Friday, May 26, 2006

Australian Muslims – The Next 10 Years

On the eve of the fanatical European Catholic Crusaders landing in his town, the writer and philosopher Abul Hasan Ali al-Ma’arri summed up the state of people in his troubled times: There are only two classes of people in the world: those who have religion but not much brains, and those who have brains but not much religion!”

The same comment could just as easily be made about Aussie Muslim peak organisations in the 21st century as they could about Syrian Muslims in the 11th century.

Tomorrow night, a number of speakers representing the new generation of Australia’s Muslims will be addressing a packed crowd in Melbourne University’s Copeland Theatre to discuss their vision of where their community will (or should) be in a decade’s time.

The speakers include Dr Zachariah Mathews, a former executive member of the Federation of Australian Muslim Students & Youth (FAMSY). Dr Mathews is a senior pharmacist who has worked in the public hospital system for many years. He originally hails from South Africa, and has studied in the United States.

Also speaking will be Waleed Aly, perhaps Australia’s most articulate Muslim voice. A versatile communicator, Mr Aly is currently media spokesman for the Islamic Council of Victoria. He works in Melbourne for a major commercial law firm, and appears regularly in various newspapers including The Age and The Australian.

A chap named Abu Hamza will also be appearing. He is a speaker who lectures at the Islamic Information & Services Network of Australia (IISNA), a salafi/wahhabi organisation that tends to distance itself from more radical salafi groups. Abu Hamza is not in any way related to the blind Sheik Abu Hamza al-Masri, formerly of London.

It is significant that this topic is being discussed without the presence of any representatives from the peak Muslim body known as the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC). In recent times, AFIC’s affairs and scandals have been splashed across the pages of The Australian.

Thus far, it seems only The Oz is covering the story. Neither the Fairfax press nor the tabloids are touching the story. As if Muslims are the only religious congregation with trouble, scandal and disputation at the highest levels. Why should Muslims especially make the news?

(It might be argued that this fascination of The Oz with Muslim affairs is reflective of the fact that, at least in its editorial and op-ed policies, The Oz has a distinctly monocultural agenda. In recent times, The Oz has allowed its pages to be polluted with xenophobic and feral articles demonising both Muslim and indigenous cultures and communities.

The Oz has now jumped onto the absurd bandwagon of forcing judges to ignore peculiar cultural factors when sentencing offenders. It is always the first newspaper to bash any minority deemed vulnerable and unfashionable.

Yet the Fairfax press aren't exactly averse to Muslim-bashing either, although they tend to show a little more sophistication.)

However, the fact remains that AFIC is in an incredible degree of strife. One need not go over the numerous fatal weaknesses of the organisation. AFIC’s inevitable demise leaves a huge vacuum in Muslim community leadership. This poses enormous challenges but also substantial opportunities.

For years, Muslim institutions have been dominated by the most observant yet least competent. Muslim institutions have failed to understand the communities they claim to represent. They have been dominated by persons with little interest in building strong and viable institutions that service the needs of an increasingly younger and home-grown community.

Of course, there are exceptions. The Islamic Council of Victoria has initiated its Grassroots youth programs. It has copped some criticism from more conservative and/or pro-Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) elements in organisations such as FAMSY and IISNA.

What these conservative groups fail to appreciate is that allegedly ideologically purer activities have failed to make any real or lasting difference in the lives of a substantial proportion of young Muslims. Despite its bombastic name, FAMSY has managed to attract few real youth, and its executive has tended to be dominated by middle-aged overseas PhD students from Arab countries.

IISNA is a breakaway organisation from the one headed by Sheik Mohammad Omran. It is more moderate in its theology, and has tended to shy away from political controversies. However, its insistence on limiting itself to conservative Saudi scholarship has rendered it almost irrelevant to the uniquely Australian problems faced by young people.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Australia’s Muslims is how to come to terms with the fact that not all Muslims regard Islam as the primary source of their identity. Muslim organisations need to make up their mind on whether they are to ignore or reflect this spectrum of religiosity.

Muslim institutions need to attract the most talented elements of the Muslim community. They need to look to the example of their Jewish cousins who have ensured that their best and brightest are heavily involved in community management. Involvement in Muslim institutions should no longer be seen as the pastime of those with not much else going for them in life.

We need to understand that often our best and brightest aren’t always the most observant people on the planet. Some will be engaged in lifestyles or activities that are not exactly orthodox. However, if such persons wish to share and contribute their expertise and resources to help the cause, we should be the last to come in their way.

This especially applies to public relations. While some elements of the media are worth writing off, there are plenty of opportunities for well-spoken and articulate Muslims to make their mark. Such people should be encouraged and coordinated, not shouted down for being not observant enough.

There are so many challenges facing Muslim Australia. Yet public relations and community management are the immediate matters to be dealt with. Let’s hope tomorrow night’s discussion will yield some real results.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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