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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Saturday, November 05, 2005

COMMENT: Qualified and Unqualified Lunar-tics

If you believe what you read in The Australian newspaper, you’d think all Muslim Australians are part of some huge conspiracy to destroy liberal democracy. Allegedly, we are all following thick-Sheik Omran and are ready to strap ourselves with bombs and head up to Byron Bay in time to cause maximum casualties at schoolies week.

But if you have ever employed Muslims from more than 3 nationalities, you will know this is all crap. Why?

Well, for a start, the buggers can’t even agree on when Ramadan begins and ends. Each worker wants to take a separate day off for Eid or Bayram or Hari Raya (you could be forgiven for thinking these are 3 separate holidays!).

Not only that, Muslims don’t have any set hierarchy for religious scholarship. It seems anyone can get online and start spurting out fatwa after fatwa and claim qualifications and credentials.

In an earlier piece, I raised the prospect of being shown qualifications from a dude who heads up a “Centre for Islamic Sciences and Human Development” from a garage in Bankstown (actually, now it's from his wife’s clinic in Lakemba).

I have been asking the chap for proof of his qualifications since April 2005, if not earlier.

Now let’s re-visit some of his claims.

a. Mr Ali claims to have a degree in Islamic law from the Islamic University of Madeena, the same institution from where thick-Sheiks Omran and Zoud studied.
b. Mr Ali claims to have studied with Professor Abdullah Saeed of Melbourne University at Madeena.
c. Mr Ali claims to have ijaza’s from a number of scholars including Habib Ali and a range of other respected and eminent Yemeni shuyukh (plural of “shaykh”).
d. Mr Ali claims that Shaykh Nuh Keller has authorised his students to study hanafi law under Mr Ali.
e. Mr Ali runs a course in usool al-fiqh (principles of Islamic jurisprudence and legal methodology) which has been advertised as providing a diploma recognised by various institutions (depending on which day you ask him, it could be the Zaytuna Institute or al-Azhar).
f. Mr Ali claims to display his ijaza certificates and degree at the Park Road Mosque in Auburn where his classes are held.

Mr Ali has entered the fray with his views on moon-sighting. I think he has every right to express a view. So does my mum, my 9-year-old nephew and my 30-year-old Hindu cousin.

Each year, Mr Ali and his students head down to Ashbury to site the moon. It is an excellent initiative, and represents a revival of a tradition which is still followed in many Muslim countries.

By the method of moon-sighting with the naked eye, the festival of Bayram/Eid/Hari Raya should have been on Friday. But the majority of mosques (and Muslims) celebrated Eid one day earlier. Why?

A large group of Imams joined together with the AFIC-appointed Mufti Sheik Hilaly and decided to pray Eid with the rest of the world. They did not insist on localised moon-sighting.

That is their opinion. They are imams. They have qualifications. They have credentials. Mr Ali doesn’t. Or at least he hasn’t shown any.

One aspect of Islamic scholarship is its ability to inculcate humility. The following example of Mr Ali’s humility is taken from the Muslim Village Forums

“We have the appropriate knowledge and expertise and will involve only knowledgeable people from our contacts to discuss this matter.”

Now before I go any further, allow me to disclose my own bias. I actually agree with Mr Ali’s views on moon-sighting. I agree with the position taken by those scholars insisting the moon has to be sighted with the naked eye.

But I agree with them because they are scholars. They actually have credentials and qualifications which are published. They don’t hide their qualifications. They don’t make excuses or delay displaying their qualifications. Nor do they insult other qualified scholars just because they hold different views.

So let me make the point clear. Mr Ali has promised me that he has qualifications and that he will show them to me after Ramadan. I request that he do so under the following conditions:

1. That the following Imams and elders be present at the time: Imam Tajeddine Hilali, Imam Abdurrahman Asaroglu, Imam Salih Mujalla, Imam Nazeerul Hasan Thanwi, Dr Shabbir Ahmed, Shaykh Abdul Muiz and Dr Muhsin Labban;
2. That the display be held at the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque or the Imam Ali ben Abi Taleb Mosque;
3. That all qualifications and ijaza certificates be produced; and
4. That all Imams also provide evidence of their qualifications (heck, you have to be fair); and finally
5. That I bring my lawyer’s practising certificate so I can certify the copies.

I think it is an open secret that I am of the opinion that Afroz Ali does not have the qualifications he claims to have. If that be the case, it means those learning specialist disciplines from him (such as usul al-fiqh) are doing so at their own risk. If they are happy to pay money for such knowledge, then I will be happy to travel upto Byron Bay to obtain therapy from a billygoat in a bikini.

On the other hand, if it turns out that Afroz Ali does have the qualifications he claims to have, and if the senior shuyukh listed above can testify that these are valid qualifications, I will happily eat humble pie and make a $500 donation to the al-Ghazali Centre.

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

COMMENT: The Terror Laws We Had To Have

It appears the Howard Government has successfully negotiated laws ostensibly designed to protect Australians from terrorism. Of course, we know that these laws will effectively compromise the civil rights of Australia’s 350,000-plus Muslims.

Having had some involvement in an attempted campaign to stop these laws, and having tried to get Muslim Australians to agitate and lobby against the laws, I believe it is now possible for the Government to introduce any legislation adversely affecting anyone deemed to be Muslim.

The sheer apathy and lack of interest shown by Muslim Australians has been disgraceful and appalling. And believe me, this has been noticed by many non-Muslims active in the civil rights campaign.

I received the following e-mail from a libertarian in Perth:

On the subject of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, I find it incredible that they have had NOTHING to say about the federal government's latest power grab against our liberties, in the name of "fighting terror". AFIC seems to find the complete overthrow of habeus corpus quite unremarkable. What are they playing at?

Equally, my Muslim acquaintances in WA have been mostly unbothered by these laws, and are saying very little about how they might be affected should they be arrested and their parents be prevented from telling anyone where they are/if they are safe. Does this complete lack of concern apply over East as well?

Astonishingly, rather than actually stand up to these insane government policies, both the ALP
and AFIC have either been silent, or, worse, have actually called for extending the laws by imposing more expansive provisions against "incitement".

I don't know exactly what is going on, but it seems that every side of this "debate" is working towards the precise same goal of erecting a big government police state.
It appears non-Muslims are more concerned about justice and civil rights than Muslims who will be the main target of the laws.

My own experience with trying to get Muslims active in this area is also telling. Around 8 months ago, a few Muslim lawyers got together to form what we hoped would be a Muslim lawyers body. The body would hopefully expand upon the hard work that went into the formation of the Lawyers Committee of the Graduates’ Group set up by Albert Hadid and others.

Muslim lawyers, legal academics and law students were invited to take part and contribute. Sadly, despite a number of meetings, few seemed interested. Even when the full extent of the anti-terror laws became clear, it seemed most Muslim law students were more interested in the next iftar party than in helping to ensure fair and just security laws were enacted.

The apathy of the lawyers was duplicated by the imams. I have never seen such a useless bunch of religious leaders in my life. Most imams in Sydney had no idea about the terror laws. Then again, most imams cannot even speak English.

Muslim societies and state councils also did very little. With the exception of the ACT and Victoria, the state Islamic Councils completely failed to agitate effectively against the laws. The Islamic Council of NSW and its 2 competing equivalents were completely ineffectual. But what can one expect when the allegedly-volunteer media officer of the Council was holding media committee meetings at 10am on a Thursday morning.

The Muslim Women’s Association seemed more worried about some useless petition in support of hijab. It seems they had not kept up with the news. The hijab debate ended months ago. Why waste time on some futile exercise?

Surely a better way to use the “Step-Up” money to fight discrimination would be to fight and lobby against laws that represent the biggest assault on civil liberties since Federation.

There are exceptions to this story of pathetic apathy. AMCRAN did some sterling work. FAIR also agitated and spoke out on the issue. Individual members of what could (or rather, should) have been the Mevlana Lawyers Society sent out some e-mails and wrote some articles.

But in this debate, the real Jafar bin Abi Talib was ACT Chief Minister John Stanhope. When the Muslims went to Abyssinia as asylum seekers, they appointed the Prophet’s cousin Jafar to speak on their behalf. Why Jafar?

Because Jafar could speak the language of the Court. Because he understood how the Abyssinian monarch managed public policy and made decisions. Because Jafar was the best man for the job.

Jafar was able to package Muslim ideas as mainstream. Most Muslim organisational leaders, on the other hand, make Muslims look even more marginal than they are. But Muslims across the country to look to Jon Stanhope to speak for them.

I propose that at the next election of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, we elect Jon Stanhope to be President, Mufti and Chief Executive all in one. He may not regard himself as Muslim, but Mr Stanhope is more concerned with consulting with Muslims than any of the existing leaders.

In short, we are getting tough laws that will affect our civil liberties because we deserve them. We have done little to protect ourselves and our interests. And in the long term, we will be the big losers. Islam will survive. God will protect the Qur’an. But those of us who have failed Islam, the Qur’an and our nation will not be part of the process.

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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