By Kevin Donnelly
April 8, 2015
Omar Hallak, the principal at Melbourne's Al-Taqwa College, is being criticised for suggesting Western countries are behind the terrorist organisation Islamic State. In Sydney last year a video showed children with an Islamic State flag chanting anti-US slogans.
Given the number of Australian Muslims going overseas to fight for terrorist groups there are mounting concerns that young Muslims are being presented with a one-sided view of religion and the nature of the conflict between Islam and the West.
Evidenced by what is known as the Trojan Horse affair it is obvious that England is facing a similar problem. Last year a number of Muslim schools in Birmingham were accused of promoting extremist Islamic views calculated to undermine the peace and stability of British society.
The government responded by initiating an inquiry that concluded: "There has been co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained action carried out by a number of associated individuals to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos into a few schools in Birmingham."
As a result of the Trojan Horse affair the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, argued that all schools must teach British values.
The British Department of Education'sPromoting fundamental British values as part of SMSC in schools lists these as the "values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs".
The British document also stresses the need for "tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions by enabling students to acquire an appreciation of and respect for their own and other cultures".
On face value, such an approach is to be recommended.
As noted by the British document, embracing diversity and difference is important on the basis that it is not "acceptable for schools to promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background".
On a closer examination, though, and taken to its logical conclusion such an approach is flawed. To suggest that all religions, cultures and belief systems should be acknowledged and celebrated denies the fact that some beliefs and practices are unacceptable.
Female circumcision, child brides, the Indian custom of punishing a bride if her dowry is unacceptable, outlawing homosexuality, denying and punishing free speech and imposing a theocratic view of government have no place in Western, liberal, democratic societies such as Britain and Australia.
As comprehensively detailed by Ayaan Hirsi Ali the reality is that aspects of Islam, especially in places like Saudi Arabia, are misogynist and dictatorial.
To argue it is wrong to discriminate because of the belief that all cultures and belief systems are of equal value leads to cultural relativism; a situation where it is impossible to protect a unique way of life that we, in Australia, take for granted.
A second approach to the question of how to deal with diversity and difference is provided by a document titled "Values" and endorsed by 22 Christian leaders and recently presented to Britain's House of Commons.
While also endorsing values such as democracy, the rule of law, tolerance and respecting others the document argues that such values are culturally specific as they arise from "Judaeo-Christian belief, thought and practice, which has been foundational to these islands".
Qualities and ethical values such as free will, respecting the sanctity of life, caring for others, being charitable and truth telling have not arisen accidently and are not practised universally.
The document argues that British history "authenticates the role and benefits of Christian teaching and practice" illustrated by such things as the abolition of slavery and the "establishment of the rights of conscience and the consistent opposition to intimidation, coercion, corruption, tyranny and oppression".
In relation to the law, it is significant that in an interview in the March edition of Quadrant, the former chief justice of Australia, Murray Gleeson, states: "Many of our laws have come from religious sources, respect for human life is an obvious example."
The American Declaration of Independence provides further evidence of the significance of Christianity when it states that the unalienable rights enjoyed by all are "endowed by their Creator".
Of course to argue that Christianity plays a central role in our society and culture is not to deny the significant influence of historical events like the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
Any history of Western civilisation must also acknowledge the dark side of Christianity and the fact that secular philosophy has played a major role in the evolution and development of Western civilisation.
It is vital that Western, liberal, democratic countries like Britain and Australia as key members of the Anglosphere are clear about what makes them unique and what it is that safeguards our peace and prosperity and that we must defend.
Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and director of the Education Standards Institute.