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New Australian Courses to Teach Moderate Islam

Young Muslims are to be taught Australian-friendly Islam under a government plan to stop them being influenced by extremists. An approved curriculum will be introduced at universities in an attempt to counter the teachings of controversial Muslim clerics. Phil Mercer in Sydney reports.

The program announced this week is aimed at challenging firebrand clerics in Australia, who preach a radical version Islam that is peppered with intolerance and hate.

The university courses, which are intended to help train young Australian imams, will look at Islam with an international perspective.

The centers for Islamic excellence will be concentrated at a handful of campuses and are part of an Australian government plan to enhance social harmony and integration. The program will cost about $6 million and the government says courses should start by the end of the year.

The precise details and content of the courses are still being worked out.

Many Australian Muslims feel marginalized from the rest of society and say they have faced more discrimination since the attacks in the United States in September 2001 and the bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali a year later.

There are doubts in the Muslim community about the program. Some critics say Muslims will not trust government-trained imams.

Others say the government is consulting a very narrow segment of the community in designing the program.

"A lot of this stuff unfortunately is only sort of being consulted with a very select few representatives from the Islamic community which don't always reflect the view of the mainstream," said Kurander Seyit, the publisher of an Islamic newspaper in Australia. "I think that sometimes on a government level we do feel that we are being chastised."

He says the government should do more to educate other Australians to understand and tolerate Islam.

Australian authorities say they want to counter the views expressed by high-profile imams that are considered to be divisive and inflammatory.

A top spiritual leader of the Muslim community Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali was forced to apologize late last year for comparing immodestly dressed women to uncovered meat, and implying that they invited sexual assault.

Another Muslim preacher, Sheik Feiz Mohammed, who is now living in Lebanon, is being investigated by Australian police for producing videos labeling Jews pigs and calling on young Muslims to die for their religion.

Muslims have had a long history in Australia. It is thought traders from Indonesia began visiting the north coast as early as the 16th century, long before Europeans arrived.

About 300,000 Muslims now live in Australia - around 1.5 percent of the total population.