A very grim report card for Muslim schools management

Over the past six years, hand-wringing bureaucrats, politicians and a media scared of the label “Islamophobic” have allowed the parasite of institutional corruption to slowly take over its host.

It’s a state of affairs that in two months could prompt chaos: a major high school forced to shut, with the education of its 2400 students thrown into turmoil.

Muslim schools are big business and they are booming. Islamic colleges are the fastest growing schools, with enrolments increasing at a clip nine times faster than their mainstream counterparts. Between 2009 and 2014, Muslim students surged from 15,503 at 32 schools to 28,267 attending 39 schools — an increase of 82 per cent. In contrast, enrolments at all schools grew by just 6 per cent over the same period, to 3.7 million.

There are six schools controlled by Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. They received $42 million from taxpayers in 2013, plus $21.5m for new buildings and other capital works between 2009 and 2013. In 2014 and 2015 this will be at least $45m.

The largest is Malek Fahd Islamic School based in Greenacre in Sydney’s southwest, with 2400 students across three campuses.

The school was due to receive $20m in commonwealth funding this year. But it won’t. Federal education minister Simon Birmingham has ordered funding cut off in April following an audit report from Deloitte, which found serious issues of financial management and governance of all AFIC schools.

Two weeks ago the minister said the excuses from Malek Fahd simply weren’t good enough. Last week the board was forced to resign and the school is in limbo.

Despite the school reassuring parents this week that it has enough funds to remain open, senior education department figures tell The Australian that, without commonwealth funding, Malek Fahd cannot last much longer than a week. As to what happens to its pupils, at this stage nobody can say.

Professional educator Rafaat El-Hajje was principal at Malek Fahd. The nuclear physics PhD lasted six months before he quit in disgust.

“These people have no idea about what governance was or any idea about professional education,” El-Hajje says. “There were about three people who ran the show, and now they’re all fighting among themselves again. But it’s the kids who miss out, it’s the parents and the teachers.”

When he resigned in February 2013 El-Hajje wrote to NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli begging that he freeze its funding until the board was replaced. El-Hajje is highly critical of both state and federal governments: they took too long to act, they didn’t ensure the board was replaced after numerous warnings.

“The government just never pulled the cord on them. They were supposed to pay $9m back and they didn’t. I brought it to their attention, a Queensland principal brought it to their attention. They just didn’t act.”

In its defence the NSW education department says it is monitoring the situation.

El-Hajje blames political and bureaucratic intransigence for failing to act on the corruption that The Australian has documented for six years. “The minister said it wasn’t his problem, the NSW education department said it was board of studies problem, the commonwealth department said it was someone else’s problem. It just got shuffled around. Maybe if they had acted sooner the school wouldn’t be in this position.”

El-Hajje is sceptical of the intentions of some at the school, who might see a closure as a get out of jail free card. “There will be people who think that if the school closes there will be no more investigations into where the money went so maybe they don’t mind.”

The six AFIC schools have 5481 students, a 53 per cent rise in five years. Usually, these schools receive the highest possible funding from governments as they are populated by students from poorer and non-English speaking backgrounds.

Back in 2011 The Australian reported that the AFIC had siphoned off $5.2m worth of funds from the Malek Fahd Islamic School in Sydney.

The day after the report a media release was put out by then AFIC president Ikebal Patel decrying its inaccuracies. It also implied it was driven by an anti-Muslim agenda and demanded an apology and retraction (neither was ever given).

All six AFIC schools have been subjects of media reports and government funding freezes in the past few years. At one point the NSW government even demanded it repay $9m of state funds; a directive the school promptly ignored and challenged in court. Now, it is even contemplating a legal challenge to the withdrawal of the $20m.

Parents like Fazel Qayum and children like his two daughters, both enrolled at Malek Fahd, are paying the price for the behaviour of the school board and the inaction of education authorities. Qayum, a Stanhope Garden local, drives his daughters, Sabah and Sana Qayum, in Years 11 and 4, to MFIS two hours each way because of its “academic reputation”.

“It’s not the children’s fault. The people who misused funds, they’re the ones who should be held responsible. The school belongs to the kids, not the principal,” he says.

“I want the school to run. We live in a society of law and order ... the board should be taken to court. (But) the children should not pay”

His daughter, Sabah Qayum, is in Year 11. “All the students are devastated. I’m in my second last year, the HSC is just (around) the corner)”

To add to the stress of her Higher School Certificate exams is the likelihood she’ll have to find a new school. “Everyone’s worried about not being accepted (into schools)”.

The Australian has obtained the Deloitte report to the government which paints a disturbing picture of what was taking place at Malek Fahd.

Under Australian law, schools must not operate for profit to be considered viable for commonwealth funding.

The Deloitte report confirmed previous reports in The Australian that millions of dollars was siphoned out of the school into AFIC via unexplained “project management” and “accounting and salary services” — seemingly for services that never existed.

There was also evidence of millions in inflated rent for the school land paid to AFIC.

The government’s findings following the Deloitte report were a clear indictment of AFIC and the school board, who were often one and the same.

“Money has not been applied for the purposes of the school or for the function of the authority (Malek Fahd Islamic School Limited), and money has also been distributed (whether directly or indirectly) to an owner of the authority, or any other person,” department of education official Michael Crowther wrote.

“I also consider that the quality of the policies and practices in place for MFISL are inconsistent with the basic requirement for MFISL to be not-for-profit.”

The audit found that over $500,000 was paid by the school to a company Casifarm Pty Ltd, run by school board member and one-time AFIC spokesman Amjad Mehboob. Services it provided could not be clearly identified.

Last year Mehbood and former “business manager” Agim Garana were sacked from the school amid the commonwealth probe in an attempt by AFIC president and school board chairman Hafez Kassem to demonstrate he was cleaning up the school.

In an almost humorous twist, Mehboob appeared on ABC television the same day the funding cut was announced demanding Hafez Kassem step down, seemingly oblivious that his own behaviour included in the Deloitte report that led in part to the commonwealth decision.

Look around the country and the story at other AFIC run schools is no better. Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra, Perth and Melbourne are beset by governance problems.

The federal minister has recommended the tens of millions in annual commonwealth funding to all other schools be cut if they can’t show cause to be kept open.

At the Islamic College of Brisbane, the audit report found that millions of dollars in loans between AFIC and the school were unaccounted for. The Brisbane school is subject to a Queensland state department and police investigation.

Deloitte found numerous governance failings at the Canberra school, evidence of millions of dollars in unaccounted for loans to AFIC and found the school was barely financially viable.

The Melbourne school is accused of hardline religious teaching and allegedly threatened to send home children who missed morning prayer and Koran recital. Following the audit the commonwealth found the school was not operating as a non-for-profit.

The Islamic College of South Australia is beset with problems, including allegations of inappropriate payments to AFIC. The government found the school failed the “fit and proper person” test as well as the not-for-profit requirements.

Someone who knows all about the nature of the brutal infighting at AFIC is its former president, lawyer Haset Sali. Sali was a founding AFIC president 40 years ago and served as a legal adviser to the Muslim body before the current cabal kicked him out in 2006.

Sali describes the culture at AFIC as “toxic” and AFIC-managed Muslim schools as “tragic”. “These people have exploited the situation to their own advantage while taking advantage of the mainly poorer people who tried to get their children what used to be a good education.”

He says the boards should be sacked, professional administrators appointed and reforms made to mirror more professional independent networks like the Catholic school system.

The qualifications for running a Muslim school are woefully low. Pretty much anyone with a property and desire to set shop can make millions. “Muslim schools do not have that centralisation or professionalism. AFIC schools could contribute but they need to be run properly,” Sali says.

Sali has greater concerns: the way the toxin of corruption can leave a void of ethical Muslim leaders, which can lead young people towards Islamic extremism. “These people have just been taking, giving nothing back and couldn’t care less that we’ve ended up with an Islamic subculture,” Sali says.

“Unfortunately a lot young people don’t know where else to look for guidance, which leads to the rise of unqualified imams and the attraction of groups like IS.”

But come April, the pressing concern will be the education of 2400 students. While the AFIC schools are in the spotlight, at least four other non-AFIC Muslim schools have had their funding frozen in recent years by the NSW department over financial mismanagement, only to have the tap turned on soon after.

El-Hajje takes a dim view of the bulk of the Muslim schools that Malek Fahd students could be forced to go to. “I don’t trust any of these other Muslim schools. They’re intent on empire building and making money.”

Additional reporting: Jennine Khalik




‘Knowledge is light, work is worship’

Established 1989

K-Year 12

Faces closure. The largest Muslim school (2400 students across four campuses) will have $20 million commonwealth funding cease in April after federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham found the school failed to address “significant concerns” relating to financial management and governance. Australian Federation of Islamic Councils president Hafez Kassem was chairman of the board.



‘Seek knowledge — hard work is key to success’

Established 1995

Prep-Year 12

At the centre of police and Queensland Education Department investigations into millions in loans between AFIC and the school. The school of about 500 students is on notice that commonwealth funding will be cut off and it will be forced to close unless it demonstrates governance reform and addresses financial management failings. Kassem was chairman of the school. Deloitte report found money “has not been applied” for school purposes and had been distributed to AFIC.


‘In knowledge lies strength’

Established 2005

Foundation-Year 7

The primary school faces a commonwealth funding freeze that likely will force its closure if it cannot show cause to continue. Deloitte report found numerous governance failings and evidence of millions in unaccounted-for loans to AFIC. It found the school was barely financially viable.



‘Faith, knowledge, success’

Established 2011

Prep-Year 10

The Melbourne school will have its funding cut off unless it can show cause to continue. Accused of hardline religious teaching and allegedly threatening to send home children who missed morning prayer and Koran recital. The commonwealth found the school was not operating as a non-for-profit.



‘Foster the holistic development of every learner and to promote highest Islamic ethos, values and morals with academic excellence’

Established 1998

K-Year 12

Beset with problems and widespread complaints about former chairman Farouk Khan’s behaviour, including allegations of inappropriate payments to AFIC. The government found the school failed the “fit and proper person” test and not-for-profit requirements. Faces having its commonwealth funding cut off.



‘Knowledge, faith & discipline’

Established 2004

K-Year 12

Audit found the Perth school failed commonwealth funding requirements on several fronts. Accused of hardline teaching and forcing a Year 1 girl to wear a headscarf. Faces having its funding cut off.

Picture: Fazel Qayum with daughters Sana, left, and Sabah outside Malek Fahd school. Picture: Britta Campion.

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