Thursday, July 23, 2015

BOOK: Gallipoli with context: The Turkish story

About a century ago, Australia declared war on the Caliphate. In response, the Caliph called on all Muslims across the world to take part in a jihad on Australia. 

Actually, it wasn’t that simple. Nothing about the First World War was. High school modern history teachers tell us it started with an assassin’s bullet. Britain, France (and their current and former colonial possessions) and Russia then joined forces and fought Germany, an entity called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Russia then dragged the Ottoman Caliphate/Empire, previously neutral in all this mess. Finally the Ottomans joined the Germans.

And so Australia, a very young uber White nation with no standing professional army, entered a war to support the British Empire on the other side of the world. Joining Australia was New Zealand. Their joint rag tag volunteer army, the ANZAC Corp, found itself sailing from the Dardanelles Strait into small boats and onto the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Australia had only recently ceased being a colony, a part of the British Empire. When the Empire was at war, its enemies naturally became Australia’s enemies.

But what of the Ottomans? In Australian history classes and popular media, they are referred to as “the Turks”. Turkey as a nation and a republic did not exist at that time. The Ottoman population included not only Turks but also Armenians, Syrians, Bosnians, Jews and other groups. The founding Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, spent much of his time in the Ottoman city of Thessaloniki, a city he described as “a Jewish city that has no equal in the world”. When the First World War broke out, Ben-Gurion established a Jewish militia that would fight in the Ottoman army. 

We don’t know enough about the Ottoman Empire. Australians know little about the Ottoman forces. Harvey Broadbent is an Australian historian and broadcaster who has sought to overcome this deficiency. Broadbent is no stranger to Turkey. He taught English in Turkey during 1967-69, after which he studied Ottoman history and language at Manchester University. I spoke to Broadbent recently at the Sydney Writers Festival on 22 May 2015.

His most recent book, Defending Gallipoli: The Turkish Story, is the result of extensive research of Ottoman military archives all of which are written in Osmanli Arabic script.

Not all the Ottoman troops were Turks. I’m not sure if any of them were Ben-Gurion’s Jewish militiamen. The 72nd and 77th Regiment were conscripts from Aleppo in Syria. If alive today, these men would have called themselves Syrian or Lebanese. They were known to have difficulties communicating with their Turkish commanding officers and fellow troops.

Indeed the Syrian soldiers were often the subject of suspicion. Much of this dates back to rioting in Beirut and other cities which were violently suppressed by Ottoman leaders. Arab troops were accused of retreating during the first week of the Gallipoli defence. In those days, retreating soldiers (including Ottoman and British troops but not Australian volunteers) were typically executed. 

Broadbent told me: “I have seen no documentation that indicates Arab troops were shot for retreating”.

Did any Muslims fight against the Caliph at Gallipoli? Yes they did. Some 15,000 Indians fought as part of the Indian Mule Corp. Most were Hindus and Sikhs. But at least 3 Muslim graves can be found at Gallipoli on the Allied side.

First published in the Australasian Muslim Times on 03 June 2015.

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Monday, January 19, 2015

NOTES: Tim Winter in Melbourne

In late 2011, Tim Winter (also known as Abdal Hakim Murad) toured Sydney and Melbourne. His tour was hosted by Islamic Realm, a private educational foundation. I was fortunate enough to attend his Melbourne classes which were held in the Melbourne suburb of Box Hill. I recently found my hand-written notes for these some of these talks.

[01] Humans need stillness, meaning and rootedness. The modern world, including the virtual world, cannot provide these. Modernity knows how to sell but these commodities cannot be sold. All modernity can provide is entertainment to help us forget just how meaningless our lives are.

[02] One of the signs of the end of times is that distances are folded. Globalisation.

[03] How do mind, body and spirit draw us together to make us “centred”?

[04] The oldest thing in creation is insan, the imperfect, negligent human. We are a riddle. Our lives are like a bumpy progression from one strange experience to another.

[05] Post-modernity says that generalisation is impossible. What counts is one's self-perception. It's all about finding irony.

[06] Historically Muslims have had respectful interactions with other civilisations.

[07] There is evidence of human habitation in Cape York (northern Queensland) dating back 40,000 years.

[08] Islamic civilisation had a capacity to hybridise with indigenous civilisations. There is plenty of historical precedent for this. Wherever Ilam went, indigenous civilisation was invigorated. But what about with the historic singularity of post-modernism? We are in a post Judeo-Christian (Ahl al-Kitab) world that has turned its back on itself, its values etc. Its core “truths”, its values, its legislation etc is no longer touched by the Unseen.

[09] Modernism was about the clash between science and religion, between reason and mythology. But the narrative of modernism as collapsed and been replaced by an equality of all stories and narratives. The prevailing intellectual currents are about deconstruction of religious iseals, indeed all ideals.

[10] Most surrogate religions of the past 2 centuries (fascism, marxism etc) have been complete nightmares.

[11] Islam is not mmerely a series of rearguard actions, of defensiveness, even of despair and depression. Islam is not merely a way of staying afloat but rather a healing. We don't need a siege mentality or an attitude of insisting on difference as many migrants use as a survival mechanism. We are walking through the ruins of post-modernity.

[12] Beauty was left behind 100 years. The new Freudian human is just a bubbling of desires and ugliness. These days people look not to beauty or ugliness but to tolerance and intolerance.

[13] Reactive religion never reacts successfully. It must be true to itself. We don't need the outraged pride or the khutbah (sermon) screamed out like some kind of ego-based jahili rant.

[14] Modern spirituality has become commercialised egotistical stuff, the work of false gurus and televangelists.

[15] The diagnosis of the current human condition is dire. It is a complete dislocation of mind, body and spirit. Ethics and philosophy have collapsed. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the main reason for people's shortening of life will be depression.  

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Monday, March 24, 2014

REFLECTION: Thoughts on "islamic" racism


It's a complex phenomenon.

Its victims are many, and often its perpetrators do not cite race as their inspiration.

But in some circles, the perpetrators of racism are seen as being all of one colour. Perhaps not a literal colour. Perhaps colour is a loose term used to describe a category. But colour is used.

There is a theory in some social sciences circles that speaks of "whiteness". It refers not specifically to persons of white skin. It is much broader.

But sadly, some in less mature Australian Muslim circles who claim some qualification in politics, sociology and other social sciences, are attempting to apply their own brand of whiteness theory on a faith that is colour blind.

Yet the contradictions in this group are extraordinary.

One is a psychologist of Palestinian extraction who has anglicised her surname.

Another is an Adelaide-based post doc who was born in the United Kingdom and has skin almost as white as snow.

More to come.

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

COMMENT: The perils of islamicomedy

[01] What happens when you write and/or perform comedy involving religion? Especially about Islam? And in a world where many think Muslims aren't supposed to have a sense of humour?

[02] Some years back, a rightwing Danish newspaper commissioned some cartoonists to draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (s). The cartoons were supposed to be hilarious, though I must say that after seeing all 12 of them, I couldn't see much humour. Though many will recall the imbecile nature of the responses of protests by a minority across Muslim communities. 

[03] (From memory, there was one cartoon in which the Prophet was shown at the gates of heaven telling a suicide bomber that there were no virgins left. Now that one was worth a chuckle.)

[04] What made me wonder was why so many were so offended. After all, in many languages spoken commonly by Muslims, humour and jokes and Islamic religious symbols are common. Yes, I haven't heard anyone made jokes about the Prophet, but I have heard God dragged into a few punchlines, often in the most blasphemous way. Often these jokes are targetted at allegedly religious politicians. Few seem to mind.

[05] Comedy about ethnics by ethnics is nothing knew. Most of us find it funny because - let's face it - we are all ethnic in some way. We recognise that you can be racial without being racist. Stereotypes can be upsetting, but it depends on the intentions of the one doing the stereotyping. 

... to be continued

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

MEDIA: Media, violence and imams

Some readers will remember the 2006 media assault on Shaykh Hilaly over his infamous "catmeat" comments. Many of you would rather forget it. I guess it's all rather academic now.

It was hard to get a nuanced word in back in those days, with politicians and shockjocks and columnists baying for blood. And they weren't just after Hilaly's blood either.

AAP ran a story which was published on the Sydney Morning Herald website under the headline Lawyer attacks cleric media coverage. Here are the first few paragrasphs.

A Muslim human rights lawyer has attacked the media over its coverage of Sheik Taj Aldin Alhilali during a women's rights function.
Alhilali's explosive comments comparing women who don't wear the Islamic headscarf to "uncovered meat" were also condemned at Australia's launch of the White Ribbon Day campaign in Sydney.

Er, the two functions were one and the same.

White Ribbon Day was created by 14 Canadian men in 1991 to denounce violence against women. The United Nations declared it an international day of activism the same year.
More than 200 politicians, sports stars, health professionals and cultural representatives will promote the worldwide campaign as "ambassadors" during the lead-up to White Ribbon Day on November 25.
One of the ambassadors at the launch, in the rocks, human rights lawyer and columnist Irfan Yusuf, condemned Sheik Alhilali's comments as "nonsense".
:If it weren't nonsense, then how do we explain the fact that women wearing head scarves sitting at home often get attacked as well?" he asked.

Fair enough. But what about the media? Is it the entire media? Or just select newspapers?

Then Mr Yusuf hit back at the media over the extent of the coverage of the sheik's sermon and its aftermath, calling responses by politicians and "allegedly conservative" columnists "sectarian-wedge politics".
The sheik's controversial remarks, condemned by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, received media coverage worldwide.
"I found it amazing that one particular newspaper spent eight pages on the issue of Sheik (Alhilali) and his comments," he said.
"You would have thought Sheik (Alhilali) just delivered the budget, or he just won his third election in a row."

Actually much more was said. But then you can't control how your words are reported and then interpreted. Or vice versa.  Still, it's all academic.

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POLITICS: Jihadi kids

[01] In recent days, the Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (or Movement of Stiving Youth) have made international headlines by holding up a shopping centre in Nairobi, killing shoppers and staff, and taking hostages. These antics are seen by the group as the preferred method of championing an ideology that is somewhere between warped Islam and crazed Somali nationalism.

[02] Somali communities living in Kenya, the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand will come under increasing surveillance after claims that a number of the Shabaab fighters involved in the attack are from the large Somali diaspora communities including US and UK. 

[03] Many readers will be unfamiliar with the history, geography and ideological forces involved in Somalia as well as the involvement of its neighbouring countries in this failed state. Somali diaspora communities often do not intermingle with other ethnic Muslim groups and vice versa. Hence many Muslims have little understanding if exactly what is going on.

[04] Kenya's Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku described the attackers as a "multicultural collection from all over the world". Kenya's military head General Julius Karangi spoke of "foreigners from so many nations" involved in the attack.Tweets from al-Shabaab said that fighters included persons from the US, UK, Canada, Sweden, Syria, Finland, Russia, Dagestan and Kenya as well as Somalia.

[05] Hostages were freed if they could prove they were Muslim to the kiddies. Apparently they were asked questions such as who the Prophet's wife was. Clearly the terrorists must have failed the most elementary test in aqida (creed).

[06] Young children were made to which as their mothers were slaughtered. What kind of sick mind could commit such atrocities?

[07] The risk is that the barbarism of the Shabaab monsters will lead to further disastrous foreign intervention in Somalia. It might also lead to crackdowns on Somali diaspora communities who will suffer bother from attempts by Shabaab to recruit as well as from the heavy-handedness of security forces. 

[08] Here is an excerpt from what Ian Birrell wrote in The Independent:

Somalia is seen as the ultimate failed state, an ungovernable hellhole plagued with poverty, conflict and hatred. Curiously, it is one of only two African nations sharing a single language, religion and culture; the other is Botswana, one of the continent’s biggest success stories. Yet it is riven with historic rivalries between hundreds of nomadic clans and sub-clans. The last person to rule with any real authority was a military dictator, Siad Barre, whose overthrow in 1991 sparked the chaos that still engulfs the country.  
One million Somalis have been killed since then, twice that number displaced and much of the country reduced to rubble. Half a million Somali exiles now live in Kenya, where even before this vicious attack they faced growing hostility. But while many of the country’s problems were self-induced, with feuding warlords growing rich as they ripped apart their own country, Somalia’s problems were worsened by bungled interventions from outside. 
Go back eight years, and a semblance of normality had returned to the country. Western-backed warlords had been defeated and the Union of Islamic Courts, a coalition of Islamic conservatives, enforced the rule of law. There was security in Mogadishu, with families knowing a son or daughter would return from a trip to the shops rather than end up bleeding in the streets; unsurprisingly, the courts were popular, despite often intolerant rulings. The possibility of genuine peace hovered on the horizon. 
But a united, stable and Islamic country was the last thing Ethiopia wanted on its doorstep. So it invaded in the name of driving out fundamentalism, persuading Britain and the United States to back their key ally in the region. The incursion was disastrous, with Somalia spiralling back out of control, while grotesque human rights abuses boosted the militant cause. The biggest beneficiary was the security wing of the courts movement, al-Shabaab, which soon had control of much of Mogadishu and great swathes of the country.
[09] A July 2011 report on Al Shabaab by Ron Wise of the Centre for Strategic & International Studies states that the movement started out as the youth wing of a mainstream Muslim political party that rose to power in Somalia in early 2006. Ethiopia invaded in December 2006, after which Shabaab became a popular militia with nationalist aspirations of removing Ethiopian forces from Somalia. It was only in 2008 that Shabaab has slowly and gradually made the transition into a group having linkages with al-Qaeda.

[10] Wise suggests that Ethiopia can take major responsibility for radicalising Shabaab. The Ethiopians drove out the more moderate Islamic Courts Union (ICU) administration from Somalia. The ICU kept a check on Shabaab going down a more radical path.

[11] After ICU were driven out, Shabaab took control of large tracts of land in Somalia. In a lawless land, these areas provided citizens with some rule of law and stability, which made Shabaab even more popular and assisted with its recruitment drive.

[12] Wise says that Somalia's started with the overthrow of military dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991. Since that time, competing warlords have committed atrocities against civilians, leading to some 1 million being forced to flee Somalia. Hundreds of thousands have died from starvation, famine and violence.

[13] The ICU was a federation of 11 courts formed in mid 2004. By June 2006, the ICU, with the help of its militia Shabaab, had crushed the warlords. Wise claims that Shabaab was a remnant of the most radical remnant of ICU, its members influenced by Saudi-style wahhabi Islam which was contrary to the traditional sufi Islam followed by most Somalis.

[14] Dr Kisiangani Emmanuel of the Institute for Security Studies based in Pretoria South Africa has written an excellent paper comparing the Shabaab and the Lords Resistance Army. Emmanuel claims the two groups emerged out of comparable contexts and were motivated by genuine grievances. Emmanuel says that these groups can only be fought properly when they are understood and when their often grievances are addressed. This way the hearts and minds of the local population can be won over, this removing the incentive for locals to support the extremists.

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Monday, September 16, 2013

REFLECTION: Learning Islam – The Traditional Way

I have a confession to make. I am a huge fan of what is known as “traditional Islam” (let’s call it “TI”). This is a method of teaching and learning the classical sciences of Islam.

I understand TI goes something like this. You decide what classical Islamic subject or subjects you wish to study. You sit with someone qualified to teach at least the subject you want to learn. You sit and learn that subject with that teacher, either on an individual basis or in a class.

Once the teacher is satisfied with your mastery of the subject, he/she gives you authorisation to teach. That authorisation is called an ijaza, and it states the limits within which you can teach the subject. It could be as broad as more than one discipline or as narrow as a chapter of a book.

Your teacher is able to give you an ijaza because he/she has an ijaza from his/her teacher, who in turn has an ijaza from his/her teacher etc etc. This chain of ijaza is known as a sanad.

I haven’t done any research on the matter, but I suspect most qualified imams in Australia have learned their classical Islamic knowledge this way. Certainly this is how Islamic sciences are taught in classical institutions such as Dar al-Uloom Deoband in India or in similar classical institutions in Yemen, Syria and Morocco.

TI is a great method of keeping alive our classical Islamic tradition. Some of the great emerging voices of Islamic scholarship in the West have studied and qualified under this methodology, including Hamza Yusuf Hanson, Zaid Shakir, Nuh Ha Mim Keller and our very own (as far as Sydney-siders are concerned) Naeem Abdul Wali.

These scholars are at the forefront of communicating Islamic ideas in a manner relevant to Western communities, Muslim or otherwise. But are they able to do this just because of TI? Does anyone honestly believe that, when faced with a contemporary challenge, Western TI scholars only refer to classical commentaries?

I asked this question of Azhar Usman, stand-up comedian and director of the Nawawi Foundation, a US-based think tank which promotes Islamic sciences in the TI tradition. Other directors of the Nawawi Foundation include Dr Ingrid Mattson, who studied Islam in modern universities and is current President of the Islamic Society of North America (the US and Canadian version of our “AFIC”).

The Chairman and Scholar-in-Residence of the Foundation is Dr Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, one of a galaxy of TI scholars in the US. Apart from studying classical sciences abroad, Dr Abd-Allah also did a PhD in Islamic Studies at Chicago University under one Professor Fazlur Rahman.

Why am I mentioning all this? Of what relevance does all this have to Australia?

Following the terror attacks of September 11, scholars of TI have come to the forefront of not only condemning the attacks but also identifying the root causes of the attacks. Azhar Usman believes that what tempted some Muslims to sympathise the attackers was a form of Islam which teaches us Western Muslims to regard only a narrow set of things as “Islamic” and to reject everything else as “un-Islamic”.

TI is different. TI regards everything as potentially Islamic with the exception of those things which are clearly proscribed in the sacred law of Islam (known as the sharia) as un-Islamic.

Hence, TI practitioners like Dr Abd-Allah contend that there is nothing un-Islamic about communicating Islamic ideas using stand-up comedy. When the Nawawi Foundation takes people on study tours to various parts of the current (or, in the case of Spain, former) “Islamic” world, Azhar Usman usually comes along to act as “court jester”, performing a show for his fellow tourists.

Usman told me he regards Islam as like a clear spring with no odour or taste or colour except for those provided by the elements of its path. Hence, Islam can be communicated using a variety of cultural methods.

Usman’s hero is one of the great scholars and communicators of Islam in Indonesia, known to his people as Sunan Kalijaga. The genius of Kalijaga lay in the fact that he was able to combine essentially traditional cultural symbols (wayang shadow puppetry and gamelan orchestral music) to communicate classical Islamic ideas. Today, wayang and gamelan are regarded as classical methods of communicating Islam in the world’s largest Muslim country. In Indonesia, the methods of Sunan Kalijaga are part of TI.

So there are some Australian Muslims claiming to represent TI who pretend that studying Islam in a conventional university is not consistent with TI principles. They criticise institutions such as the Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies headed by Professor Abdullah Saeed of the University of Melbourne.

But as I learned from Azhar Usman, if TI can recognise the value of communicating Islamic ideas using traditional cultural symbols, why can’t it recognise Islam communicated in a conventional university?

Or to put it in the Prophet’s (s) terms: “Wisdom is the lost property of the believer …”

(This article was first published on 8 August 2007 in Salam, the official publication of the Federation of Australian Muslim Students & Youth or FAMSY)

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Friday, September 13, 2013

BOOKS: War On Error: Real Stories of American Muslims

War On Error: Real Stories of American Muslims 
Melody Moezzi
The University of Arkansas Press, 2007

Dr Umar Fariq Abd-Allah, a prominent American theologian, once described his adopted faith as akin to water which has no colour or shape of its own and takes on the colours and shapes of the places through which it flows.

“In China, Islam looked Chinese; in Mali, it looked African. Sustained cultural relevance to distinct peoples, diverse places and different times underlay Islam's long success as a global civilisation.” 

So how does one apply this model of Islam to Muslims brought up in Western societies, whether as children of nominally Muslim migrants or as converts embracing a new faith? So often, we presume that Muslims are somehow more religious than followers of other faiths. Perhaps this is because the Muslim voices most often heard are those seeking to represent their vision of religious orthodoxy as opposed to Muslim cultural realities.

In Australia, some more embarrassing self-appointed Muslim spokesmen (and I mean men literally - as if women would say such silly things!) have become household names. Yet their views on sexual violence and polygamy hardly accord with Australian Muslim opinion (at least I hope they don’t), where domestic violence is frowned upon and polygamous relationships only exist in the less formal and more sinful realm. 

When we assume those seeking to speak on behalf of Islam in Australia necessarily also speak on behalf of Aussie Muslims, we end up often with an image that is distorted and not reflective of Muslim reality.

So can we apply this presumption of heterogeneity to other Western Muslims, including those in North America? Enter Melody Moezzi, a self-confessed “thinking, feeling, educated, and stubborn Muslim Iranian American woman”, a lawyer and writer brought up in Ohio and now residing in Atlanta. Moezzi’s first book, War On Error, provides pen portraits of twelve young American Muslims, including herself, her American Muslim convert husband Matthew and her childhood Iranian friend Roxana.

Moezzi makes clear that her work aims “to affirm the experiences of Muslim Americans as American experiences, as grounded in the American dream and the American ethic as any others” (emphasis is Moezzi’s). It is a risky and possibly self-defeating strategy, potentially giving rise to criticism that her insistence on Muslim heterogeneity involves presumptions of American homogeneity, of the existence of a singular monolithic “American ethic”.

Thankfully, Moezzi’s portraits don’t give rise to any stereotyping. Each individual profiled has a completely different reason to regard him or herself as Muslim, even if more devout Muslims might question their stated beliefs and lifestyle choices. Most of Moezzi’s profiles are of relatively unknown people with interesting stories. I was particularly pleased that Moezzi includes a profile of a bisexual Muslim, thus recognising that whatever we might think of homosexuality, not all Muslims are straight.

However, I was disappointed Moezzi spends an entire 11 pages on prominent Wall Street Journal writer Asra Nomani, who has already written about her own life in her well-known memoir Standing Alone In Mecca. Moezzi would have been better off finding a less well-known and more interesting Muslim, perhaps a former prison inmate or an African-American serviceman.

Indeed, the complete absence of a non-migrant (or distant migrant) African-American Muslim voice in Moezzi’s book is troubling. There is much bitterness among African-American Muslims about what many see as the dominance of migrant Muslims from the Middle East and Asia in Muslim religious and community affairs. African-American Muslims – whether of the more heterodox “Nation of Islam” variety or from more mainstream denominations - are a growing force in American Islam. America’s first two Muslim Congressmen are both African-American. It seems curious that Moezzi could not find a single African-American Muslim prepared to talk about his or her faith on the record.

It’s tempting to be put off by the somewhat clumsy title - War On Error – Moezzi gives to this her first book. Is she declaring war on the erroneous notions of American Muslims in the popular mindset? Is she suggesting that the current so-called war on terror has lost its direction? Or was the title just selected by her publisher?

Regardless of how or why so named, this book does much to dispel the many errors in public perception about Western Muslims. However, the limited sample of stories, dominated by migrants and converts (virtually all from Moezzi’s family, friends and friends of friends), and the complete absence of any African-American Muslim presence, provides an unnecessarily skewed vision of American Islam.

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