The Anthem Kerfuffle

I penned the first draft of this piece prior to the Paris Terror attacks. I haven’t felt the need to make any significant edits to it in light of those events, though I’m conscious they may make it harder to think about some of the issues raised here. 

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[1]

About a month ago there was controversy over a Melbourne primary school’s decision to give some students the option of leaving their school assembly to avoid singing the Australian national anthem. The grandmother of one of the students at Cranborne Carlisle Primary School phoned in to a talkback radio show to express her outrage after witnessing the scene.

The students were reportedly of Islamic (Shiite) background and were observing Muharram – a solemn month to commemorate the death of one of their revered religious leaders. According to reports, there was some confusion as to whether singing the national anthem would be a breach of the solemnity that accompanies Muharram, which sees Shiites avoid any celebratory or joyous activities.

The Sydney Morning Herald published at least two opinion pieces on the issue: one by Kevin Donnelly of the Australian Catholic University, published under the title “Singing the National anthem at school should be compulsory” and one by spokesman for the highly controversial Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, Uthman Badar, arguing “Muslim children should not be forced to sing national anthem.”

I have two things I want to say about this controversy.

1) This is a classic example of a knee-jerk-reaction. As Skipper from the Penguins of Madagascar might say if he was a Sydney evangelical:

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“This is no Matthias Media study…there was no ‘think it through’!”    [2]
I refer to the original complainant, Melbourne grandmother Lorraine McCurdy, who told 3AW radio host Neil Mitchell she didn’t understand how the national anthem would be considered participating in joyous music or celebration. Perhaps the opening line “Australians all let us rejoice” gives some indication as to why it might be interpreted in this way! I don’t want to be nasty, but I wish Ms McCurdy had attempted to understand why the Shiite students might have seen things the way they did, when the answer seems to be glaringly obvious.

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It’s not the first time there’s been confusion over the opening lyrics…  [3]
2) I disagree with forcing people, including children, to sing the national anthem when it’s against their conscience to do so. I don’t agree with Hizb ut-Tahrir on very much, them being a fairly hardcore Islamic advocacy group and all, but on this point at least I sympathise.

For many people in Australia, their religious convictions are more important to their identity and daily life than their citizenship/nationality or the cultural expectations of the society they live in. As a pluralistic society with freedom of religion, speech and expression, Australia needs to respect different convictions people may hold when it comes to things such as singing the national anthem.

Forcing people to sing or participate in such an activity against their will is more likely to result in resentment than warm feelings towards the anthem and what it represents. Likewise, imposing nationalism upon people as something considered more important than their religious beliefs is more likely to provoke radical reactions from the targeted minority than succeeding in “pulling them back into line” when it comes to all things Australian.

As a Christian, I dislike it when Muslims are targeted by the media with the question of whether their loyalty is primarily towards Australia or their religion. This is a different question to whether their allegiance lies primarily with Australia or a foreign power, or hostile group that may present a threat to our national security. Because yes there is an issue if someone is ill-disposed towards the Australian Crown, government, constitution, rule of law and civic freedoms or harbours resentment towards Australians as a people. That is dangerous to our society and we have to think intelligently about how to deal with the threats that such people might pose.

But as a Christian, my allegiance is to Jesus Christ over and above Queen, country and culture. And in extreme instances where there might be a conflict between the teachings of Christ and Australian law, I would be more concerned about living consistently with the precepts of my Lord than I would with the dictates of the government.

Christians may have legitimate cause for concern about radicalised Islamic groups setting up their identity in such a way that turns people against the rest of society and sets them at odds with citizens of different religions, ethnicities or values systems. But in this case, freedom of religion and the ability to live consistently with what one believes to be the most honouring to God (so long as it does not cause damage to the safety of others) is a more important thing to emphasise as a society than insisting on inflexible arrangements involving expressions of national loyalty, like singing the national anthem.

The Shiite students involved were not attempting to force radical religious views on anybody, nor were they acting in a subversive way towards Australia that undermines the security or social fabric of our nation. Instead what we seem to be witnessing is others, forcing their nationalistic expectations on a religious minority that wishes to exercise their freedom not to “rejoice” with all Australians for one month out of twelve, for religious reasons.

It is my hope that Christians will reject the view put forward by Kevin Donnelly that students and citizens of certain religious convictions should be compelled to perform such activities, as though the State or the nation is above one’s most deeply held beliefs about God and life. For it’s easily foreseeable that this kind of imposition will increasingly be wielded against all who take their faith seriously and refuse to follow every detail of what someone else deems to be essentially Australian.
Photo credits:
[1] denisbin “Warrnambool” CC BY-ND 2.0 flickr.
[2] Moshe Reuveni “Skipper and Rico” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.
[3] Benh LIEU SONG “Masai Ostrich” CC BY-SA 2.0 flickr.

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