Thursday, December 07, 2006

OK to mock Catholicism but not Islam

The verdict below is from the same body that ruled it offensive to laugh at Koran verses

Wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "Mr Abbott, get your rosaries off my ovaries" does not amount to the religious vilification of Catholics, a Victorian tribunal has ruled. The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) has struck out a case brought by pro-life campaigner Babette Francis, who had sought to have the T-shirts banned.

The T-shirts were produced by the YWCA during last year's public debate over who should control access to the RU486 abortion pill and refer to federal Health Minister Tony Abbott, a practising Catholic. One of the T-shirts was worn in Federal Parliament's upper house by Greens senator Kerry Anne Nettle.

VCAT senior member Rohan Walker has ruled that while "many ordinary people would find the slogan to be distasteful", it did not constitute religious vilification. "I do not think that the sale and distribution of T-shirts containing it (the slogan) incite hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of Mr Abbott, Mrs Francis or any other Catholic," he ruled.

The ruling, dated December 1, also says: "The slogan might generate a more negative response towards those who wear the T-shirts bearing it than towards Mr Abbott or any other devotee of the Catholic faith".


The Muslim culture of hate

Two Muslim students have been expelled from an Islamic school in Melbourne for urinating and spitting on a Bible and setting it on fire. The explosive incident has forced the East Preston Islamic College to call in a senior imam to tell its 650 Muslim students that the Bible and Christianity must be respected. Anxious teachers at the school have also petitioned principal Shaheem Doutie, expressing "grave concern" about an "inculcation of hatred and radical attitudes towards non-Muslims" at the school, including towards non-Muslim teachers.

The Bible desecration took place last week at a school camp held near Bacchus Marsh, about 50km west of Melbourne, attended by 33 teenage Muslim boys ranging in age from Year7 to Year 10. A school report of the incident, obtained by The Australian, says it happened late at night and involved three students and another two watching. "The main perpetrator (a Year 7 student) urinated on the Holy Bible, tore some pages from the Holy Book and burnt them then finally spat on the Holy Book," the report says. The second boy, from Year 9, "tore pages from the Holy Book and burnt them", while a third student, from Year 7, "tore pages from the Holy Bible and then he rolled it up like a cigarette and pretended to smoke it". The boys come from a variety of ethnic Muslim backgrounds - one is believed to be an Albanian/Malaysian, another Lebanese and another Indonesian.

Mr Doutie, whose school receives about $3.9 million in state and federal government funding each year, told The Australian yesterday that both he and the school community were appalled by the Bible desecration and that he had expelled the first two boys and suspended the third. In a letter to all staff on Monday, Mr Doutie wrote: "The school unconditionally apologises for this horrible act as conducted by some illiterate and ignorant students while under the care of EPIC teachers. "We regard the desecration of the Bible in a very serious light and therefore we have taken serious action against the offenders. "The Bible is an important book both for non-Muslims and Muslims and should be treated as a holy book by all religions."

Mr Doutie said he did not believe that the boys realised the significance of their act. But to ensure it did not happen again he had called in the assistant imam of the Newport Mosque, Oman Haouli, to tell the students that the Bible was a sacred book. "My lesson to them was to respect their neighbours and respect all religions," Mr Haouli said yesterday.

But the desecration incident has shaken the nerves of the school's teachers, about half of whom are non-Muslim. A petition signed by 22 teachers expressed "anguish and dismay at the grave incident of the desecration of the Holy Bible". "This whole incident implies a deep hatred inculcated in the students towards the Christians/non-Muslim teachers," it says. The petition said there had been "previous incidents of students misbehaving towards non-Muslim teachers". It called on the school to "take steps to rectify this explosive situation" to ensure the safety of teachers.

Mr Doutie said the school had tried to contact the parents of the expelled boys to find out why they had desecrated the Bible. But he said the school had not received a response.

EPIC is an eight-year-old primary and secondary school in Melbourne's north that caters mostly to the children of working-class immigrant Somali and Lebanese families. The Bible desecration comes at a time of heightened tension among Australia's 300,000-member Islamic community, many of whom believe their religion is being unfairly discriminated against because of terrorism fears. Many Muslims remain angry about the public humiliation suffered by their spiritual leader, the mufti Taj al-Din al-Hilaly, after the Sheik likened female rape victims to pieces of meat who brought the attacks on themselves.


Muslim hate again: A prominent young Muslim who acts like an Australian attacked

New South Wales's most promising young Muslim leader has become the victim of a hate campaign because she celebrated with a glass of champagne after being named the state's Young Australian of the Year. Iktimal Hage-Ali, 22, has been targeted on Muslim websites for drinking alcohol and declining to wear the traditional hijab. Her anonymous attackers condemned her after she drank the champagne to toast her award at the Art Gallery of NSW last Thursday.

"It's true, I was celebrating. Bloody hell, I had a glass of champagne in my hand - so what?" Ms Hage-Ali told The Daily Telegraph.

The Islamic youth website Muslim Village posted dozens of messages berating Ms Hage-Ali. "A person who drinks champagne, especially unabashedly, cannot represent the Muslim community," one member wrote. Another added: "She knows we don't appreciate her representing us - but it's the power that drives her. Drinking champagne, that is sick." Her accusers also berated Ms Hage-Ali for wearing "revealing" clothes, nail polish and make-up. "Her matching nails, eye shadow and top were not how Islam would like to portray a Muslim female to the wider community," one said.

Yet while the majority criticised her, a few did come to her defence. "It is wonderful that a young Muslim woman has won the award and that is a cause for celebration, not denigration," a chatroom member wrote.

Ms Hage-Ali, who is a finalist for the national Young Australian of the Year to be named next month, said she was shocked by the tirade, but refused to tone her comments down. "I'm proud of what I have done, my family is proud, my friends are proud, my colleagues are proud," the NSW Government public servant and tireless community worker said. "They're not looking at the fact that a young Muslim person has won a prestigious award - they are looking for the negatives."

Ms Hage-Ali is regarded as one of the Muslim community's most progressive young voices since joining Prime Minister John Howard's Muslim Reference Group. She did not claim to speak on behalf of all Muslims.


The disgrace of bad teachers

Failure to sack bad teachers is a scandal that has festered in our schools for decades, writes Judith Wheeldon

A shock headline in last Monday's The Daily Telegraph in NSW is good news: "104 teachers sacked, staff criminal and inept". Those who value good teaching for their children will be encouraged. The efforts and reputation of good teachers, the overwhelming majority, are undermined by the negative attributes of a small number of their colleagues. Given that there are almost 50,000 government teachers in NSW alone and there have been few successful sackings in the past, clearing a backlog of 104 government teachers is not a big achievement and more might be welcome. But it is a good start.

The need to remove non-performing or dangerous teachers is not exclusively a NSW issue. Other states have suffered the same difficulties in maintaining standards by terminating the employment of those who cannot or will not mend their ways. Nor is this a government school issue. It applies to faith-based, independent and government schools equally. There are about 60,000 teachers in non-government schools and about 144,000 in government schools nationally.

Removing bad teachers from our schools is a national issue of great importance. It is obvious that we fail our children if we make them spend a precious year trying to learn under the influence of a bad teacher or one who may damage them for life, but there are other reasons as well. English-speaking countries are facing a shortage of teachers and especially of school leaders. The threat to education systems is so significant that teacher poaching has become common, but stealing good teachers from each other is no solution to shortages.

Anecdote and research repeatedly demonstrate that good teachers suffer from the bad reputation easily given to their schools and their profession by a few poor performers. Many school leavers who would make splendid teachers are discouraged from taking up the challenge by their own justified lack of respect for the teachers who inflicted unprofitable lessons on them and by the low social status accorded a profession that is not allowed to assert standards and weed itself out.

When teachers fail, their students carry tales of their malfeasance home. Parents complain but school authorities, knowing it is extremely difficult to terminate a bad teacher, must find a modus vivendi. Parents then form an impression that the principal lacks resolve or judgment. The principal cannot commiserate with parents or student because of defamation dangers. The school loses credibility.

Loss of trust in a handful of teachers leads to undervaluation of them all. This undervaluation becomes a short-sighted excuse for a depression of salaries, which of course lowers the quality of intake of new teachers, and so the spiral goes on. Now we do not have enough teachers to teach our children, largely because of our inability to terminate those who have lost our confidence. Sack the bad ones, pay the good ones professional salaries. Give teachers respect. Then stand back and watch intelligent people, including men, line up for a very rewarding career.

Why have schools been powerless to sack bad teachers, child abusers and thieves? In government schools, where principals have few powers to hire and fire, teachers may eventually be transferred to another school. In non-government schools, heads can try to terminate persistently poor teachers. A principal concerned about a teacher's performance or behaviour may in a very circumspect and careful way begin a process of discussion and counselling, aiming first to improve the teacher's performance. Many careers have been rescued by a well-focused program of counselling and professional development. Termination of employment becomes the logical goal if rescue doesn't work.

Inevitably, the union steps in with vigorous defence. It is certainly valid for the union to ensure that any process that may threaten employment is fair. Too often, however, unions defend the indefensible. They claim to have rescued a poor, victimised teacher from the jaws of a marauding school principal. But the damage done by over-exuberant defence of incompetent or even pedophile teachers has already done great harm to individual children and to our school system.

Threats of legal challenge, publicity for the child as well as the school, and great expense mean schools have learned not to try. Courts seem to believe that teachers have a right to keep their jobs in spite of refusal to update skills, for example by learning to use a computer, or threatening children through abuse, physical, psychological or sexual.

Whether the grounds for termination are based on incompetence or child abuse, in the few arguments non-government schools win against unions, the mechanism for terminating a teacher requires a kind of no-fault agreement, a favourable reference for the should-have-been-disgraced teacher and a significant payout that could amount to a year's salary. A confidentiality agreement signed by both parties is somehow binding on the school but often ignored by the teacher, who with impunity talks about the dismissal and how unfair it is. The school, upholding the agreement, has no right of reply.

Schools do not have to agree to the above conditions and could proceed in an industrial court to press the case for outright dismissal, but legal advice too often takes the coward's way, pointing out that the chance of success is slight and publicity will be damaging to the school and in some cases to children who could be locally identified through the reported circumstances. With a school to run and lacking support from the school's legal advisers, the principal reluctantly joins the game of pass the parcel, sending an incompetent teacher out to a job at another school. It seems more certain, quicker and better for the school in the short run for the teacher to leave gracefully. The price seems cheap: a payout and a good reference. The real price is in the lower quality of our schools.

When the prospective new employer phones, the principal is constrained to support the faulty reference. Sometimes a long silence on the phone or a cryptic comment suggests a problem that cannot be uttered, but too often the penny does not drop. Another parcel has been passed.

The NSW Coalition education spokesman Brad Hazzard has suggested classroom inspections as a means of weeding out teachers and of quality assurance. However, inspection proved to be a false comfort during the 20th century. Many poor teachers can give one good lesson, or even many, when there is an audience. The worst teachers, the pedophiles, are likely to shine during inspection, as pleasing youthful audiences is their stock in trade. It is the long haul we need to judge. We need real thinking about how to rid our schools of poor teachers, not facile headline grabbers.

Now the NSW Department of Education has found ways as well as the courage to take on the unions and terminate teachers who do not deserve to teach our children. I say congratulations to them. Our children deserve a united effort from governments, schools, unions and the media in developing a nationwide strategy to ensure that only the best are given the honour of teaching your child and mine.

Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop has alluded to the need to remove those teachers who drag down the quality of our schools. She is absolutely right. Bishop is the only person who is in a position to bring all parties together to outline a strategy to ensure justice for all: a fair hearing and result for challenged teachers, and termination of those who have failed to be good enough to teach the next generation of Australians. Minister, you will be supported when you take up this challenge.


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