What being a student at a Catholic school taught me about Islam

Muslim in a catholic schoolAs a first-generation immigrant growing up in a Western country, the struggle to find one’s identity can often be a long journey of confusion and compromise. By contrast, the differences between my religious status and that of my school’s ultimately resulted in a paralleled journey of self-discovery.


“There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person.” — Prophet Muhammad , in his last sermon.

My parents had a vision: they wanted to raise global citizens. They hoped their children would grow into open minded individuals who would serve their community and contribute to positive change. As a result, as a four-year-old Muslim girl from western Sydney, I would make the ninety-minute journey every day to a Catholic school in the Hills, where I would graduate fourteen-years later. As the only Muslim in a Catholic school, I had the responsibility and the challenge of representing Islam. Unlike a typical family who would choose academics over almost anything, my parents were drawn to a school that focused on the importance of values, virtues, and character development. After visiting multiple schools and attending many open days across Sydney, they chose Tangara School for Girls.

My schooling experience is encapsulated in the following experience. At 5:24pm on a school afternoon, we prepare our team’s case for the debate at 6pm. The room is thick with discussion and the whiteboard is covered with scribbles of ideas, arguments, and possible jokes. As we scramble to write our speeches, the time we’re anxiously awaiting is not 6pm, but 5:26pm — the call to Maghreb prayer (indicating sunset and ultimately the time to break the fast). Pens are down, papers put to one side, and food is spread across the school desks as we then share dates among the four of us, even though only one of us had been fasting — me. The only Muslim girl in a Catholic school.

The power of difference

As a first-generation immigrant growing up in a Western country, the struggle to find one’s identity can often be a long journey of confusion and compromise. By contrast, the differences between my religious status and that of my school’s ultimately resulted in a paralleled journey of self-discovery.

For the most part, we were ordinary school children who carried on with our day and worried more about taking turns playing hopscotch than delving into the details of religious differences. In saying this, conversations naturally sparked and this is where the journey towards self-discovery began. Whether it was during religion class or out on the playground, over the years I was often asked many questions; Do you believe in Jesus? Why do you fast? Why does your mum wear the hijab?

And, of course, in my later years at the school these questions became more challenging. At times I was unsure how to answer, and occasionally I did not have the answer at all — at which point, in most cases, I went searching for answers. I asked my parents and sometimes even grandparents the questions, queries or comments that came from my peers at school. This often evolved into a family discussion over the dinner table. And then, at school the following day, came more questions and follow-ups from previous conversations. This formed a cycle of continual discovery — discovery about Islam, discovery about Catholicism, and, interestingly, discovery of our commonalities.

In this way, such conversations shaped the identities of my peers and I, comprising a paralleled journey of self- and mutual discovery. This was an experience that not only strengthened my identity, but also taught me the skill of navigating differences and diversity in a confident manner.

The centrality of respect

My courage and curiosity to discover was no accident; it was nurtured by my parents and the school’s inclusive environment. This environment reflects the school’s approach to character education. As one of our teachers put it, memorably, “Character education helps them to be a better student, a better daughter and a better friend”. This is achieved by promoting core ethical values that form the basis of good character.

It was in this way, that the school’s motto, Ad Summam Virtutem (“Towards the fullness of virtue”), aligned not only with the values of my family, but of my faith, too. In fact, the value accorded to righteousness and good character expresses the essence and spirit of Islam. Prophet Muhammad, a leader and role-model for humankind, possessed the highest moral excellence and promoted peace, equality, and justice.

I was in a school environment which was so different, yet so similar to my own beliefs and customs. In fact, what struck me most about my experience of attending a Catholic school was the sense of what we shared in common. In the process of learning more about one another and about ourselves, commonalities surfaced and remained. We came to recognise that, at our core, we shared more similarities than we had differences. But this could not have taken place if respect was not foremost. At a school which proclaimed the importance of virtues, respect was fundamental, and was exemplified by the principal, teachers, and staff, and could not help but be imbibed by the students.

The ability to respect and navigate differences creates a sense of comfort between the parties. This experience prepares an individual up for a life in which differences are not barriers, but the doorway to the discovery of our deeper commonalities.
“… that you may get to know one another”

Through this process of discovering one’s self, “the other”, and commonalities that exist between the two, a beautiful outcome is achieved: greater awareness and therefore greater acceptance, of one another. While Australia is a highly diverse nation, culturally and linguistically — and a successful nation, at that — many Australians still experience unacceptably high rates of racism. Over the past year, one in five people living in Australia say they have experienced racist abuse, up from one in eight the previous year. There is therefore no better time to promote diversity and mutual acceptance. Australia, like other democracies, has an obligation to eradicate all forms of discrimination. State and federal lawmakers and civil society groups have a huge role to play, but the best way for individuals to achieve this goal is by immersing themselves in a community different from their own. As the Qur’an tells us: “O humankind! We have made you … into nations and tribes, so that you may get to know one another” (49:13).

Upon reflection, my experience sheds light on the importance of venturing outside one’s comfort zone — and, yes, even sending one’s children to a faith-based school that differs from one’s own faith. The experience can be challenging, but also immensely rewarding, even life-changing. It requires courage — not least from one’s parents — and it requires the courage to lay aside the fear that one’s identity, or that of one’s children, will somehow be compromised or lost. If guided by one’s parents and supported by a healthy school community, one’s identity can only be strengthened through the experience.

By attending a Catholic girls school, I learnt more about Islam and became a better Muslim. Are we prepared to immerse ourselves in the richness of multicultural Australia? To take a train to different neighbourhoods, or join in a religious or cultural celebration belonging to a different community — by attending, say, a mosque open day or synagogue or Buddhist temple? Would you consider sending your children to a faith-based school different from your own? I’m glad my parents did.

Sana Afiouni is a recent graduate from the University of Sydney who studied a Bachelor of Political, Economic, and Social Sciences majoring in government and international relations. This article was a project completed as part of the inaugural Muslim Women’s Leadership Program run by the Islamic Sciences and Research Academy and All Together Now.

 

Muslim in a Catholic School

 


Source
Image Source

 

 165 total views,  1 views today

166 Total Views 1 Views Today