Muslim children showed respect by not singing anthem


Hats off to the teachers of Cranbourne Carlisle Primary School and the Victorian Education Department. This week they gave an instructive example of how respect can be expressed — and appreciated — in different ways. In doing so, they also showed the ambivalence of symbols and highlighted the need, when interpreting them, to go beyond appearances and listen to what people actually mean.

Cranbourne Carlisle Primary SchoolAt a class-run assembly, a teacher invited children for whom the singing of the national anthem would be offensive to leave the class. About 40 did so — and thereby caused a stir among some of the other children's relatives.

This is because the relatives of those staying behind saw children walking out before the anthem, and read it as a potent symbol of disrespect for the country which the anthem signifies. In an age where civic identity is seen as paramount, what could such a mass walk-out mean but profound contempt for Australia and its institutions?

Worse yet, the children were Muslims — a fact which, of course, played into increasing xenophobia.

The school and the Education Department, however, saw a different set of symbols at play.

The month of Muharram is sacred to Sunni as well as Shi'a Muslims. For the Shi'a though, it is particularly holy. In it, they bring to mind the events of the battle of Karbala, when the Imam Hussein (descendant of the prophet Muhammad) was martyred while attempting to assert the rights of Muhammad's family against the caliph Yazid.

Such a remembrance of the death of the righteous man in a battle against impossible odds has echoes of Good Friday for Christians, and the symbolism of Muharram for Shi'a has, in fact, been compared by many to that of Holy Week for Christians. Rituals such as self-flagellation and dramatisation of the events are common to both (at least in some parts of the world).

While Muharram is commemorated in diverse ways, it is above all a month of mourning for Shi'a. One of the particular ways in which the month may be mourned is by avoiding joyful music (although there is a long history of dirges and chants of sorrow retelling the events of the battle and its aftermath).

By way of comparison, the music of Good Friday, while it exists, is not generally joyful and there has long been a distrust of organs and other accompaniment for Lenten music among many Christians.

For the teachers and pupils of Cranbourne Carlisle Primary School, singing of the national anthem was therefore recognised as a potential problem, not because of any disrespect but for precisely the opposite reason. It was respected as a song of hope and gladness, a delight in a common national identity. It was on these very grounds that the children did not want to sing it at in the midst of their mourning.

Indeed, in valuing the national anthem in this way, the school and students demonstrated that they actually agreed with the central tenet of the objectors: that the anthem is something to be treasured, respected and cherished as a sign of joy in Australia and its institutions.

Some have contested this premise, saying that the anthem should be seen not as joyful music but as a work of great solemnity. They seem on shaky ground, though. If proof were needed, the clue is in the first line, 'Australians all, let us rejoice, for we are young and free.'

For the Shi'a pupils, taking the words at face value, their civic pride in the anthem was expressed in not staying to sing it. The school and the Victorian Education Department, to their great credit, were both wise enough to have appreciated this.

If the objectors had taken the time to listen before rushing off to protest, they may well have come to realise that they were, in fact, in profound agreement with the pupils on the importance (at least) of the anthem and their strong valuing of their Australian identity.

What all this demonstrates is that reading the signs of the time can be a terribly tricky business. It requires careful listening with deep sensitivity, rather than a reflexive drawing of battle lines and a willingness to look beyond first appearances. In this way we will learn our neighbours' values — and may well find that they are closer to ours than we suspected.

Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Muharram, Shi'a, Cranbourne Carlisle Primary School



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On Good Friday schools, post offices and many other organizations are closed. Stores and other retail outlets are closed. Some small or specialty stores may be open, according to local policy. There were traditionally tight restrictions on alcohol sale on Good Friday. Stores may not sell any alcoholic drinks and pubs may have restricted opening hours So how about just some exceptions at multicultural localised level [forget self flagellation].

Father John George | 29 October 2015  

Thanks Justin. That's an interesting perspective on the Shia students deferment of participating in our anthem signifying a respectful recognition of its joyous nature. I suspect however that the students, aged between 8 and 10, who apparently have no problem singing it at other times, were probably just caught unsure of where they stood in terms of their faith at that particular moment. And then when the opportunity was given, they played it safe. Subsequently, of the 40 students who walked out, the parents of 38 later confirmed that singing our anthem, even during their holy month of mourning, was no issue/contradiction for them. Unfortunately in the present atmosphere, not helped by Minister Morrison's base populist statements, the incident is being exploited by the usual crowd of Islamophobes and xenophobes telling all Muslims to go back to where they came from. But I notice there's no mention by Morrison or them of Jehovah's Witnesses, who decline from reciting the anthem or saluting our flag. Surely the broader question is when or whether exemptions from such affirmations of national identity can be made without impacting its integrity?

Rashid.M | 29 October 2015  

An excellent article, Justin. I particularly like your final paragraph in which you emphasise that it is not always easy to know how to react in a situation which, in a cultural sense, can be read in more ways than one. While I think the staff at Cranbourne Carlisle Primary School might have over-estimated the possible embarrassment for their 8 - 10-year-old pupils, it was encouraging to learn of their action giving deference to the children's religious responsibilities. I wish all non-Muslim Australians were as positive in their approach to our Muslim compatriots.

Ian Fraser | 30 October 2015  

Dipping out of the national anthem is problematic. The fact that the parents of 38 of the 40 children saw no contradiction in singing the national anthem during a period of religious mourning is neither here nor there. Personal opinion (aggrandised as 'conscience') means nothing unless the religion itself gives believers the liberty to hold different opinions on a particular issue. What is the official teaching within Islam on this? Perhaps the answer lies in the concept of paradox, because how else can a Christian be overjoyed (as he or she must) that God submitted himself to what, in Divine opinion, had of necessity to be a gruesome and humiliating form of death? Christians, of necessity, have to be happy that Jesus was crucified as the alternative would be eternal misery for everybody. But Christians call this situation paradoxical rather than illogical or contradictory. Perhaps there is room in paradox for Australian Muslims to rejoice (in song) that Allah has brought them to a country where some degree of religious liberty is admixed with some degree of material comfort.

Roy Chen Yee | 30 October 2015  

@Roy Chen Yee - I'm loath to speak for Shia Muslims who I'm not one of. And I'm not sure what you mean by "the official teaching within Islam" since it (Islam) is not a monolith of beliefs. Suffice to say, observant Shia Muslims regard the month of Muharram as one where joyous events are refrained from. And amongst observant Shia Muslims there are self evidently differences of opinion as to what such 'joyousness' does or doesn't include. The 'liberty' to interpret matters differently resulted in this '38 to 2' diversity amongst these Shia Muslim parents, just as differing interpretations contributes to diversity amongst Muslims more generally. I imagine it works the same way in Christianity. But I'm puzzled by your comparison with what you call a Christian's 'paradox' at Jesus's(as) crucifixion. Surely a Christian isn't "overjoyed" specifically at the "gruesomeness" and "humiliation" of Jesus's(as) treatment, but rather are happy at his willingness and steadfastness through trial, and happy because of what they believe the result of his crucifixion meant henceforth for them and mankind? That's hardly a paradox.

Rashid.M | 30 October 2015  

Justin's attempting to justify his convoluted position on this matter, is reminiscent of our Prime Minister's attempt to reverse his former condemnation of Good Old King Cole.

Claude Rigney | 30 October 2015  

Justin, what thoughtful, sensitive and respectful insights into the true reasons for the Shia children's inability to sing the anthem. Regarding Principal Cheryl Irving's sensitivity to her Muslim students, I support her fully because the success of our multiculturalism is based respect for cultural diversity, By the way, I proudly refuse to sing the anthem always, not merely for a month on religious grounds, because 'on history's page' there is no fairness towards our First peoples particularly regarding the colonial invasion, occupation, massacres, theft of land, apartheid and racism - most of which, shamefully, is still living history. Nor are we 'young and free' - The First Australians have a SIXTY THOUSAND year cultural and spiritual connection to Australia. And given the shocking percentage of indigenous incarceration, 'free' is phoney. Nor is there any fair advance for First peoples since colonisation. With regard to asylum seekers, I don't sing the anthem because of the lie inherent in "For those who’ve come across the seas We’ve boundless plains to share;" I won't speak or sing hypocrisy.f

Vacy Vlazna | 31 October 2015  

Thanks Father John George for your insightful and well chosen words.

Ginger Meggs | 01 November 2015  

I think the school authorities acted sensitively in what could have potentially been a difficult and embarrassing situation for their young Shi'ite students. Their only 'fault' - if it can be termed such - was that they may have been overcautious as seen from the reaction of most of the Shi'ite parents. Musa Naqvi, President of the Panjtan Society, a Shi'ite religious organisation in St Albans, Melbourne, was of a similar opinion to the vast majority of the Shi'ite parents. I think the whole incident has been distorted and blown out of proportion. Perhaps the parents of other children, who were 'disturbed' by what happened should have consulted the school authorities in a non-confrontational way about what really happened. They might have been reassured that nothing untoward happened. The school and the Victorian Education Department have done nothing 'disloyal' or 'un-Australian'. In fact, the Shi'ite students at the school will probably feel prouder and more part of the Australian community because of the sensitivity which with they were treated. Political grandstanding by the likes of Scott Morrison were both off target and inappropriate. The National Anthem was treated with respect.

Edward Fido | 02 November 2015  

It is really a SHAME to see the mass Muslim hysteria over our national anthem. As a HINDU migrant turned atheist, I choose this country to live and respect and follow the law of the land, having migrated 15 years back. What drives me crazy is the immigrants who want to come to this country and then change it, for what it stands for. Then why come to this country, if they do not believe in its values???

SL | 02 November 2015  

I would be more willing to accept Justin's assumptions if it could be seen that Muslims of whatever persuasion (Shia-Sunni- Alyware etc) would be prepared to remain and sing the Australian anthem on a National prescribed day that did not occur on a Muslim day of "sadness". My concern is, given the option, they would still choose to leave rather than sing a "Kafir" hymn of praise. Many Muslims object tp listening to ANY "Kafir" music regardless of its sentiment. They claim it is proscribed by the Koran and quote Muhammed as the author of the ban. Many Male Muslims also argue the same for the niqab (face veil). Most female Muslims I have spoken to in the presence of the "senior male or husband) know this is the Hadith - NOT the Koran, which only states, "Be appropriately dressed" 7:26, 24:31 (some, incorrectly quote the Arab word "khimar" for "cover" to mean "hijab and/or "niqab". There are NO commands in the Koran that argue for complete coverage nor for dress length.34:59 is often also mistakenly quoted.

Karl | 10 November 2015  

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