Sunday, December 25, 2005

Piers’ Christmas gift for Aussie Mossies

It’s easy to dismiss Piers Akerman’s writings as just another example of tabloid rant. Yes, it’s true that much of his writing on “Muslim” issues is inspired by (or, at best, laced with) ignorance. He clearly has little understanding of the variety of Muslim cultures that exist in Australia. His simplistic analysis and neo-Conservative politics don’t help.

I could spend many a paragraph hacking into the simplistic and spurious analysis of Mr Ackerman. In fact, I’ve done so on numerous e-mail groups over the past 2 years or so. But then, the fact is that we still read what he has to say. So do hundreds of thousands of others.

We have to keep in mind what is Ackerman’s role in writing his pieces - to express an opinion, to generate a response and to give his readers something to think about. The fact that so many people spend so much time criticising him means that Ackerman has achieved his goals.

And amongst all the invective, some real home truths emerge. His Christmas day article is an example of this.

As is his usual practise, Piers has a go at the real enemy – those he describes as the feel-good left-wing media mainstream. Piers’ usual targets are the ABC and “its print arm, the Fairfax press”.

He claims this sector has engaged in hypocrisy in its reporting of both the Nguyen execution in Singapore and the Cronulla riots. He commences his Cronulla analysis as follows:

Similarly, the usual suspects determined to paint Australia as a nation of knuckle-headed racists were quick to slander fellow citizens when a drunken mob turned on young Lebanese Muslims at Cronulla.

On the surface, Piers distinguishes between “fellow citizens” and “young Lebanese Muslims”. For some of us regular Piers critics, that would be a tempting analysis. Except that the point Piers is perhaps trying to make is that all Australians are demonised as racist by certain sectors of the media. Further, he acknowledges that the attackers were a “drunken mob”.

What Piers should know is that in most people, an excess of alcohol generally removes inhibitions and enables people to speak more freely and honestly. One wonders if the same crowd would have pulled off the same violent riots without alcohol.

Piers also ignores police and intelligence reports of white supremacist groups’ involvement in organising and directing the riots. Perhaps his response would be that white supremacists do not represent all Anglo-Australians.

But then, what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander. One hopes that Piers will one day recognise that a handful of lawless young Muslims do not represent the attitudes of 300,000-plus Aussie Muslims.

Piers then makes mention of certain manifestations of “the troubled minds of younger members of the Arabic-speaking Muslim community”. These include gang rapes, drive-by shootings and convoys smashing cars and destroying property. Piers also implies that Lebanese Muslim youth are behind a recent attack on a church in Auburn, though at the time of writing his piece police had laid no charges on that ugly incident.

The meat of Piers’ argument can be found in the next few paragraphs.

Decades of politically correct policing have failed lawless young Muslims, and their self-appointed leaders have done nothing to assist their entry to Australian society. The very notion of multiculturalism giving all cultures equal standing is fundamentally flawed.

Piers is far more honest than some of the op-ed writers at that most tabloid of broadsheets, The Australian. He at least is honest enough to state that he doesn’t regard all cultures as equal, thus implying a belief that Anglo-Australian culture in inherently superior. Piers attacks the heart of multicultural policy, unlike many op-ed contributors to The Australian who pretend to attack only one or two symptoms.

Yet the concept of cultural eugenics should really be left to WWII Germany where it belongs. What Piers should be talking about is the cultural irrelevance of those Piers rightly describes as “self-appointed leaders” of Muslims.

Piers displays an advanced degree of ignorance in the following sentence.

There is no way the misogynistic values of Sharia law can be equated with the values of equality embedded in Australian law.

Whether Piers likes it or not, there are many values of sharia (the Arabic name given to the broad corpus of Islamic legal traditions) which are in fact embedded in Australian law. For instance, the emphasis of our commercial law on mediation and arbitration is (according to at least one Australian judge and jurist) directly borrowed from classical sharia.

Piers should also consider exactly what are the values of sharia. He might, for instance, consider reading the transcript of a lecture given by a senior lawyer and representative of the largest Islamic organisation on earth, the Nahdlatul Ulama of Indonesia.

Muhammad Fajrul Falaakh told a packed audience at the Centre for Independent Studies that in the world’s largest Islamic nation, sharia law is associated more with the gender-neutral areas of banking and finance than with criminalising sexual behaviour.

Mr Falaakh made these comments in 2002. The most recent Indonesian election results show that not much has changed. As SBY knows full well, running on an election platform of fighting religious extremism and terrorism gains you plenty of votes.

But that’s Indonesia, our closest neighbour. At home, I am not aware of a single Muslim group that calls for the introduction of sharia into Australia. Even the fringe Hizbut Tahrir group have ruled out any attempt to campaign for an Aussie version of sharia.

Australia should promote itself as cosmopolitan, reflecting the contributions of migrants who have achieved their dreams here, not laud those who proclaim their allegiance to failed Middle Eastern states.

And who does that, Piers? Which Middle Eastern state do I proclaim my allegiance to?

The only Muslims I know who keep swearing allegiance to foreign governments are the very self-appointed leaders Piers criticises. Even the Lebanese thugs who attack surf lifesavers don’t do so in the name of a Middle Eastern government.

Perhaps Piers should be asking John Howard why he keeps giving legitimacy to these self-appointed leaders. Why does he and his Attorney-General keep visiting the institutions managed by the Saudi Government’s paymaster in Sydney, to the exclusion of other schools and institutions? And why does Piers' favoured government insist on inviting these self-appointed leaders to reference groups and summits?

Piers is right about the self-appointed leaders. Yet these same leaders sit in their positions and take funding for projects they never implement beyond employing their otherwise unemployable relatives.

Piers knows as well as I do that the government wants these sources of idiocy to rule the halal roost in Australia. Why? Because these fools cannot engage the government on equal terms in policy, media or law reform. The government would rather have compliant peak body leaders who will suck upto John Howard in the same manner as they have sucked upto King Fahd and Colonel Gaddafi for all these years.

Piers' favoured conservative government prefers to deal with the mafia of middle aged migrant men. It wants to promote organisations that don’t involve women and young people. Because such bodies will not challenge the government’s agenda.

Muslim communities should look hard at those who claim to represent them and ask whether they are genuinely attempting to promote integration into our society.

Actually, the allegedly conservative government should look hard at who it chooses to promote as so-called “moderate” leaders. The government should ask itself what scandals will erupt when it turns out the organisations it sponsors and funds have been involved in a range of financial and other improprieties.

Perhaps, Piers, you should have a chat to one of your colleagues at The Australian (the news section, not the fringe op-ed section) who is busy collecting a range of material on a variety of individuals and organisations associated with the Muslim Community Reference Group and its sub-committees.

Then again, much of the reason these people are in their positions is because ordinary Muslims are too busy with their jobs and businesses to deal with the problem. Aussie Muslims are too busy being Australian to worry about communal issues. They are too concerned with the same mainstream issues and struggles facing their fellow countrymen and women of other faiths and no faith in particular.

Young Muslims who proclaim they are Australian might, for example, explore the anathematisation of co-operation with non-Muslims preached by many imams.

Again, which imams preach this? One could accuse local imams of many things. One could accuse them of not being able to speak English. Or of being too busy fulfilling irrelevant cultural roles imposed on them by the management committees of mosques. Or of only working as hard as their measly salaries can justify.

Maybe Piers should sit down with imams and find out what they preach. But that would mean having to learn Arabic and perhaps half a dozen other languages – Bahasa Indonesia, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Bangla, Bosnian, Turkish and Albanian.

Young Muslims should ask questions about why their mosques are divided along ethnic lines. They should also be asking what sort of education their imams have and whether an accreditation system can be established so that imams fulfil genuine pastoral roles of relevance to English-speaking Muslims in a Western country.

They might ask why their so-called leaders leave them feeling alienated, why their communities place so little emphasis on education, and why unemployment is endemic among Muslims.

Excuse me, Piers. Which Muslim community are you talking about? Are you talking about the Indians and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who all want to send their kids to Sydney Grammar or Wesley College? Or the Egyptians and Palestinians who want their kids to become doctors and lawyers and bankers?

Are you talking about the new and growing Islamic independent school sector that has produced some of the most outstanding academic results in New South Wales and Victoria?

Perhaps Piers should visit Friday prayers at a university and speak to some of the young people there. He’ll find a range of students at undergraduate and post graduate level.

Perhaps most importantly, Piers might ask himself why the Australian Bureau of Statistics does not report unemployment figures according to religious affiliation.

There is no underlying racism preventing Lebanese, or anyone else, from participating positively in our society.

I have no complaint with this phrase, beyond saying that a lot has to do with which area of work or activity a person chooses to involve him or herself in. And at the end of the day, being visibly Muslim may be tough, but it is a breeze compared to being visibly Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Lebanese Christians have been central to the mercantile life of this nation for more than a century; Lebanese Muslims should ask themselves why they have marginalised themselves.

I can only presume Piers doesn’t bank with the National Australia Bank, and doesn’t read the Australian Financial Review magazine. I also presume Piers doesn’t follow Australian Rugby League football, nor had he ever been represented by some of Australia’s top commercial law firms.

Australians of Lebanese Muslim background can be found in all fields of endeavour. Indeed, Mr Ackerman’s own newspaper recently engaged a student of Lebanese Muslim background from the University of Western Sydney as a cadet journalist.

The October 2005 edition of the Australian Financial Review magazine was devoted to power and who wields it in Australia. In the area of financial services, the AFR named Ahmed Fahour (head of the NAB’s Australian and Asian banking division) as being in the top 5. His influence, both as a former player in the New York office of Citigroup and in his current role at the NAB, gives him “the power to redraw the battlelines in Australia” in the finance industry.

Finally, there is nothing inherently conservative about creating demons out of ethno-religious communities. Conservatives love to speak of their loyalty to their “Judeo-Christian” heritage, all the while forgetting that both Moses and Jesus taught a message based on love for all peoples.

British conservatives such as William Wilberforce were at the forefront of agitating for the elimination of slavery from the British Empire. Conservatives have a proud tradition of recognising the inherent virtues of all peoples regardless of race, religion or colour. Those conservatives who seek to marginalise and demonise people on the basis of their ethno-religious heritage are showing complete disdain toward the essence of Western conservative traditions.

Just as those who wish to impose their alien and irrelevant values and administrative practices on a largely locally-born community are going against the grain of Islamic values and heritage.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Family, friends and a sense of real unity

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Christmas is traditionally a time for family and friends getting together and for exchanging gifts. Among my extended family and close friends, Muslim and non-Muslim, both will be done. And both sides of the Tasman are involved.

An uncle from Los Angeles visited Australia for the first time and his wife convinced me to take both of them to New Zealand. Our trip coincided with the Sydney beach riots which made my relatives particularly desperate to leave Sydney although I joked: "Hey, you guys must be used to that sort of thing, coming from LA".

Napier, New Zealand

We were in New Zealand for five days, only enough time to drive a circle around the North Island. Despite our requests, my mother and aunt refused to remove their headscarves. As if the rioters were crossing the Tasman to cause more trouble. The closest we did come to cultural conflict was walking down the main street of Napier in search of breakfast. I noticed the locals staring. Naturally, I presumed the ladies' defiance over their headscarves was disturbing.

Then one of the locals shouted the real cultural reason for the stares. "Why are you wearing that damned Wallabies' jersey in New Zealand?"

Before leaving for New Zealand, I decided to deliver my Christmas gifts early. One recipient of this clean-shaven Islamic Santa's largesse was a Kiwi friend of mine who never met her Muslim dad. This year she will receive a package of three books, including a selection of Rumi poems and the latest Deepak Chopra offering.

As usual, I will spend Christmas Day having lunch with my best mate. We both attended Sydney's only Anglican Cathedral School. Some years back, I introduced him to a Japanese friend. They instantly clicked. I was best man at their wedding.
It was a truly Australian event - an Anglican boy marrying a Buddhist girl with a Muslim best man, all taking place at St Andrews Cathedral.

At age 14, I was given my first translation of the Koran in English, a very old version first published in Lahore during the 1930s and made by a high-ranking Indian civil service named Abdullah Yusuf Ali. The Jesus story can be found in a chapter of the Koran named "Maryam" (Arabic for Mary).

It begins with the usual supplication that commences all but one chapter: "In the name of God, Most Gracious and Most Merciful".

This supplication is used not only when commencing a reading of the Koran, but precedes virtually all the daily actions of a Muslim, both mundane and devotional.

The chapter describes how John the Baptist appeared on the scene. John (named Yahiya in classical Arabic) was born to Zachariah, and both father and son are revered as prophets. Once John has been mentioned, Mary is introduced. She is described as withdrawing from her family "to a place in the East". A messenger from God appears in her private chamber announcing she shall have the gift of a holy son.

Mary: How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?

Angel: So it will be: Thy Lord saith: "That is easy for Me: and We wish to appoint him as a sign unto men and as a Mercy from Us". It is a matter so decreed.

Following the birth, Mary took her son back to her family. Her father was a respected rabbi and Mary was always known for her modesty and chastity. When she was first publicly accused of sexual impropriety, she pointed to the baby Jesus.

The Koran describes the first miracle of Christ - his speaking from the cradle in defence of his mother.

His exact words were:

"I am indeed a servant of God: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet. And he hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me prayer and charity as long as I live.

"He hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable. So peace is on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised up to life again."

A number of Jesus' other miracles are mentioned in the Koran, as is Christ's ascension. It is not surprising then that in the place where it all happened, the Palestinian town of Beit Lahm (Bethlehem), Muslims and Christians both celebrate Christmas.

In many Muslim countries, Christmas is a public holiday. And when Christian leaders remind us that "Jesus is the reason for the season", our Muslim brethren should find nothing objectionable in this.

Christmas should remind us that, despite cultural and theological differences, the things that unite us are greater and more important than those which divide us.

(First published in the New Zealand Herald on December 22, 2005.)

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Theology of Hate

Today, Baghdad is a city in ruins. Almost daily, we watch TV news of another suicide bombing in which more innocent lives are lost to some wacko form of 'jihad'. But were things always this bad?

Some 900 years ago, Baghdad was the centre of civilisation. Europe may have been struggling out of its Dark Ages, but Baghdad was experiencing a Renaissance.

It was around this time that a great Baghdad jurist named Abdul Qadir Jilani appeared. Jilani is regarded as one of Islam's greatest legal scholars. Yet this Christ-like figure also spent many years in the wilderness searching for the real meaning of life. He found it in the mystical traditions of Sufism.

In his classic work, Fayuz-i-Yazdani, we read the following:

Once a person said to a dervish, 'All I ask for is a small dwelling in Paradise.' The dervish replied, 'If you displayed the same contentment with what you already have in this world, you would have found ultimate bliss.'

Sufis were not escapist mystics hiding in caves and escaping from the world — they believed that the path to God lay in the struggle for justice and truth, and that the highest state of spirituality was not achieved by total immersion in the Divine Being, but through service to one's fellow human beings.

We often hear of modern politicised 'Islamism' — a term devised by veteran islamophobe Daniel Pipes to describe a modern political ideology which co-opts the religious terminology and symbols of Islam to achieve essentially political ends. But for neo-Conservatives like Daniel Pipes and Mark Steyn to claim Islamic religion must always be kept separate from politics is the height of hypocrisy. In reality, 'Islamism' is little more than neo-Conservative Islam.

Many neo-Cons use the language of Biblical Zionism and Armageddon to foment a clash of civilisations. Similarly, the nutcases from al-Qaeda and other fringe groups use Islamic theology and its symbols to fight their war against anything they deem against their vision for the world.

What both the American and Muslim neo-Cons have in common is a deep-seated hatred for Muslims. If you don't believe me, read Pipes's article 'Two Opposite Responses to Terrorism', published in the tabloid New York Post on 14 September, 2004.

The article's thesis is simple. When Nepalese civilians in Iraq are kidnapped by dissidents, members of the majority Nepalese Hindu community lynched their Muslim countrymen, burnt their shops and destroyed their homes. Nepalese civilians were then released. The French, on the other hand, respond to kidnappings of their nationals in Iraq by sending French Muslim delegations and other peaceful means. These didn't work and French nationals were killed.

The moral of the story? The best way to fight Iraqi dissidents and secure the release of your nationals is to persecute your Muslim minority. Basically, bring on another Cristalnacht. How such a hate-filled article could have found its way into the otherwise sober Melbourne Age beats me. Both in aims and results (race-hatred, terror and repression) there is very little difference between between Pipes's prescription and the activities of al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Zarqawi.

That is the macro-theory. What about the micro-reality? How can these fringe Muslim movements convince young people to adopt suicide as a religiously mandated option when their entire theology is based on living and struggling even when the odds are stacked against them?

Perhaps this is where the recent movie Paradise Now becomes essential viewing. This is not a movie to watch on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Or maybe it is, because that's when a friend and I watched it.

My friend is of South Indian Tamil background. I am of North Indian Muslim background. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were most successful in using suicide bombing as a weapon, and their methods were adopted by terrorist groups masquerading as 'Islamic movements' — HAMAS, Islamic Jihad, al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah — and, it seems, second and third generation North Indian and Pakistani boys in Leeds and London … and Iraqis and Jordanians and others responsible for the recent bombings in Jordan.

Not a single bomb goes off in the 90 minutes of this movie. A few images were shown of young men being shot at by soldiers.

For the most part, the movie centred upon a few characters. There is Suha (played by Lubna Azabal), the middle-class daughter of a Palestinian hero. She has arrived in the West Bank town of Nablus after spending years studying in France and Morocco, and speaks Arabic with a distinctly cosmopolitan North African accent.

Suha has her car repaired by young Said (Kais Nashef), and takes a liking to him. Said's childhood friend Khaled (Ali Suliman) loses his job, and has little to do except spend time with activists from an un-named group. Khaled has enlisted Said to join him on a mission.

For Khaled, the suicide mission to Tel Aviv is about faith and resistance. For Said, there are much deeper wounds. At age 10, Said learnt of his father being executed by the 'Resistance' for acting as an agent for the Israel's Shin Beth agency. Said and his family have been living that shame ever since.

When Said asks his mother (Hiam Abbass) to tell him about his father. She brushes off his question with: 'Whatever he did, he did for our benefit. May God have mercy on him.'

Perhaps more powerful than the characters are the images of Nablus itself. This really does seem like hell-on-earth — dirty water, no jobs, checkpoints, humiliating searches, air raids, concrete everywhere.

The film captures the daily struggles of Palestinians — the human side of the conflict between Arab and Israeli — rather than the de-humanising depiction of leaders, press conferences and political statements we usually see in our world of sound bites. In one scene, Said asks Khaled why one of their uncles limps. Khaled casually tells the story of the first Intifada, when Israeli soldiers asked the uncle which leg he would like to keep before disposing of the other leg using machine gun fire and boots.

This is depressing stuff. But for me, as a Muslim, the most depressing thing was the raw cynicism of the organisers of the suicide mission. These two men, known in the film by the title 'Abu' ('Father of'), clearly had little faith in what they were doing, but were happy to send depressed and disheartened young people to their deaths.

So why did these young boys decide to kill themselves? Was it a wish for martyrdom? Was it to have their posters pasted on the walls of Nablus?

After the film, my friend and I discussed Said and Khaled's motivation. For my friend, it was a case of hopelessness combined with depression and despair, soaked in injustice and oppression.

For me it was all these things manipulated by warped theology. The boys were told they were fighting for their homeland. They were reminded about the horrors of the Israeli occupation, and the hypocrisy of the Palestinian bourgeois chardonnay-socialists, as represented by the character Suha.

While the selfish hypocrisy of the 'Islamist' ringleaders was clear, the luxuriant hypocrisy of Suha, whose overseas travel and ostentation represent all that is corrupt and wrong with the Palestinian Left (and the Left in general), was also glaring. Suha's attempts to convince the boys away from their mission were so unconvincing as to be almost farcical. Her empty political rhetoric and ideological mantras could do little to erase the pain these boys felt.

Socialism is no match for mysticism. But tragically, the indigenous Islamic mysticism of the Palestinian boys had been hijacked by the 'Islamicists'. This mysticism focussed on revenge and hatred.

Instead of fighting for real Islam, these boys were sucked into the world of fraudulent Islam which taught them to blow themselves up and kill civilians.

That same fraudulent Islam was exceptionally convenient when used to fight the West's proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. But when Osama ceased being bin-Reagan and returned to being bin-Laden, this fraudulent Islam became the excuse to demonise the true mainstream Sufi Islam.

Had these two young boys been given a proper grounding in the works of jurists and mystics like Abdul Qadir Jilani and others, perhaps they would have recognised the fraudulent nature of the 'Abu' brigade's message. But it's easy for me sitting in my comfortable middle-class Sydney home to speculate. I have no idea what it is like to live in a shanty town surrounded by hostile Jewish religious fanatics and brainwashed by Muslim religious fanatics.

The theology of hate is not what I was taught. And it is my responsibility and the responsibility of all those who claim to be liberal to ensure that our future generations are not infected with neo-Conservatism, whether of the Muslim or Judeo-Christian variety.

(First published in New Matilda on Wednesday 7 December 2005.)

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Flippant thoughts on Cronulla from Kiwistan

I’ve just arrived back from New Zealand after spending 5 days driving with relatives around North Island. During that time, I saw many geysers, lots of Maori names for townships and suburbs and no shortage of sheep grazing on rolling green plains.

I was also able to gauge the responses of Kiwi newspapers and TV journalists and a few ordinary Kiwis to the Cronulla riots. Most Kiwis I spoke to were simply unimpressed.

Both the New Zealand Herald (for whom I occasionally write) and the Dominion Post reported the rioting in similar manner. Both highlighted the role of Sydney shockjocks in stirring up the riots, with one paper devoting at least 5 paragraphs to excerpts from comments made by Radio 2GB’s Alan Jones.

I received a call from a reporter from New Zealand’s publicly owned radio station. Our conversation went something like this.

“Hello, Mr Yusuf. We’ve read some of your pieces in the Herald. We wanted to get your views on the recent race riots.”

“Wow, do you guys get the Sydney Morning Herald?”

“No, I meant the Auckland Herald. Anyway, what do you think of the suggestion made by the NSW Police Commissioner that some Middle Eastern people hate Australian culture?”

When I told the reporter I had just arrived in Auckland that afternoon and hadn’t had a chance to see what Aussie papers were saying, he started to lose interest. And after telling him the whole thing was a law and order issue and not one of race or culture, the reporter politely ended the conversation.

Some Kiwi beaches are known for getting their human inhabitants into hot water. A friend of mine who’d lived in North Island for 4 years before settling in Sydney suggested I visit Hot Water Beach on the north-east end of North Island. “Dig into the sand and you’ll get hot water from thermal springs under the ground. You can mix the thermal water with the cold sea water and make your own natural spa!”.

But I doubt the hot water on New Zealand beaches will involve young man with hotted up cars, bad attitudes and even worse haircuts assaulting lifeguards or insulting female bathers. Nor is it likely to involve inebriated and intoxicated mobs baying for the blood of anyone resembling Jesus Christ or any other Middle Easterner.

The closest thing I saw to a riot in New Zealand was in Napier. I was walking with two female relatives, both clothed in traditional Muslim headscarves. We were walking down the main street in search of breakfast. I noticed we were getting dirty looks from the locals.

Naturally, I presumed the looks were the result of my Aussie mum and LA aunt wearing their exotic head gear. I was soon faced with the real reason for the stares when one gentleman who resembled something from a Bondi Beach pub fight screamed out:

“What are yoh do-ung hair wierung thet fruggun jersey?” [trans: “What are you doing here wearing that friggin jersey?]

I looked down and noticed the green and gold Wallabies jersey sticking out like a sore thumb.

The indigenous people of New Zealand, known to most of us as Maoris, have managed to negotiate a much more powerful role in mainstream New Zealand society. I haven’t read a lot about New Zealand history, and I still haven’t finished that book on “Community Issues in New Zealand” I was supposed to review for the Law Society Journal (they sent me the book back in 1997!).

However, my good Kiwi friend “Brudgette” (as I sometimes call her) gave me a few clues about how the Maoris made it big in Kiwistan. Now Brudge is of Scottish ancestry and hails from some town outside Christchurch famous for having a lighthouse. She uses somewhat funkier language than the rest of us.

“Basically what happened, babe, is that the Maoris smashed the crap outta the Poms and even managed to teach them a thing or two about trench warfare. The experience proved useful when the Poms went onto get hammered in subsequent WWI battles. Is that clear, gorgeous?”

(Or something like that. I was jetlagged at the time she told me this.)

The Maoris subsequently signed the Treaty of Waitangi in the 1830’s and secured a fairly generous settlement of land and other contentious issues. At least that’s what I think they did. Though a Maori Land Court still exists to settle outstanding land claims.

The point is that the Poms in Kiwistan were far more respectful toward the natives. Perhaps this respect has translated itself into greater tolerance toward subsequent arrivals. The cultural tang of Waitangi continues to taste fresh and seems to enable all sectors of Kiwistan, indigenous and not-so-indigenous, to enjoy themselves in piece and share the Kiwistani beaches and hot springs.

Perhaps if Australia’s settlers and convicts had entered into a similar treaty with our indigenous peoples, the subsequent arrivals may have had a better reception. If Aussie Muslims think they have it rough, spare a thought for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are still the most disadvantaged of ethnic groups in Australia.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

AFIC ignores youth projects

Last week, 66 young Muslims aged 12 to 29 from across Australia gathered for a summit in Sydney. The summit was sponsored by the Federal Government and organised by the Australian Multicultural Foundation.

Why would the government sponsor an event like this? Isn’t it the role of Muslim leadership bodies to bring young Muslims together? After all, that’s what peak bodies from Jewish, Christian and other faith communities do.

All the major political parties have a youth wing, and young people are represented on the party executives and in pre-selections.

Over 50% of the Australian Muslim community were born in Australia and are aged under 40. Over 50% of the entire Muslim community are women. Yet these 2 key groups are not represented in the national Muslim body, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC).

You would think AFIC would spend money on organising activities and initiatives to combat the problems of Muslim youth. You’d think AFIC would at least bother to do some research and consultations to find out what the problems facing Muslim you are. Think again.

AFIC’s executive consists entirely of middle-aged men, most of them first-generation migrants with poor English language skills. These men manage millions of dollars in assets and income. How is that money spent? Who is it spent on? What share goes to Muslim youth projects?

Recently, reports surfaced that AFIC was investing around $2 million in a new Muslim school in Victoria. You’d think spending money on a Muslim school was a youth project. Think again.

There are plenty of Muslim schools in Victoria. Many of these schools are struggling to reach enrolment quotas. In what way could an additional school benefit young Muslims, many of which have already left school?

Further, AFIC schools have refused to join the Australian Council of Islamic Education in Schools. Further, AFIC schools have refused to sign a charter of the Council opposing terrorism and all forms of extremism.

And given the attitudes displayed by AFIC spokesmen toward women, one wonders what sort of values would be taught at such schools. Who could forget AFIC President Dr Ameer Ali lecturing Australian model and Muslim convert Michelle Leslie on what she should and shouldn’t wear?

AFIC has not conducted any studies on the supply and demand for independent Islamic schools in Melbourne. Yet it expects Australian tax payers to provide it with funding for a proposal which Australia’s peak Muslim educational body opposes. I hope Education Minister Dr Nelson is reading this.

So what do Muslim youth really want? The communiqué from the National Muslim Youth Summit lists a number of items. These include real and pressing issues such as drug abuse, family violence, parenting programs and pre-marriage counselling. The summit also called for increased funding for media projects, apprenticeships, employment services, youth camps and youth services.

These projects cost money. AFIC has the money. $2 million could go a long way toward managing and funding such projects. At the very least, AFIC could resume holding a national youth camp, the last of which was held in 1987.

Instead of providing funding for such projects, AFIC expects the Australian government to cough up the money. As a Muslim, I am disgusted that a body claiming to represent me will not fund projects for an age bracket that makes up the majority of Muslim Australians. As a taxpayer, I am horrified that my taxes will be paid to private communal projects that should be funded from that community.

Instead, we see similar and much-needed services and projects being provided by groups led by radical sheiks in Melbourne and Sydney. I recently paid a visit to one youth centre in South Western Sydney. I found gym facilities, a tuckshop, a bookshop, internet terminals and a large hall that doubled up as a prayer room and indoor soccer facility.

But if I go to most mainstream mosques affiliated with AFIC, I find imams and leaders who cannot speak English and are almost completely disinterested in the needs of women and young people. It is these leaders whose delegates make up AFIC and who choose the AFIC executive.

Muslim leaders are refusing to provide much needed services to their communities. And taxpayers of all faiths are footing the bill. It is time Muslims took control of their leadership bodies from the increasingly irrelevant migrant men who currently rule the halal roost.

The author is a Sydney-based lawyer, a former Federal Liberal candidate and former President of the Islamic Youth Association of NSW.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

NZ Muslims must act now to secure release of Sooden

Australian are all too familiar with the gut-wrenching experience of watching a fellow Australian being paraded on amateur video and used as a pawn by terrorists. Iraqi terrorists from a shadowy group known as the “Shura Council of the Mujahideen of Iraq” held Douglas Wood directly hostage for 47 days, issuing threats and impossible deadlines and releasing videos of the captured Australian.

They also indirectly held Mr Wood’s family and the nation hostage. The Wood family were forced to employ measures which, at the time, they must have thought of as desperate.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on May 8 2005 that members of the Wood family travelled to the Imam Ali ben Abi Taleb Mosque to speak with the controversial Sydney Sheik Tajeddine el-Hilaly, whose various titles include “Mufti of Australia and New Zealand”.

The term “Mufti” literally means someone who is qualified to give authoritative legal opinions on novel questions of Islamic law (known in Arabic as “fatwas”). It is a title usually reserved for the most senior imam in a community.

Following the recording of a plea to the hostages in Arabic, Sheik Hilaly surprised media present by announcing he would personally fly to Iraq in an attempt to speak with the captors and secure Mr Wood’s release.

Sheik Hilaly was touched by the plight of Mr Wood, with whom the Sheik shared a common age and heart condition. Notwithstanding the Sheik’s precarious health situation, he literally risked his life to travel to Iraq to save the life of a fellow Australian and a fellow human being.

And Sheik Hilaly was not the only person involved in the effort. Australians from all walks of life came together and worked to secure Mr Wood’s release. Australian efforts included Foreign Minister Alexander Downer appealing on al-Jazeera Television for Mr Wood’s release.

The Wood family themselves worked closely with the Australian contingent, including Imam Hilaly. They produced a website with tributes to Mr Wood and with photos of him with his family. A number of advertisements were also placed in Iraqi newspapers calling on Iraqis to assist with Mr Wood’s release and pleading with the kidnappers to return him to his family.

Australians of Muslim background were sickened to see another innocent civilian suffering due to the acts of criminals committing crimes against humanity in the name of Islam. Despite his being subject to Muslim criticism due to irresponsible statements over the years, Sheik Hilaly won the hearts of Muslim and non-Muslim Australians through his mission.

Sheik Hilaly was provided with support and assistance by the Muslim peak body, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) who worked closely with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) and Iraqi officials.

The kidnapping of New Zealand resident and Canadian citizen Harmeet Singh Sooden and other members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) has some parallels to the treatment of Australian civilian hostage Douglas Wood.

New Zealand Muslims, like their Australian counterparts, cannot and should not be held responsible for the actions of ideologically charged maniacs who attack the lives of innocent people and hold families and nations hostage. But like their Australian counterparts, New Zealand’s Muslim leaders may be able to take certain active steps.

The peak New Zealand Muslim body, known as the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ), should work with AFIC and the Canadian Islamic Congress to secure the services of Sheik Hilaly or other suitable mediators in an effort to secure the release of Mr Sooden and other hostages.

Whether Imam Hilaly is recognised as Mufti by New Zealand’s Muslim communities is uncertain. However, his role (even if minor) to secure the release of Douglas Wood was recognised by Prime Minister Howard in his address on June 15 2005 to the Commonwealth Parliament announcing the release of Mr Wood.

Such efforts on behalf of the Australian and New Zealand Muslim communities are essential given the natural abhorrence Muslims have (or at least should have) toward terrorism. Moreover, the kidnap of members of the CPT movement does not in any way further the cause of Iraqi self determination.

The CPT movement were always known for their opposition to the invasion of Iraq by Coalition forces. Their work has not been confined to Iraq. The CPT have played a major role over the years in protecting and campaigning for the rights of Palestinian Muslims and Christians in the Occupied Territories, a cause close to the heart of Muslims in New Zealand and across the world.

Unlike other evangelical groups, CPT has shown enormous respect for the faiths and cultures of Muslim communities with whom they work. CPT works at a grassroots level, refusing to accept money from any government. Mr Sooden’s own devotion to the cause of justice was shown in his participation in numerous rallies in support of Palestinian rights in New Zealand.

In its press release dated December 5 2005 calling for the release of Mr Sooden and his colleagues, the Canadian Islamic Congress noted: “CPT members do not proselytize or ever attempt to "convert" those for whom they offer support. Rather, they are individually and collectively motivated by their faith to devote their lives to helping the oppressed, working for justice, and fighting against war by peacefully "getting in the way" of violence against the innocent.”

The press release goes onto acknowledge CPT members “took on their duties with one simple and courageous purpose: to bear witness to injustice and to sincerely work alongside the people of Iraq for justice and peace.”

New Zealand Muslim leaders, in conjunction with their Australian and Canadian counterparts, must take a leading role in assisting where possible to secure Mr Sooden’s release. They should use whatever influence and contacts they have in Iraq and the broader Arab and Muslim world to impress upon the hijackers that any harm done to CPT in effect harms work from which millions of Iraqis and other Arabs benefit. Not to mention the enormous grief such harm would bring to Mr Sooden’s family and millions of New Zealanders who stand with them.

A precedent has already been set by the Australian Muslim community in seeking the release of Australian hostage Douglas Wood. It is hoped FIANZ can follow the lead of AFIC and other Australian Muslim peak bodies and offer whatever assistance they can.

The author is a Sydney-based lawyer and columnist for

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Rumi was no suicide bomber

I am Australian. My parents are from Delhi. My ancestry is Mughal. I am basically a Turko-Mongol. Or a Mongol-Turk. Depends on my mood.

My ancestors were not nice people. In fact, they were pretty damned awful. The Mongols turned war crimes and terrorism into an art form and a sport, all at once. They plundered cities, burnt buildings, massacred men and children and raped women before killing them.

Mongol atrocities make my hair stand on end when I read about them. They used to grab infants and babies by the feet and smash them against the wall to make their skulls crack open. They used to cut foetuses out of the wombs of mothers using swords. These were sick people.

When they reached Baghdad, it was the London or New York of its day. They just decimated the place. Baghdad was a city boasting thousands of libraries. Virtually all books were burnt. Jews and Muslims fled to India and other places.

The Mongols were my ancestors. Comparable to the Coalition forces in Iraq? Comparable to the Israeli forces in the West Bank and Gaza? Worse. Much worse.
My grandfather was a lawyer. He is one of my heroes, though I never met him.

Actually, my greatest hero (after the Prophet Muhammad) was also a lawyer. His name was Jalal ad-Din.

Jalal ad-Din was born in a place called Balkh, now in modern day Afghanistan on 30 September 1207. As a young boy, he was exposed to the horrors of the Mongol invasion. His parents fled with him to the safety of a city called Konya in what is now Turkey.

Jalal saw his family members and friends butchered as he was fleeing the Mongols. He was among a large group of asylum seekers that arrived in Konya, then the capital of the Seljuk Turkish Empire. Jalal’s father was a lawyer, and Jalal was trained to be a lawyer.

And he was no ordinary lawyer. Jalal had a phenomenal intellect. He was an awesome writer, a great judge and a brilliant teacher. He was perhaps the greatest lawyer of his time. He was a senior judge, a professor of law and had thousands of students. He also received a generous stipend from the state, a house and servants. Jalal lived the highlife.

Then at age 37, at the height of his career, Jalal met a man who … um … I’m not exactly sure what the man did. The man’s name was Shums. He was an asylum seeker from a place called Tabriz, a city also ravaged by the Mongols. Who knows what horrors Shums had seen. He was old and dishevelled. Most people in Konya looked upon Shums with disdain, especially when he made an appearance in the esteemed presence of Professor Jalal ad-Din.

The Professor didn’t see it that way. I believe one reason for this was that Professor Jalal ad-Din recognised the reasons behind the dishevelled appearance and the painful eyes. This man was a holocaust survivor, just as Jalal was.

But the people of that time were truly amazing. This man and Professor Jalal both had every reason to hate the Mongols. They had every reason to attack Mongol lands and terrorise the Mongol hordes. They even had the backing of powerful states.

These men had every reason to preach a theology of hatred. Instead, Professor Jalal learnt from Shums the message of divine love. That love was and is so powerful that to this day people of all faiths are benefiting from the message of Mevlana Jalal ad-Din Rumi.

Yes, that Professor Jalal is none other than Rumi, the great Muslim mystical poet. He started out as an asylum seeker, rose to the top of the worldly ladder and then left it all behind temporarily to learn the message of divine love. Had he not joined the dishevelled Shums, he would have remained Professor Jalal.

But filled with divine love, he became the Mevlana, the spiritual leader of millions of people across the world. Now, almost 900 years after his birth, people are still discovering the Islam of surrendering to divine love through Rumi’s words.

Rumi returned from his spiritual retreats completely transformed. He taught and wrote with such force that his lengthy Mathnawi is often described as “the Persian Qur’an.”
Eventually the Mongols caught upto the region of Rum, the old Byzantine Roman heartland conquered by the Seljuks. One of Rumi’s students is believed to have set a noble example of kindness and generosity to the Mongol leader who felt inspired to adopt Islam. His entire army did the same. They settled down and intermarried with Turkish Muslims.

The ancestors of these converted Mongol Turks eventually came to India and conquered the place. Had they not been inspired to put down their weapons, the Mongols may have raped and pillaged as far as Paris or London. Instead, they founded one of the greatest and most tolerant Muslim civilisations India had ever witnessed.

So now, reader, you might be able to guess why Mevlana Jalal ad-Din Rumi is my hero. He taught a message that was more powerful than all the suicide bombers and all the terrorist attacks in the world. He taught a message that defeated the enemies by transforming them into friends and brothers.

Rumi had every reason to hate the Mongols. They killed half his family. They almost killed his spiritual teacher Shums. But neither Shums nor his student were students of hatred, vengeance and violence. They were students of divine love.

If the Muslims of Rumi’s time could win over the Mongols, what is there to stop us living in the relative freedom of the West from winning over our countrymen and women? Filled with divine love, we can win over anyone with God’s permission.

Terror pushes the hearts away from God. Terror breeds hatred and more terror. But love is the divine magnet that drags people back to their Lord. Love turns your worst enemy into your bosom friend.

As Saul of Tarsus wrote in his letter to the people of Corinth:

If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a tinkling symbol. And if I have prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And if I dole out all my goods, and if I deliver my body that I may boast but have not love, nothing I am profited.

Love is long suffering, love is kind, it is not jealous, love does not boast, it is not inflated. It is not discourteous, it is not selfish, it is not irritable, it does not enumerate the evil.It does not rejoice over the wrong, but rejoices in the truth

It covers all things, it has faith for all things, it hopes in all things, it endures in all things.

Love never falls in ruins; but whether prophecies, they will be abolished; ortongues, they will cease; or knowledge, it will be superseded. For we know in part and we prophecy in part. But when the perfect comes, the imperfect will be superseded.

When I was an infant, I spoke as an infant, I reckoned as an infant; when I became [an adult], I abolished the things of the infant.

For now we see through a mirror in an enigma, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know as also I was fully known.

But now remains faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

And as Mevlana wrote in his Diwan-i-Shums:

Love means to reach for the sky and with every breath to tear a thousand veils.Love means to step away from the ego, to open the eyes of inner vision and not to take this world so seriously.

Congratulations dear heart;You have joined the circle of lovers, tell me in your own words when did this throbbing begin?

“I was absorbed in my work in this world but I never lost my longing for home.One day, exhausted with no strength left, I was lifted suddenly by the grace of Love.To describe this mustery there are no words”

(translated by Maryam Mafi & Azima Melita Kolin)

Two men, one message. The time has come to use the weapons of divine love to win the hearts of our country men and women.

(This article is written for my noble sister Yasmin, may God lighten her burdens.)

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney-based lawyer and occasional lecturer in the School of Politics at Macquarie University. He is a columnist for the Australian Islamic Review, Online Opinion and He is also 1 of 3 Muslim Ambassadors for the 2005 White Ribbon Day campaign in Australia.

© Irfan Yusuf

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Monday, November 28, 2005

Hands Off Michelle

What’s happened to some of our cultural Muslim leaders? Have they taken rocks out of their head (used by many for rock storage) and started throwing them at Aussie Muslim converts again? Hasn’t anyone reminded them yet that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones? Or should that be glass mosques?

Some years back, Michelle Leslie decided it was time for a change. According to friends, she was going through a difficult period in her life. One of her friends happened to be a Muslim.

Perhaps Michelle’s friend lent her a Quran (the Muslim scripture). Perhaps Michelle was taken to Sydney’s gorgeous Ottoman-style Gallipoli Mosque. Perhaps Michelle dated a Muslim guy.

In any event, this underwear and swimsuit model decided Islam was for her. She made the decision to convert, told some family and friends, and basically kept it to herself.

Michelle didn’t fundamentally change her career or her lifestyle. Why? Who knows. And more importantly, who cares.

But some Muslim leaders and commentators believe Leslie owes Muslims an explanation. Journalist and representative of the Forum of Australia’s Islamic Relations (FAIR), Salam Zreika, writes in the Australian and the Herald-Sun that Leslie has effectively snubbed her fellow Muslims by her inconsistent dress sense.

Meanwhile, Muslim leader Dr Ameer Ali says that Leslie should make up her mind whether she wants to be Muslim or not. He suggests she will have to change her career if she is to remain Muslim.

Huh? I was always taught by my observant Muslim mum that what makes you a Muslim is what you believe, not what you do. And at the end of the day, what you believe is between you and God.

The comments of those Muslims choosing to play God (or “Allah” as Muslims refer to God) are almost laughable if they weren’t hurtful. No Muslim is perfect. Neither is any Catholic or Anglican or Jew. Or even any Callithumpian.

Speaking from experience, when I experience difficulties in life, my religious observance tends to skyrocket. But when the going doesn’t get as tough, I slacken off a little. And I know that if I found myself in a prison cell in Bali, I would do anything to get God on side.

Those claiming Michelle Leslie wore a hijab (head scarf) and a burqah (full head covering) to win sympathy from the court should get a reality check. Indonesia may be the world’s largest Muslim majority country. But Bali is a Hindu-majority island. And the judge who sentenced Schapelle Corby (and who was probably the one who found Michelle guilty) was Christian.

But the comments of cultural Muslim leaders are also hypocritical. Anyone who went to the Multicultural Eid Festival at Sydney’s Fairfield Show Ground on Sunday would have seen thousands of young Muslim women wearing singlet tops and hipster jeans.

These are the same girls who would wear them up and down Sydney Road in Melbourne or Auburn Road in Western Sydney. The same Muslim girls who dance the night away at a Turkish dance party to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

Why isn’t Dr Ali pointing the finger at them? Is it because they, like he, are cultural Muslims for whom Islam is little more than their name being Fatima or Yasmin or Mariam.

But then, perhaps the Yasmin in the mini-skirt may in fact have a greater degree of faith in her heart than Dr Ali could even dream of. Perhaps the same Fatima prays regularly when she can. Perhaps God hears her prayers and not those of her accusers.

And why should the reality of Muslim dress surprise anyone? Many Muslim Australians have been part of the mainstream since the 1960’s (especially Turks and some Lebanese), and some since the end of the Second World War (Bosnians and Albanians).

And these Muslim girls who follow the latest fads and fashions are just as Muslim as anyone else. I used to have trouble getting up before sunrise to say the morning prayer (I still do). I asked my Muslim friend who works behind a bar. She suggested that when my alarm clock goes off, I sit up in bed and meditate. Sure enough it worked. So now in the Muslim scheme of things, she is getting rewarded by God for all my morning prayers.

Islam is not just a function of what you wear. It is a function of what you believe and how you behave with others. My barmaid friend’s miniskirts don’t bother me. But her advice and wisdom are a blessing in my life.

Muslim leaders should stop trying to act like Sophie Panopoulos and Bronwyn Bishop and let Muslim women dress as they please. Instead of lecturing Michelle Leslie, they should consider campaigning on more pressing issues such as the massive increase in domestic violence across all Australian communities.

Last Friday was my mum’s birthday. It was also White Ribbon Day, the UN’s designated International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. On this day, men wear a white ribbon to signify their refusal to sit back and tolerate when other men are abusive and violent to women.

Perhaps more Muslim leaders and imams could have led by example. Perhaps more Sydney imams could have devoted their Friday sermons to reminding their congregation of the severe divine punishment that await men who are abusive to their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters.

Perhaps those same imams can still wear white ribbons to show that they are far removed from that small minority of Muslim men who claim physical and sexual assault is part of their religious culture. Certainly these steps would make more sense than giving Michelle Leslie and her family a hard time.

The author is a Sydney lawyer and an ambassador for 2005 UNIFEM White Ribbon Day campaign.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

OPINION: Violence Against Women - Be part of the solution, not the problem

by Salam Zreika and Irfan Yusuf

YOU may have been shocked to see the most recent TV commercial for White Ribbon Day. In case you haven't seen it and are wondering what everyone's talking about, here is a brief summary.

A husband and wife are eating a meal quietly together in their home until they are disturbed by the sound of their neighbour shouting at and beating up his female partner repeatedly.

After a few moments of hearing screams and shouts as they try to eat, the husband picks himself and a baseball bat up, knocks on his neighbour's door and hands the offending male the bat, saying something like "here - this will help".

The message backing this disturbing ad is simple: "If you stay silent about violence against women, you may as well lend a hand. Or a baseball bat."

These days, we often see women working their way up in the world, showing success and gaining respect from their male colleagues.

Take one of us, for example. When she isn't bossing her husband around, Salam works in a senior role in a major financial institution. She also has martial arts training, and is quite confident she could defend herself against a male trying to assault her.

What we both have in common is we are Aussie Mossies, young Muslims brought up in Australia. One was born here, the other missed out by around five months. But we both know how prevalent domestic violence is in our own and other faith communities.

This year, one of us will join two other Muslim men and numerous other prominent men as ambassadors for White Ribbon Day in Australia.

Part of that role includes encouraging imams in Australia to devote their sermons this Friday to tackling the issue of domestic violence.

White Ribbon Day started in Canada in 1991. It was the initiative of a small group of men who wanted other men to speak out more about violence against women. But after 14 or so White Ribbon Days, there is still an big rise in violence against women, both in domestic and public settings, and across all faith communities.

It is actually quite disgusting to think that there are many men out there who still think it is all right to physically or emotionally hurt women because they believe they have the power or the right to do so.

Many people are oblivious to how common violence against women is.

Studies have shown more than a million Australian women experienced violence during a relationship with 600,000 women claiming they have lived in fear during a relationship. Worse, 20 per cent of women were pregnant when the violence first occurred!

Many victims are too frightened to report, and suffer in silence.

Friday November 25 is White Ribbon Day, the UN's designated International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

This year, men are being asked to wear white ribbons as a symbol they will no longer condone or stay silent about this issue. Whatever you think of the UN, no one can doubt the importance of this day and the urgency of this issue.

(This article is to be published in the Daily Telegraph on 23 November 2005)

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

COMMENT: Young Turks poised to take over Islamic Council of NSW

On Monday night, 14 November 2005, I witnessed a welcome sight at an open forum organised by the Islamic Council of NSW. After more than 2 decades of dominance by what could be described as “the Lebanese Mafia”, the ICNSW was showing signs of generational change.

I remember as a teenager watching a video of the Yusuf Islam tour to Australia which happened during the early-to-mid-1980’s. The former English pop star was invited as a guest of AFIC and the Islamic Council of NSW to advise on establishing Muslim independent schools.

A video of that tour was taken, and was entitled “Walking In the Light”. Appearing in that video was a much younger Lebanese migrant leader who even back then was heading the Islamic Council of NSW. And up until 2003/04, he was still heading the organisation. He is now Principal of a school controlled by the ICNSW. He does not hold an HSC, let alone a degree in educational administration.

But last night, it was very clear who was in charge. And it certainly wasn’t the same Lebanese family and their allies. It seems the power has moved firmly from the ghetto of Greenacre and Lakemba to Auburn and Bonnyrigg. This can only be described as a promising development.

The new generation in the ICNSW are educated and professional Australian Muslims of Turkish background. Turks have tended to be loyal by default to the Lebanese mafia families, allowing them to squander resources so long as Turks are left alone to do their own thing.

Turks are perhaps the most established, well-integrated and well-organised ethno-religious Muslim community in NSW (if not Australia). They have the largest network of mosques. One of their religious foundations runs schools with campuses in Prestons, Auburn and Shellharbour. Another of their groups has established sufi hospices in the countryside.

Turkish Islam is more orthodox, more spiritual and less influenced by extreme Wahhabist tendencies. It is also more tolerant and pluralist. Turkish culture is more European, and historically Turks have engaged with Europe more successfully than Arabs. Turkish Muslim outlook is less hostile and more Western. This makes Turks a far more integrated group than the Arabs.

Further, Turks have been in Australia much longer than the bulk of the Lebanese. They have built mosques and religious institutions in major and regional cities. Their fundraising is almost exclusively local. You don’t see Turkish Muslim leaders naming their mosque or school after a Saudi monarch or a Gulf Sheik.

Further, whilst Turkish mosques tend to have imams trained in Turkey, these imams have a much greater understanding of the needs of Muslims living as migrants in liberal democratic societies. In fact, if they do not already speak fluent English and/or German, most Turkish imams make a point of learning English.

While Sheik Hilali is wasting everyone’s time making silly media statements, Turkish imams are busy in Abbeys Bookshop buying up works on mainstream Australian culture, society and politics. Turkey’s imams are heavily influenced by the modernist vision of the new Turkish conservative government which has strong ties to Turkey’s sufi orders.

Perhaps the best feature of Turkish mosques is that they all make a point of establishing committees for women and youth. Turkish women and youth are actively involved in the affairs of their local mosques. Turkish mosques participate in mainstream Turkish-Aussie activities including soccer clubs and cultural activities.

When I became involved in political and business activities in Auburn in 2001/02, I was able to learn more about how Turkish Australians manage their religious affairs. I could now understand why the generation gap between elders and youth was far less pronounced amongst the Turks than other ethnic Muslim groups. Turkish elders had a far better understanding of Western culture, and most had successfully integrated into their adopted Australian environment.

Further, Turkish elders were more welcoming of young people. Turkish elders tended to have a much more strategic vision for their institutions, and realise that without involvement of young people the mosques will become stagnant and redundant.

Turks are the great Aussie Muslim success story. Their religiosity is very European, and they do not subscribe to the isolationist theology that infects many Arab Muslim migrant groups. As such, the increasing involvement of Turkish Aussies in the management of the Islamic Council of NSW is a welcome development.

Most promising is the presence of businessman Alf Coruhlu. Mr Coruhlu was brought up in Australia and is married to a Sri Lankan convert. He has close links to a broad range of Turkish groups and imams, and has served on the Bonnyrigg Mosque executive for a number of years.

Alf is also an investor in the Islamic Realm (iR) project which is seeking to invite sensible Muslim speakers to tour Australia and speak at major venues. iR’s most recent tour was that of Dr Tariq Ramadan (from Switzerland) and Mr Gary Edwards (from the United States). iR is developing close links with sensible Muslim institutions in Europe and North America.

Alf represents the new generation of Turkish Aussies who don’t just think outside the square but also act and live outside the square. His business acumen and ability to project manage will be a huge asset to the ICNSW.

Leading and assisting Alf in the reform process is the multi-talented ICNSW Chairman Kemal Ismen, a retired union delegate and organiser. Kemal has lived in North America and Australia, and brings a wealth of knowledge of Muslim religious institutional management in Western environments. Kemal speaks fluent English in a New Jersey accent.

The Turkish Muslim sector has always been active in mainstream Australian affairs. It has tended to shy away from migrant-dominated Islamic peak bodies. Turks have lived in Australia since the 1960’s, and are now into their 3rd and 4th generation. They are beginning to realise that they too are affected by the incompetence of peak bodies based in Sydney. Turkish involvement is a welcome development.

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

COMMENT: Moustapha al-Akkad - Sharing the Prophet in name and in film

Every life lost to terror is precious. Whether it be Sydney footballers or an anonymous London travellers, terror always claims innocent victims. But one recent terrorist incident should have really shaken the few Muslim left who only reluctantly condemn the terrorists.

Moustapha al-Akkad was no small fish in Hollywood. He was executive producer of the successful Halloween series of movies, from which he made millions. Halloween was released in 1978, and has regularly featured in lists of all-time great horror movies. The film had 7 sequels, the most recent of which was released in 2002.

Akkad was an American national. He had decided to move to Lebanon, taking advantage of the Mediterranean surrounds and the relative peace following decades of civil war and occupation. He was in Amman with his family to attend a wedding.

Akkad was born in the city of Aleppo in Syria, a Muslim town which provided shelter to thousands of Armenian refugees fleeing persecution during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. He moved to the United States at 18 years, and is said to have had only $200 and a Qur’an in his pocket when he arrived in Los Angeles.

Akkad studied film at UCLA, graduating in 1958. He completed his Masters from the University of Southern California where he focussed his attention on documentary making. Akkad went onto make documentaries for CBS across the world.

Despite being held captive to the American dream, Akkad never forgot his roots to his Syrian homeland or his Islamic faith. He used his directing skills to produce two movies regarded as classics across the Muslim World.

In 1976, Akkad produced and directed “The Message”, a film about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. He gathered actors of the calibre of Anthony Quinn, who played the Prophet’s uncle Hamza. Quinn also played the lead role in Akkad’s 1981 film “Lion of the Desert”, which portrayed the life and death of Libyan anti-colonial fighter Omar al-Mukhtar.

In a 1977 interview about “The Message”, Akkad described his reasons for making the film and his vision of his Islamic faith.

I did the film because it is a personal thing for me. Besides its production values as a film, it has its story, its intrigue, its drama. Beside all this I think there was something personal; being a Muslim myself who lived in the West, I felt that it was my obligation, my duty to tell the truth about Islam. It is a religion that has a 700 million following, yet it's so little known about, which surprised me. I thought I should tell the story that will bring this bridge, this gap to the West.
Akkad’s vision of Islam was as a faith which built bridges between hearts and civilisations. Like most Muslims, Akkad wanted to use his faith to be a source of peace, not conflict. The only terror (if one could call it that) Akkad wanted people to experience was from his horror movies.

Akkad was attending a wedding in Amman, Jordan when terrorists struck. He was standing outside the hotel where the wedding was being held. His 34 year old daughter, Rima Akkad Monla, was inside the hotel and was amongst those instantly killed in the blast. Akkad was severely injured and died in hospital on Friday.

Across the Arab world and the United States, tributes have been pouring in on this proud son of Aleppo. The Daily Star of Beirut, Akkad’s adopted city, writes:

Remembered by his friends and family here as a humble man whose words spoke volumes, he lived life to the fullest always loving the art of filmmaking and never stopped in his pursuit of bringing a true and peaceful image of Islam to the West. It is the most tragic of ironies that he died a victim of fellow Muslims claiming to fight in the name of the religion he so loved.
Akkad was planning to produce a movie on medieval Kurdish general Salahuddin (known in the West as Saladin) who defeated the Crusaders and drove them out of Jerusalem. Firas al-Atraqchi from al-Jazeera writes on 13 November 2005:

It was only two years ago that I sat across from him and his son Malek as he discussed the challenges he was facing in arranging financing for his new epic project – Salahuddin. Sitting comfortably in a leather chair in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in Cairo, Egypt, with a pipe in his hand, Akkad described his Salahuddin troubles as nearly synonymous to the challenges he faced when trying to put together a script for The Message – a film about the rise of Islam and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Atraqchi goes onto describe the problems Akkad faced in trying to convince the fringe Wahhabi religious establishment of Saudi Arabia to approve the making of a film about the Prophet Muhammad. The sunni scholars of al-Azhar and shia authorities of Southern Lebanon had given their approval. Only the wahhabi's were holding back.

The same ideology held back Akkad from completing his Salahuddin project. The al-Qaida terrorist network, an offshoot of the wahhabi cult, took responsibility for the Amman blasts which killed Akkad, his daughter and over 50 others.

In his book The Great Theft – Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, UCLA Law Professor Khaled Abou el-Fadl laments how contemporary attention on Islam focuses on the actions of fringe groups such as wahhabi's and al-Qaida. The result, argues el-Fadl, is that “the most emphatic moral values taught by Islam … mercy, compassion, and peace” are readily ignored.

This struggle between the violent fringe and the moderate mainstream continues. It continues to claim victims of all faiths and no faith in particular. It has now claimed Moustapha al-Akkad, a man who devoted much of his creative talent and wealth to building bridges between Muslims and the rest of humanity. Muslims in Australia , New Zealand and across the Western world owe it to humanity to continue his legacy.

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

COMMENT: Prove Piers Wrong

Some leaders of Muslim peak bodies have recently asked the government to deal with rednecks and hostile media following the recent terror-related raids in Sydney and Melbourne.

The leaders seem to allege that the government has a responsibility to protect Muslims from negative publicity. With all due respect, the leaders are wrong.

I suggest these leaders go and take a holiday up at Byron Bay. While they are there, they might learn some tips in good PR from Byron’s Mayor. What do I mean? Read on.

We live in a liberal democracy. We pay taxes and our government provides certain services. These include limited social welfare, courts, domestic security and universities. The government provides lots of things. But good PR for ethno-religious minorities is generally not regarded as a government matter.

The reality for good decent PR lies with the peak bodies themselves. We don’t see the government defending the Catholic Church over allegations of cover-ups in relation to child sexual assault. Nor do we see the government defending the people of Byron Bay when their youth accused of being rowdy and violent.

When the holiday town of Byron Bay was being lambasted in the media, Mayor Jan Barham stood up and defended the town. She spoke flawless English, addressed the facts and was well-prepared and well-briefed. She put on a polished performance.

When Muslims or Islam is attacked, who stands up and talks? What role do peak bodies and their leaders play? What messages do they send out?

In the aftermath of the terror raids, a non-English-speaking imam gets up and declares that rioting similar to that in France may result if the government isn’t careful. This same imam was quoted as saying that the gang-rapists did what they did because of the influence of Australian culture.

Following the first meeting of the Muslim Community Reference Group, the President of a peak body stood up and said in a thick accent that he would sell the new laws. He now stands up and repeats in the same accent that the government should stop Muslims being victimised by rednecks.

Yet it is these leaders and their irresponsible statements who give the rednecks good cause to say what they say and write what they write. And it is peak bodies that spend more money on litigating against each other than on decent PR that are largely to blame for the bad image Muslims have.

Piers Akerman and other writers can write columns about all members of the Muslim community being ignorant and resentful toward their host societies. But even Piers has a point.

Sheikh Fehmi El-Imam, of Melbourne's Preston mosque - which was attended by some of the accused - says the men are generally good people but sometimes young people have their own thoughts.

"Islam is a peaceful religion - let us be peaceful with everybody, peaceful in this country, make it a peaceful country for ourself and others at the same time," he said.

Well, don't just say it. Show it.

The appalling level of ignorance and unemployment among members of the Muslim community is a reflection of its lack of real leadership.

Yet peak bodies have spent little time and money showing it. In New South Wales alone, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) and the Islamic Council of NSW have squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars on frivolous litigation. The lawyers grew fat and the community suffered.

Imagine how far those hundreds of thousands of dollars could have gone. AFIC and other peak bodies could have spent money educating imams in English language courses so that kids didn’t have to go to radical thick-Sheiks whose only virtue was passable English skills.

AFIC could have spent the money on hiring a public relations firm and an advertising agency to help sell the reality of a peaceful and law-abiding community. AFIC could have set up a proper media response team and published a regular newspaper and newsletter. AFIC could have hired a professional public affairs and lobbying firm to advise and assist it in relation to the new anti-terror laws.

Instead, what we hear from AFIC are nonsensical remarks from their appointed mufti (who also happens to be … wait for it … their adviser on youth affairs!) and mixed signals from the President and the CEO. Meanwhile, non-Muslim Australians of goodwill are doing the work the peak bodies are paid to do but never care about ... until it's too late!

The various “pizza councils” in NSW haven’t been much better. The only groups to have had any impact are those relying on shoestring budgets and superbly talented individuals – AMCRAN, the Islamic Council of Victoria and the various Canberra Muslim bodies. FAIR does its best, but its publications and comments look more suited to the Green Left Weekly or the Marxism 2005 conference than a professional PR firm. Still, at least they are doing something.

This state of affairs will continue so long as ordinary Muslims keep thinking this is all somebody else’s business. Unless the quiet mainstream majority stands up and does something, we will continue to be misrepresented by the thick-Sheiks and the even thicker peak body presidents.

In short, get off your lazy bums and get involved in some sort of communitarian activity. I don’t care if it’s the Salvos. Just do something. Show the nation that we aren’t all a bunch of wackos.

Go on. Prove Piers wrong. Don’t just say it. Show it.

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Halal Snippets - 09/11/05

Who said you have to be a non-English speaking mufti to suffer from foot-in-mouth disease? Those irrelevant resident village idiots from Hizbut-Tehrir are trying to drum up support again.

AAP reported today comments by Wassim Dureihi, resident stand-up (and when it comes to Channel 9’s Today Show, sit-down) comic to HT. He apparently made it all out to be about Bush and Blair and what was happening overseas.

"The viewpoint from the Muslim community is that the pressure on the Muslims is not necessarily restricted to those that may otherwise be engaged in terrorist activities."

Here, Wassim, suck on this ideological dummy for a while as I tell you the facts. And the facts are that your organisation does not represent me. You have no right to speak for me.

Get off your high ideological horse and face some more facts. Thanks to isolationist groups and … yeah, I’ll say it … ideologies such as yours, we have had so much apathy and useless negativity amongst Muslims in this country.

You go around telling people that democracy is wrong, that political participation is wrong etc etc. You pretend that it is a forgone conclusion that Muslims will suffer, that all non-Muslims are out to get us. You tell us that Australia has a “kaafir” political system and that cooperation with governments is wrong.

Yet you would never have even known about any anti-terror laws had Muslims in Canberra taken your advice seriously. Because Canberra’s Muslims were smart and articulate and educated and had real lives, they knew how the system worked. Like the rest of mainstream Australia, they stood up and demanded their political leaders released the Bill if he was fair dinkum about civil liberties.

And that's exactly what Jon Stanhope did.

Now tell us how your pathetic displays of publicity could have achieved that?

I really wish Mr Dureihi and the small number of his extended family that make up HT would just shut up. They are beginning to sound like a bunch of thick-Sheiks.


Most Aussie MP’s are making quite rational statements amongst all the stupidity and media hype surrounding the recent raids. Although Bronwyn Bishop has implied that Muslims are all a bunch of migrants who just need to take a Bex and settle in.

“The French immigration policy has been very different from ours and their brewing problems have been a long time coming, Here, we offer freedom to people who come as permanent residents and as citizens but we ask them to be a part of freedom as we understand it.”

On the surface, nothing objectionable. Except that the majority of Muslims haven’t come here as permanent residents. The majority were actually born in Australia.

Get your facts right, Bronny!

Kurt Kennedy, captain of the clumsily-named “Best Party of Allah”, wants to know the extent of the sedition laws. He wants to know if you can be sent to gaol for supporting the right of Iraqis to kill Australians.

Kurt, my friend, why would Iraqis want to kill Australians? The only people taking up arms against Aussies are pro-Ba’ath separatists and Saddam loyalists. Me thinks most Iraqis just want the Coalition to get-the-hell out of their country, or at least to restore some order.

The Australian continues its crusade of ignorance by describing an ethnic group as “a leading Muslim group”. And which group is that?

The Australian Arabic Council.

Can someone please remind the dudes and dudettes down at The Australian that not all Arabs are Muslim. In fact, only 15% of the planet’s Muslim population speak Arabic. Further, over 50% of Aussie Arabs aren’t Muslim.

The paper goes onto quote AAC secretary Martin Hosking who gives some fantastic advice to News Limited. Hosking described the arrests as a "step forward, in the sense that matters which have been bubbling along in the media are now firmly in the hands of the courts”.

In other words, guys and guyettes, pull your heads on and let the coppers, the courts and the lawyers deal with it!

All this is contained in a story whose headline is “Moderate Muslims welcome arrests”. An example of one such “moderate Muslim” is the head of the al-Ahbash sect in Australia. The al-Ahbash, as we all know, are so moderate that they were named in the UN report on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Indeed, a senior al-Ahbash leader arrested and charged with the murders has visited Australia a number of times.

I guess The Australian must regard assassinating Lebanese Prime Ministers as a fairly moderate thing to do.

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Sunday, November 06, 2005

REFLECTION: One-Eyed better than none?

In the city of blind people, the man with one eye is king.

Sydney is a city of blind Muslims. And deaf. And just plain dumb.

Our institutions and mosques are dominated by first generation migrants with little better to do with their lives. Many are sincere and well-meaning but almost completely incompetent. How do I know this? Well, take the litmus test.

Look up the phone book. Dial up a body that has a bombastic sounding name. Say, the Islamic Society of NSW.

Ring up the Islamic Society of NSW. Good luck if anyone picks up the phone. And if they do, good luck if they can speak English.

Or better still, look up the AFIC website. You will find that the home state has a body called “the Muslim Council of NSW”. Call them. No one answers the phone. Send them an e-mail. I guarantee you it will bounce.

Go to a mosque and try to speak to the Imam. Good luck if he can speak English. Ask the Imam a question about jihad or some other controversy in the media. Or ask him about Usama bin Ladin. Again, good luck if you get a coherent answer.

When I was growing up, the only Qur’an translation I had was that of one “Molvi Muhammad Ali” which was published by an Ahmadiyya publishing company. I used to go to Surry Hills Mosque (managed by the Islamic Society of NSW).

I remember in university joining the Surry Hills Mosque library. There was a $5 a year membership fee, and a wide variety of books.

The following year, a red-headed man named “Mehio” from the "al-Ahbash" sect told me that all the books had been burnt and the library closed down. He was on the executive of the Society.

Burning books. This is the stuff medieval Christianity was made of. This is what the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella did when they entered the Muslim cities and took them over. And the Federal Government has given these book-burners an FM community radio license!

Our organisations are dominated by people with sectarian and ethnic mentalities. We have an almost non-English speaking mufti heading a whole bunch of non-English speaking imams. Then we have groups like Darul Fatwa Islamic High Council whose idea of representing Muslims is becoming an attempted franchise of some Lebanese group.

Look at the PM's Muslim Reference Group. Most of the people are either from this category or are related to people in this category. I remember speaking to one younger member of the group. I asked her how she got involved with her particular mosque. her response?

"My uncles are involved, so why shouldn't I be involved?"

So with this being the picture of Muslim Sydney, is it any wonder that most Muslim kids brought up here could not give a rat’s backside about peak bodies or mainstream Imams?

Our institutions are unfit to perform any of the following roles:

1. Education of young people in their faith.
2. Answering difficult questions raised by journalists, work colleagues and friends.
3. Providing a safe and healthy environment in which to find partners without feeling like one’s reputation is about to be trampled on.
4. Providing a genuinely Australian view of Islam which is consistent with our Aussie conditions and culture (and by Aussie, I include Kiwis as well).

I learnt most of my Islam from reading books. I am not ashamed to say that most of the books I read were written by people who many terror “experts” would regard as extremists and fundamentalists.

But then, these same books were being distributed during a time when the real enemy was communism. Usama bin Ladin was a good bloke, and even John Howard was a huge fan of the Taliban fighters.

Books by Syed Maududi and Syed Qutb were popular because they were being handed out for free. We used to go to camps with these books, and we would pick them up when we would go to Uncle Shafiq’s place at the old Auburn Squash Courts to learn Islam from visiting Saudi professors of Islamic studies.

Islam was what we read, even if we never saw it in our elders. Aussie Islam was never presented to us. We had to develop it ourselves. At the same time, we had to deal with all the usual crap which fringe-dwellers have to deal with.

Aussie Mossies are fringe dwellers. We are kids of migrants, and were pressured to meet some undefined cultural expectations whilst remaining true to some cultural vision of Islam. Or we are converts often disowned by our families and looked upon as suspicious by allegedly observant cultural Muslim migrants.

Our needs are not catered for by mainstream Muslim bodies. Our views are ignored. So imagine how disgruntled we feel to see the Government continuing to consult with the very people that have marginalised us.

AFIC has not had a female executive member for over 20 years. Its youth adviser is a sheik in his 60’s who cannot speak English. It has no youth representation.

There are 3 Islamic councils in NSW, none of which can get along and which prefer to spend money on litigation than providing useful community projects.

Most mosques are divided along ethnic and linguistic lines. Imams are usually here on temporary visas and cannot speak English or understand the cultural problems facing young people.

Is it therefore any wonder that radical thick-Sheiks are so popular? They may like Usama bin Ladin, they may look like something out of Team America. But at least they can speak English!

So where does the al-Ghazzali Centre and its el-Presidente fit into all this?

The dude may not have serious qualifications in fiqh or sharia. He may exaggerate a little about his role in various things. He may appear to be the Forrest Gump of Sydney Muslims, claiming credit (or at least a role) for just about everything.

But you don’t need to be qualified to provide services that have some relevance to people’s lives. And this is where I have enormous respect for Afroz Ali (and yes, believe it or not, I do respect the dude).

I have never seen the Lebanese Moslems Association hold pre-marriage classes. Can someone tell me the last time AFIC or the ICNSW diverted a few thousand dollars from their civil litigation/war fund to hold retreats for young Muslim couples and individuals to learn real life skills? And when have Mr Howard’s favourite assassins, the al-Ahbash cult, ever bothered to feed poor street people in Sydney?

Afroz may not have fiqh qualifications, but when was the last time you saw an Imam make time to teach the ordinary 30 year old how to make wudhu (pre-prayer ablution)? And at least Afroz makes the time to show you and does so without making you feel like a fool. And at least he does it in English.

(Or Urdu, if you ask nicely.)

Yes, Afroz may not be qualified. But those with qualifications are sitting in their offices on their backsides doing sweet-FA. They are being paid wages and salaries from our Friday donations and doing zilch in areas where work really needs to be done.

So if Afroz wants to charge money to hold fiqh classes, I say you go and pay him and learn something. Or go and pay someone else and learn from them. Because don’t expect the Roudes or the Mehboobs or the Shafiqs or the Mehios or various other irrelevant migrant cultural Muslim leaders to care about you. They never have, and they probably never will.

Over 50% of Muslims in Australia were born in Australia. Yet we are the marginalised ones. We have a blind leadership, and most of us are walking around with one eye open. Get help from whoever and wherever you can.

If that means hanging out at Byron Bay doing yoga classes all day, do it. And if it means going to fiqh lessons with the al-Ghazzali Centre, do it.

I regard the works of Syed Maududi and Syed Qutb as seriously flawed. They have little in the way of traditional methodology, and their work inspires love of Islam and not love of Allah. But that was where I started. We all have to start somewhere.

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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