Prayer groups, schools and “radicalisation”

The NSW Government is understandably concerned at what appear to be revelations of violent Islamic-State inspired teaching in public schools. The October 2 shooting of police employee Curtis Cheng at the hands of a 15-year-old schoolboy, Farad Jabar, while shouting Islamic slogans and having just visited the Parramatta mosque, has shocked the public. Other pupils from the same school, Arthur Phillip High School, are under suspicion. Another former pupil of the same school is in custody, apparently suspected of encouraging the act.

These events have sadly seemed to confirm the concerns that were raised earlier this year when a student from another school, Epping Boys High, was being investigated for preaching violent extremism.

There can be no doubt that the Government needs to be rightly concerned about student groups where violence is being preached and encouraged. But there are serious dangers to religious freedom emerging in some of the suggested solutions being offered.

A number of recent opinion pieces suggest that “prayer groups” in general need greater monitoring. Some, such as an article by Greens member of Parliament John Kaye, are urging the Government in effect to ban all religious groups meeting in public schools:

Dr Kaye said: “If radicalisation of Moslem students is occurring in NSW public schools, it is because proselytising Christian groups have protected their right to run lunchtime religious meetings.

“The real blame lies with successive NSW governments that have failed to stand up to the push to turn public schools into recruiting grounds for aggressive religions of all types.

In short, opponents of Christian involvement in schools are exploiting the opportunities presented by violent Islamist preaching to further their agenda to attack all religions.

Hopefully the Government will be able to resist the simplistic equation presented in the form: 1. This violence is inspired by Islam. 2. Islam is a religion. 3. We should deal with the violence by banning all religion. In other words, to spell out more clearly the obvious non sequitur:

  1. A (Islam) has led to B (violence.)
  2. A is a member of the class R (religions.)
  3. Therefore all members of the class R lead to B and should be banned.

Or, to give another example:

  1. A (a music group) performs B (disco music.)
  2. A is a member of the class M, music groups.
  3. Therefore all music groups, M, perform disco music and should be banned.

As much as one might agree with proposition 3 as applied to disco groups, it clearly is not true as applied to all music groups!

Of course distinguishing between music groups requires something of a knowledge of the principles of music, and a willingness to say that some music is good, and some is bad. That may take courage in a world which is theoretically committed to the proposition that all music is the same! But we know in practice that this is just not the real world.

An article making the same point, though thankfully with no reference to disco music, was published recently by Michael Jensen. He puts it this way:

[I]n its rush to look tolerant and even-handed, the liberal commentariat has worked itself into a lather of confusion. It cannot name the thing right in front of its face. The truth is this: in contemporary Australia, it is Islam, and only Islam, that has the problem with radicalisation. Not the Sikhs, not the Jews, not the Buddhists, not the Christians, not the Greenpeace youth group that meets down the road.

That is not to say that these groups have never had a problem with radical extremism, historically. But the problem presenting us today is quite a specific one.

Of course, the numbers even within the Islamic community that are radicalised are still tiny. Picking on or vilifying Islamic Australians in retaliation for the violence committed by a small group within it is totally out of order, and likely to be counter-productive.

But by speaking in vague terms about “extremism” and “radicalisation” and introducing laws and processes to which all religious and ideological groups have to submit, we are risking the very freedoms that we are trying to preserve.

To say that any limitations must now be imposed on “Christian, Buddhist or Jedi”, as one recent opinion piece suggests, just makes no sense at all. There is a problem within the Islamic community, a problem which is now being clearly acknowledged by leaders of the community. But this problem will not be solved by forbidding all prayer by students at schools.

Such a move would be a completely disproportionate over-reaction to a problem within a specific community. Australia is a party to, and supporter of, international instruments which provide clear protection for the religious freedom of its citizens. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 18, declares that the right to religious freedom is a fundamental human right. Religious freedom, if it means anything, means the ability to gather together with others and practice one’s religion. Of course there are sensible limits that need to be placed on this freedom where a religious gathering is suspected of encouraging religiously-inspired violence. But to introduce a blanket ban on groups of students getting together at lunchtime to discuss their faith, especially where there is no evidence except in the Islamic community that such is happening, would be a serious interference with religious faith for no good reason.

Indeed, it may in fact be doubted that even in relation to Islamic groups, a complete ban is sensible. One article reports:

the Friday prayers that were being held at Arthur Phillip High School, which Jabar had attended, had been suspended in September, a move that possibly influenced Jabar to go to the Parramatta mosque to pray.

In other words, perhaps the fact that the group was not operating meant that religious counsel was sought from other sources where worse advice was received. This is speculation, of course; but it seems reasonable to suppose that a group which is meeting at a school, perhaps with the assistance of a trusted member of the religious community and under occasional surveillance by teachers, may serve to curb some of the more violent teaching that can be found elsewhere.

Further, it seems likely that the guidelines being promulgated in NSW schools at the moment may already go further than is necessary to deal with the problems. It has been reported that schools have been told that prayer groups can only be allowed to operate under these conditions:

parental permission must be obtained, activities must be monitored, and no proselytising.

While the first two conditions are not ideal, they may be necessary in the present circumstances. But the final is odd. The word “proselytising” needs detailed discussion on its own, but what is odd is that there has been no suggestion in the concerns about “radicalisation” that the Islamic prayer groups are trying to persuade Baptists or Hindus to become Muslims, which seems to be one of the popular senses of the word. This ban seems more closely linked to a general “secularist” agenda, than to problems of possibly violent Islamic prayer groups.

On general religious freedom grounds, it is clear that in international law the right to manifest one’s religion includes a right to respectfully encourage others to agree with one’s religious beliefs. Justice Kirby put in this way in NABD of 2002 v Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs [2005] HCA 29; (2005) 216 ALR 1; (2005) 79 ALJR 1142 (26 May 2005), citing a decision of the European Court of Human Rights:

[121]…In Kokkinakis v Greece[1], that Court affirmed that religious freedom includes the freedom:

“[T]o manifest one’s religion … not only exercisable in community with others, ‘in public’ and within the circle of those whose faith one shares, but can also be asserted ‘alone’ and ‘in private’; furthermore, it includes in principle the right to try to convince one’s neighbour … through ‘teaching’, failing which … ‘freedom to change [one’s] religion or belief’ … would be likely to remain a dead-letter.”

[1]      (1993) 17 EHRR 397 at 418.

The right to respectfully persuade, of course, is not a right to “ram one’s views down another’s throat”. But the danger in a prohibition on “proselytising” is that banning the second may be thought to imply banning the first. When we are addressing the question of what one school student may say to another, in discussion of their religious views, it surely is far too intrusive to suggest that there can never be a conversation which politely commends the truth of one’s views to another person.

In conclusion, there are justified concerns about the preaching of violence against non-believers among some Islamic groups (not all such groups, of course) at high schools. Energies should be directed towards those sort of groups where such discussions have led to actual violence. But nothing would be surer to generate an “underground” group, attractive because of its very “banned” nature and hence unable to be monitored or guided, than a blanket ban on prayer groups at schools. Support for religious freedom at schools, and the free and open discussion of religious issues, will send the signal to students of support for religious freedom in the community at large, and will itself be another way of undermining an ideology which seeks to impose its will by threats of violence on religious grounds.