Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Australian Muslims must reign in irresponsible spokesmen

Al Jazeera gets plenty of flack from some quarters. It is seen as the voice of extremism. Some western news agencies are offended by the presence of this new player in the media market.

But even Al Jazeera disagrees with claims made by a fringe Melbourne imam. Mohammed Omran doubts bin Ladin and al-Qaida had any involvement in the September 11 attacks. Most disagree with Omran, including Attorney General Phillip Ruddock and Islamic Council of Victoria spokesman Waleed Aly.

And including me.

Last December, I finished reading Yosri Fouda’s book “Masterminds Of Terror”. Mr Fouda was a senior investigative reporter with Al Jazeera. His book is based on contacts and meetings with senior al-Qaida operatives.

Fouda risked his life by spending 48 hours with Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the two al-Qaida masterminds behind the 9/11 attacks that killed thousands of people from all ethnic and religious backgrounds. At least 30% of the victims were of Muslim background, many of them New York fire fighters struggling to assist the rescue effort.

Fouda has no doubts about who was behind the September 11 attacks. His book, co-authored with Scottish journalist Nick Fielding, lays the blame firmly on Osama bin Ladin and his group. And his claims are backed up by official press releases and multimedia materials produced by al-Qaida themselves, not to mention his interviews with the al-Qaida leaders.

Fouda’s work represents mainstream Muslim Australian consensus. Mohammed Omran’s claims are on the fringe.

Fouda includes in his book official al-Qaida documents used to religiously justify the attacks using select verses from the Quran usually quoted out of context. Again, mainstream Muslim opinion was against al-Qaida. Religious scholars from across the Arab world dissected and criticised the documents as being based on infantile reasoning and flagrantly contradicting 1,400 years of scholarly consensus.

It isn’t just Islamic scholars from the Arab world who are saying this. Recently, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf from New York delivered the same message to audiences at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas. His words have been echoed by imams in the UK, United States, Canada, New Zealand, France, Switzerland and Australia.

Mr Omran would do well to study the words of one prominent Swiss Islamic scholar. On July 9, Dr Tariq Ramadan wrote in the Guardian:

“Muslims must speak out, explain who they are, what they believe in, what they stand for, what is the meaning of their life. They must also have the courage to denounce what is said and done by certain Muslims in the name of their religion.”

And with that in mind, I have to express my condemnation of all terrorist attacks, whether carried out in London, Istanbul, Baghdad or New York. I must condemn, not excuse, those who carry out thee attacks. All available evidence points to the involvement of bin Ladin and his network in the 9/11 attacks. Even a senior investigative journalist from al-Jazeera confirms this. Who is Omran to deny this?

But as Dr Ramadan says, condemnation is not enough. Muslim migrant communities have to carefully think about what they say and how they behave. People are openly questioning the merits of multiculturalism. Instead of calling those people racist, Muslim leaders need to consider how their actions can be made to speak louder than the words of minority voices such as those of Mr Omran.

We are living in times of uncertainty and fear, when passions can easily become inflamed. Community leaders, even on the fringe groups such as Mr Omran, must think before they speak. It is easy to speak boldly, but speaking with wisdom requires some skill. Those like myself who find speaking troublesome should communicate through other means.

Muslim leaders must understand that the literal meanings of newspaper columns and of infantile questions of shock-jocks are not what count. Rather, what counts is the emotion behind these messages. Muslim Australians share those emotions, and they are increasingly becoming frustrated with the inability of their leaders to articulate and address these emotions.

As people of all faiths and ethnicities mourn their dead in London, Muslim Australians should combine their mourning with some hard thinking. Our fellow Australians are looking to us for reassurance. They know we would never agree with minority extremists. But they want to be sure. If we stay silent, loud minority voices will continue to hijack our faith and our liberty. We have to pull our leaders into line.

(Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney industrial lawyer. He holds no leadership position in any religious community organisation, but has acted as legal adviser to a fair few.)

© Irfan Yusuf 2005.

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