Outrage was provoked a few weeks ago by a new Islamic guide for parents fostering children. Reaction to an extremely controversial provision in the guide pointed up the fine balance that continually needs to be struck between religious diversity in a multicultural society and preservation of the norms and laws of a liberal secular democracy.
The Islamic Position on Foster Care, Adoption and Guardianship, published by the Australian National Imams Council (ANIC), contained a paragraph on circumcision for children — both boys and girls.
It stated that circumcision for boys is obligatory in Islam. However, it skirted around the highly contentious matter of circumcision for girls — better known as ‘female genital mutilation’ (FGM).
Critics, including the NSW Families Minister, pounced immediately on the statement, contained in the initial version of the guide, that there is ‘no obligation’ to perform circumcision on girls. And those critics had good cause to be angry. It may well be that FGM is not obligatory in Islam; that’s beside the point. FGM is actually illegal in Australia. Why did the ANIC fail to recognise this?
Soon enough, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) added its voice, firing a broadside criticising the ANIC for appearing to equate FGM with circumcision, and stating in plain language that there was no place in Islam for ‘the horrors of FGM.’ A revised version of the foster guide was subsequently posted stating that, ‘It is impermissible and forbidden to circumcise girls in Islam.’
It was a welcome amendment — although it addressed only Islamic doctrine without mentioning the law. But the damage had been done.
Foster care in Australia is tightly governed by a set of strict legal requirements with which all providers, whether faith-based or not, must comply. Ensuring that the well-being of the child is protected means there can be no exemptions from the law.
All Australians with religious beliefs want the freedom to order their own lives, and the lives of their families and communities, according to the teachings of their faith tradition. Such teachings often deal with dietary rules, dress conventions, and rules governing attendance at worship. Sometimes they also express clear positions on moral issues, such as opposition to abortion or euthanasia.
As a result, faith-based views and teachings are often out of step with what we are told our wider, secular society demands. This, in turn, can provoke calls for contentious religious opinions to be banished from the public square when campaigners, activists, and even policy makers consider them to be out of step with contemporary secular opinion.
Advocates of multiculturalism profess to welcome the cultural and religious diversity that is one of its principal characteristics. And in Australia, one of the world’s most cohesive multicultural societies, people of all faiths and none are free to go about their lives openly and without hindrance.
This freedom is part of Australia’s so-called ‘secular settlement’.
Under this secular settlement, private religious practices such as dietary customs are tolerated, and faith-based organisations retain certain privileges, such as specific tax advantages, on condition that religious groups do not rock the social or political boat.
The settlement depends for its success on two key requirements being met. First, it requires that those who seek accommodation for their beliefs demonstrate a tolerant acceptance of all other members of society. And, second, it requires members of minority groups to exercise restraint to ensure that their private, faith-based practices do not offend against principles shared by the wider secular society.
Clearly, one of the distinctive characteristics of any religion is that it marks its followers in the practices of their daily lives, such as in their diets, as being somewhat set apart from other members of society. But while religion can be a sign of distinctiveness and apartness from wider society, it must never become a sign of alienation.
According to the 2016 census, Australians claiming an allegiance to Islam comprise 2.6 per cent of the population. Muslims, along with Hindus (1.9 per cent) and Buddhists (2.4 per cent), represent part of the significant demographic change that has taken place over the past 50 years in a country where 52 per cent still retain an allegiance to Christianity.
Our different religious communities advance widely diverging conceptions of the good life. And Australia’s success as a multicultural society depends on the fact that it is a secular state committed to remaining neutral in regard to those conceptions. If multiculturalism is to remain successful here, it also requires demonstrating respect for diverse points of view.
At the same time, the secular state has authority — and an obligation — to intervene in situations where certain practices, whether faith-based or not, threaten not just the well-being of the community, but the well-being of the individual. No exemption can be afforded minorities whose wish to avoid the obligation to obey the law threatens that well-being.
Australia has taken a strong stand on some practices often associated with Islam, such as the marriage of children and FGM, and has declared them illegal. The unacceptability of these practices is not simply a matter of culture or conflicting opinions; it is a matter of law. No faith-based exceptions to law can ever be granted where religious practice threatens to put children at risk.
The ANIC’s perceived failure to condemn FGM signalled not merely an indifference to prevailing Australian norms about the well-being and care of children. It also signalled an apparent unwillingness to ensure that the practice of Islam in Australia always complies unequivocally — and without exception — with the law of the land.
Australian Muslims, and members of other faith communities, must be free to live in ways distinguished by their faith-based customs and practices. But they also bear responsibility for ensuring those customs and practices never contravene the norms and laws of Australia.
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Peter Kurti is Director of the Culture, Prosperity & Civil Society program at the Centre for Independent Studies, Adjunct Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame Australia, and author of Sacred & Profane: Faith and Belief in a Secular Society
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