Of Faith and Identity

Randa Abdel-Fattah demystifies the values and practices of Australia’s Islamic schools, of which she was a pioneering student.

I graduated from St Clement of Rome Primary School in Melbourne in 1990. I was one of a small number of Muslim students, but my parents didn’t feel there was any contradiction in my attending a Catholic school; they considered I would be exposed to shared values. For high school, my parents decided I would attend King Khalid Islamic College of Victoria (KKICV), Australia’s first Islamic school. My mother was a senior teacher at KKICV when I started.

Established in 1983, the original site was an old, partially burnt-down Catholic school. There were 64 students. By the time I started in 1991, the student body had risen to a modest 328 students, and I was in the school’s first Year 7/8 class. There were about 40 of us, and we were the entire high-school student population. There was an overwhelming sense of expectation and excitement. We were pioneers, not just in our school, but in Australia’s Muslim community.

Esma Kurt was part of that first cohort. “KKICV gave me a sense of identity,” she says. “The school allowed my strengths to come out, rather than me feeling I had to hide them to fit in.” Our Muslim and non-Muslim teachers (the latter comprising at least half the staff, in accordance with the school’s policy), reinforced that we were to embrace our Australian identity and Muslim faith with pride. Esma’s children attended the school because she wanted to give them the same opportunities.

KKICV later changed its name to the Australian International Academy (AIA), to reflect its global character. There are four campuses around the world: two in Melbourne, one in Sydney and one in Abu Dhabi. My mother, Mona Abdel-Fattah, was the principal of the Sydney campus and believes one of the defining characteristics of Islamic schools is the multicultural composition of students and staff. The school population represents more than 23 ethnic groups. “Everybody sees the students’ multi-layered identities as an advantage and a cause for celebration,” says Abdel-Fattah. “We’re a school that actively values our students’ identities.”

At assembly we recited verses from the Koran and sang the national anthem. It was instilled in us that we were not ‘negotiable citizens’, and that being Australian and Muslim were not mutually exclusive. We were normal teenagers. However, there were many times when we had to think about our identity in terms of resistance because of the stubborn prejudices and misconceptions that prevailed about Muslims and Islam.

I recall staying up all night to prepare for an inter-faith dialogue our school initiated with a prestigious Catholic school in Melbourne. I was determined to stand in front of the hall full of students and teachers and defy the stereotype of the meek, oppressed Muslim female. We also had student-exchange programs with schools in Sydney and Perth, where my friends and I met kids our age and fielded questions about terrorism, female circumcision and forced marriages. As a teenager with little experience of the world, it was overwhelming to be confronted with such questions. But we were teenagers who were quickly forced to be ambassadors for millions of Muslims around the world.

Some kids preferred to withdraw to the safety of anonymity and anglicised their names (for example, Mohamed would call himself Sam), trying to distance themselves from their heritage in order to be accepted as an Aussie. Others, like me, were too defiant to compromise. We loved our identity as Aussie Muslims and were determined to demystify our faith. Although we resented having to constantly defend ourselves whenever we met kids from other schools, we rose to the challenge.

We were growing up having to cope with the cumulative weight of so much misunderstanding about our faith and identity, and we implored other kids our age to see beyond the headlines and recognise that we were kids just like them, trying to get on with the messy and fun business of adolescence, albeit with the added weight of being walking stereotypes. Youthful idealism wasn’t an option for us – it was an imperative. We wanted to change the world so we could help grow a society where Australians weren’t judged and excluded because of their beliefs or the way they dressed.

AIA is now one of the top-performing schools in Australia. In 2004, it was also one of the first three Melbourne faith-based secondary schools involved in the Building Bridges through Interfaith Dialogue in Schools  program. Initiated in 2004 by the Reverend Dr Tim McCowan from Melbourne’s WellSpring Centre, the program aims to help Year 10 and Year 11 students of different faiths, religions, cultures and values develop trust, understanding and friendship.

Salah Salman AM, has been director of AIA’s Coburg, Melbourne, campus since 1991 and has been instrumental in driving the school’s growth and aspirations. Religious freedom, including the right to faith-based schooling, is guaranteed in Australia under international law. But it’s not simply about exercising one’s rights. Salman argues that Australia as a whole benefits when it respects freedom of religion. “A secular society is not a godless society. It is a society that respects pluralism and the peaceful coexistence of those for whom faith is a fundamental part of life, and those who reject religion.”

Cindy Rahal is a parent of two children attending an Islamic primary school in south-west Sydney. “My children are growing in their confidence as Australians and Muslims,” she says. “They’re not confused, and don’t feel like they’re part of a minority community. They feel just as Aussie as the next kid.”

There are now more than 30 Islamic schools in Australia, most of which are represented by a peak body, the Islamic Schools Association of Australia (ISAA). ISAA aims to ensure uniform and balanced teaching in Islamic schools and promote good management, among other goals.

Osman Karolia is vice-president of ISAA and assistant principal, curriculum, of Unity Grammar in south-west Sydney. “There are many misconceptions about Islamic schools,” he says. “Do they follow a regular curriculum? Are lessons taught in Arabic (as though all Muslims are Arabs and all Arabs are Muslims)? Are they funded by foreign governments as an extension of their policies? Are they bastions of conservatism?”

Karolia notes the many positive initiatives Islamic schools have undertaken with other schools, such as preparing food for the homeless and cleaning up waterways. Most Islamic schools are guided by the Association of Independent Schools and teach the various State and Territory curricula. However, the most enduring myth about Islamic schools is that they promote division, and don’t teach Australian values.

Most Islamic schools are involved in extracurricular programs, including Harmony Day assemblies, Anzac Day and Remembrance Day events, Clean Up Australia Day, Stream Watch and Refugee Week. Students raise funds for charities such as The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, the Heart Foundation and the Cancer Council. ISAA members subscribe to the Australian Council for Islamic Education in School’s Declaration of Faith-Based Schools,
which includes a commitment on  “teaching children to respect the rights of others and to understand the different backgrounds and religions of Australia’s multicultural society”.

Reflecting on my own history at AIA, I realise the enduring principle I took away with me was that being a good citizen was more about responsibilities than rights. The school offered more than just academic excellence. It gave us the chance to embrace our identities with pride.

11 Words for Love

by Randa Abdel-Fattah, illus. Maxine Beneba Clarke, pub Hachette Lothian Books Imprint H/b RRP $24.99. Ages 3+

There are eleven words for love, and my family knows them all.

This unusual book is written in Arabic and English and follows a refugee family fleeing their homeland to find safety in another country, carrying little more than a suitcase full of love.

In the Arabic language, there are over 50 words describing the degrees of love. That’s 50 stories, 50 life-worlds. This book takes you on a story using 11 of these Arabic expressions for love.