THE Prime Minister's Muslim Advisory Council has proposed a radical solution to the perceived problem of domestic extremism: the establishment of a licensing and monitoring regime for Muslim clerics, school teachers and academics.
Under the proposal, a registration body would be established and Islamic workers would be required to submit themselves to ideological and educational audit. The body would also monitor sermons and the activities of Muslim leaders to ensure continuing compliance to some vague notion of moderation.
By doing so, the panjandrums of the government-run Muslim Advisory Council believe it will "marginalise" those religious leaders and clerics who, while not enjoying the support of the "official" leadership, continue to enjoy the support of increasing sections of the Muslim community. Why, they argue, should Islamic workers not be subject to similar professional regulation as accountants or medical practitioners?
The problem with that argument is that Islam is not like the accountancy profession or indeed like most other religions. If any voluntary licensing scheme was to work, the people doing the licensing and setting the standards would need to occupy a position of greater authority in the community than the people they are regulating. However, Islam is not organised with a hierarchy of spiritual authority and there is no absolute leader or body universally respected by the entire community.
Despite its officious title, the Muslim Advisory Council holds as much spiritual authority in the Muslim community as the Drug Advisory Council.
Muslims don't have one leader or even half a dozen leaders, but perhaps hundreds of leaders scattered across sectarian, cultural and ethnic divides. Mosques are traditionally established by local communities and then imams or religious teachers are selected based on the sectarian tastes of their constituency and the needs of that local ethnic community. It would then be an unwelcome and unfortunate intrusion on freedom of religion for the Muslim Advisory Council to interfere in the right of these independent organisations to recruit clerics from abroad or from within their communities.
It should also be remembered that educational qualifications and language skills are no measure of "moderation". Some of those clerics who have made the most controversial comments in recent months are also among the most highly educated. If the proposed body was to work, it would need to go far beyond the sorts of educational and experiential criteria used by the professional bodies it claims to draw inspiration from and engage in "ideological audits"; a sort of friendly Inquisition to determine whether a school teacher or cleric is really as moderate as he or she might claim.
It is disturbing that all this work — the establishment of a system of auditing religious workers for educational and ideological compliance — is being carried out under the auspices of a government-run organisation: the Muslim Advisory Council. Given the massive expenses associated with a licensing scheme of this type and scope, it is probable that further public money will be committed to the scheme. Questions must be asked about whether such a conflation of church and state is really befitting a secular government. Questions must also be asked about why the Government would support a proposal that is almost guaranteed to have other than its intended effect.
The creation of such a system would create two classes of Islamic workers: government-approved and independent. Any imams or clerics who had the good sense to remain outside the proposed system would find their position and credibility bolstered. They would be viewed as independent and trustworthy by a community that already has a tremendous distrust of the government and those Muslims it has hand-picked to ostensibly represent Muslim interests.
The Government should place its faith not in the regulatory powers of some toothless quango whose distance from the community is measured in light years, but in the marketplace of ideas. The problem of extremist ideologies in the Muslim community is minuscule and, despite the media exposure they attract, those individuals who promote such views are already marginalised through the application of social pressure from within their communities.
Yet all this would be completely undermined by the introduction of a licensing system: demand for clerics and leaders outside the "system" would increase; and genuine extremists would draw legitimacy from their exclusion from a system that many Muslims would see as an attempt by government to influence Islamic thought in this country.
Amir Butler is co-convener of the Australian Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network.
The Age, 9 January 2006