He crosses religious lines

In Australia, a Christian headmaster brings his tolerance and discipline into an Islamic school

He does not understand Urdu, nor can he follow the daily prayers, but Ian Paterson is credited with rescuing the King Abdul Aziz Islamic school from chaos.

Dr. Paterson, who for 30 years headed an elite private Christian school, is six months into his job as headmaster at this religious school at a time when Australians are wary of Islamic schools, and distrustful of Muslims in their midst.

The nation's Muslim community, still small in number compared with that of the United States or France, keeps growing, and so does the desire to build more mosques and religious schools. Such plans face resistance from non-Muslims who are mindful of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York and the bombings in Bali last year.

"There is no question that I see myself as a bridge - a means to promote better understanding on both sides of the religious fence," Paterson says.

But the contrast between the wealth and privilege he knew at Knox Grammar School and the dismal situation at King Abdul Aziz, located in one of Sydney's poorest areas, could not have been more stark.

"He was shocked at the state of the school when he first came here," says Akbar Khan, director of the school's board. "Tiles in the bathroom were broken, the toilets hardly functioned, and there were very few facilities for the children and lots of dust - but I promised him that most of this would be fixed up in six months. And it has [been]."

After Paterson had retired from Knox in 1998 as was required by law when he turned 65, he consulted at the Yeshiva College, an orthodox Jewish school, a position he held for two years.

By the time the King Abdul Aziz school board had contacted Paterson, it had gone through four principals in four years, was experiencing rapid staff turnover, and discipline was in shambles.

"Culturally I was all wrong, religiously I was wrong as well, but the timing was right and their need was great," says Paterson, who adds he's been the recipient of nothing but goodwill from staff, students, and parents since he was hired.

"When I joined here, one of the most beautiful things I ever heard was when the member of the council said, 'Mr Paterson has just spent the last two years at Yeshiva in a Jewish school, and he thought it was time to come to their cousins,' " Paterson says. "And that says a lot for the tolerance of this community."

Others have not been so tolerant. The night after the Australian Broadcasting Corporation featured a TV program on Paterson joining the school, a stone was thrown at the window of his house in the upper middle class neighborhood of Turramurra.

This was followed by threatening phone calls that he believes came from conservative Christians.

"Frankly, the most positive messages I get, I get from the school, this Muslim community, and from my friends," he says.

Even the mufti, or spiritual leader, of Australia's estimated 300,000-strong Islamic community, Sheik Taj Din Halaly, approves of Paterson.

"In an ideal situation, we would prefer to have someone from the faith as headmaster," says Keysar Trad, spokesman for the mufti. "But this is a merit-based system and he turns out to be the most qualified person to do the job. And we have heard only good things about him."

"Before he joined us," says Mr. Khan, "we discussed matters like the fact that girls must wear scarves and boys must say their prayers and he told me, 'We all respect God in our own way,' and he was sincere."

Paterson asked Khan to form a separate committee to oversee religious teaching. This reassured the school's board, which Paterson admits was watching "hawkishly" over him in the first couple months after he was hired.

"Once they realized I was not trying to change the culture of the place, they relaxed," he says.

Since taking over, Paterson has brought stability and increased discipline to King Abdul Aziz school.

"I feel very much at home here," he says. "I thought some of the parents might oppose my methods, but they have given me every freedom."

Khan says that formerly anxious parents, many of whom are recent immigrants from countries such as Fiji, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, are pleased with Paterson.

The headmaster even goes to the school mosque at prayer times, usually standing to one side to make sure the children behave themselves. This raised the curiosity of some of the younger students.

"One day a couple of primary school boys came up to me and asked me why I don't become Islamic and why I don't say the prayers. I explained to them that we each had our own religions and must respect each other. The explanation seemed to work," Paterson says, stressing that being a Christian makes no difference to his job as an administrator.

Other than the fact that this school requires six hours of religious studies a week, compared with one hour a week in other schools, the curriculum broadly matches non-Islamic private schools in the country.

"There is a great misconception here in Australia, as well as in other countries in the West, that all Islamic schools are hotbeds of terrorism and they all breed fanatics - but I am here to tell you that that's pure myth," says Paterson.

Muslims find that others are not so open-minded.

"Two Islamic schools that recently asked for approval in Sydney were rejected," says Moussaab Legha, head of the Voice of Islamic Radio. "Why is that?"

He believes it's because the government prefers children go to mainstream schools. In the same way, he says, small community halls serving as makeshift mosques also face opposition from local governing councils.

"They tell us, 'You make too much noise on Friday, there are too many cars, it disturbs the neighbors,'" Mr. Legha says. The government suspects that all large Muslim gatherings and Islamic schools foster hate and intolerance, he says.

Paterson combats such prejudice by inviting students from other schools to come and visit with the Muslim children, mostly with positive results.

"Christian boys and girls are surprised to learn that most of the studies are the same, and that really the kids are the same, too. The only thing the [non-Muslims] seem the most uncomfortable about is that the girls and boys can't date and that the girls have arranged marriages."

He also invites rabbis and Buddhist monks to the school to teach about their religion, without any opposition from the school board.

Mr. Trad, along with Christian and other religious leaders, has been on a mission to improve community relations in the last two years with meetings, speeches, and seminars.

Muslim outreach programs have increased by 50 percent since Sept. 11, 2001, but little is being done at the school level to increase communication between Islamic and non-Islamic students.

"We have open days at various mosques and sometimes 100 Christians will come and break the Ramadan fast with us, but there are no children among these people," says Trad, who is also the director of the Lebanese Islamic Association.

"If Ian Paterson can help to change that in some way, that would be something," he adds.

So does Paterson see the future of religious harmony riding on his shoulders?

"Mostly I deal with problems of teachers, parents, and recalcitrant students," says Paterson, laughing.

The students agree. "Kids are now being suspended for behaving badly ... things have become tougher for us now," says Abdullah Hakeem.

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