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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Pete's Blog said...

Thanks Irfy

Your insights into the local Muslim power structure are of great interest and are probably unique.

It almost appears that mosque congregations see their imams as (nostalgic or unifying) links to their "mother countries" and do not see it as a priority that imams might be effective players in national politics.


Pete's Blog said...


On a different matter I think the OLO ( site is an exasperating standoff between rightwing anti Muslim fanatics versus anti Western Trots (who do a poor job in redressing the balance).

Somewhere in the middle is you, David Latimer, MikeM and myself who try to indicate that there is more complexity in life than out of context studies of religious works and painting America as the evil empire.

So although I've fired a few shots at you now and then (as plantagenet) your multi disciplinary approach to difficulties Muslims have in Australia is laudable.

The shortcomings of OLO's recidivists shouldn't put thinking people off.

(aka plantagenet)

elida_pamee said...

Not much different than the Staunch Christians and there are plenty of them still about, telling us how to live, dress, and what to say/not to...

Anonymous said...

Hi Irfan,

I am a member of a muslim organisation in London called City Circle ( that reaches out to young, muslim professionals working in the city and was interested to read your blog about a similar organisation in Melbourne. I would be grateful if you could assist me and forward any contact details or web site address you have for this organisation. Alternatively, please pass on our web address to them in the hope that they will get in touch with us. Thank you for your assitance and keep up the good blog work.