Thursday, June 30, 2005

Saladdin's Wisdom & Recognition of Israel

In 1948, Israel declared its existence as an independent state. Thousands of Palestinians were made homeless and refugees in a land where they had lived for centuries. Foreign Jewish refugees built homes on the ruins of Palestinian villages.

Many Muslim and Christian countries were understandably upset at the treatment being meted out to Palestinian Muslims and Christians. Their frustration was made worse by the frequent stereotyping of the Palestinians as a nation of terrorists.

For years, Muslim countries (with a few exceptions such as Turkey and Egypt) refused to recognise Israel’s existence. They clung to the views of Jewish thinkers who felt that the creation of a Jewish state before the coming of the Messiah was blasphemous. Among these Jewish thinkers was our very own Sir Isaac Isaacs, Australia’s first Australian-born Governor-General.

Palestinians had almost become accustomed to living in exile and in denial. But wiser heads prevailed, and the golden handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin secured at least some form of self-rule for Palestinians. Had the handshake on the White House lawn not taken place, one could safely speculate that the Palestinian cause would not have gained the international respectability and goodwill it now enjoys.

And so we see Palestine recognising Israel’s right to exist. When will Muslim nations follow suit? And should they?

Much Muslim rhetoric on Israel focuses on the Crusades and the liberation wars led by the Kurdish general Salah ad-Din Ayyubi, known in the West as Saladdin. It was Saladdin who won back Jerusalem. It was also Saladdin who made important compromises and who attempted to reach a negotiated settlement at all stages of the conflict.

Saladdin’s pragmatism was perhaps his best feat. The movie Kingdom of Heaven accurately portrays Saladdin as a tolerant and politically astute figure, an embodiment of the famous saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “War is strategy and little else”.

There was no question in Saladdin’s mind about questioning the moral right of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem to exist. Saladdin sent emissaries regularly to Jerusalem as part of his negotiations. Other Muslim kingdoms entered into alliances with Jerusalem. Virtually all sent ambassadors.

The Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, in his masterpiece The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, speaks about the confidence of these diplomats who looked down upon the European residents of Jerusalem as barbaric and superstitious.

At one point Maalouf mentions an incident when a Muslim diplomat is spending time with European Christian friends. The time for prayer comes, and the diplomat asks for the direction to Mecca. When the Europeans cannot tell him, the diplomat scolds them for being so uncouth as to not know the direction of prayer. To pray five times a day was, in those days, regarded as the act of civilised and cultured people.

Saladdin was also famous for offering the Jerusalem king his medical team. Saladdin had a team of surgeons and physicians led by the famous Andalusian Shaykh Musa bin Maymoun al-Qurtubu. Saladdin met Shaykh Musa in Cairo where the Shaykh was a prominent religious figure. Saladdin was impressed with Shaykh Musa’s erudition and his reputation as a leading physician in the Islamic world. Shaykh Musa unhesitatingly accepted Saladdin’s invitation to lead his medical team.

And who was Shaykh Musa? He was the chief rabbi of Cairo’s Jewish community. He is regarded as the greatest Jewish religious figure after the Prophet Moses himself. Saladdin was happy to appoint Moses Maimonides as his chief physician notwithstanding the fact that Maimonides was the author of a famous book declaring Judaism to be superior to Islam.

What does all this have to do with Muslim recognition of Israel? Muslim leaders have to convince their people that the struggle for Palestine is not a struggle against all Jews. Just as Saladdin’s struggle to liberate Jerusalem was not a war against all Christians.

Muslim nations also need to accept that their continued non-recognition of Israel is pointless. Why refuse to recognise Israel when the biggest losers in its creation, the Palestinians, have recognised Israel?

To keep harping on about Israel not having a moral right to exist is pointless. Israel exists, whether Muslims accept it or not. Muslims have to come to terms with the fact that they cannot destroy Israel. Just as some of Israel’s supporters need to understand that they will never win the war on terror if they perceive it as a war on Islam.

A civilisational war between Jews and Muslims may be the goal of extremists on both sides. But neither side would win, although losses on both sides would be enormous. If Muslim countries wish to support their Palestinian brethren, they should give serious consideration to at least formally recognising Israel’s existence.

Some Muslims will object to dealing with Ariel Sharon due to his hardline views and his involvement in war crimes in Lebanon. But Pakistan was still prepared to talk to India even when it was ruled by the Hindu-chauvinist BJP government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Pakistan gained important concessions from India on behalf of Kashmiris who were reunited with families across the Line of Control.

There is no benefit for Palestinians by Muslim countries continuing to reject Israel’s moral right to exist. It is as futile as refusing to accept Spain’s right to exist because of the Inquisition and expulsion of millions of Andalusian Muslims. Recognition of Israel has to be put on the Muslim agenda. The sooner this is done, the better.

(The author is a Sydney lawyer.)

© Irfan Yusuf, 2005.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

REFLECTION: From The Fringes of Ramadhan

(I wrote this piece in November 2004 (at least I think that's when it was) after visiting a friend who works behind a bar. I often used to visit her a work. When she is not serving beer and spirits to my mates and other customers, we would chat and listen and crack jokes and gas-bag like the 2 old men in the Muppet Show. Sometimes we would lose track of time, engrossed in conversation as we'd chat face-to-face with our chins resting on our hands and our elbows resting on some coasters, a bit like a scene from the British comedy duo Smith & Jones.

In those days, I felt so awful about not being able to fast. I told her as much, and she told me of her own frustration with knowing so little about her late father's heritage. It was then that I told her a few things about Ramadhan, about the Night of Power, about the significance of fasting and its spiritual aspect.

I had the feeling my words were getting through to her, but I had no idea to what extent. After that visit, I went home and penned this article for the Ramadhan Diary section. It got published. I showed it to Jane a few days later but asked her not to read it until she finished work.

At 2am the next morning, I received the following text message on my mobile phone:

"Your story made of [me - she was using autotext] feel closer and included in a place I thought had died with my father Yet again you’ve made my reality a better one to exist in **Jane"

After receiving that text message, I could really feel the spirit of Ramadan. It was as if I could see the devils being chained before my very eyes.

Sometimes one can only appreciate spiritual life whilst standing on its fringe. Imam Hamza Yusuf Hansonn once quoted of friend of his as saying: "A religious person is someone who does not want to go to hell. A spiritual person is someone who has already been to hell and doesn't want to go back!")


This Ramadhan, I am happy and sad to announce that I will not be fasting. Yes, I know it is bad manners to make this public. After all, we are meant to be hiding our sins.

My failure to fast, however, is not a sin. In fact, for me to fast would be a virtual act of suicide. Now that’s what I call a sin!

Like many millions of Muslims out there, I have to take medication. So my announcement that I will not be fasting brings me mixed feelings.

I am happy because I will continue my successful management of a health condition that has plagued me big-time since February 2002. It was during one day of that month and year that I virtually collapsed. After numerous tests, it was discovered that my thyroid was not the best. The result was my having to take some 14 months off work.

I am sad because my health conditions and my need for medication at strictly appointed times result in my having to miss out on fasting. I feel like I am on the fringe of Ramadan.

Tonight I met up with a friend from New Zealand. Jane’s father was a Malay Muslim, though she never met him. When Jane’s mother was pregnant, the parents split up. Dad stayed in Malaysia and mum went to New Zealand. Jane knew about her father but never actually met him. Some 12 months after he passed away, Jane got a chance to visit Malaysia and meet her half-brothers and step mother who showed her the grave of her father.

For Jane, Ramadan is a distant yet important part of her life that always seemed to be missing and absent like her father. So when she asked me about Ramadan tonight, I felt embarrassed to tell her that I was not fasting. She found it hard to relate to my embarrassment.

I then explained to her that fasting is to Ramadan what Bethlehem and Jesus are to Christmas. I grew up with fasting during Ramadan. I can still remember the first time I fasted. I was some 6 years old, a rather chubby lad with long hair and big ears. And an even bigger stomach. I don’t think I had ever eaten so many ‘pakoras’ (deep-fried Indian potato cakes) as I did when breaking my fast on that day.

Jane could not help but compare Ramadan to the Christmas and Easter of her mild-Hispanic Catholic upbringing. She knew it was somehow related to visiting friends and family. She knew it lasted one month. She knew there were times when extra blessings were in store. She even had heard that people who died during this month were able to avoid hell (perhaps she confused this with typical hajj stories).

So here I was, trying to make Ramadan real for someone who loved it but had never seen it (much the same way as she had loved her father but never seen him). Even my half-hearted attempts at explaining the timings of fasting, the tarawih prayers and the significance of the Laylat al-Qadr and the last ten nights during which the search is on for this powerful night, seemed to captivate Jane’s attention.

Perhaps someone could convince Michael Wolfe to write a book on Ramadan in Morocco (or at least cut out the first half of his book on the Hadj and publish it separately) so I could give a copy to the Jane’s of this world. That way we could both feel a little less like Ramadan fringe-dwellers.
And so that the Irfan’s of this world could speak to them with greater conviction. Because moving onto my third Ramadan without fasting has made me feel a little bit rusty. I know I do not have to fast. But you don’t know what you’ve got until medication takes it away. I guess I will have to make-do with the spiritual burst of the super-fast turbo-charged tarawih at the local Turkish mosque. Speaking of which …

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, June 26, 2005

A Sheik and Two Pastors

In September 1988, Sheik Tajeddine Hilali made some of the most irresponsible and offensive remarks of perhaps any Muslim religious figure in the history of Australian Islam. He delivered a speech in Arabic during a seminar on the Palestinian Intifadah held at the University of Sydney. A simultaneous translation appeared on the overhead projector. Yet that translation was only a partial one.

Despite the presence of no visible cameras at the seminar, a secret video recording of the speech was made. Within 6 months, the Sheik’s anti-Semitic remarks were broadcast for all to see. It is said he accused Jewish people of trying "to control the world through sex, then sexual perversion, then the promotion of espionage, treason and economic hoarding".

The Sheik is alleged to have said in a public lecture to a Muslim audience that Jews use sex, pornography, wealth and other means to control the world. I say “alleged” because although I attended the lecture, I could not understand most of his speech. Yet organisers of the seminar acknowledged to me later that he did make the remarks as alleged.

Sheik Hilali’s comments almost led to his deportation. He was condemned by political leaders from all major parties. It was only through direct intervention of then Acting Prime Minister Paul Keating that the Sheik was allowed to stay permanently.

The comments have haunted the Sheik. As late as March 9 2004, Dr Gerard Henderson made reference to the Sheik’s “manifestly anti-Semitic speech” after listing a litany of the Sheik’s verbal sins.

Tabloid columnists continued raising the Sheik’s 1988 comments even when he was part of Team Australia seeking the release of Douglas Wood. By lambasting the Sheik, these columnists were undermining his credibility. And when such writings appear on the internet, they surely must have left the kidnappers wondering about the Sheik’s bona fides. I would hate to have been a member of the Wood family reading the tabloid columns.

The Sheik was condemned. And rightly so. Yet many of his critics are today rushing to the defence of 2 pastors from the fringe “Catch The Fire Ministries” case argued before the Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal. Reasons for decision in the case were given by VCAT Vice President, Judge Higgins, on 22 June 2005.

The case arose from comments made by Pastors Daniel Nalliah and Daniel Scot at a seminar held on 9 March 2002 before an audience of around 250 people. This was virtually the same number that attended the seminar addressed by Sheik Hilali in 1998.

When one reads the findings made by Judge Higgins, one cannot help but find comparisons between what Sheik Hilali said in 1988 and what the 2 pastors were found to have said 15 years later. Amongst the comments made by the pastors were: That Muslims use deception and lies to hide their allegedly true relationship with terror groups, that Muslims follow a Prophet who was a paedophile, that Muslims are trying to infiltrate all aspects of Australian life, that Muslims are spying in Australia for terrorist groups and Muslims follow a religion that encourages them to kill and enslave non-Muslims.

Muslims were accused to using deception, bribery and infiltration to take over Australia.

The hypocrisy and double standards of some columnists defending the two pastors is shown in the writings of perhaps Australia’s most anti-Muslim columnist, Andrew Bolt. I do not believe it would be an exaggeration to state that Mr Bolt’s columns have frequently contained remarks of similar venom to those of the 2 pastors whose “freedom of speech” he defends.

In his column in the Herald-Sun of 11 May 2005, Mr Bolt again makes reference to the Sheik’s 1988 comments in which, in Bolt’s words, “the Egyptian-born radical called Jews "the underlying cause of all wars", using "sex and abominable acts of buggery, espionage, treason and economic hoarding to control the world".

Just over 6 weeks later, Bolt speaks of the 2 offending pastors. He quotes none of their speeches or pamphlets, describing them as being “punished … after criticising the Koran”.

Bolt’s sad attempt at whitewashing the Pastors’ offensive remarks are about as believable as claiming that Sheik Hilali was merely criticising Zionism in his 1988 lecture. As far as Bolt is concerned, anti-Semitism becomes acceptable when used against Muslims.

There is a genuine debate in the community about the need for religious vilification laws. The recent VCAT decision forms an excellent basis for further discussion. However, we must not allow this debate to be hijacked by tabloid journalists with their own religious agendas and with an awful propensity for double standards.

(The author is a Sydney industrial lawyer and a former legal adviser to the Islamic Council of NSW.

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Friday, June 24, 2005

How Sheik al-Hilali has disarmed critics

SHEIK Taj el-Din al-Hilali is a controversial figure at the best of times. He arrived in Australia to take up the position of Imam (resident scholar) at the main Lakemba mosque to replace another who had been removed under controversial circumstances. Since then, he has been frequently quoted making unfortunate (and at times, downright offensive) comments.

Around 20 years ago, in a speech at Sydney University, Sheik al-Hilali was quoted as saying that Jews controlled the world using pornography and corruption. I was at that seminar. The speech was in Arabic with simultaneous translation using overheads. No cameras were present. I was so upset at this that I complained to the organisers.

Then, hardly five months after the event, I saw on TV news reports a senior and respected Jewish community leader holding a video cassette in his hand. One of Sheik al-Hilali's enemies with close links to the Saudi Embassy had secretly videoed the entire speech.

Sheik al-Hilali and his employer (the Lebanese Moslems Association) were forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees to stop his deportation. Eventually, someone in Acting PM Paul Keating's office suggested a position be created for the Sheik. Hence the new title, Mufti of Australia.

What is a Mufti? Is he an Archbishop or Governor General of Australian Muslims as has been suggested by his former adviser, Keysar Trad? The position of "mufti" has rarely existed in Muslim minority communities. Britain does not have a Mufti. The United States has a Council of Imams, most of whom speak fluent English and are native Americans.

The mufti's role has tended to be that of a Queens Counsel. In complex or novel legal questions, you go to the mufti for legal advice. The mufti gives you an opinion which is authoritative but not binding. That advice is known as a "fatwa".

The real position of legal authority in traditional Muslim societies rests with the Qadi (Chief Justice), not the mufti. Indeed, many Muslim communities have multiple muftis to handle the large workload. In Pakistan, there is a mufti in each city for each school of thought.

The position of mufti was hastily created for Sheik al-Hilali by the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. It appears not much thought went into the process. To this day, it is unclear as to exactly what the mufti's role is. Is it to tell us when we have sighted the moon correctly to identify the start of the new lunar month? Is it to provide advice on how to reach the pearly gates of Paradise? Or is it to comment on the latest Israeli incursion into Lebanon?

Sheik al-Hilali's inability to speak and communicate in English has been a huge problem, and an enormous source of embarrassment for Aussie Mossies. It is, therefore, little wonder that the Sheik is misunderstood even by his own community.

So who is to blame for this dysfunctional leadership situation? Firstly, before anyone points the finger at the Sheik, we need to understand his situation. The Sheik entered a divided congregation of highly traumatised Lebanese migrants with fresh memories of a war zone.

Lebanese Muslim migration to Australia is unique in that most Lebanese Muslims have tended to come from uneducated village environments. Most are unskilled and have little English language abilities.

The Sheik has had to be all things for all these people. He has had to handle their social, economic and family crises. His time is so occupied with these matters that he has not had much chance handling the bigger issues.

When the Government and the Wood family approached the Sheik to help secure Mr Wood's release, some accused him of seeking publicity. But the sheik is an old man with a serious heart condition and a community at loggerheads. He had every reason to stay in Australia. Instead, he dropped everything and risked his life to enter a war zone. At the very least, he was able to arrange delivery of much-needed medication to Douglas Wood.

Sheik al-Hilali has many critics among Australian Muslims. I am one of them. But on this occasion, I would have to agree with the assessments of John Howard, Alexander Downer and the Wood family. Regardless of how influential a role the sheik played in the end, his very presence in Iraq speaks volumes for his commitment to his adopted country.

Mainstream Muslim Australians need to find time from managing major banks and telecommunications companies and commercial law firms and government departments to participate in community management.

We sit back on our laurels and do nothing. And we get the result predicted by the Prophet Muhammad 14 centuries ago: "You will get the leaders you deserve from amongst yourselves".

The author is a Sydney employment and industrial lawyer and a former legal adviser to the Islamic Council of NSW. This article first appeared in the Canberra Times on June 21, 2005.

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Saturday, June 18, 2005


May 12 was a sad day for Muslims. Across the world, Muslims mourned the passing of one of the greatest scholars of classical Islam. This shaykh, known to his Muslim readership as Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din, wrote one of the definitive books on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. He also wrote 11 other books, including one with the defiant title of Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions.

I remember first hearing about Shaykh Abu Bakr. One of my father’s good friends mentioned the shaykh and praised his biographical work on the prophet. Some years later, I bought a set of 20 tapes of lectures by an American Imam named Hamza Yusuf. The lectures were based on a study of the shaykh’s biographical work.

I joined millions of Muslims around the world in mourning the death of Shaykh Abu Bakr. Yet hardly any western newspaper mentioned his passing. It was as if the event went unnoticed. Britain’s left-leaning The Guardian newspaper did publish a short obituary. Much of the material for this article has been taken from that obituary, written by British author Gai Eaton.

I am not aware of any other western newspaper which mentioned his passing.

So who was this mysterious shaykh that most Muslims have heard of and most non-Muslims seem to ignore? Was this Shaykh Abu Bakr the leader of a terrorist outfit from Indonesia or Iraq? Was he a nasty beedy-eyed chap of Middle Eastern appearance who gave speeches in rolling Arabic?

Shaykh Abu Bakr was born on January 24, 1909. He was born in a place called Burnage in Lancashire. His parents christened him "Martin". His family name was Lings. Out of respect for the deceased and those who mourn him, I will refer to him simply as “the Shaykh” (the term Shaykh is commonly used as a title for spiritual elders).

The Shaykh spent his early years in the United States. Later, he returned to England where he attended Clifton College, Bristol. He was head prefect at this exclusive English private school (or public school for any UK readers).

The Shaykh’s tertiary studies commenced at Magdalen College, Oxford. He studied English, and became a close friend of the famous C.S.Lewis. In 1935, the Shaykh taught English courses in Lithuania.

In 1940, during the early years of World War II, the Shaykh travelled to Egypt to visit a friend who lectured in Cairo. As fate would have it, the Shaykh’s friend died in a motor accident, and the Shaykh was offered the teaching post. He stayed in Egypt until the early 1950s.

At this time, Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power and whipped up nationalist frenzy among young Egyptian students. Three of the Shaykh’s colleagues were killed. The Shaykh and his other colleagues of British origin were summarily dismissed. After 17 years of living in a village at the foot of the Pyramids, the Shaykh and his wife, Lesley Smalley, returned to England.

The post-war period was one of economic downturn for England and the rest of Europe. Work was hard to come by, and the Shaykh was forced to resume his studies. He followed up his BA in Arabic studies with a PhD thesis on the life of Algerian Sufi Ahmed al-Alawi. His wife, a physiotherapist, returned to work.

In 1954, the Shaykh found employment at the British Museum as assistant keeper of Oriental printed books and manuscripts. He held this position for about three decades, and the quiet reclusive work situation allowed the Shaykh to enter his most productive period of writing.

In 1983, the Shaykh published his best-known work. Muhammad: His Life Based On the Earliest Sources is regarded as a masterpiece of English and Islamic scholarship. Millions of copies have been sold across the world, and a copy can be found in just about any Muslim household where English is spoken.

Apart from writing and reading, the Shaykh was an avid gardener. His home in Kent was a place where plants and flowers from across the world bloomed. The Shaykh was also passionate about Shakespeare, carrying on a passion he had developed while teaching in Egypt, where his students under his direction would perform a Shakespeare play each year. During the mid-90s the Shaykh wrote a book on the spiritual side of Shakespeare’s work.

Shaykh Martin’s books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. The UK-based newspaper, The Independent, described Shaykh Martin as “One of the most eloquent and serene Western voices in the Islamic world”. The British Muslim magazine Q-News carries on its website photos of the Shaykh delivering a series of lectures on Shakespeare and Islam in November 2004 at the Globe Theatre, the place where Shakespeare first made a name for himself.

Some readers will find it strange that Muslims would mourn the passing of someone who, by all accounts, might be considered little more than just another eccentric English academic. Yet the fact remains that Western and European scholarship forms an essential part of the corpus of Islamic discourse. When Muslims think of travel writing, two names immediately come to mind. One is Michael Wolfe, the other William Dalrymple. Only one is known to be a Muslim.

The Imam Hamza Yusuf Hanson is an American Muslim of Greek heritage. Another Greek Muslim of British heritage, Yusuf Islam, has made an outstanding contribution to Islamic musical expression, just as he did when he was known as Cat Stevens. He has teamed up with musicians, Muslim and non-Muslim, from such far away places as Turkey, South Africa and Malaysia.

In the fields of spirituality (tasawwuf) and legal sciences (fiqh), it would be impossible to speak of 20th century developments without mentioning the name of an American by the name of Nuh Ha Mim Keller. And in Australia, the only published textbook on Islamic law has been written by Jamila Hussain, an Anglo-Australian Muslim teacher at the University of Technology, Sydney.

All of these writers, scholars and artists, including Shaykh Martin Lings, are proof that the modern Muslim mind has allowed itself to be open to influences from all cultures. As the prophet himself is quoted as saying: "Knowledge is the lost property of the believer. Let him take possession of it regardless of where it is found".

Muslims respected Martin Lings, notwithstanding the humiliation he received at the hands of a popular Muslim political figure like Gamal Abdel Nasser. The passing of a scion of British aristocracy, a former head student at an English public school, a Shakespearean scholar and an avid gardener brought together Muslims to pray for his soul in mosques and homes across the world, from Sarajevo to Sydney and from Oslo to Cape Town. May God bless and honour Shaykh Martin with the highest station of paradise. May God provide comfort to the Shaykh's family and loved ones and to the millions of Muslims who mourn his passing.

(This article was published at Online Opinion on June 16 2005. The book is available for purchase in Sydney and online from the Andalus Bookstore.)

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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Monday, June 13, 2005

A Year Without Service?

The Messenger of God (peace & blessings of God be upon him) was known even to his enemies for his services to the poor and the community.

Before revelation came to him, the Prophet joined a body known as ‘Hilf al-Fudul’ to fight for justice on behalf of persons without traditional tribal protection. Indeed, he was one of the founding members of that body.

Even after revelation, he recalled his involvement in the pledge to serve the downtrodden. He once said publicly: “I was there before revelation to pledge in support of the weak. If I was called upon even after revelation to renew my loyalty to that group, I would gladly do so”.

The honesty and integrity of the Prophet were never questioned, even by his enemies. Few were surprised when he refused to be bribed to abandon his mission. Fewer were surprised by the loyalty he generated in his followers.

The Prophet’s life was one of service to all people. He established a system of spiritual purification based on active service to the community. His tradition was followed by those following in his footsteps.

Muslim scholars and rulers served their communities. Every mosque had lodging for travellers. Homeless people were provided for. Hospitals provided free medical care. The community guaranteed the wages of professors and teachers. Public parks and baths guaranteed fresh air and good health.

In India, scholars like Muin ad-Din Chishti established the tradition of service by feeding homeless and poor people regardless of their faith. This tradition is found even in sufi offshoots such as the traditional Sikh communal meal at the gurudawara (house of worship).

On the battlefields, Muslim and Jewish doctors were sent by Saladdin to bring relief to the Crusader king of Jerusalem who suffered from a severe skin disease. The head of this medical team was a Jewish rabbi who was not disqualified from his post notwithstanding the fact that he had written a book in Arabic o why Judaism was superior to Islam.

This is our history. We are a people of service.

But when it comes to Australia, our service stops. I can think of very few Australian Muslims whose service to the broader community is recognised and known. We are not seen to be active in any areas of public life.

This especially became evident this long weekend when the Queens Birthday Honours List was published. Not a single Muslim made it to that list.

It is true that we do good deeds for recognition by our Lord, not to have our names published in an honours list. But the fact is that such lists are read and noted by the broader community. Our absence from that list speaks volumes for our refusal to contribute to our communities.

Where are the Muslim public servants assisting governments with implementing policy? Where are the Muslim medical researchers or fundraisers or educators or academics or writers or journalists or civic leaders? Where are our deeds mentioned and recognised? What evidence do ordinary Australians have that we really do wish to contribute to this country?

I am proud to be Australian. But sometimes I feel ashamed to be an Australian Muslim. When I see Muslims visibly contributing little and openly complaining about discrimination, I feel ashamed of belonging to a community that prefers to take and take but gives nothing in return and expects everyone to make allowances for them.

It’s as if we have forgotten about our heritage. We talk a lot about it. We argue and complain when we are discriminated against or when some journalist or talkback host speaks ill of us. Yet what have we done lately for this country? How can we expect our fellow Australians to be charitable to us when we visibly contribute little to Australia?
© Irfan Yusuf 2005

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Sunday, June 12, 2005

Letters To The Editor - Part 1

I have been reading the Sydney Morning Herald since Year 7. That means I have been reading it since 1982. This is my 23rd year of reading it religiously, everyday. And who started this precedent in my life?

Was it my dad? My mum? My cricket coach? No. The trend was started by one Michael Miller, an English teacher at St Andrews Cathedral School. From Years 7 to 10, Mr Miller drummed into our heads that we must read the Herald every morning.

There were certain parts of the paper he especially emphasised. For instance …

1. The back page of the main section. Then entitled “stay in touch”, it has had various reincarnations. In 2001, when a photo of me appeared laughing whilst eating Turkish ice cream at Auburn, it was called “Sauce”. It was the place where all the smutty and silly humour was. And there was enough smut to keep private school boys entertained for hours.

2. The editorial and opinion sections. These were a must-read so that we knew what issues were being debated and re-debated and mass-debated out there in the “real” world. I hope Mr Miller was reading the Herald opinion page on April 28 2005 when his most troublesome student had his surname misspelt on that page.

3. The letters page. This was always located smack-bang between the editorials and the opinion pieces. This was wear the average punters had a go at sounding like journalists. It was also the place where short, terse, sarcastic and witty sentences ruled the roost.

Mr Miller told us that the letters page was perhaps the most influential part of the paper. Why? Because it was here that the real news was made. It was in the letters that we could read what we the readers were thinking and believing and responding to.

Letters were also what politicians, their media advisers, companies, public relations gurus, sociologists, social scientists and other miscellaneous BS-artists would read. Everyone knows what particular journalists think. But journalists only get 1 vote, just like the rest of us.

Politicians don’t know what goes through the minds of people when they vote. Political parties spend thousands of dollars doing polling and push-polling. They also rely on anecdotal evidence. And perhaps the most useful of this evidence is the letters page of daily newspapers.

People who regularly write to letters pages are often well-known in their community. Sometimes they are business people or professionals or civic leaders. Generally, they are self-opinionated gas-bags like me. Yes, we may be gas-bags. But at the dinner tables and pubs and clubs and churches and mosques and synagogues and other public places, it is the awful stench of our gases that people remember the most.

It is more than just a truism to suggest that he who shouts the loudest gets heard. The fact is that if your letter gets published in a major newspaper, thousands of people will read it. They will ring up their friends and ask if they read it. And in this age of e-mail, chances are that you will have readers everywhere from Iran to Israel, from Brazil to North Korea.

In short, if you are a regular feature in the Letters section, you are on your way to becoming an influential media star. You will wield real power in the press. Your opinions will be noted. Those choosing to ignore your opinions will have to make that choice and deliberate on it. You will no longer be casually ignored.

And how do Letters editors choose letters? Is it just a matter of whose letter best represents what the editors want people to believe? Is it a function of whose letters enclosed the biggest cheques?

Tune in next time when I continue on this fascinating topic.

(The author is a Sydney industrial relations lawyer who has been writing letters since he first learnt the alphabet. He has had letters published in the Melbourne Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Telegraph, the Australian, The Australasian Muslim Times, Australia FAIR, Insight, Australian Islamic Review, Arena (the Macquarie University Students Council newspaper) and the NSW Young Liberal Magazine Action. Some years back on Valentines Day, he wrote a letter accompanying a rose to a sub-continental Muslim girl, and was almost driven out of town by her father and other male family members. He has since learnt from that experience, and focuses his energies on writing letters to clients with accompanying bills.)

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Friday, June 10, 2005

UnSecret Womens Business (Part II)

On Saturday May 28 2005, I attended a second consultation, this one organised by the Muslim Women’s National Network of Australia (MWNNA). The Network, like the MWA, does some superb work. But its focus is not so much on welfare issues as on education and policy development.

The Network has some fabulously educated and articulate women. At the helm, holding an informal position of Chief, is the former MWA apparatchik Mrs Azizah Abdel Halim. Azizah has lived in Australia since probably before I was born, and she hails from Egypt. She still has a delightful Egyptian accent, and her English is much more fluent than my 'strayan'. Azizah is a school teacher by profession.

I am not sure how old Azizah is, and I am too embarrassed to ask. Age is hardly a question one would ask a woman regardless of her faith. However, I would estimate from her appearance that she is probably in her mid-30’s. Perhaps I should propose to her? Nah, better not. Her husband and daughters might become a bit upset.

People tell me Azizah is in her 60’s. If they are correct, she is yet another example of a Sydney Muslim activist who refuses to retire. Which is a good thing, because there is so much work to be done in this crazy town.

Azizah presided over the MWNNA for years since her defection from the MWA. Exactly what happened all those years ago remains controversial. Since then, there hasn’t been much love lost between the two organisations. But generally they stay out of each other’s way. Women are always much more civilised about these things.

Azizah is surrounded by some extraordinarily talented women. There is Jamila Hussain, a legal academic from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). Anyone who meets Jamila will find her name and her appearance do not quite match. Jamila is about as anglo-Australian as one could be. She lives in the Blue Mountains and is the proud mother of five boys. Her late husband, may God shower him with His mercy, was of Malay origin.

Then there is Faikah Baherdien, a South African “Cape coloured” of mixed (but mainly Malay) ancestry. Faikah has a background in private sector management. She seriously rocks when she makes a presentation, and her loosely-fitting hijab reminds me of Benazir Bhutto. Hopefully, she will not be offended by that comparison.

Which brings me to another characteristic of the Network. They really seriously don’t mind if you don’t wear pieces of cloth on your head. They also do not put you through a test on the orthodoxy or otherwise of your beliefs and views. In fact, I am confident that, were I do undergo some “Shocking Asia” surgery in somewhere like Thailand, I’d be welcome to join the Network notwithstanding my weird and crazy ideas on too many things.

And before you think the Network is just Sydney-based, you really need to check out the Bowater School of Management & Marketing at the Burwood (no, not in Sydney) campus of Deakin University. There, you might be fortunate enough to bump into Nasya Bahfen. Originally from Indonesia, this Melbournite has a CV that makes me feel like Irshad Manji or some other 3rd rate amateur journo. She currently works as an associate lecturer in business communication and holds the portfolio of Project Manager at the Network.

There are so many other amazing women who work with the Network. I met up with a number of them at their community consultation on the issue of women in mosques. Now I know many of you will be wondering why anyone needs to be consulted on this issue. But seriously, there is a problem. Mosques seem to be no-go zones for women. It’s as if most have been built on parts of Australia declared no-woman’s land.

The Network are trying to deal with this touchy issue by consulting with Muslim men, especially imams and mosque management committee members. The Network invited just about every imam on earth to turn up. No one came. Neither did any mosque committee members (apart from the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque who hosted the event).

The closest thing they got to mosque committee activists was a medical practitioner associated with the so-called “Ahl as-Sunnah wal Jamaah Association”. This gentleman acknowledged the problem and agreed to talk to imams in his group about it. When he mentioned the name of one of his imams (one Shaykh Faiz Mohamed), I could see Network women around the room desperately trying to restrain themselves.

Finally, after a few more mentions of Shaykh Faiz (the ASJA spokesman must have been enjoying it), Azizah could not help herself. She audibly whispered words to the effect of: “He is not an imam. He has no respect for women. He has no scholarly credentials”. The doctor then felt unrestrained and started defending Shaykh Faiz. At that stage, the whole room erupted in roars of condemnation about the comments the Shaykh made on rape and women’s dress. The doctor quickly shut his mouth, realising that any further mention of the shaykh would not be good for his health.

Many useful suggestions were made by participants. Afroz Ali from the al-Ghazali Centre for Islamic Sciences & Human Development (a mouthful at the best of times) suggested that not only should imams be consulted but also persons who do not hold the position of imam but actively engage in teaching young people.

Some clumsily-dressed overweight Indian lawyer also suggested that as the problem is not so much religion as culture, perhaps the focus should be on secular cultural icons at work in Muslim communities such as non-English newspapers and ‘ethnic’ radio journalists. In doing so, he came close to suggesting that the entire project might be focussed on consulting the wrong people. Thankfully, someone handed him a plate of Turkish biscuits and he quickly shut up.

So what do we learn from all this? One lesson is to never get into an argument with a Muslim woman. She will knock you out quick-smart. Muslim women are some of the most outspoken and articulate persons of the female persuasion on this planet.

Also, Muslim women are as diverse as Muslim men. They practise different cultures and speak different languages and have differing degrees of religiosity. Don’t be surprised if the Muslim woman you meet for the first time does not wear a piece of cloth on her head. And don’t be surprised if the one that does wear it also has a PhD in the neuro-psycho-pharmo-toxicological aspects of Deepak Chopra’s work or some other subject I am too stupid to understand and appreciate.

Finally, Muslim women are usually far more civilised than Muslim men. Here are two Muslim women’s organisations that do not often see eye-to-eye. Yet they have an attitude of live and let live. They realise that so much work needs to be done that there is probably room for 25 more Muslim women’s groups. Unlike our stupid male-dominated Islamic councils in NSW, these organisations spend their meagre resources on their members and on providing services, not on futile legal battles over who has the right to rule the roost.

© Irfan Yusuf, 2005

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Friday, June 03, 2005

Indonesia Attacked, Australians Abandoned

An Australian woman, Schapelle Corby, was arrested in Bali for carrying a large quantity (from memory, 4.1 kg) of illicit drugs in her baggage. She was charged under Indonesian law, tried and convicted following a hearing in which she was legally represented. A panel of three judges found her guilty, and had the power to sentence her to be killed by firing squad. The prosecution sought a life sentence in the event she be found guilty. Ms Corby was sentenced to 20 years in gaol.

Ms Corby's arrest comes at a time when over 10 other Australians have been arrested for trying to smuggle illicit drugs through Bali. Other Australians have been arrested elsewhere in Asia, including one Australian of Vietnamese origin sentenced in Vietnam.

However, none of these cases gained the attention of politicians and media as the Corby case. And when the verdict was delivered, the response from many quarters was swift.

Some Australians rang local aid agencies and asked for their donations to the tsunami appeal to be refunded. Somehow tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, Somalia, Thailand and Aceh had some responsibiluty for the apparent injustice Ms Corby had suffered at the hands of the Bali court. Letters to the editor appeared in a number of major newspapers, with writers calling for the Australian government to cancel its $1 billion aid pledge to Indonesia for tsunami relief.

(Predictably, anti-Semites such as Daniel Pipes and Mark Steyn did not make any comment about Australians and their lack of generosity to tsunami victims, whilst being quick to point out the alleged lack of generosity from donors in Muslim countries.)

The Australian media had a field day, both with Corby and against each other. Various news networks were trading blows, accusing each other of paying money to Corby family members and friends for exclusive access to their reactions.

Channel 9's behaviour in this regard was most disturbing. Popular TV personalities such as Ray Martin and others did a marvellous job by asking questions of the Corby family immediately after the verdict, questions whose understandably emotion-charged responses could be used as evidence by the prosecution in any appeal. Poor Ms Corby's mother was caught off guard, virtually admitting that her daughter Schapelle has more or less "done enough time for what she did" and should be returned to her family.

Ms Corby's own defense team, led by 2 Perth QC's offering their services for free, have already commented on the irresponsible nature of the media coverage. But even more irresponsible was the Government's response to the whole affair.

For starters, the Government chose to focus on Corby whilst ignoring the plight of other Australian citizens in custody in the same gaol. It seems that Corby's good looks and green eyes captured the imagination of the PM and Mr Downer in a way that the Asiatic features of the alleged ringleader and the other Australians could not. And we are not hearing a peep from the Government about the Australian caught up in Vietnam on drug charges.

The Australian Government had written to the Indonesian authorities on behalf of Schapelle Corby. Yet we do not hear of any letters being written on behalf of other Australians detained on drug smuggling charges. what does it take to get Government support? Does one require a high profile and wealthy financial backer as well as having a pretty face?

Yet in case anyone thought it was racism which drives the Howard Government's decisions on such matters, what is the Government doing for another white handsome Australian citizen rotting away at Guantanamo Bay?

It seems that having an Australian passport is no guarantee of Government support. Our Government has turned its backs on its citizens. Indeed, as recent events have shown, our Government is even prepared to allow Australian citizens to be detained with "illegal" asylum seekers in the middle of the desert. Worse still, our citizens can even find themselves deported as if they were illegal immigrants!

Returning to the Corby fiasco, the Government's reaction to the finding of a biological agent at the Indonesian embassy on 1 June 2005 was predictably low-key. The word "terrorism" simply did not register on the lips of the PM or his Ministers. Yet there can be little doubt that this was a possible terrorist attack.

So how should we read the Government's response? The following letter to the Melbourn Age pretty sums up my feelings ...

Relieved raghead

If it had been the US embassy targeted, our media would be saturated with conspiracy theories about nasty Islamists from Lakemba attacking our allies. Mr Howard would have called for tougher anti-terror laws, and his shock-jock and tabloid columnist allies would be crying out for more mandatory detention. Thankfully, it was only the Indonesian embassy that was attacked. Indonesia isn't as important to us. And because it is a largely Muslim nation, it's unlikely there were any nasty raghead Muslims involved. I'll be able to sleep much more peacefully now.
I. Yusuf, Fairfield

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