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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