, different cultural and religious
perspectives, and can interact with Islamic neighbours on a business
level.

He says interest in Islam — the world’s
second-largest religion — is growing, particularly in Britain, but
Australia tends to shy away from it.

"In the UK,
there is a highly academic approach to religious and values education
involving philosophy, analysing argument, and it is a wonderful
training for becoming a barrister and other professions; it is not
about indoctrination," he says.

"This is very
hard to get across to Australians because as soon as they see the word
religion the hackles go up and they think this is a covert attempt to
convert people to some faith or another. The idea that you can have an
academic approach to these issues is somewhat alien. It is not in
Europe, but it is here."

Dr Vardy says
Melbourne’s substantial Muslim population, the country’s proximity to
Indonesia, and Australia’s role in the Iraq and Afghan wars, make it
vital for young people to have an accurate understanding of the beliefs
and practices of Islam.

"The idea of what Islam
is about is often not communicated to young people, so they pick it up
from the news and what you effectively then have is that Islam is
associated with terrorism, and radicalism. They’ve got no idea of what
Islam stands for beyond that."

Closer scrutiny of the Muslim faith following the September 11, 2001 attacks has led to many misconceptions.

"We
are not trying to convince people to be Muslim or not; it is trying to
help them be better informed so they actually understand what Islamic
finance is about, what Islamic bioethics and philosophy is about, and
that means understanding both the strengths and the weaknesses."

Dr
Vardy believes the creation of the Dialogue Australasia Network in 1998
to foster a broad-based academic approach to the teaching of values,
philosophy and religious studies was an important step. The network has
450 schools in Australia and New Zealand.

"What
it tries to do is improve the academic rigour and relevance of
religious and values education," says Dr Vardy, who sits on the DAN
board, which involves some of Melbourne’s private schools.

"It
is about having a good academic education, of looking at this as an
academic subject, which includes values, ethics, religious issues, and
introducing young people to thinking deeply about these questions, not
trying to tell them what they should think."

He believes ignorance and mistrust create barriers between harmonious relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.

"Once
you understand someone, you understand where they are coming from, that
they are not unreasonable bigots and there is an intelligent position
that can be held, you can say ‘I can actually begin to speak to this
person as a human being’."

Ivanhoe
Grammar’s Tim Bush says the school’s involvement in the conference was
inspired by former student and Muslim education expert Dr Eeqbal Hassim.

Dr Hassim is co author of Learning from One Another: Bringing Muslim Perspectives into Australian Schools, with Jennet Cole-Adams, director of curriculum services at the Australian Curriculum Studies Association.

The book provides information to educate non-Muslim teachers about Muslim beliefs and culture.

http://www.theage.com.au/national/education/engage-with-islam-scholar-urges-20100806-11oc9.html

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