Saturday, March 28, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - Muslim prayer rooms and the importance of checking one's facts

It always pays to check one's facts.

Lexcen had a post on the issue of Muslim prayer rooms. This was triggered by the apparent failure of an Australian university to agree to the creation of such a room.

Lexcen's concern lay in what he saw as unreasonable demands that were in fact part of a world wide trend.I responded in a quick comment taking an opposite perspective.

I was in fact surprised at the original story because it seemed to me that the university in question, RMIT in Melbourne, was behaving in a way that was at variance with Australian university traditions.

When I made the comment, my knowledge of the incident was very limited - I had in fact only seen reference to it via Neil's Google reader series. I saw it as a clear cut matter - a university refusing a prayer room. I might have known that it was more complicated than that.

I did a Google search to check my facts on this issue. I did not realise how big a story it had become. I only browsed the first three pages, but that was enough to reveal a complicated situation.

The RMIT Muslim Society considers that the university has reneged on a previous promise.

In late 2007, construction work on the building that contained a dedicated Muslim prayer room meant the facility was demolished. The RMIT Muslim Society believes the university reneged on its promise to replace that with another room.

The mass protests organised by the Society have been backed by other religious groups and attracted considerable publicity.

For its part, the university is obviously quite upset, describing the Society's actions as  "unfortunate and unnecessary". To quote from a 22 March 2009 report in the Australian:

There are already eight Muslim prayer rooms across the university's three campuses, Dr Maddy McMaster, Acting Pro Vice-Chancellor (Students) said.

"The university's policy is that prayer rooms in its spiritual centre are multi-faith, open to bookings by members of all faiths," she said.

Muslims get preferential access to two of those rooms.

"With space at a premium on our city campus, we have bent over backwards to find an amicable solution," she said.

Gestures of good faith have been rejected, she insisted.

"Multi-faith spaces are commonly accepted as supporting a range of religious practices, including those of the Muslim faith.

"It is disappointing that the RMIT Islamic Society chooses to reject established multi-faith principles," she said.

The Society denies that it is opposed to multi-faith principles, a position that seems to be supported by others.

From other reports, the university obviously spent a lot of money fitting out the  multi-faith centre at the main campus to meet Muslim requirements. However, it also seems clear that the university's approach has created on-ground practical problems. 

It is very hard in all this to disentangle the issues involved. However, there are a few points that I want to make.

To begin with, while the case does raise broader issues, it is first and foremost a local issue.

We are not dealing, as I first thought, with a point blank refusal by RMIT to meet a specific student need, nor is this a case of discrimination. The requirement to accommodate Muslim needs has been agreed on both sides. The dispute is all about and only about the adequacy of the university's solution.

Why then, if it is a local issue, has it attracted so much attention? Simply, it plays to a number of the fault lines in current attitudes in Australia and overseas.

I said during the week in Problems with language and definition in public policy that life was too short to always subject things people say to semantic analysis. Yet we need to.

The problem is that we have all become too good for our own good at casting arguments designed to support a case. The concept of truth as a good in its own right becomes lost in the process.

I must say I do despair sometimes.

At least in Australia we are lucky to still have a newspaper industry. Yes, I have been very critical of newspaper reporting because it too is affected by the distortion process. Yet the continued existence of the print media with its core of experienced journalists allows for depth in reporting not possible in the on-line world.

As a writer and commentator I use both the print and on-line editions. Because of my interests, I look not just at the metro media but also regional papers.

As an aside, and this is something that I mean to write about, I have been monitoring the roll-out of the Commonwealth Government's various stimulus packages at local level.

I said early on that the way our Government systems operate meant that you had to add six months to official dates before the capital spend items kicked in. I was about right.

They are now starting to kick in, and the effects are going to be significant.

Returning to my main theme, there is a depth to the print media that is simply not possible in the on-line world. It's not just that there are many stories in the print media that do not make the on-line editions. It's also, and this is especially true for the regional more localised press, the various advertisements.

This is partly how I have been judging the effects of the stimulus packages.

NSW has around $2 billion to spend on the construction of new social housing as a specific stimulus measure. There is also more money for back-log maintenance. Local papers are full of Housing NSW advertisements looking for, among other things, ready to go development projects.

It will still be a little while before the impact will be felt, but you can see it coming.

I seem to be musing in a new direction. I will finish by saying that I regard the survival of the Australian print media as absolutely critical to the survival of real, informed, discussion in this country.



Lexcen said...

Jim, any discussion on Muslim issues needs to be well versed in the Muslim ideology/religion. I won't pretend that I am an expert but I do feel that I've done as much as possible to understand the Muslim mindset. Sometimes I have doubts about my opinions in that maybe they are shaped too much by fear. That is where research is all important. Anything I read about Muslims can always be verified by visiting various web sites run by Muslims themselves. There is no secret to the agenda they follow.And despite all reassurances that we are only dealing in a small number of so called radical Muslims whilst the majority are harmless, how many radicals does it take to create a sense of alarm? I envy your position of complacency which I cannot share.

Neil said...

I lean more towards you on this one, Jim, probably no secret and I am sure Lexcen wouldn't be surprised by that.

There is an interesting post on this from my young Marxist friend Benjamin, whose views are not identical with my own. He is however quite informative on some of the facts and the long comment thread which follows -- to which I contributed -- makes some interesting points. I especially commend comments 16 and 17 which are from people at RMIT, one of them a Muslim. See Save the Muslim Prayer Room at RMIT.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Lexcen. I phrased what I said very carefully.I quote:

"To begin with, while the case does raise broader issues, it is first and foremost a local issue.

We are not dealing, as I first thought, with a point blank refusal by RMIT to meet a specific student need, nor is this a case of discrimination. The requirement to accommodate Muslim needs has been agreed on both sides. The dispute is all about and only about the adequacy of the university's solution."

Now the first thing is that this conclusion, in the absence of further information, knocks out those who say that this is a matter of discrimination. My initial comment on your post reflected my initial reaction that discrimination was involved. I was wrong.

From this point, things get a little more complicated.

I used the words "about and only about the adequacy of the university's solution" to make it clear that that was the substantive matter at issue. Reading some of the Muslim sites, the issue was being played out as another example of discrimination.

In all this, I left open what I meant when I said "while the case does raise broader issues".

In doing so, I did not discuss either what the case said about university attitudes nor about the attitudes of the Society and the nature of Muslim responses.

So in all this, my remark about checking facts was not directed at you, but at me.

Finally, I don't think that I am complacent about extremism of any type. I don't quite fear the Muslim variety in the way you do, but I do regard it as a serious problem.

We cannot control certain things. We can control our own responses.

This is getting into a much broader discussion going to issues such as the way we retain cohesion in an Australia that will necessarily become more diverse. So I will finish here.

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, you must have posted your comment just as I was writing mine! No, that can't be right looking at the time - it must be one of those lag things!

I actually found the comment thread in question depressing, although there was (as you note) a little more information there from locals.

Lexcen said...

Jim, a society that maintains cohesion through there's a challenge.

Jim Belshaw said...

You are right, of course, Lexcen. This is where I sometimes part company with Neil.

I don't accept as a given, I am not sure that Neil would either, that we can overcome the challenge of diversity.

Where I suspect that Neil and I part company, I stand to be corrected, is that I have little time for the Canadian lettuce leaf approach.

A society like ours stands on shared values. One of those values to my mind is the capacity to accommodate diversity. However, this is not sufficient.

I have argued that a strong core Australian culture is a pre-requisite.

If you look at the two of us, we come from very different worlds. I cannot remember whether you were born after your parents arrival in Australia. If so, you are, as I am on Dad's side, first generation Australians.

Despite our different family backgrounds, despite our different views on issues, we are both Australians with shared views.

I sometimes struggle to get the nuances of this across. But its pretty powerful nevetheless!

Neil said...

We have no choice about diversity. It is a fact about Australia and has been for a rather long time now.

How diversity is managed is the issue, and there is a range of views on that.

Core values I do agree are needed, but what they are and how many are needed to maintain cohesion, and what say each subculture has in framing them -- these are also issues.

I think it is quite possible to come to a workable conclusion, but it won't be set in stone as time and circumstances will always be effecting changes.

We do well to remain positive about "The Other" -- and that may be where Lexcen and I would disagree. My experience of actual Muslims gives me hope.

Bobq said...

Jim, it ha been a little time since I commented on any of your threads. I have been in the process of moving country twice since then, and I haven't been able to keep up.

That said, I understand what I think to be your initial embarrassment and reconsideration of your position. Here is my call, and I have to admit to an atheistic position before making the announcement.

If, in the view of the Muslims, sharing is good enough for everyone else then
(a) they can share too; or
(b) they can BUY their own not-free space; or
(c) they can be quiet and take their issue elsewhere.

From my POV not only should they not receive no more privileges than other religious groups, they should also not receive more freebies than ANY other special interest group.

Having been offered something for nothing, they can politely accept or politely decline. Running a nasty political campaign falsely claiming victimisation helps no-one, particularly not themselves.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hey, Bob, where are you now. You have been in my thoughts from time to time since I knew that you leaving the SI. Twice - that sounds like SI and Oz, but where to?

Generally I agree with you Bob, but another thought came to mind. How many are full fee paying customers? They are actually in a different position from Australian subsidised students.

Neil, I generally agree with your points. However, it's more than core values.

Core values of themselves do not create unity. Those fighting the First World War all had common core values, perhaps more than we have in Australia today.

Excluding invasion, societies and groups fall because of the things that divide. These become greater than the unifying elements.

When we look at the unifying elements, they are more than values. Indeed, shared values may be the smallest part.

Bobq said...

I've taken a contract doing pretty much the same line of work in a third world, post conflict country.

I am currently trying to battle (nicely) some KPI addicts, whose demands threaten to reduce the effectiveness of my work. the demands are, of course, being made in the name of effectiveness, which is about all I'll say on your recent post on the subject.

Reverting to your comment, I don't actually care if they are full fee paying students or not. It would only make a difference to me if a part of their coursework was to undertake prayer. In such a case, a prayer room would be as necessary as a library. In other other case, my position holds. They are not being prevented from worship, either. Melbourne is not exactly devoid of mosques.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Bob. Good luck with the battle on KPIs.

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