The social inclusion of marginalised community groups in Australian society is a compelling issue that affects not just marginalised community groups, but social harmony and cohesion as well. As the demographics of the Australian population changes, it is essential for the Australian education system to not only cater for the needs of the new community groups that form but also to help ensure that education is used as a vehicle to facilitate social harmony, understanding and equality. Education is a crucial area where building understanding of marginalised groups increases their chances of receiving a ‘fair go’ in society affecting employment, health access and legal justice. In fact, the link between disadvantaged and marginalised ethno-religious groups in the Australian community and their relative exclusion in Australian education curriculums cannot be underestimated, especially in the English and History curriculums, which play a significant role in shaping students’ understanding and empathy of “others”. It is evident from growing research on discrimination and the disadvantage experienced by Australia’s Muslim communities, especially where education and employment are concerned––that very little has been done by our educational systems to increase understanding and equality for this minority group. This lack of action is contributing to both the marginalisation and alienation of the Australian Muslim community leading to inequality in society. It also has been a root cause, along with political and media sensationalization of Muslim identities in the contribution to past race riots (such as Cronulla 2005) and current social unrest, leading to increased radicalisation amongst not just marginalized groups but white Australians as well. All of these factors have been pushing Australia towards a future full of uncertainty, intolerance and bigotry, undermining Australia’s pluralistic, democratic, multicultural society.
There is deep irony in the current situation Muslims not just in Australia, but globally find themselves in. Despite Wahhabism being a minority Islamic sect, established only a few centuries ago, Muslims worldwide have been forced into constantly condemning their actions, which ironically have not just been attributed to the global spread of religious terrorism but also to endless bloodshed of Muslim civilians. ISIS is a clear example of this. While ISIS poses a significant threat to the Muslim world with the majority of its victims being non-compliant Muslims who oppose its ideology rather than the popularly reported idea of their victims being predominantly non-Muslims, this reality is poorly understood by Australians. Australian Muslims, in fact are constantly portrayed as ISIS sympathizers, suffering from a double-edged sword with many of their family members, relatives and friends living in fear of ISIS attacks overseas. Unlike Australia’s sophisticated ability with tracking terrorist activities, many overseas victims have less chances of surviving terrorist attacks due to poorer access to monitoring resources. This lack of understanding towards Australian Muslims creates significant apathy, rather than sympathy in many Australians towards Muslim Australians, resulting not just in aggression and violence against the latter, but severe dehumanizing effects. For example, despite the fact ISIS attacks in Beirut city killed almost one hundred innocent civilians in 2015, Lebanese victims were given bare media coverage resulting in limited empathy and acknowledgement for Australian relatives compared to ISIS attacks in Paris a few days later which killed a similar number of innocents. Such media bias in reporting can have a profound effect on those living amongst us, stripping them of any sense of mateship and solidarity.
Furthermore, the current, increasing, indiscriminate use of political rhetoric when describing minors from Islamic and Arabic backgrounds in public schools exacerbates the alienating effects of the Australian curriculum, leading to unjust outcomes in individuals lives. While schools normally report all student criminal incidents to police as part of their school policy, the primary function of education must always be to educate diverse individuals- not marginalize and exclude them using politicized terms.
One may then ask the following legitimate questions: Why should the Australian education system take responsibility for addressing Islamophobia? What are the potential benefits or risks of implementing or failing to implement more-inclusive national curriculums in History and English? Why should educators focus on the History and English curriculums at all?
These questions have been answered in the research article, ‘Ensuring Curricular Justice in the NSW Education System’ which was published in the International Education Journal: Comparative Perspectives in 2014.The assumptions and values that underpin the basis of this paper include: education has a significant role in educating members of society to understand one another, education is essential for educating individuals about who they are as Australians in the globalized world and good quality education is essential for deterring not just prejudice, but also social tensions, inequality and injustice.
Curricular justice which is the focus of the research can be defined as treating pupils in school systems justly in order to improve the quality of education for all in the education system. Connell (1993) in his book Schools and Social Justice stated that curricular justice means acting in the interests of the least advantaged students where curricular content and student assessment is concerned; for example, including the perspectives of the least advantaged in learning and assessment material. This implies that in order for curricular justice in the Australian education system to be achieved, the education system must actively update its curriculums to reflect Australia’s diversity and promote social harmony through a greater understanding of disadvantaged community groups. Research has proven that the inclusion of the histories and experiences of certain minority groups within the Australian school curricula has helped improve understanding and treatment of those groups. For example, the inclusion of Indigenous histories, cultures, languages and art in education has increased the Australian community’s awareness and understanding of Indigenous people whose participation in Australian society has improved as a result (Reconciliation Australia, 2010). This noble precedent demonstrates the potential benefits of broadening the Australian curriculum to include the histories and experiences of Australia’s other marginalised minority groups, such as Australian Muslims, who number more than 280,000 or 1.5 per cent of the Australian population and come from diverse countries across the world. Significantly, the role education can play in reducing misconceptions and increasing cross-cultural understanding for this diverse group was acknowledged more than a decade ago by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2003.
One might ponder: Aren’t we already achieving cross-cultural understanding through Multicultural day and Harmony day?
The answer is that while these events are wonderful for celebrating multiculturalism in Australia, they unfortunately do not address underlying misconceptions and limited understanding of marginalized minority groups. Parker-Jenkins in 1991 acknowledged this when his research suggested that incorporating broader curricular material that expresses cross-cultural understanding is much more beneficial and effective than relying on tokenistic festivals alone.
The following example highlights how the curriculum can fail to promote social cohesion in a multicultural and pluralistic society:
In the new Australian History curriculum, there is an increased focus on the Asian region reflecting increasing economic ties with this region. There also see some interesting new studies that enable teachers to educate students about refugees in Australia. For example, the Australian Curriculum History syllabus includes the option to study the experiences of Afghan and Iraqi refugees on their journey to Australia and their treatment by the Australian media upon arriving in Australia. This inclusion allows students to develop their critical thinking skills. It is also a significant step forward as it has the potential to educate students about those less fortunate than them in society and empathise with refugees’ experiences. The key concern is that this study is optional- and not compulsory as it competes with the option of studying the experiences of Vietnamese refugees in Topic 5 “Migration experiences” which then competes with another two options (called “The environmental movement” and “Popular culture”) in Depth Study 5 called ‘The Globalising World’! If giving teachers the flexibility and power to choose what they teach is essential, why does it matter that such a study is not compulsory?
The Australian human rights commission found in 2003 in its Isma3 project that the public education system has left the responsibility of facilitating social harmony and justice, as well as counteracting racism predominantly with individual schools, disregarding the impact the systems’ curriculums have on social understanding and racism (HREOC, 2003). This is problematic as making such studies which themselves are limited in scope optional, the outcomes of social harmony and social cohesion by effect are left to chance. Can a pluralistic, multicultural society afford this?
Australian Muslims who are a very diverse group and come from all regions of the world and differing sects, commonly experience racism and prejudice in all spheres of life. For over a decade, research has informed us that they have become the most marginalised and alienated community group in Australia. Since the 2005 Cronulla riots which marred Australia’s international multicultural reputation and now the Reclaim Australia Movement which despite its limited supporters has enjoyed media attention and hysteria, it has become clear that Australia does have a significant problem with Islamophobia.
If the purpose of education is to inform and educate and research has constantly proven over the last decade that the Australian public constantly misunderstands and is misinformed about the Muslim communities living amongst them, then it suddenly becomes essential for the education system to accept the responsibility of being the key information provider. After all, why would the mainstream Australian society “tolerate” and “accept” Muslims whom they have been taught are dangerous, unpatriotic terrorists with malign intentions or kin relations to Osama Bin Laden?
The startling Cronulla riots of December 2005 were due to a culmination of decades of racial tension and poor intercultural relations (Poynting 2006, 2007) and what we are seeing now with the Reclaim Australia movement is increasingly more regular race riots- so how can educators not be concerned? It becomes especially important that culturally homogenous communities, such as the Sutherland Shires understanding of minority groups, is not reduced to their experiences with a sub-cultural fragment of those groups or a few random encounters.
Unfortunately, government policies such as the Anti-Racism Policy and the Cultural Diversity and Community Relations Policy: Multicultural Education in Schools make curricular justice as a goal more difficult due to their ambiguity, exclusion of detail and lack of any real power over the Australian Curriculum. This means that proactive intervention is needed rather than reliance on policies alone to achieve social justice outcomes.
Ultimately, educators must consider and reflect on how they contribute to social problems or structural failures, such as unemployment and poverty, through existing educational programs (Purpel, 1989) and excluding minority groups from the curriculum. The absence of educational outcomes on understanding Australian Muslims in the History and English curriculums, clearly contributes towards increased social tensions, and greater social inequalities and injustice. This means that there is certainly a need to include texts on the perspectives and experiences of Muslims in Australian educational curriculums or for a broader curriculum that is inclusive of the perspectives of Australia’s most marginalised minorities.
In 1998, Cole warned against separating anti-racism strategies from curriculum content as this leads to cultural racism such as Islamophobia––making it problematic. This means the “Muslim voice” needs to be incorporated in the same way as other voices have been incorporated such as the Indigenous, European and Judeo-Christian voices.
One must question how can “inclusive teaching practices” truly be applied if the most misunderstood and misportrayed ethno-religious minority group in Australia is not covered in the curriculum in terms of recent significant world events in the last century, which have left this group marginalized, oppressed and disempowered?
While some educational websites have been used by schools to counteract racism such as the Racism. No way! website, Making Multicultural Australia website, Cultural Exchange Program and Cooling Conflicts Program, these websites and programs are not compulsory to implement or even consider and they are also incredibly broad in their scope and list few, if any, learning experiences that directly target the issue of anti-Muslim prejudice.
So, what should future revisions of the national curriculum include?
Critical literacy is essential and might include texts such as biographies on certain Muslim and Arab personalities or texts that emphasize the cultural and religious diversity of Australian Muslims. Even visiting Muslim art exhibitions or cultural centres would be a tangible learning experience for students. The widespread lack of knowledge within Australian society and unchallenged, frequent stereotyping of Islam has affected Australian Muslims’ participation and equality in Australia; this was established over a decade ago by HREOC in 2003. Therefore, we should not underestimate the important role that schools play in creating common multicultural knowledge that leads to respect, especially as they are the primary contributors to multicultural literacy (Taylor & Hoechsmann, 2011).
Furthermore, ensuring a positive inclusive portrayal of Arab and Muslim Australians in school textbooks helps counteract the effects of ongoing media and political attacks on Australian Muslims. When educational leadership fails, media often intervene and misinform youth who have limited experiences in dealing with those from different ethno-racial and cultural backgrounds to themselves (Taylor & Hoechsmann, 2011). Making students more sensitive to Islamophobia in the media, thus, is a responsibility of educational institutions––otherwise Islamophobia and racism are likely to increase (Gardner, Karakasoglus, & Luchtenberg, 2008). Authentic Muslim “voices” must be put forward and not misrepresented in the form of ambiguous opinions of Muslim spiritual leaders, which only serve to further disempower Australian Muslim communities in work and educational settings.
It is important that students comprehend that most mortalities in the last century due to war, oppression and economic sanctions have been Muslim and that most victims of terrorists who claim to Muslim such as Wahhabi terrorists as found in ISIS, Daesh and the Taliban are actually other Muslims and not non-Muslims as often reinforced by the media.
The non-compulsory status of learning about Muslim experiences in the English and History curriculums and lack of explicit outcomes and recommended resources that deal with understanding Muslims, render Australian Muslim and Arab experiences alien to educators and students in the education system with existing related outcomes often framing negative discourse on Muslims, Islamic history and leaders.
In the end, good teaching practices require anti-racist teaching strategies (Parker-Jenkins, 1991) especially as such strategies build critical thinking skills which are necessary for achieving social justice in education (Housee, 2012).
Australian curriculums, especially the History and English curriculums, have a critical responsibility to educate all Australian students while allowing marginalized voices to be heard. Unless they fulfil this duty, they will not only fail to facilitate social harmony and understanding but may also contribute to the marginalization and disadvantage of Australian Muslim communities, indirectly harnessing future Cronulla riots-type incidents. A more inclusive portrayal of marginalized voices in the English and History curriculums would also help to counteract the alienation that the curriculums impose on Muslim students. Through their exclusion of Muslim experiences, both the current English and History curriculums effectively render the Muslim experience irrelevant and, ultimately, invisible, and serve to ensure that Australian Muslims remain misunderstood, mistreated and misjudged. The key issue is not simply to replace traditionally-used texts with others, but rather to ensure a more balanced selection of texts that include the Muslim voice rather than discard it from the different modules and electives studied to avoid dehumanising effects. The responsibilities for implementation of the Australian governments educational policy goals have now been transferred to the new national curriculum which, despite changes to a few minor details, manifest the same failures where social and curricular justice are concerned. However, it is only through interrogating the lived curriculum that we can truly ensure that Australian students receive an education that not only promotes social harmony and equity but also a genuine democracy as well.
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