Saturday, September 30, 2006

Muslims, The Brethren & Aussie Values

Imagine a religious community which forbids its adherents from using computers, from eating with non-believers, from attending university and from voting. Imagine if the group was led by a Lebanese sheik.

One can only guess John Howard’s reaction to such a sect. “These people need to integrate. They need to adopt Australian values. This sort of culture could breed home-grown terror.”

One can also imagine Brendan Nelson’s response (were he still education minister). “I will write to their schools and impress upon them the importance of observing Australian values. Otherwise, they can clear off!”

Perhaps Treasurer Peter Costello would talk about such a sect as manufacturing generation of young people caught in a “twilight zone”, not feeling comfortable in their parents’ culture or in broader Australian culture.

No doubt Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock would be concerned about allegations the sect was actively engaged in breaching Family Court orders in relation to children. Joe Hockey would be most concerned the group was potentially assisting its members by channelling money through secret accounts to avoid falling foul of Centrelink.

Select newspapers owned by a certain American citizen would no doubt be running hard with the story. The Australian would publish editorials about how this sect has little respect for Australian values. Its op-ed and letters pages would be flooded with pieces from former supporters of Sir Joh on “ Australia ’s Muslim problem” and “the Islamic cancer in our body politic”. Its favoured education writer would use his Menzies Foundation credentials to speculate about funding for the sect’s schools.

The tabloid duo in Sydney and Melbourne would be carping away, using the story as yet more proof that Muslims just don’t wish to integrate and their dual citizens are a bunch of social security cheats.

Meanwhile, conservative think tanks would publish comment on the social and economic dangers posed by this sect. They would invite theatre critics to lecture on more “big ideas” of how Muslim activities represent a threat to our Western culture.

Security commentators and self-declared terrorism “experts” would issue fatwas on possible dangers posed by such fundamentalist beliefs, and possible links of the Muslim sect to al-Qaida and Hezbollah.

Of course, all this is hypothetical. I’m not aware of any Muslim sect in Australia which insists on such isolationist thinking and living. However, viewers of Four Corners on 25 September would be aware of a Christian sect accused of engaging in such conduct.

The Exclusive Brethren have every right to practise their form of Christianity. They have every right to stop their members from going to university, eating with non-Brethren, marrying outside their sect and voting.

But when any religious group is accused of engaging in deliberate breaches of the law, our law makers should be the last to defend them (or at least the first to call for an investigation). Hence, John Howard’s description of the Exclusive Brethren in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 27 as merely “an organisation within the law” which has “a different, a more disciplined” version of religion is most disturbing.

Mr Howard frequently lectures Muslims about Australian values. These include mateship, respect for the law and equality for women. However, such rules clearly do not apply to Christian sects which bankroll campaigns benefiting Mr Howard’s (and indeed my own) side of politics.

Australians of all denominations have expressed concern about what they perceive to be Mr Howard’s anti-Muslim sentiments. Many would argue that Mr Howard and other politicians are engaging in a campaign of vilification of Australians of Muslim heritage. Howard has defended critics of Islamic religion even when their comments are based on ignorance.

Mr Howard refused to silence backbenchers and NSW Upper House member Fred Nile who called for hijab to be banned from public schools. Howard even refused to contradict them.

(Of course, the Niles and Bishops of this world are silent when it comes to headscarves worn by women from the Brethren.)

But the PM will not tolerate “some vilification campaign” (to use his words) against Christian sects. He will not call upon his ministers to investigate potential breaches of social security and family laws against them. He certainly will not follow conservative politicians in Victoria and New Zealand who have disassociated themselves from the Brethren.

Perhaps what Muslim groups need to do is ensure their leader lives and works in John Howard’s electorate. Perhaps Muslims should start publishing advertisements attacking the Greens and other parties who don’t share their conservative views on social issues.

Better still, perhaps Muslims should declare themselves to be a Christian sect.

One of John Howard’s former staffers, Dr Gerard Henderson, wrote in The Age on May 25 2004 of

...the one significant blot on [Howard’s] record in public life … a certain lack of empathy in dealing with individuals with whom he does not identify at a personal level: for example, Asian Australians in the late 1980s and asylum seekers in the early 21st century.

Cynics might suggest that apart from having white skin, conservative social views and Christian symbols, it’s difficult to see how Mr Howard can identify with the Exclusive Brethren on a personal level. At the very least, the responses of Howard and his ministers to the Brethren show that it is the Coalition which desperately needs to adopt Australian values.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Islam of burning books & condemning Buddhists

I’ve been going to the Commonwealth Street mosque in Surry Hills since I was a child. The mosque is managed by the Islamic Society of New South Wales, an organisation with which my family has had association since its inception in the early 1970’s.

In 1986, I joined the Surry Hills Mosque Library. A chap named Ronnie processed my membership, and I borrowed a number of books. The library was filled with English titles on a range of religious and other subjects, including magazines, HSC study guides and university textbooks.

Some years later, a new committee took over the mosque. It was a coalition of members of the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) and the al-Ahbash sect which operated under a front organisation calling itself the Islamic Charitable Projects Association (ICPA).

I recall meeting a red-headed gentleman at the mosque that year (I believe it was 1988 or 89). He was a leader of the al-Ahbash sect and was an executive member of the Islamic Society of NSW. I asked him about the library. I still clearly remember his answer.

“Brother, we burnt most of the books. They teach kufr (unbelief) and shirk (idolatry). We only want books with true Islamic teachings in them. We don’t want non-Muslim material.”

That was my first exposure to the ICPA and the al-Ahbash sect. I was used to some members of the TJ having an aversion to learning Islam by reading books alone without assistance from a qualified Islamic scholar (especially in the case of complex and advanced books on Islamic spirituality such as Imam Ghazali’s Ihya Uloom ad-Din translated as Revival of the Religious Sciences).

What disturbed me was the idea of burning books. Members of the Society had donated hundreds of books to the library, only to be summarily burnt without their knowledge or approval. I recall other library members also complaining about the destruction of library books, which formed part of mosque property.

This would not be the first time I experienced the extreme narrow-mindedness of the al-Ahbash sect leaders toward non-Muslim literature and ideas. In 1999, I was involved in a campaign to assist members of the Bankstown Vietnamese Buddhist community who were having difficulties having extensions to their temple approved by the Bankstown City Council.

My campaign included publicising the issue on the Morning Glory Show run by Ahmed Abdo and his colleagues at the Voice of Islam Radio in Sydney. During the show, numerous listeners rang up and expressed their support for members of the Buddhist community. Some Councillors also phoned in an vain attempt to justify their decision to oppose temple extensions.

The campaign brought Islamic and Buddhist communities closer together and was a huge win for good community relations. However, this did not stop members of the al-Ahbash sect from openly expressing their opposition to our campaign.

And the basis of their objection? One al-Ahbash leader said to me: “As Muslims, we must never support and encourage false religions”!

The Prime Minister has emphasised the importance of integration and Australian values. I would have thought that supporting freedom of religion for religious minorities was such a value. Yet sadly al-Ahbash interpret Islam in a manner which is extreme and completely opposed to Australian values. They burn books in a medieval manner. They also oppose Muslim involvement in efforts to assist other faith communities.

Indeed, not only did leaders of al-Ahbash condemn my involvement in the campaign to support Vietnamese Buddhists. I was also criticised by a member of the Prime Minister’s Muslim Reference Group associated with the sect. This same member was recently praised by Minister for Citizenship Andrew Robb for his commitment to integration.

I believe that groups which oppose friendly and supportive relations between Muslims and Buddhists represent a fringe element within the Muslim communities. The al-Ahbash sect has proven time and again that their agenda is built upon ensuring Muslims remain on the margins of mainstream society.

It therefore disturbs me that I receive news from a source that the Federal Government has made a grant of $200,000 to people linked to the sect. I am not sure if this money was awarded as part of its grant funds to combat extremism and promote harmony. However, I wonder whether the organisation has moved on from times when it engaged in medieval arts of book burning and modern prejudices against Buddhists.

I guess time will tell.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Toward Understanding Ayaan Hirsi Ali Part 1

Many readers will not have heard of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born former Dutch MP who abandoned her ancestral faith some years back. I’ve been reading Ali’s book, a collection of speeches and articles translated from Dutch and collectively entitled The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason.

Ali’s book has also been published in the United States as under the title of The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam. It has received mixed reviews, with perhaps the most detailed review published in The Nation in June this year by Laila Lalami.

Lalami provides the following short and matter-of-fact biography of Ali.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. Her father, Hirsi Magan
Isse, was a prominent critic of the Siyad Barre regime, and the family had to
flee the country, first to Saudi Arabia and then to Ethiopia and Kenya. When
Hirsi Ali was 22, her father arranged a marriage for her with a distant
relation. On a layover in Germany en route to Canada, where the man lived, Hirsi
Ali escaped to the Netherlands, where she applied for and received asylum. She
worked as an interpreter for Somali refugees and studied political science at
the University of Leiden. Hirsi Ali first came into the public eye in 2002, with
the publication of De Zoontjesfabriek (The Son Factory), whose vehement
criticisms of Islam made her the subject of death threats. She joined a think
tank affiliated with the social-democratic Labor Party but a year later switched
membership to the right-wing VVD Party, which had invited her to run for a seat
in Parliament. She won, and became a member of Parliament in January 2003. Hirsi Ali explained her shifting allegiance by saying that the VVD granted her greater ability to advocate for the rights of Muslim women. Then in 2004, she wrote the script to the short film Submission, which was directed by Theo van Gogh, a man who was known for his virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements. That fall, van Gogh was slaughtered in Amsterdam, in broad daylight, by a Dutch man named Mohammed Bouyeri, whose parents had emigrated from Morocco. A letter left on van Gogh's body made it clear that Hirsi Ali was the next target. She
immediately went into hiding and has needed heavy protection ever since. A few years ago, Hirsi Ali admitted to lying on her asylum application, but a Dutch TV documentary challenged her on other details of her life, including whether or not she was forced into marriage. The revelations sparked a row that culminated when Rita Verdonk, the Minister of Integration and a member of Hirsi Ali's own party, informed her that she could no longer consider herself a Dutch citizen. Although there has been no specific move to strip her of citizenship, Hirsi Ali has already announced that she is resigning from Parliament and moving to the United States, where she will take up a position at the right-wing American
Enterprise Institute.

Ali provides some details about herself in the preface to her book entitled Breaking Through the Islamic Curtain. She says she was brought up by her parents

… to be a Muslim – a good Muslim. Islam dominated the lives of our family
and relations down to the smallest detail. It was our ideology, our political
conviction, our moral standard, our law and our identity. We were first and
foremost Muslim and only then Somali.

From this excerpt it appears that Ali came from a family of conservative Muslims for whom Islamist politics reigned supreme. Her father was a political activist and a critic of the government of his time.

Ali explains what growing up as a Muslim meant to her. She was taught to regard Muslims as separate from and superior to non-Muslims. The “us and them” mentality seemed to be drilled into her.

Some 12 years ago and aged 22, Ali arrived in Western Europe. She had fled an arranged marriage to a distant relative who lived in Canada. Her whole outlook on life changed.

Ali described 3 elements of her Islamic faith following her exposure to European civilisation. First, Muslims’ relationship with their God was one of fear. Second, the only moral source for Muslims was the infallible Prophet Muhammad. Third, Islam is strongly dominated by sexual morality derived from tribal Arab values dating back to the 7th century.

The essence of a woman is reduced to her hymen. Her veil functions as a
constant reminder to the outside world of this stifling morality that makes men
the owners of women …

For Ali, these three elements largely explain why Muslim nations lag behind both the West and emerging Asian nations. The fact that emerging Asian nations include Muslim majority states such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei doesn’t seem to figure. The fact that Muslim minorities play active roles in the development of both Muslim and Western nations also seems to be ignored.

Ali paints a selective picture of the West, Western cultures, Muslim cultures and Islam. Her analysis is simplistic and based on anecdotes. Her referencing is poor, which seems strange given that much of what she has written has quite likely been written by political staffers and speech writers assigned to her as a Member of the Dutch Parliament.

I do not doubt Ali’s sincerity. She has clearly had troubled experiences that have left her with deep emotional and psychological scars. Her childhood as a refugee uprooted from her home and almost always on the run, must have been unsettling. She was shipped off to Canada to marry a man she had never met.

Perhaps Ali’s most troubling childhood experience was her exposure to the disgusting practise of female genital mutilation (FGM). In this respect, she will disappoint those who claim FGM is an Islamic practice. She acknowledges it is a tribal African practice, though claims Muslims spread the practice far and wide.

The title of Ali’s book is “A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason”. Yet in what sense Ali regards herself as Muslim remains unclear. She certainly acknowledges that she no longer regards herself religiously or even culturally as Muslim. And if her descriptions of Islamic doctrines and Muslim cultures are any indication, Ali has had little exposure to various forms of Islam beyond her conservative middle-class Somali upbringing.

(To be continued. And this time I mean it!)

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Infantile Muslim responses to the Pope's latest fatwa

Recently a famous South African gentleman died. He had become a household name across the Islamic world, travelling and lecturing widely. His early speeches in South Africa and overseas included calls to end apartheid in his homeland, and criticisms of enforced racial segregation.

Yet the politics of apartheid wasn’t the main concern of the late Ahmed Deedat. Indeed, his main occupation was to discredit Christian theology. Despite not attending university, he was exceptionally well-read and was a fearsome debater. Some of his more crude book titles included “The God Who Never Was” and “Crucifixion or Cruci-fiction?”. Charming.

I grew up reading Deedat’s books and watching his debates with evangelical Christians in various countries. Deedat’s style was confrontational, and he frequently ran rings around those unfortunate enough to find themselves on the opposite side of him.

Deedat believed Islam was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Despite his in-your-face and abrasive style, Deedat was motivated by a desire to share his truth with others so that they might benefit from it.

Christianity and Islam are both missionary religions. Both faiths believe they have a monopoly over the truth. Both want to share their version of truth with others. Both compete in seeking converts.

It is therefore natural that leaders of both faiths will from time to time address their minds to the faith of their competitors. Sometimes this takes the form of criticism or of focussing on a group’s perceived weaknesses.

Indeed, one of Ahmed Deedat’s last public acts was to challenge the late Pope John Paul II to a debate in Vatican Square. Thankfully the Pope had other more pressing issues to deal with.

I find it strange that religious and political leaders of Muslim-majority countries are up in arms about recent comments of the new Pope. Perhaps their frustration is a reflection of the fact that they don’t expect Christian leaders to criticise the Islamic faith. Or perhaps the leaders are concerned about some Muslims behaving in the same manner as they did in response to the Danish cartoons.

There were times when Christians and Jews would feel speaking and writing against Islam. Ironically these were times when Muslims ruled much of the known world. One precedent in Islamic Spain can explain this.

Spain was home to a physician and religious scholar named Sheik Musa bin Maymoun. Sheik Musa spoke and wrote in Arabic. One of his many treatises was a work entitled (in English) “Guide to the Perplexed”. In this book, Sheik Musa sought to compare the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Sheik Musa’s conclusion was clear. Judaism was superior to its sister Abrahamic faiths.

The Muslim response? Muslims who disagreed with Sheik Musa’s views did so by writing responses. Spanish Muslims still consulted Sheik Musa’s expertise in medicine. Sheik Musa himself wasn’t attacked, and copies of his book were not burnt until Catholic armies took back Muslim Spain. Burning books was too uncivilised for those polished and proud Muslims.

Sheik Musa was in fact the great Andalusian rabbi Maimonides. His critique of Islam, together with his skills as a physician, led the Kurdish general Saladin to appoint him as chief medical officer to the army that eventually conquered Jerusalem from the Frankish crusader kings. Maimonides went onto become one of Saladin’s closest and most trusted advisers.

Islam was robust and strong enough in those times to withstand criticism. Muslims were sensible and educated and civilised and confident enough to be able to accept criticism. They could debate their critics on an intellectual level without having to resort to violence or being highly strung and reactionary to even the mildest rebuke.

I once surprised a Catholic priest with a range of questions. This priest had made public statements to the effect that the Koran preaches violence. I asked him whether he could read Arabic, given that the Koran was in Arabic. He said no. I asked him which translation he used. He said he couldn’t remember. I listed some 10 translations to him. He still couldn’t answer. In the end he became defensive.

In an environment as free as Australia, a humble layman like myself can expose the relative ignorance of a cardinal. I could do this using intellect and logic, far more powerful tools than defensiveness or threatening violence.

Muslims offended by the Pope’s comments about Islam and history are better off addressing these arguments than condemning the Pope. If Muslims become defensive or even hint at violence, they will merely be personifying (and thus confirming) of the Pope’s claims.

It’s only to be expected that the leader of a missionary faith will criticise other missionary faiths. Just as we expect Don Brash to criticise Helen Clark or Kim Beazley to criticise John Howard. Thankfully, clerics tend to be more polite than politicians most of the time. But criticism is part of the Abrahamic tradition.

If you can’t stand the missionary heat, you should think about getting out of Abraham’s spiritual kitchen.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Friday, September 15, 2006

Imam's Conference - Third Time Lucky?

This weekend imams from around Australia will gather for what was supposed to be a national imams’ conference. The meeting has already been adjourned at least twice, and Muslim women’s groups complained about the meeting being limited to male imams. The meeting is now known as the Conference of Australian Muslim Leaders.

Traditionally, imams play a role akin to rabbis. They interpret the sacred law, perform religious services and manage religious affairs of the mosque. Imams are not priests, and Islam knows no priestly hierarchy. The government believes that imams play a powerful role in Muslim communities, hence their regulation is necessary to stop kids from becoming suicide bombers.

Imams have proven to be a source of embarrassment from time to time. Exactly what role they play varies across different ethnic Muslim groups. Home-grown imams are few and far between.

One controversial issue has been standardising imams’ credentials. Some imams don’t hold any qualifications in Islamic law, while others haven’t been forthcoming in disclosing the extent of their qualifications.

Another controversy concerns women’s access to mosques. Many mosques aren’t exactly female friendly, with women being relegated to small areas upstairs or to the rear of the mosque, isolating them from the main service.

UTS law lecturer and author Jameela Hussein will be presenting her research on the attitudes of imams to women. Other women and youth leaders will be addressing their grievances and concerns. No doubt Andrew Robb (who will speak at the conference) will want the imams to address combating extremism.

But with the fasting month of Ramadan hardly a week away, perhaps the issue on the minds of most imams will be how to determine the beginning of Ramadan. The Islamic calendar is lunar, and there is an ongoing dispute between those insisting on sighting the moon with the naked eye and those happy to rely on astronomical calculations.

The result is often that different mosques commence Ramadan on different days. Sometimes Ramadan can commence on 3 different days depending on which imam you follow.

Imams cannot even get their act together and organise to start religious festivals on the same day. And to think some people think these guys have the ability to organise a terrorist attack!

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Howard, Integration and Gender Equity

I wish I could safely say that the PM’s mass debate over the 1% non-integrated of the 2% of Aussies who tick the “Muslim” box on the census forms is well and truly postponed. Sadly not. With interest rates going up and the ALP gaining bigger majorities in state elections, Muslim-bashing has become the PM’s pastime.

However, it is a good idea to re-visit one theme the PM raised. Laurie Oakes in The Bulletin claims that the PM’s notion that “people who come from societies where women are treated in an inferior fashion have got to learn very quickly that that is not the case in Australia” is “motherhood stuff”.

Yeah, right. Try telling that to all those mothers and other women too frightened to use Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders in NSW (or their equivalent in other states and Territories).

The PM’s claim that women aren’t treated in an inferior fashion in Australia makes me wonder which Aussie women he’s talking about.

OK, it’s true that Australia has banned that disgusting tribal practise of Female Genital Mutilation (which, even according to self-proclaimed ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali says isn’t a religious practise). Yes, most Aussie blokes don’t go bashing daughters and sisters for chatting up some dude.

We only do that when we are pissed, stoned and/or psychotic enough. Last year, the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics released a report suggesting reported domestic violence rates across NSW had increased by 40-50% in the past 7 years. Reported incidents. Who knows how many women are too frightened to report.

In a society where women are bashed so frequently by their partners, it just isn’t possible to say women are treated as equals. The problem is that people keep treating domestic violence as a women’s issue.

When women are bashed and abused, it isn’t just the primary victims who suffer. Other men (fathers, sons, brothers) are also affected. And it is only when men take responsibility for this issue that things will start to change.

Each year, UNIFEM organises White Ribbon Day to campaign for the elimination of violence against women. Australian men wear white ribbons to show they oppose violence against women. A white ribbon is not a badge of purity or perfection. It simply says you believe that violence against women is unacceptable.

To get involved in the UNIFEM campaign, click here.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Islam Teaches Integration

With all this talk about migrants and integration, we’ve heard the PM, the Treasurer and various Muslim leaders (both self-appointed and appointed by the PM) give their views.

But what does classical Islamic theology have to say about the matter? And what have Muslims been practising over the past 1,400 years?

Recently I visited Malaysia on an exchange program organised by the Australia-Malaysia Institute. I visited a Museum of Islamic Art and Architecture in KL. There I saw some miniatures of mosques from different parts of the world.

The oldest mosque was a Chinese mosque dated to within 100 years of the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The mosque hadn’t changed since it was first built (apart from some minor extensions and renovations).

And what did the mosque look like? Did it have minarets and domes? No. The mosque was built in the same design as a typical Chinese temple or pagoda.

Then again, Middle Eastern mosques are built based on designs of Byzantine churches. Ottoman mosques are all based on what was St Sophia’s Church in Constantinople.

Some years back, an English Muslim scholar Tim Winter visited Australia for a series of lectures and workshops. Mr Winter teaches Islamic studies at Cambridge University, and has studied Islam at al-Azhar University in Egypt (perhaps the oldest and most prestigious Islamic university in the world).

Winter told his audience that Muslim settlers always adopted and co-opted the cultures of the places they moved to. Muslims always tried to ensure they made a neat cultural fit. They didn’t try to look or behave differently. They adopted the dress and customs of the host society and adapted their Islamic practises to suit their environment without compromising the fundamentals.

Winter even described a Victorian era mosque established by English converts. The mosque was built like a church hall. Each Sunday night, locals would be invited to visit the mosque where they would chat over cups of tea and plates of scones. In the corner, an organ would be used to play contemporary tunes.

An organ. In the mosque! Imagine the fuss if Aussie Muslims tried setting up an organ at the Imam Ali Mosque in Lakemba.

The PM’s message of integration may have originally been worded in an unfortunate manner. However, the fact remains that his message is consistent with classical Islamic teaching and has abundant precedent in Muslim migration history.

Instead of maintaining postures based on political correctness, Muslims would be well advised to study their history and understand their own heritage. They might be surprised by what they find. It is fair enough to criticise the PM for singling out Muslims. But it certainly isn’t fair to criticise the PM for insisting on Muslims practising their own religion!

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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