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.