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Why 'questioning secularism' destroys religious freedom

By Bronwyn Winter - posted Friday, 2 May 2008

Less public, but more immediately worrying, has been an attempt by Islamic conservatives to dictate the content of curriculum in another branch of the National Centre for Excellence, the University of Western Sydney’s Centre for Islamic Studies (the third branch, and founder of the initiative, launched in October 2007, being the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Islamic Law and Society, headed by Sultan of Oman Endowed Chair in Arab and Islamic Studies Abdullah Saeed).

A petition launched by the Australian National Imams Council (ANIC), and circulating via email networks and websites such as Muslim Village over recent days, calls on the management of the University of Western Sydney to “reassess” the content and teaching of a Unit of Study titled “Women in Arabic and Islamic Literature” taught by Samar Habib, because according to ANIC it does not accurately represent the “normative teachings of Islam”, and provides “a very negative view of women in Islam”.

(Dr Habib, whose University of Sydney doctoral thesis looked at expressions of female sexuality and homoerotic desire in 9th-13th century Arabic literature, made headlines in 2005 as the young author of the novel A Tree Like Rain. She is also a co-founder of the successful University of Sydney postgraduate online journal Philament.)


The petition was due to be presented to UWS management on April 30; but news I received on April 27 indicated that the management were already aware of it and were supportive of Dr Habib and the curriculum for which she is responsible. They thus had no intention of even entertaining the arguments put by ANIC. The petition, along with the pervasiveness of the “Islam and democracy” and “questioning secularism” debates, does, however, raise broader concerns about religious questioning of secular public space and academic freedom, and about the credence given to Islamic religious conservatives by public authorities and particularly by non-Muslims who would like to think of themselves as progressive.

Consider, for example, the role played in the UWS incident by individuals such as Hanan Dover, who has been busying herself throughout April to garner support for the position expressed in the ANIC petition, claiming, in discussion fora on the Muslim Village website, that she has the ear of “key people” in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales, including Muslim academics who were apparently in agreement with her position. Habib and ANIC are explicitly mentioned in this discussion and one participant in the forum badges the UWS Centre for Islamic Studies as the “Centre for Kufr” (unbelief).

Ms Dover, a psychologist and Islamic ultra-conservative, is a very problematic and largely unchallenged presence in “Muslim community consultation” networks. She is on UWS’s Harmony Reference Group and on the National Consultative Council for the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies, and in 2007, the UWS Office of University Engagement awarded her a “Partnership Award” for her work in Muslim community mental health, her cultural awareness training at UWS and her work in introducing “prominent Muslim scholars” to UWS. She was also invited to participate in the health forum of the Rudd Government’s 2020 Summit, as an expert in Muslim community mental health.

Yet, Dover was suspended (*as the correspondence from UWS below states, this statement is incorrect. Ms Dover was not suspended, and OLO apologises for any hurt or damage that this misstatement may have caused her) in 2002 from her post as a lecturer in psychology at UWS because of her homophobic views and practices (she has also expressed anti-Semitic and anti-feminist views). Suspension is an extreme measure, only possible when evidence has been found to support allegations of serious misconduct, such as misuse of university funds or serious breach of the University Code of Conduct.

Ms Dover was suspended (*see correspondence below) under the University’s Equal Opportunity policy. On June 28, 2002, she had joined Sheikh Hilali’s right-hand man, Keysar Trad, in a talk at UWS’s Bankstown campus, organised by an Islamic fundamentalist student association. In that talk, she claimed, among a number of ridiculous statements, that international Muslim gay rights organisation Al-Fatiha was “funded by zionists” and accused gay counsellors more generally of brainwashing young Muslims.

She recommended Islamic counselling as an antidote to this and stated that she was “working with Sheikh Shadi in order to try to marry Islam and psychological therapy”. This is the same Sheikh Shadi who called for sharia courts to be set up in Australia and for gays to be stoned to death. Hanan Dover would presumably prefer to counsel them to death. She also refused access for gay Muslims both to her talk and to a group she was establishing for Muslim health workers. Keysar Trad, her co-speaker at the forum, was reported by gay rights activists present at the talk to have suggested that Australian anti-discrimination laws were not valid for Muslims, who should defy them. Trad has since denied having said this.


Regardless of these 2002 incidents, Dover continues to be given space as a “community representative” and “mental health expert”, and to speak within UWS fora: an upcoming talk, on May 3, 2008, is a defence of presumed Islamic prescriptions to wear hijab. (Nothing in the Koran requires Muslim women to wear it, as much Muslim scholarship over the last two decades has attested, and many practising Muslim women - even the majority in many countries - go bareheaded.)

The fact that an individual who holds such views as Dover should be given such a profile, and such credence, by non-Muslims in positions of authority, including the Federal government, is a matter of extreme concern.

It is all the more worrying in that this is happening at a time when that same government is in the news for taking measures, first, to remove all remaining discriminations against homosexuals in Australian law, and second, to broaden Muslim community consultation so as to put an end to the dominant presence of religious conservatives and to their demonstrably false claim that they represent all Australian Muslims. The Australian public, and particularly Australian Muslims, are thus being sent very mixed messages indeed.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Bronwyn Winter is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, School of Languages and Cultures, Department of French Studies. She is also Director of the Faculty of Arts International and Comparative Literary Studies program.

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