Saturday, March 25, 2006

Abdul Rahman and Afghan Islam

The case of Abdur Rahman, an Afghan citizen arrested and being tried for apostasy, raises some serious issues about the new Afghan government of former restauranteur Hamid Karzai and its commitment to overturning the strictures of the Taliban regime.

To understand Islam in Afghanistan, it is necessary to understand something of the competing strains of Islam operating there. Islam is perhaps the only unifying factor amongst Afghanistan’s many tribes who find themselves almost perpetually in some kind of violent conflict.

I am no expert on Islam in Afghanistan, but I have read quite a bit on the Deoband school of Northern India which continues to have a pervasive influence on Afghani understandings on religion, the state and the interpretation and application of sharia law.

This piece will be written in short bursts. The Abdur Rahman trial continues as we speak and the verdict is expected within a week. No doubt, there will be substantial international outcry. Much of this will be quite legitimate, though some will arise from sectarian monoculturalists who congregate around the Op-Ed pages of various newspapers with neo-Conservative and/or anti-Islam and/or fringe sectarian agendas.

I will endeavour to refer to materials easily available on the web. I welcome comment and feedback from people on this issue. I may also be writing and submitting on the issue to a number of mainstream newspapers in Australia and New Zealand. Much of the material on this blog will be used to generate some understanding on the many issues surrounding the Abdul Rahman case.

One of the most contentious issues in sharia law debates today relates to whether there exists a crime of pure apostasy. There is also a related debate on whether capital punishments should be applied in Muslim-majority states where an environment of corruption and sectarian hysteria often exist. These issues will be canvassed here.

But first it is important for us to gain some understanding of the peculiar political, cultural, theological and historical context within which this case finds itself unfolding.

The Deoband school

Under the Taliban, Afghanistan was ruled by a small group of religious elders and scholars trained in the traditional Deobandi madressa system in Pakistan. The training provided in these madressas is based on a narrow set of approaches to sharia law, many of which represent the most draconian and fringe interpretations producing the most oppressive results.

The Taliban were dominated by one tribal group. Their version of Islam excluded those regarded as heterodox – Shia Muslims or Muslims following any school other than the most unusual form of Deobandi theology.

The Deoband school of Sunni Islam started in India. It represents a very classical strain of Islam, and was started by Sufi scholars from the Chishtiyya tradition of Islamic spirituality.

Deoband is the name of a town in Saharanpur in North-Western India. Deobandi scholars are those associated with the Deoband program of Sufi-based reform. The Deoband movement was a largely peaceful educational movement, its leaders tending to have little interest in political activity.

The Deoband movement first appeared in the late 19th century. Some excellent work on the Deoband school is available in the English language. Especially useful are works by Barbara Daly Metcalfe, who has translated an important Deobandi manual on Islamic law entitled “Bahisht-i-Zewar” (literally “Heavenly Ornaments”) and written specially for women.

Afghan Islam and the Madressas

The madressa system is known largely in the context of Islam in India and Pakistan. Travel writer and historian William Dalrymple has written a lengthy (if somewhat biased) expose on the madressas and their influence in the Indian sub-Continent.

(to be continued …)

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Monday, March 20, 2006

When Ignorance Certainly Isn't Bliss

Over the weekend, I found myself in Wellington to avoid the damned Flying Tram Games. I just can’t seem to find sports such as synchronised tap-dancing on ice all that riveting.

On Sunday night, I joined some friends at a Wellington cinema for the 9pm session. We had 20 minutes to spare, and decided to check out the bookshop-cum-newsagency, where I picked up the New Zealand edition of Investigate magazine.

I can’t say I’m a regular reader of this allegedly conservative glossy rag. I did once see its Australian editor, James Morrow, give a speech in Sydney at a book launch organised by the Centre for Independent Studies. Pakistan and Kashmir had just experienced a nasty earthquake in which over 50,000 had lost their lives.

Mr Morrow told his audience that a similar earthquake in San Francisco of similar intensity had only killed 10% as many people. He said this proved conclusively that western capitalism was superior to eastern allegedly non-capitalist Islam.

Morrow was talking about Islam as some kind of eastern and non-European phenomenon. Seated next to me at the time was an Aussie businessman of Bosnian Muslim origin who graduated from the Faculty of Theology at the University of Sarajevo and had also studied at the old Ottoman Gazi Husrev Beg Islamic seminary. Honestly, you’d only need to take one look at him to realise this very capitalist imam wasn’t exactly Kashmiri.

That first brush with Investigate left me a little sceptical. But the front page of the Kiwi edition of Investigate promised some hot goss about a NZ Labour MP who apparently has been accused of doing things with schoolgirls and tennis balls.

The editorial by “Ian and Heidi” was entitled “Turban-charged motions”. Its first half had some useful comments to make. The editors stated that one doesn’t need to publish cartoons to understand why they might be offensive. “We see people charged with child porn. We don’t need to see what they’ve done”. Can’t argue with that.

But the second half of the editorial should have been headed “Protocols of the Learned Mullahs of Islam”. It claimed that violent responses of a minority of Muslims were sufficient evidence to show that Muslim migrants will never be able to live in a modern liberal democratic nation-state.

The attitudes of this tiny minority who took part in violent demonstrations and burning embassies were then imposed on the entire corpus of Islamic theology in all its permutations and combinations. The editors asked “why Islam reacted as it did”, and then made the absurd claim that “Islam doesn’t recognise national borders”. It even said “no devout Muslim would consider himself Egyptian first and Muslim second”.

The closing paragraphs made the stupendous claim that Islamic political theory only recognises God as ruler and that “there are only two states in the world: Muslim and infidel”. It then suggested that Muslim migrants “don’t respect the nation-state model. Where there’s a conflict of allegiance, the nation state will always lose.”

The offensiveness of these claims makes the Danish cartoons pale into insignificance. The editors are effectively attributing fringe al-Qaida thinking to millions of Muslims living peacefully across the Western world (including New Zealand). Yes, it is true that some Muslims have this kind of thinking. These are the same Muslims who strap bombs to themselves and commit terrorist acts in which Muslim casualties far outnumber non-Muslims.

Investigate claims to be a conservative publication. One would expect ideological conservatives to be actively courting followers of a socially conservative religious congregation.

In Australia, conservative politicians and writers are making the same error of playing wedge-politics and seeking to demonise followers of perhaps the most disorganised socially conservative congregation in the country. Conservative writers have been attempting to generate support for the idea that Muslims are all plotting and planning to undermine “Australian values”.

This sort of thinking also poses a challenge for Muslims on both sides of the Tasman. Despite their obvious social conservative leanings, many Muslim migrants find it unusual that their cultures are maligned by social conservatives.

Perhaps the clue to this conundrum lies in the fact that so few ordinary Aussies and Kiwis have even a working knowledge of Islam. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on March 20 the release of a study by University of NSW geographer Kevin Dunn showing over one third of Australians admitted to knowing nothing about Islam and its followers.

Sadly, migrant-dominated Muslim groups spend more money taking each other to court than informing their fellow citizens about themselves and their rich heritage. Recent events at the Christchurch mosque are further evidence of the near-irrelevance of Muslim institutions.

Islam is misunderstood by most people. Muslims can take a number of approaches. They can cry foul and blame their fellow citizens for being so ignorant. Alternately, they can invest time and money in ensuring their faith and values are at least understood before being criticised.

Fear of Islam in the present age is largely fear of the unknown. The onus is on Muslims themselves to dispel that fear by making themselves and their faith understood.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Saturday, March 11, 2006

Lessons from the City Circle

Last weekend, I attended the monthly meeting of the Melbourne City Circle, an initiative of a group of young Muslim professionals and students. Each month, City Circle’s well-educated and well-heeled members hold a workshop to discuss important issues affecting Australia.

The workshop I attended was led by 2 Australian-born youth workers from the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV). The ICV is perhaps the only peak Muslim body in Australia completely managed by Australian-born Muslims. Most ICV board members are in their 30’s. Both genders and all ethnicities are represented. The Chairman and CEO are both Anglo-Australian.

The meeting was an opportunity for ICV workers to consult with more educated and perhaps less observant Muslim Victorians often ignored by other peak bodies. Their audience consisted largely of Australian-born Muslims under 40, a group poorly represented on the PM’s Muslim Community Reference Group yet who constitute at least half of Australia’s Muslim communities.

The issues raised were not unique amongst 2nd generation migrant groups, and reflected the concerns of so many young people caught in what Mr Costello described in his recent controversial address as “the twilight zone” – alienated from their parents’ culture and mainstream Australia.

In a few weeks, a group of middle-aged men will gather for a national summit which will almost certainly ignore those in the twilight zone. For most young Muslims, the Imam’s summit organised by the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) will discuss issues of near-complete irrelevance.

The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) claims to represent Australia’s 300,000 or so Muslims. In reality, it is a federation of state Islamic councils consisting of select mosque organisations.

AFIC is holding a summit for imams (male religious scholars) from across Australia. I specify male as I’m yet to meet a female religious school employed by a mosque management organisation.

Most imams cannot speak English, employed by mosque committees dominated by first generation migrants who themselves have limited English language skills and little interest in youth affairs.

AFIC was supposed to have held the summit last month. However, Muslim women lobbied the PM’s office to ensure that the summit also includes women.

AFIC officials and imams are likely to be shown up by the mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of Muslim Australia who tend to be tertiary-educated, English-speaking and better able to engage with the broader community.

AFIC hasn’t had a female executive member for over 20 years. It has no formal structures to enable the views of young people to be considered. AFIC’s constitution makes it mandatory for it to ensure a national Muslim youth and student body has the same voting power as a state council. Yet no such national body has been consulted for at least 5 years.

Recent comments by AFIC executive members show how out-of-touch with Muslim youth reality they are. It took AFIC 21 days to issue a letter calling on imams to condemn the extremism that led to the London bombings, but hardly 20 minutes to condemn young Aussie Muslim Michelle Leslie whose jeans and singlet top mirror the dress sense of Muslim women whether in Jakarta, Auburn or Broadmeadows.

The only person advising AFIC on youth affairs is in his mid-60’s and doubles as Mufti of Australia & New Zealand. Though I doubt any Kiwi Muslims have even heard of him.

Unlike most of his colleagues, Sheik Hilaly at least tries to ingratiate himself with women and young people. He regularly attends Muslim youth camps, and holds regular classes for youth. He is also a founding member of Sydney’s Muslim Women’s Association, supporting the establishment of Sydney’s Muslim women’s refuges. His sermons regularly deal with sensitive issues such as domestic violence.

Yet he holds a position without a job description. In Muslim countries, the Mufti is someone authorised to give “fatwas” or non-binding opinions on novel questions of religious law. The Mufti is not the equivalent of an Archbishop as some have suggested. Nor is the Mufti a spiritual leader or media spokesman.

Victoria has a Board of Imams. NSW and other states are following suit. The AFIC Imams summit could form a national board of Imams, effectively making the Mufti’s position redundant. Up until now, with no job description and no resources, the position is largely irrelevant.

This may explain the Sheik’s most recent posturing, though he is effectively talking his role into irrelevance. Perhaps the Mufti should realise it’s time to retire. He could focus on documenting his years of experience in trouble shooting and problem solving in his mainly Arabic-speaking congregation.

The role of Mufti is largely redundant. Then again, with the exception of the Islamic Council of Victoria, so are the peak Muslim bodies governing the affairs of Australian Muslims. If women and young people continue to be sidelined by migrant male leaders and imams, Islam will continue to be treated as an alien force in Australia’s spiritual landscape.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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