Monday, February 13, 2006

Nice words, shame about the lingo ...

It was a financially satisfying Saturday night. We had been treated to presentations by two of the world’s foremost experts on mortgages and managed funds and insurance and all that other boring stuff that I failed at university. For me it was financially satisfying because I had been given a free dinner.

The night was organised by the Muslim Community Co-Operative (Australia) Limited, Australia’s first institution set up to develop financial products that complied with the tried and tested principles of sharia.

No, that doesn’t mean they involve stoning adulterers or chopping the hands of thieves (or, if you will, bankers) or even burning embassies. Rather, in the case of tonight’s dinner, it meant launching a new kind of ethical investment that enabled investors to play the stock market without getting their hands dirty on companies that traded in arms or pornography or similar nasties.

By the end of both presentations, I was thoroughly bamboozled and ready to hit the dessert and gobble down a few more glasses of complimentary coke. It was then that one of MCCA’s sharia advisers, an Egyptian chap named Dr Ibrahim Abu Muhammnad, decided to hit the stage.

Dr Abu Muhammad graduated from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and lived for many years somewhere in the Middle East before settling in Australia. He runs his own radio station known as Radio Qur’an-Kareem or simply Q-K Radio. It broadcasts using narrow-casting short-wave frequency or something like that. The point is that you have to buy a special radio that costs around $40.

I purchased one of these radio sets for my mum. She started using it, and found that each time she turned on the radio she couldn’t understand a word being said. Like the other two Muslim radio stations in Sydney, Q-K Radio broadcasts all its programs in what is obviously the most relevant language for Australian conditions – Arabic.

Yep, we all know that every single Muslim in Australia instinctively knows how to speak Arabic. It’s just one of those things you naturally pick up after living in Sydney’s south-west – together with an aversion to paying tax and a mysterious attraction to Centrelink officers.

Dr Abu Muhammad decided he would continue with this tradition of exceptional relevance by speaking in Egyptian dialect of Arabic. I’m not sure exactly what he said, but it sounded really grouse. I started catching up on some gossip from a lady involved in one of Sydney’s “united” Muslim women’s associations.

The audience were overwhelmed by the speech. Some 30% of the audience got up and left. Virtually all of these were non-Arabic speakers. The rest of us just kept chatting away.

Dr Abu Muhammad finally pinned his gaze on me. He gave me one of those nasty looks, as if to say: “Look, I know what I am saying is in a language that hardly 0.5% of Australia can understand, but you must listen hard because I am shouting my head off!”

I, of course, looked back at the revered doctor. I gave him a look, as if to say: “Dude, you’ve lived in this country for over a decade now. Isn’t it time you got out of the ghetto and learnt some English?”

Of course, Dr Abu Muhammad did have something very important to say. In fact, so do most other Islamic religious scholars in Australia. But like Dr Abu Muhammad, most of them simply cannot express themselves in a language most of us can understand.

Later, MCCA Director Muhammad Abu Shaban stood up and gave an impressive summarised translation of Dr Abu Muhammad’s speech in English. It was truly awesome stuff.

Dr Abu Muhammad made the following points in relation to the Danish cartoons:

a. The fatwas (non-binding rulings) apparently made by various Middle Eastern scholars such as Dr Yusuf Qaradawi calling for boycotts of the goods of countries whose newspapers published the cartoons cannot and do not apply to Australia. We have no reason to boycott the goods of any European country.

b. Following the establishment of the Truce of Hudaybiyya between the Prophet and his foes from the city of Mecca, the Meccans began to suffer a famine. In previous years, these same people had fought 3 battles to annihilate the Prophet and his community. They had also sent assassins to kill him. What was his response to their famine? Did he trash their embassies? No. He followed the Qur'anic dictate of repelling evil with good. He sent them food aid.

c. We should give Europeans the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they are lampooning the Prophet in frustration at the bad behaviour of some Muslims.

d. Whilst Muslims may be mistreated in Europe, Muslims in Australia have little reason to complain. Their rights are adequately protected and guaranteed under Australian law. Australian Muslims realise this, which explains why Muslims here have not made any substantial protest to the publication of the cartoons here.

What absolute gems of wisdom can be found in these words. But unless you go out and do a crash course in classical Arabic, good luck if you can understand them.

The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC), the peak Muslim body in Australia, is meant to be having a national summit of imams on 25-26 February 2006. The Federal Government is worried about imams preaching radical stuff that could lead to some Muslim kids blowing themselves up. That summit has now been postponed as Muslim women’s groups are pushing for female scholars to be represented at the summit.

But there’s just one problem. Most Muslim female scholars can speak fluent English. Most male scholars cannot. Perhaps they need simultaneous translations. Or maybe AFIC will need to hire out the SBS subtitling machine.

Australia has some really fantastic Muslim religious scholars with bright ideas and amazing minds. Dr Abu Muhammad is one such scholar. His message is sober, thoughtful and sensible. But unless he can learn to speak English, his sensible message will go over the heads of people who need to hear the message. People like me.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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