Finding inspiration in cultural difference
Nothing frustrates Professor Terry Lovat more than opening a newspaper to read uninformed commentary about Muslims and the Islamic faith.
Lovat, the Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Faculty of Education and Arts, has spent the past 20 years researching and studying Islam. Establishing the differences and similarities between the Australian and Islamic cultures are at the core of his work.
"For every positive and representative article that is published on Islam, it seems there are a plethora that focus on a non-representative fringe," Lovat says. "This leads to the unsubstantiated belief that maybe you can't be a good Muslim and a good Australian at the same time."
Lovat's research has found distinct parallels between Australian and Islamic cultures. He says, "There are actually more Australian-type values in the Islamic faith than most people realise. The notions of a 'fair go' and supporting the underdog are more explicitly part of Islam than any other religious tradition."
His unique understanding of the cultural issues at play in Australia has prepared him well for his role as chief researcher on the Australian Government's Values Education Good Practice Schools Project.
The project encourages schools to use values education as an opportunity to address a range of issues, particularly those related to dealing with difference, including cultural and religious difference. Under the project, Islamic schools in Sydney have formed teams with public and other religious schools. Through student exchange, students have the unique opportunity to learn more about each other, and discuss their similarities and differences. Lovat believes the project provides an opportunity to address common misconceptions about Islam.
The project has started to deliver significant benefits. "Mutual respect and less aggression among students are evident. Perhaps surprisingly, these changes are going hand-in-hand with improved academic focus."
He says an important finding of the project is the need for schools to approach education in a more holistic way. "It is critical that teachers are not just driving students to achieve academically but that they are also talking about things that matter, stretching children's horizons, and taking them out of their school environment to look at issues in society that go beyond academic learning."
The key, Lovat believes, to accepting difference and breaking down prejudice is education and information.
"Today, many Muslims do not know their own origins as they once would have. This lack of knowledge leaves too much space for the fanatical fringe to grab the airwaves and tell a different story. Through education and information, people will develop a greater appreciation of the Islamic culture's significant contribution to the world's knowledge, culture and social structures.
"My passion is to slow down the ease with which people make judgements and accept stereotype, especially about Islam. By embracing differences and similarities between Australian and Islamic values we can start to develop an understanding of our past, and inspire confidence in our future."