In
the aftermath of the London bombings, the Australian government
established the Muslim Community Reference Group to “assist Australia’s
Muslim communities and help them build a common future with all
Australians”, in the patronising words of their website.

Despite
being established ostensibly to represent the interests and views of
Australia’s 300,000 Muslims, few of the handpicked members of the group
are seen as leaders, and no effort has been made since its formation
either to capture community sentiment or communicate back to the
community about what the group has been doing.

Instead, Australian Muslims must look to the pages of The Australian
and the reporting of Richard Kerbaj to learn what the government and
its reference group are doing. Since the formation of the committee,
Kerbaj has chronicled, through leaked committee documents, the extent
to which church and state have been conflated in the name of fighting
“religious extremism”.

Last week, it was reported
that the government and its reference committee would be assuming
leadership of a forthcoming Imam conference. The intent was to define a
set of doctrinal guidelines for Australia’s Muslim leadership to
follow, and to institute a system of registration for Muslim clerics,
teachers and community workers. This follows an earlier announcement
that the government was looking at the establishment of special “Imam
schools” to teach prospective Muslim leaders a government-approved,
moderate interpretation of Islam.

The problem with all this is
that, outside of the PM’s Reference Group, there is tremendous distrust
of the government within the Muslim community. Any Imam who signs up to
a code of conduct or particular doctrine agreed at this conference will
automatically be seen as signing up to a government-endorsed form of
Islam. The government and its reference committee may think that by
formalising moderate Islamic ideals they will alienate and undermine
“extremist” clerics. But it will have the opposite effect: any cleric
who refrains from participating will be seen as independent whereas
those who participate will be seen as somehow compromised.

Instead
of creating a Muslim version of ATSIC, engaging in misguided adventures
in engineering theologies, or throwing money at the unelected
panjandrums of the Muslim community, the government’s cause would be
better served by simply continuing to allow the community to confront
extremist ideas intellectually and ideologically unfettered by state
interference.

Peter Fray

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