Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Some Thoughts on Muslim Cultures & The Workplace

There’s no rest for the wicked. Even my obvious bronchitis didn’t stop ABC journos from phoning me in the early hours to talk about a rather innocuous course the folks at the Canberra-based Australian Homeland Security Research Centre were running about how employers can manage and avoid cultural conflict in the workplace.

"Employers want to be seen to be making reasonable adjustments for their Muslim employees," Mr Yusuf said. "It's a risk-management issue."

It is illegal for employers to discriminate against employees on the grounds of religion, or to fire them because of it, but many are confused about what constitutes discrimination, he said.

"I can help people try to define where that line is." ...

He will also explain that different brands of Islam may observe Ramadan on slightly different dates, and while some sects celebrate the birthday of the prophet Muhammad, others frown upon it. This can be confusing if Muslim workers asking for different days off for the same religious holidays. "People might ask, 'Is this employee really serious when he says this is a religious requirement or is it just cultural requirement?'"

Courses like this are nothing new. In Australia, the remedy of unfair dismissal is dying a sure death. However, in its place, Work Choices has unleashed a revamped unlawful termination remedy that makes discriminatory treatment unlawful on the basis of religion.

There are, of course, exceptions and exemptions. But employers still need to understand the terrain they are navigating. In the case of Muslim employees, that isn’t always easy.

In the United Kingdom, at least 75% of Muslims are of South Asian background. So running a course for employers on Muslim cultural sensitivity would be similar to a similar course on Sikh cultural sensitivity, given both speak a similar (if not identical) language and have similar cultures. And that granny from the Kumars @ No.42 looks and acts just like my mum (login required).

Australia has a much more diverse set of Muslim cultures. Australian Islam is an ethno-religious phenomenon. We have just about every sect and denomination of Muslim here, and we have Muslims from different ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups. Further, different cultures express religiosity in different ways. And not all Muslim women resemble my mum or Granny Kumar.

Believe it or not, in many Muslim cultures, it is extremely rare for a woman to cover her hair when she isn’t at the mosque or at a religious gathering. Further, not all Muslim cultures are averse to the consumption of alcohol. One ABC radio host yesterday told me about her friend who works for a Muslim radio station in Sydney who says her religion doesn’t allow her to be in the same room with a man alone. So what happens when she is in the studio? And would all Muslim women in the workplace insist on the same strictures?

What makes running such courses difficult is that so often Australian discourse about Muslims is governed by persons purporting to represent Islamic orthodoxy. What made the Herald series on Islam in Australia so valuable is that it had less to do with religion and more with people. Managers in the workplace need to know about theology, but what really interests them is what adjustments their employees of various kinds might want to negotiate at certain times.

There are religious groups running these courses. The problem is that they focus more on what theology has to say and less about how it is played out in practice. I once was part of a course run by an Islamic religious group run for public sector lawyers. It was a whole-day course, with a whole 2 hours devoted to what Islamic law has to say about certain things. My section, which focussed on cultural factors affecting Muslim family and criminal law clients, was left to the final hour of the day.

It might serve the funding and ideological purposes of certain organisations to promote the myth that all Muslims abide by their religion in a uniform manner. But this simply doesn’t solve the typical problems which employers and HR managers face with culturally Muslim employees.

Many Australian Muslims are incidental Muslims. That means their being Muslim arises from being Turkish or Albanian or Indonesian or of some other ethnic group. Culture and religion are tied up. Believe it or not, Cypriot Turkish Muslims have culturally more in common with Cypriot Greek Orthodox Christians than with Bangladeshi Muslims who in turn have more in common with Hindus from Calcutta than with Muslims from Morocco.

Differences in culture mean differences in emphasis. Some Muslim cultures emphasise gender segregation more than others. I was shocked to visit Indonesia and find men and women entering and exiting the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta from the same door. And my Indonesian hosts were shocked to see that I was shocked!

More on this later.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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