Is religion more important than unity in Australia?

Published: October 29, 2015

Australian school criticised for allowing Muslim students to leave the assembly hall before the national anthem is sung. PHOTO: THE AUSTRALIAN

During my school days, students would queue in the main ground and proudly sing Pakistan’s national anthem during the morning assembly. Singing the national anthem brought everyone together, nurturing inclusiveness and a sense of unity.

The school had students from different religious backgrounds, although the majority was Sunni Muslims. Singing the anthem instilled love for Pakistan from an early age and brought everyone together in solidarity. Those were the only times when Jinnah’s Pakistan twinkled in the eyes of everyone and reminded us of his quote,

“You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed. That has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

In light of this, my indignation at Cranbourne Carlisle Primary School does not seem unwarranted. It has come under scrutiny for allowing 30 to 40 Muslim students, aged eight to 10, to walk out before the school sang Australia’s national anthem. This was done to not hurt their religious sentiments as it was Muharram and Muslims consider it a month of mourning. The school sports the motto “many cultures one community” but seems to have shot itself in the foot by allowing its students to walk out of their community and nation’s national anthem.

Photo: Sabeer Lodhi

Since when did the unfortunate Karbala incident become a cultural event? Countries like Pakistan lost their plot when they blurred lines between culture and religion and now Australia seems to be following suit through its ‘progressive policies’ that are breeding more exclusion than inclusiveness.

Australia is a democracy and an individual should have the right to choose. But singing the national anthem of a country goes at the heart of its identity and culture. By allowing the children to walk out, the school administration might have wanted to be sensitive to their religious sentiments but ended up amplifying the line between ‘us and them’ and breaking barriers of ‘one community’. The school has 440 children that hail from 21 different countries. By allowing 40 Muslim students to walk out, the school administration separated them from the rest of their peers on religious pretexts and showed that religion is more important than unity, giving them a sense of entitlement. On the other hand, students who stood there for the national anthem could grow up to see Muslims as ‘others.’

The fact that they were allowed to exclude themselves on religious pretexts is questionable. Allowing religion to seep into the school system is a dangerous step that can promote radicalisation as children have vulnerable minds which are shaped by situations around them. Schools should not have to adapt to different religious sensitivities. Religion and its values should belong to individuals and practiced accordingly.

There is a genuine concern of Islamophobia seeping into the Western society but Muslims will have to learn to adapt to Western culture and values instead of expecting others to adapt to their way of life. In this case, students should have stood in the assembly to show respect to the anthem of their host country while being given the right to not sing it. By allowing them to walk out of the assembly, the school might have catered to their religious sentiments but ended up hurting the nationalism of many Australians and promoting exclusion.


Sabeer Lodhi

The author is studying at Monash University, Melbourne. He is a student and supporter of human rights with a focus on gender equality, minority rights and feminism. He tweets as @sabeerlodhi (

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