Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Leadership Lost In Translation

Recently, one of Australia’s most senior Muslim religious scholars made certain comments as he was leaving to lead an Australian delegation to Iraq. The purpose of the delegation was to seek the release of Australian engineer Douglas Wood.

Shaykh Tajeddine Hilaly was quoted as addressing the kidnappers. His statement included a claim that most Australians opposed the war in Iraq and the continued presence of foreign troops. He also allegedly to have said to the kidnappers: “We value your jihad”.

On the surface, these comments suggest that the Mufti, on behalf of all Australian Muslims, supports the actions of terrorists. These actions include the kidnapping of foreigners including Australians, as well as threats to execute foreigners if demands are not met.

Shaykh Hilaly is said to be the Mufti of Australia. According to his former adviser and translator, Keysar Trad, the position of mufti is equivalent to that of governor-general or archbishop. Further, the term ‘jihad’ is commonly translated as ‘holy war’.

Yet these are mistranslations of both terms, and the distortion of the true meanings of these terms leads to all sorts of misunderstanding and misapprehension.

Shaykh Hilaly was appointed to the position of Mufti by the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, a national umbrella body claiming to represent all Australian Muslims. Yet the reality is that most Australian Muslims have never heard of AFIC. Indeed, I recall asking one local Australian Muslim whether he had heard of AFIC, only to be asked whether it was the latest brand of Cadbury chocolate!

Mr Trad, recently removed from the role of adviser to Shaykh Hilaly, does not hold any formal accreditation as an interpreter or translator. His acting as translator for Hilaly for such an extended period may well have contributed to the misunderstandings that have frequently arisen from the Shaykh’s speeches.

In reality, the term “mufti” means the giver of fatwa’s. The term ‘fatwa’ refers to a non-binding legal opinion on Islamic legal matters, perhaps the equivalent of an advice from a Senior Counsel.

The mufti is not a spiritual leader. The spiritual leadership of the Muslim communities traditionally has rested with the leaders of particular sufi orders (often labelled as “murshid’s”). Sometimes, the position of mufti and murshid is combined. For instance, the founder of the whirling dervish sufis, Jelaluddin Rumi, was both murshid and mufti, holding expertise in both legal and spiritual matters.

As for jihad, the literal meaning of the word is ‘striving’ or ‘struggle’. The Prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying that the greater jihad is to struggle against one’s own evil inclinations. He has also said that the greatest jihad is to speak the truth in the presence of a tyrant.

So when Shaykh Hilaly was speaking about jihad, was he referring to a violent confrontation between occupying forces and rebels? Was he referring to the actions of kidnappers? Was he referring to the broader struggle for Iraqi independence or the even broader struggle for spiritual purification that (according to classical Islamic tradition) must be a precursor to a change in leadership?

Unfortunately, we do not know the answer. Shaykh Hilaly’s inability to speak English, and his frequent use (thus far) of an unqualified translator does not help matters.

So once again, Australian Muslims will be painted as terror-sympathisers because of the inability of Muslim leaders to articulate views reflective of mainstream Muslim opinion and in a language that most Muslims can understand. And in Shaikh Hilaly’s home state of New South Wales, the official leadership of the Muslim Council of NSW (the umbrella body recognised by AFIC) has been totally silent on the issue. The remaining two Islamic councils also appear to be ducking for cover.

If this sort of situation continues, and if mainstream Aussie Mossies continue to be too busy to improve their leadership situation, misunderstanding will continue to grow. And that is exactly what al-Qaeda wants.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

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