Perspectives on Islam

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Since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, and subsequent events in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, a new atmosphere of suspicion and hostility surrounds relationships between Islam and the West. Recently, Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister, said it was necessary to find out whether Islamic traditions and teachings were compatible with the values of modern Western societies. However, U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has said that ‘What we have before us today is less a clash of civilisations, as some have theorised, than a collision of misunderstanding between the Muslim and Western world’. Islam is seen by many as a monolithic force confronting the West and Western modernity, yet the reality is that Islam is far from homogeneous and neither Islam itself, nor the diversity of views in the Islamic world, is well understood by most Australians. The objective of this workshop is to explore a variety of dimensions of Islam today with particular reference to Australia.

The importance of Islam to Australia is obvious. Islam is numerically the second-largest religion in the world, with 1.2 billion followers (after Christianity’s 2 billion), and has a strong presence in Asia. Pakistan was established last century as a Muslim state. India was ruled mainly by Muslims for over 700 years, and Muslims still comprise 14 per cent of the population. The non-Chinese inhabitants of Malaysia are predominantly Muslim. Indonesia is 90 per cent Muslim, and Muslims constitute 12 per cent of the population of Thailand and the Philippines. At a global level, Muslims form a majority of the population in 56 countries. There are sizable numbers of Muslims in the West, 9 million in Europe, and over 6 million in the United States. In Australia, Arabic is now the fourth-largest language spoken at home other than English (although not all Arabic speakers in Australia are Muslims).

With the Muslim population of Australia in excess of 300 000, Islam is now an integral part of the Australian religious and social landscape. Yet Muslims face special difficulties in Australia, for reasons outlined by Jamila Hussain (‘Islam and the West: the Australian experience’ in ‘Religion and Culture in Asia Pacific’, Vista Publications, 2001). One is the result of the character of Australian society, which can best be described as hedonistic and based on ‘secular rational’ values, rather than ‘traditional values’ of religion and family. A social life revolving around the drinking of alcohol and a variety of gambling activities creates a further divide. The second factor is the nature of the Muslim community itself. While there is the common bond of religion, the presence of diversity and variety within a tradition applies to Islam as well as to other civilizations. For example, Muslims in Australia come from sixty-four different ethnic communities, with differences in ethnicity, culture and home language.

In order to explore the diversity of Islam today, the workshop will bring together scholars from a variety of backgrounds. A distinctive feature of the workshop is the number of disciplines represented: economics, education, finance, law, politics, religious studies and sociology. Islam commands authority over the totality of a Muslim’s being, not accepting any distinction between the sacred and secular. Consequently, economics, politics, religious and social affairs all fall under the jurisdiction of the divine law of Islam – the “shari’a”. Based on “shari’a”, Islam has formulated a comprehensive ethic shaping all aspects of governance in society. Day One of the workshop considers the breadth and diversity of the Islamic position on a number of issues. Topics covered include the scope of Islamic law, developments in Islamic economics, banking and finance, social thought and political thought. Diversity in Islam itself is examined in papers analysing Islam in South East Asia, governance in Muslim countries, Islamic social consciousness and the extent of commitment to religion.

Against this backdrop, Day Two of the workshop investigates interactions between Islam and the West in the specific context of Australia. The first session on Day two highlights the ethnic and social diversity of Australian Muslims and their distinctive contribution to Australian multiculturalism. Special needs of the new arrivals and communities of refugees are also considered in terms of schooling, along with the generational issues for Australian Muslims posed by young Muslims growing up with Western influences. The remaining sessions of the workshop deal with attitudes and perceptions, and images of Islam. Topics examined include the status of women in Islam, perceptions of other Australians to Islam and the Muslim community, and attitudes by Muslims to Australia and to Western society generally.

In his discussion of the ‘clash of civilizations’ (‘Foreign Affairs’, 1993), Samuel Huntington suggests that the conflict between Western civilization and other different civilizations is a serious problem that surfaced in the late twentieth century and will worsen in the twenty-first. In particular, he discerns a pending clash between Western and Islamic civilizations, unless the West gains a better understanding of Islam. If, however, a better understanding of Islamic civilization can be gained, the potential for a ‘clash’ can be turned into an opportunity for dialogue and cooperation. The premise underlying this workshop is the importance of dialogue in the effort to resolve racial, ethnic and religious conflicts. The aim is to promote understanding of Islam and, through free discussion amongst Islam experts in many fields, help shape and inform Australian attitudes and perceptions about the Islamic world.

A dialogue on ‘Perspectives on Islam’ needs to be diverse and multi-layered, examining a range of issues including Islam in the international community today, legal frameworks, the Islamic nation state, Islam and economics, and Australia’s relationships with Islamic communities. The workshop will look at Islamic economic and financial principles and evaluate their contribution and relevance to modern economics and finance. In addition, the Workshop will provide a forum for a considered discussion of the nature of Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic law as it relates to the modern world. By focusing on the diversity of the Islamic world, the workshop would serve to highlight that Islamic civilization is not a monolithic and static phenomenon. Papers examining the Muslim identity in Australia and education and generational issues are highly relevant to current social policy in Australia. The workshop will seek to provide a critical analytical perspective on the sources of attitudinal differences, and outline an agenda for addressing these issues and breaking them down. This type of analysis would help to counter some of the negative stereotypes of Islam in the wider Australian community. To this end, the convenors will seek to disseminate the results through publication to a broad audience and, as well, have the workshop serve as a springboard for future research into this important area.

Event Schedule

Contact Information

Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

    ABN: 59 957 839 703
  • Location: 26 Balmain Crescent, Acton, ACT 2601
  • Postal: GPO Box 1956, Canberra, ACT 2601
  • +61 .2 62491788
  • +61 .2 62474335
  • secretariat@assa.edu.au

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