Monday, August 03, 2015

OPINION: Why should Muslims speak about terrorism?



It’s a common refrain. Muslims in Australia rarely have anything useful to say about terrorism. Each time the Federal Government decides it wants to add yet another layer to the already bulging layers of terrorism law, Muslims (with a few notable exceptions) seem almost disinterested or incapable of making a sensible contribution beyond boycotting meetings with the PM or complaining about racism. It’s as if they cannot address the changing law itself.
Then again, few other Australians, including our political leaders, have much sensible to say. Perhaps the only sensible thing our Prime Minister has said on the subject was soon after the Martin Place Siege in which three persons (including the gunman) lost their lives.
Andrew Lynch, Nicola McGarrity and George Williams, in their recently published Inside Australia’s Anti-Terrorism Laws and Trials, state that 
... we should be wary of letting those who wish us harm determine how we live as members of a free and democratic society. Abbott acknowledged the limits upon security in a liberal society when he said, in the aftermath of the Sydney siege, that even if Monis had been on agency watchlists and monitored 24 hours a day ‘it’s quite likely, certainly possible, that this incident could have taken place, because the level of control that would have been necessary to prevent people from going about their daily life, would be very, very high indeed..
This makes far more sense than hysterical references to the “Death Cult” or insulting remarks that Muslims need to say their faith is one of peace as if they really mean it. It also underscores just how important the efforts of ordinary Muslims are when they report suspicious persons and activities to their authorities, and when their testimony is crucial to the small number of successful terrorism convictions.
You can’t eliminate risk by throwing legislation at it. The law cannot solve everything. The above mentioned authors note: 
By the end of 2014, 64 separate pieces of anti-terrorism legislation had become law. 
These additional laws and the current raft of citizenship stripping laws would have been unlikely to stop Man Monis from murdering two innocent Australians.
The growing complexity of anti-terror law is such that the average Islamic society or council or federation committee would have little hope of understanding how it all fits together. We can’t expect religious bodies to have much useful to say on terrorism law reform. At best they can (and should) defer this to experts within their communities – lawyers, public policy experts and lobbyists.
And that assumes they all have the same approach to this issue. National security is tied up with other areas of government policy, including foreign policy. It is naïve to imagine that all Muslims in Australia have the same views on, say, the Syrian or Iraqi conflict. Opinions on the Syrian government have been divided within Lebanese Muslim circles since before the Lebanese civil war started in the 1970’s. For many in downtown Punchbowl and Preston, Hezbollah is the enemy when they were once heroes.
Sectarian divisions have turned political. How are these divisions to be managed? How much dialogue is there between Sunni and Shia? Has this translated into a common approach to addressing the issues raised by proposed laws?
Absolute unity isn’t what’s required. We don’t stop celebrating Eid just because we cannot agree on which day to celebrate it on. We shouldn’t have a base approach to civil liberties, democracy, citizenship, national security and foreign fighters just because some of us despise Assad more than others. Even if Muslim bodies don’t feel comfortable talking to the media or the politicians about terrorism, they can still talk to each other and to their members about the issue. And if they then decide to contact their local MP or even a Minister, they can at least honestly say that they have consulted with community members.
First published in the Australasian Muslim Times on 31 July 2015.

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BOOK: Hilarious book by an Iraqi-Iranian-Australian artist


What’s it like to live on the fringes of society, to be an outsider. First, second and third generation Muslim of migrant heritage often complain of being marginalised. But what would it be like to be a marginal person in more than one home country?
Osamah Sami’s family knows exactly what this is like. His late father, a religious scholar and leader to a Shia congregation in northern Melbourne, grew up in Iraq as a young man keen on reading foreign newspapers. Tortured by the regime of Saddam Hussein, he fled to Iran.
Osamah was born a foreigner. Despite belonging to the same religious denomination as the Iranians around him, Osamah was an Arab, not a Persian. His mother made him wear a long robe, not jeans like his Iranian friends.
But worse still, Osamah’s family were Iraqis living in Abadan, a border town. He and his neighbours lived under the shadow of Iraqi bombs, mortars, missiles and gas raining down on the city during the 1980’s war between Iran and Iraq. They also suffered from the constant suspicion and prejudice from those deemed more Iranian, more Shia and more Muslim than those who spoke Arabic. The language of the Prophet and the language of the enemy were one and the same.
Things weren’t made easier by the fact that Osamah’s father and uncles were fighting in the Iranian army, possibly against their former Iraqi relatives and neighbours. Amongst the drama and tragedy, the author manages to insert much laugh-out-loud humour.
Indeed, tragicomedy is an appropriate description of the book. Osamah’s childhood reflections of the hypocrisies of Iranian theocracy make an excellent antidote to those who would make us believe that the solution to our woes necessarily lay in the Islamic state. All the religious police in the world could not stop Muslims from identifying more by their tribe or sect. Kurds did not cease being Kurds. Iraqi Shia Muslims were still deemed Iraqis and potential enemies of the state. All this during the age of jihad against thee Great Satan and its cronies.
There were no long term prospects for Osamah’s family. The family moved from Abadan to the university city of Qom, where his father pursued studies to become a religious scholar. Later he was invited to Melbourne to officiate for religious ceremonies. Eventually, the family applied to migrate as refugees.
Much of the book is structured around a visit the adult Osamah made to Iran with his father. They arrived at the city of Mashhad in 2013, enjoyed a traditional falafel roll together and returned to their hotel. Osamah went for a walk while his father quietly moved onto the afterlife. Whilst dealing with his own grief, Osamah also had to deal with Iranian bureaucracy. “Policy is policy,” he would be told whilst forced to leave his Australian passport in the hands of anonymous officials in Mashhad before travelling some 900 km across a huge desert to Tehran.
Good Muslim Boy is a superbly hilarious read that will make you realise that even the most religious place can be filled with testosterone and even an imam’s son can get upto no good while maintaining his father’s affections. Terrific.
This review was first published in the Australasian Muslim Times on 31 July 2015.

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NOTES: On Tunisia, revolution, women and social sciences

What follows are notes taken during a workshop on women and Civil Society, Women and Democracy held on Tuesday 28 July 2015 at Deakin University. The event was hosted by the Deakin UNESCO Chair in partnership with the Council for Arab-Australian Relations of the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT).

There were four speakers in attendance:

Professor Raoudha Ben Othman, who teaches linguistics at the University of Tunis and has researched aspects of quality in higher education and published widely on it both academically and in local papers. After the Tunisian revolution, she has researched women and young people, conceptions of democracy and democratic transition.

Professor Najet Mchala, a Professor of English and critical theory at The Institut Superieur des Langues de Tunis, University of Carthage. She holds a PhD in Comparative Studies from La Sorbonne, Paris and is the head of the postgraduate program in Cross Cultural Studies. Her teaching and research interests include postmodernity and postcoloniality, Maghrebean Literature and Film.

Assistant Professor Lamia Benyoussef is based in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her research interests include post-coloniality, feminist theory and African literature with a specific emphasis on the Maghreb.

Ms Ines Amri is the Founder of Organisation Volonté et Citoyenneté. She is currently the Head of Research and Project Manager of "Nsina?" (Did We Forget?), a documentary funded by Columbia University and Bosch Foundation through which she seeks to create a platform of dialogue where dealing with the Past 55 years of oppression is at the core of the national debate and to launch a participatory action research project with the victims and their families in Tunisia.

The panel was chaired by Professor Fethi Mansouri of Deakin University.

I can't pretend that these notes represent everything that was said and/or with any great accuracy given that they were originally hand-written. Anyway, here goes.

[01] Epistemological tools involve the gathering, identification and use of evidence and argument for social scientists. How we use them and the outcomes we come up with can be affected by our own ideological leanings and other subjective factors.

[02] How do we understand revolutions and other forms of social change? What are the methodological aspects? How do we gather evidence? How do we assess it?

[03] One way is through using micro-narratives i.e. history from below. Gathering information and stories from voices that are otherwise suppressed.

[04] In many Muslim societies, there is the tension between being a citizen and a believer, largely due to the existence of transnational loyalties. Of course, this isn’t limited to people who identify as Muslims.

[05] Why must the honour of a community be grafted onto the female body in many Muslim cultures? Shouldn't men also take ownership of honour for themselves?

[06] How did Tunisia get to a stage where its you couldn't make meaning anywhere except in committing suicide? Why did that have to be Tunisia's revolutionary moment?

[07] Social scientists in Tunisia looked around themselves at social interactions to kane sense of the revolution. But they were seeking to understand a reality that, far from being static, was evolving and is still doing so.

[08] One speaker said she kept a diary very strictly. She found her diary entries to be very reflexive and descriptive. Still, it wasn't meant to be an academic treatise.

[09] Thanks to the relatively favourable and thorough attention the Revolution received in the English-language media, Tunisians strengthened their relationship with the language and its speakers. Many scholars continue to focus on communication in Arabic and French.

[10] The Tunisian media is more free than it has ever been since independence. The rhythm of news in Tunisia is very fast, and existing outlets have no indigenous model to follow.

[11] One important piece of work is gathering the testimonies of people who were imprisoned for many years for political "crimes".

[12] The elites in Tunisia frequently lived their lives as if they were separated from the suffering of other Tunisians. Some still like to enjoy artificial shields.

[13] Tunisian society is still characterised by strains of paranoia about outside powers and sinister forces inside.

[14] Plenty of psychological violence is caused by often well-meaning but stupid comments by outside observers who insist on seeing Tunisia as Muslim and only Muslim. Euro-centric paradigms abound even in the most allegedly respectable Western publications.

[15] Your opinion as a social scientist or as any observer is affected by your position (or positionality if you wish to sound impressive). This is your ppersnal location and includes race, gender, where you live etc.

[16] An old Tunisian proverb:
Don't spit on the past.
Don't cut yourself off radically from your roots. Tunisians are hopeful their revolution keeps to this precept.

[17] Islamists are regarded on the "Right" of the political spectrum. As in many Arab countries, the Islamists were used to counter the "Left" when the Bourghiba regime came under US influence.

[18] Women were at the forefront of Tunisian revolutionary demonstrations and marches. It was a common joke that the men used the women to shield them from the police.

[19] In a sense, Tunisia is both Islamist and secular. But its essence is democratic.

[20] Youth apathy is a global problem. In Tunisia, young people complain about politics and leaders but generally keep away from parties.

[21] The whole region is experiencing a reversal of the Arab Spring process. How Tunisia has survived its democratic experiment is almost a miracle. Lamia Benyoussef observed:
When I first went to the United States, I was shocked at how overtly religious the people were. When I grew up in Tunisia, we did study religion in school. But it was always personal.
Which may explain why American reporters are so obsessed with religious explanations for everything in the "Muslim world"!


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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


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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