Tuesday, October 31, 2006

On the futile fatwas of Sheik Peter bin Costello

Sheik Hilaly may have apologised. He may have even stepped down. But nothing he says or does will stop pseudo-conservative political and media ayatollahs from attacking the faith-community he claimed to lead but which never elected him in the first place.

Despite their socially conservative leanings, Muslims are again becoming fodder for the likes of Liberal Sheiks including Mufti John Howard, his underling Sheik Peter Costello and other shallow-minded opportunistic political mullahs. Australia ’s political clerical class continue to target Muslims in a manner similar to Sheik Hilaly’s targeting of women.

In a seminar at Sydney University two decades ago, Hilaly made comments alleging Jews used sex and corruption to control the world. I was at that seminar. I recall him speaking. I did not protest. I simply couldn’t understand a word he was saying about Jews or anyone else.

Two decades later, Sheik Peter Costello is using similar language to issue a fatwa finding myself and all Australian Muslims collectively guilty of Sheik Hilaly’s excesses.

Hilaly made his comments about women’s dress to a group of 500 men. He did not address women directly. Sheik Costello repeats the same error. Instead of talking to Muslims, Sheik Costello talks about Muslims and at Muslims, inevitably behind their back.

Some months back, addressing a Christian fundamentalist conference in Canberra , Sheik Costello accused Muslims of being unfamiliar with the separation of Church and State. He suggested Muslims learn something from Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic .

No doubt, Ataturk was a great military commander, as the ANZAC’s learnt at Gallipoli. But the exact meaning of Ataturk’s legacy is the subject of almost constant debate in Turkey . Costello praised the alleged secularism of Turkey ’s military establishment. Presumably, he would also have approved of the same establishment sending writers to jail and threatening to topple Turkey ’s most pro-Western government ever should it attempt to decriminalise the wearing of peaces of cloth by women in universities.

So here we saw the almost comical scene of the nation’s treasurer addressing a conference of the Australian Christian Lobby, a group seeking to increase the influence of Christianity in the political process. And he uses this opportunity to talk at Muslims behind their back on why they need to remove their religion from the political processes of Muslim countries overseas.

I may have been born in Karachi . But I doubt General Pervez Musharraf would really care what I or any other Australian born in Pakistan might think of what role Islam should play in Pakistani politics.

Now, in the wake of Hilaly’s offensive remarks, Sheik Costello is in the mood for more fatwas punishing Muslims with collective responsibility. Hilaly’s comments have led to howls of protests from Muslims across the country. Muslim peak bodies in Victoria , Queensland and the ACT have called for Hilaly’s resignation.

Hilaly’s title as Mufti of Australia and New Zealand hasn’t stopped the peak body of New Zealand ’s Muslims from openly denounced his comments. Muslim women’s groups have even more forthright, with the national umbrella body condemning Hilaly’s remarks. Even Hilaly’s closest friends and supporters have publicly called for him to resign and have condemned his remarks in the strongest terms.

Writing in the Brisbane Sunday Mail on October 28 2006, Glenn Milne quotes one government figure observing: “The (Muslim) representatives were out of the block on radio from 6.15am the morning after his speech was translated into English. Both men and women together condemning him without caveat.”

Despite this chorus of condemnation and outrage and its recognition within Federal Government circles, Sheik Costello has issued a fatwa holding all Muslims responsible for the Sheik’s Arabic speech.

This sermon, it was preached to 5000 people, wasn't it? No-one seemed to complain when it was preached. It took a long time for it to come out. No people stood up in the middle of the sermon and said, 'This is unacceptable.’

Maybe, Sheik Costello, that is because 360,000 Muslims from across the length and breadth of Australia could not fit into the auditorium of the Ali ben Abi Taleb Mosque in Lakemba when the Sheik made the address. And even if they were present, maybe it is because only a small minority of Muslims can understand the language spoken by the Sheik.

Of course, language is the crux of the problem. Most Muslim Australians don’t speak Hilaly’s Egyptian dialect of Arabic as their first language. And despite over 2 decades in Australia , Hilaly cannot speak English.

However, notwithstanding his relative incoherence on matters Muslim, Costello can at least speak English. He should be able to address his sentiments directly to Muslims. At least he could gather Muslims living in his electorate and gauge their feelings on the matter.

But as usual, Costello is content to talk about Muslims behind their backs. He is content to hold them collectively responsible for words and actions they condemned well before he joined the fray.

Sheik Hilaly may have spoken of men as cats. But with his usual dog whistle politics, it’s obvious which animal Sheik Costello regards Australian voters as personifying.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Clearing Salman's Name

Tabloid cynics say that although not all Muslims are terrorists, most terrorists are Muslims.

But what does this prove? After all, the overwhelming majority of terror victims are also Muslims.

The cynics also ask why Muslims across the world won’t march through the streets condemning terror. Maybe it’s because they are too busy burying their own victims.

Each week, Iraq and other Muslim States are battered by terrorist attacks that kill the same number of people as died in the July 7 London bombings of 2005. And earlier this week, a Muslim family in Melbourne mourned the death by assassination of an Australian-Afghan man, Hakim Taniwal, who had returned to Afghanistan as a provincial governor in 2002 to help rebuild his ancestral country.

(And to top it all off, it was reported that a suicide bomber killed five and wounded 30 people attending Taniwal’s funeral in the Afghani village of Hisarak.)

But if, God forbid, a terrorist incident hit Sydney or Melbourne tomorrow, who would be blamed? And how would anyone deemed to belong to the assassin’s group be treated?

In the week of the fifth anniversary of the World Trade Centre attack, perhaps we should look to the lessons of New York. In particular, let’s focus on the nightmare experienced by the mother of one victim.

Mrs Talat Hamdani is your typical all-American mom. Like my family, she is from the Indian subcontinent. Her son, Mohammad Salman, was born in Karachi, Pakistan. He moved to America when he was hardly 13 months old.

At age 23, Salman had a busy life — working as a New York Police Department (NYPD) cadet, as a researcher and as a part-time ambulance driver. He had gained admission to study medicine at university. He was a Star Wars fan, and his license plate number read ‘Young Jedi.’ He played American football for his high school team.

Salman was also a devout Muslim. He regularly performed his ritual prayers five times a day. As he grew older, Salman became increasingly proud of his Pakistani and Muslim heritage — although he never found time to learn to read and write in his native language, Urdu.

On the morning of 11 September, 2001, Salman left home and headed to his usual place of work as a researcher at the Rockefeller University. After catching the train, he disappeared. Within hours, his family were being questioned by the FBI; and within days, political leaders and media commentators were accusing the young Hamdani of being a terrorist.

Around the same time, American Sikhs were also being accused. The front page of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper showed the first terror suspect being taken into custody. He had his head bowed and sported a beard and a blue turban. He was, in fact, a Sikh.

Soon after, another American Sikh, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was gunned down while planting flowers at his family-owned petrol station in Arizona. His killer later admitted he shot the young man thinking he was a Muslim.

(After the London bombing, some young Sikhs wore badges saying: ‘Don’t freak, I’m a Sikh!’)

Muslim Americans were rounded up across the country. In the hysteria that followed, September 11 Muslim terror victims and their families were either ignored or demonised as terrorists.

Salman’s mother was accused of fostering terrorism at a time when she was more worried about her missing son. Some seven months later, FBI officials telephoned to advise her that Salman’s remains had been found. Far from being a terrorist, it turned out that, after he had learned of the attack on the Twin Towers, Salman had rushed to the scene and volunteered his services. Among his many part-time jobs was working as a paramedic and ambulance driver. When the towers collapsed, the debris also fell on Salman.

Eventually, the young man was laid to rest in April 2002. Among those who attended the funeral service at a New York mosque were New York’s Police Commissioner, NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the NYPD’s first Muslim police chaplain, Imam Pasha, together with over 1000 police cadets.

Finally, after suffering the double grief of a missing son and accusations he was a terrorist, the Hamdani family were able to reach some closure. Mrs Hamdani reminded mourners of some important lessons from her son’s death:

This tragedy really united and re-united the diversity in America … Those who died on September 11 were all in a very precarious situation, but what mattered to them was that they are all human beings … We have to make the world realise that they were all human. They are just human like you are.

This devout Muslim woman now joins Christian and Jewish parents on the steering committee of Peaceful Tomorrows, an organisation founded by family me mbers of those killed on 11 September, 2001. Their mission statement says they ‘have united to turn our grief into action for peace. By developing and advocating non-violent options and actions in the pursuit of justice, we hope to break the cycles of violence engendered by war and terrorism.’

Here’s what Mrs Hamdani told a symposium this year:

Salman gave the ultimate sacrifice to save his fellow Americans, and ironically, he was investigated as a terrorist. The speculations were floated by the New York media, especially, Fox 5 and its sister company that runs the New York Post. He was investigated only because of his faith. Six months later, on March 20, 2002, we were officially notified that his remains were indeed found by the North Tower. My life took a drastic turn and I found myself in a very complex situation: I found myself not only defending my faith as a Muslim, but also defending my country, America.

Eventually, America honoured her citizen Mohammad Salman Hamdani, by acknowledging his courage and sacrifice in the Patriot Act. However, the Patriot Act is an egregious act, curtailing civil liberties and suspending due process, violating the United Nations treaty on human rights and the American Constitution. The loss of my first born child and the pain of him being investigated as a terrorist generated a lot of anger. Then my husband and I discovered September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows in the summer of 2002. And hence started my journey as an activist, as a Muslim American fighting for my rights which were never challenged before 9/11.

Could someone please identify the un-American or un-Australian values in the above sentences?

Instead of searching for congregations to blame and scapegoat, we should be working together to fight the terror scourge.

I’m not aware of any terrorist who’s been able to manufacture a bomb that discriminates on the basis of race or religion. So, even the terrorists don’t discriminate. Why on earth our politicians do, beats me.

I’m sure I’m not the only Australian who wishes that putative leaders like John Howard and Kim Beazley would stop using rhetoric which alienates people who are just as likely to be victims as anyone else.

First published in New Matilda on 13 September 2006.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Well-intentioned but overly simplistic analysis on converts

The latest edition of the CIS Magazine Policy includes an essay by Miranda Darling on “home-grown Western converts” to Islam whose change of faith means they allegedly “turn against their own societies”.

I was asked by someone at the CIS to provide comment on the initial draft. I was advised that the author had graduated in English literature from Oxford University.

I only had time to briefly read through Ms Darling’s essay, identifying errors which thankfully were removed in the final draft.

The essay is somewhat shorter than the original draft. Darling attempts to draw a profile of the typical convert who might turn to terrorism. She relies heavily on the research of Jessica Stern, a Harvard lecturer with a background more in Cold War US-Soviet relations than modern Islamist movements. Darling also ignores Stern’s research which shows jihadist thinking is almost always little more than a global fad comparable to gansta rap.

Further, Darling completely ignores the more compelling and comprehensive research by the interdisciplinary Chicago Project for Suicide Terrorism led by Professor Robert Pape. How one could even attempt to create a terrorist profile without making even some cursory reference to Pape’s imperfect but still compelling work beats me.

Pape’s central thesis – that the typical profile of a suicide bomber is NOT an Islamic fundamentalist or a devout Muslim – is based on a detailed survey of every “successful” suicide bomber since 1980. Most such terrorists tend to come from leftist or nationalist backgrounds and are seeking to remove an occupying power from their lands. Hardly the stuff religious converts are made of.

However, to her credit, Darling does refer extensively to French scholar Professor Oliver Roy, who has researched and written widely on radical Islamism in the West. Darling’s notion of “born-again Muslims” is useful.

Not so useful is Darling’s reference to criminal gangs in Malmo, Sweden. I’m no expert on Swedish affairs, but wonder how the actions of cultureless migrant youth are of any relevance to Western converts.

Darling’s essay is relatively fair and well-intentioned. However, I wonder how many converts Darling has met. My own experience over some 2 decades is that some converts can be attracted to radical paths because of not infrequent alienation from their usual social networks and lack of pastoral care from cultural Muslim communities. Not having much exposure to mainstream Islamic sciences also doesn’t help.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Friday, October 20, 2006

CRIKEY: Muhammad wins the Nobel Prize twice!

A few weeks ago, Pope Benedict XVI cited a Byzantine emperor who claimed that Muhammad had brought nothing new to the world except war and violence. Yet in the past two years, the secretive Norwegian Nobel Committee has chosen Muhammad to receive its prestigious international peace prize. And not once, but twice in a row.

Well, not exactly. But it’s certainly significant that the two most recent recipients of this award have been prominent members of the Muslim intelligentsia who share the world’s most commonly used name given to male children.

Last year it was the Egyptian-born head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei. This year, the committee overlooked 190 other candidates to award the prize to an eccentric banker from the Indian sub-Continent.

Muhammad Yunus is a Bangladeshi-born and American-trained economist who invented microcredit - an unusual method of lending money to people with no assets to mortgage and nothing to offer except a business plan and economic desperation that forces them into hard work.

Yunus’s Grameen Bank has now lent over $8 billion, most of it to impoverished villagers in Bangladesh and other parts of the Third World. Although largely unknown in the West (as opposed to prominent politicians and activists among past winners), Yunus and his bank are household names in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Grameen Bank has an impressive array of assets. It owns Bangladesh’s largest mobile phone network. The bank has played an important role in assisting women from impoverished backgrounds gain some financial independence, particularly women whose male providers are unable to find work.

Muhammad Yunus’ unique banking methodology has been applied outside Bangladesh to great effect. His bank has worked on development projects for women in Vietnam and other parts of the world. From time to time, he has fallen foul of religious zealots in Bangladesh unhappy at what they perceive as Yunus’ methods challenging traditional Bangladeshi gender relations.

Yunus isn’t the only Muslim to receive a Nobel Prize. This year, the Nobel Committee awarded prizes to two prominent Muslims, the other being Turkish author Orhan Pamuk.

First published in the Crikey! Daily alert for 18 October 2006.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Australia's first honour killing?

Last year, former Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali had a number of her speeches and articles translated and published in a short book titled The Caged Virgin.

Ali’s book sought to provide background (largely from her own experiences) of how many Muslim migrants practise their faith. She painted a rather nasty picture of Muslim girls being brought up in an environment where religion is enforced on the basis of guilt and shame.

Ali’s book can be criticised for any number of reasons. She imposes her own personal experiences on all Muslim migrants and cultures. However, she does talk about difficult issues that children of some Muslim migrants must experience, and that Muslim communities must face upto.

That wake-up call was again sounded on Monday night in the form of screams emanating from a Gold Coast unit. At the time of writing, details are sketchy. Elsewhere, I have criticised certain slants on the story imposed by at least one News Limited paper.

What we know from a neighbour is that a 17-year old girl of Bangladeshi origin was involved in a stabbing frenzy that arose from her telling her parents that she intended to convert to Christianity.

The girl’s mother tried to intervene, and apparently died from a single stab wound. The father was also in a critical condition arising from stab wounds.

The Australian reported on October 12 that the girl’s parents were very strict Muslims. However, their apparent strictness was difficult to understand. They sent their daughter to a liberal non-denominational Christian school. They also insisted their daughter practise a career of their choice.

Most Islamic jurists are agreed that parents are not to force their children into a certain career choice. Further, the idea of killing daughters of any age was condemned by the Koran, which condemned the pre-Islamic practise of female infanticide practised by pre-Islamic tribal Arabs.

Yet sadly, many migrant parents place enormous and unreasonable pressures on their children. They impose an irrelevant cultural form of Islam which is totally alien to the environment their children grow up in.

The cultures of the Indian sub-Continent (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) can be particularly oppressive to children. This applies not just to Muslims but also Hindus, Sikhs and other faith communities.

Indians place enormous emphasis on honour. A breach of family honour can be committed in a number of ways – poor academic performance, marrying outside culture or caste, making the ‘wrong’ career choice.

Hinduism is a pacifist and deeply mystical tradition that emphasises God’s merciful presence in all creation. Yet so many of my Hindu friends do not see this mercy in their parents, who force their children into marriage and career choices. Kids who don’t conform are shamed.

Marriage is an area where sub-Continental parents can be particularly oppressive. Even in cases where parents allow children to choose their spouses, they insist that any potential spouse must be of the same culture or caste. I know of one Indian Muslim family who refused to attend their son’s wedding as he married a Muslim girl outside their culture.

Religion is a particularly sensitive issue in the sub-Continent. Who could forget that scene in the movie Bend It Like Beckham where Jasminder, the Sikh soccer player, told her friends in the dressing room that her parents would slit her throat if she married a Muslim boy.

Indian faiths are seeped in rich ancient cultures that attract many Western devotees. Sadly, these faiths are smothered with irrelevant cultural conditions frequently force-fed on the children of migrants.

My Delhi-born parents sent me to an Anglican school. I attended chapel services and divinity classes. I associated Christianity with the lion from the CS Lewis novel The Lion The Witch & The Wardrobe – the noble king of the jungle who laid down his life so that others could be saved.

On the other hand, I associated Islam with Indian culture. Islam was about learning to read and recite a scripture in a strange language. Mosques were places where foreign people would gather and where imams would speak in languages I had little understanding of. Islam was an alien cultural experience.

I was told good Muslims obeyed their parents in major life decisions like marriage and career. I associated Islam with my uncles who forced their daughters to stay home yet allowed their sons to party into the night. Islam was a religion of hypocrisy and double standards.

If I am still a Muslim today, it is no thanks to community elders or imams. Rather, it is thanks to a combination of God’s mercy and my own reading and understanding of Islam’s rich heritage.

In January I visited Indonesia and found an open Muslim society where people openly enter and leave religions for marriage and other reasons. Gender relations in Indonesia are open, and women openly participate in public life. Some of Indonesia’s most fervently Islamic communities continue to practise matriarchal cultures where women traditionally rule the roost.

Yet still I know so many young 2nd and 3rd generation Aussie Muslims who have never been exposed to other Muslim cultures. They aren’t aware of the multicultural richness of their faith and heritage. Then again, how many Aussie Christians know that the oldest hymns on earth are sung in Syria?

Muslim parents who don’t want their children to leave Islam should learn that Islam is more than just a cultural construct designed to remind parents of the ‘home country’. They should allow their children to experience a wide variety of cultural experiences that Islam in Australia has to offer. No country has as great a diversity of Muslim cultures as Australia. When elders and community leaders allow Islam to become a truly Australian faith, they will find they no longer need to force-feed the faith.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

OPINION: PM's points of reference don't reflect reality of Muslim Australia

Howard’s selection process is flawed and doesn’t inspire confidence it will get better, IRFAN YUSUF reports.

PRIME Minister John Howard and his ministerial minstrels want Muslims to learn some genuine Australian values. In doing so, they have been misleading by example.
Different ministers provide differing lists of Australian values. Howard speaks of equality for women, an Australian value so treasured that, in the past seven years, reported incidents of domestic violence in Howard's home state of NSW have increased by about 50 per cent. He then condemned certain isolationist practices of Muslims before defending a fringe Christian sect with even more isolationist practices. Perhaps he was trying to encourage Muslims to run covert political campaigns against his enemies.

Former education minister Dr Brendan Nelson warned Muslim independent schools to clear off if they refused to emulate an English illegal immigrant and his donkey. Treasurer Peter Costello advised Muslims against implementing sharia, before listing a set of Australian values that would find pride of place in an elementary sharia textbook. He followed this up with a lecture calling on Muslims to embrace the separation of church and state, his message being delivered to a conference of a Christian lobby which wants religion to play a more active role in Australian statehood. Health Minister Tony Abbott spoke in less patronising tones, perhaps a reflection of his own experience of being lampooned for holding unfashionable religious views. Abbott encouraged Muslims to engage in more self-critique.
One value all ministers would agree on is the need for Muslims to embrace democracy. This means encouraging fair elections and ensuring government is representative of the governed.

Once again, Howard is misleading by example. He is so committed to Muslim democracy that he will be deciding which Muslims will form part of the new Muslim community leadership that makes up his Muslim Community Reference Group. Howard will hand-pick which Muslims he consults on matters potentially affecting all 360,000 Muslims (not to mention more than 19million other Australians). He won't leave the choice to Muslims themselves. He has not even invited nominations.

Howard's record in his first reference group provided interesting outcomes. At least 50 per cent of Muslims are female. At least 50 per cent of Muslims were born after 1969 (the year I was born). Turks represent the largest ethno-religious community. Yet Howard's first reference group had only a handful of women and hardly any young people. And no Australian Turks.

Instead, Howard chose to surround himself with a group dominated by middle-aged migrant men with poor English skills and unable to challenge him on policy. He could then drop a few bombshell comments and watch as his hand-picked Muslims would scurry around. He could then attribute their behaviour to the entire Muslim population, thereby creating a useful diversion from more pressing political issues plaguing his administration. His methodology is simple. He picks which Muslims he will talk to. He will then make nonsensical or provocative statements knowing his hand-picked Muslims will overreact. He will then blame all Muslims and shrug his shoulders as his problems with industrial relations, Telstra, Medibank Private, right-wing branch- stacking and AWB leave the front pages.

It is likely the next group of men (and a few token women and youth) Howard chooses for his next Muslim reference group will also satisfy the caricatured Muslims he has found so politically useful. They will be people who do not reflect the composition of a largely young, educated and home- grown faith-community.

His next reference group will be unlikely to have prominent Muslim women. He is likely to overlook Muslim business people, doctors, accountants, lawyers, bankers, journalists, public servants, sportspeople, local councillors and academics. He is unlikely to choose Muslims who have significant contacts and networks in the broader community which they can use to challenge him and mobilise opposition to his domestic and foreign policies. He is unlikely also to appoint people who can challenge him on a political and public policy level in public and with a certain degree of media savvy. He is unlikely to pick Muslims who do not meet a stereotype. He won't pick ones of perhaps a lesser degree of religiosity but greater expertise. Such Muslims exist in substantial numbers. For his patronising agenda, these Muslims are a problem. But for Australia's social cohesion, they are an essential part of the solution.

I hope Howard proves me wrong. I hope he selects prominent Muslim business people and professionals, journalists and academics, sportspeople and public servants. I hope at least 50 per cent of his reference group are women, and that at least 50 per cent are aged under 40. In short, I hope he selects Muslims who best reflect the reality of Muslim Australia, not just another group of middle-aged male sycophants who oscillate between blind acceptance and even blinder reaction.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer who has acted for Muslim peak bodies and independent schools. First published in the Canberra Times on Tuesday October 10 2006.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

My own thoughts on the Dr Ameer Ali controversy

The following article was submitted to the op-ed editor of The Australian on Thursday 5 October 2006.

This entire matter has been a beat-up from start to finish. Notice how only The Oz was running with the issue. The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald refused to touch it. I don't think even the tabloids ran with it.

What does this show? It shows the entire issue was a beat-up. And people like Hilaly, Kara-Ali and others who reacted gave this obvious beat-up more legs than it deserved.


Once again, unelected and self-appointed Australian Muslim leaders are seeking attention by manufacturing a mountain of controversy from a theological mole hill. This time, the controversy concerns remarks by Dr Ameer Ali, the outgoing Chair of the Prime Minister’s unelected and handpicked Muslim Community Reference Group (MCRG).

The current MCRG is reaching the end of its term. As the Group’s chair, Dr Ali is among its more outspoken members. Often, he has been criticised for playing musical chairs, changing sides on issues depending on whichever direction he feels the communal or political winds appear to be blowing.

In more recent times, Dr Ali has taken and stuck to sensible opinions. His final comments on what should have been a ‘claytons’ controversy surrounding a recent papal speech – that Muslims should accept the Pope’s apology and move on – effectively killed the debate on this issue in Australia, with only a handful of tabloid columnists dragging the discussion further.

Dr Ali’s recent pronouncements are, by and large, fairly benign. Notwithstanding what the editorial authors of The Australian may claim, much of what Dr Ali said was neither new nor courageous. Further, to claim his kind of views “have already sparked widespread displays of anger and retaliatory violence around the world” is more than a slight exaggeration.

Dr Ali’s call – that Muslims should not read the Koran literally and should adapt their understanding to changing times - represents orthodox consensus among Muslims of all denominations. Indeed, literalism in interpreting the Koran is a sure sign of heterodoxy.

The Prophet Muhammad himself is known to have taught various methods of interpreting (and therefore, of re-interpreting) the Koran, and his example has been followed over 14 centuries. In this sense, certain strains of the Wahhabi school, who generally prefer literal meanings over traditional (often metaphorical) interpretation, represent a departure from orthodoxy.

However, in relation to his recent remarks on the status of the Prophet, Dr Ali has really hit a raw nerve. Yet it wasn’t so much his basic message that was the problem. Rather, it was the words he used.

Muslims regard all Prophets of God as being perfect human beings. The Koran rejects Biblical claims of Prophets such as Dawud (David) and Sulayman (Solomon) engaging in sexual and other vices. Muslims believe Prophets were ma’sum (free of sin).

The gist of Dr Ali’s message seems to be that the Prophet Muhammad was not perfect. But by what standard of perfection is he talking about? Muslims of all schools of thought and denominations agree that the Prophet was a perfect human (al-insan al-kaamil in Arabic). But then, the word for human (insan) itself means forgetful or negligent. Muslims agree that, as a human being, the Prophet was perfect. Yet there are places in the Koran where the Prophet has been corrected in his conduct.

So how is this Prophetic perfection to be worded? To what extent can he be praised? What are the limits of his human perfection? This is where the controversy among different Muslim denominations begins. It features prominently in sectarian polemical discussions across the Muslim world.

In the Indian sub-Continent, the dividing line is between followers of the Barelwi sect (who believe the Prophet was created from divine light or nur) and the Deobandi sect (who believe he was created from both nur as well as the stuff all humans are made from). And that’s only part of the controversy.

Some years back, I acted for a Fiji-Indian mosque located in the Sydney suburb of Green Valley . There, controversy raged about whether to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.

One might regard this as a trivial issue. However, among Indian Muslims (and their Diaspora communities in Fiji , South Africa and elsewhere), celebrating the Prophet’s birthday often involves the congregation standing up out of respect for the Prophet. This is based on the belief that the Prophet Muhammad can be in more than one place at a time (haadhir wa naadhir), and that he attends all celebrations of his birthday.

Fiji-Indian Muslims from the competing faction opposed the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday on the basis that it involved attributing a divine quality to the Prophet Muhammad. And while the elders of the congregation quarrelled over this issue, their children were deserting the mosque in droves.

The extent of reverence to be paid to the Prophet has been a controversial issue in recent times. In Lebanon and Syria , the al-Ahbash sect insists that the Prophet’s relics (such as his clothes) can be used to obtain blessings. The sect is known for what some Muslims deem its excessive praise of the Prophet.

In this sense, it is little wonder Reference Group youth representative Mustapha Kara-Ali is criticising Dr Ali. Mr Kara-Ali is known to have close ties with the al-Ahbash sect. Indeed, Mr Kara-Ali is managing a government funded project under the auspices of al-Amanah College , a Sydney independent school managed by members of the sect. Criticism of Dr Ali’s position is perhaps one of the few areas where the al-Ahbash sect agrees with Sheik Tajeddine Hilaly, a man they otherwise regard as an apostate.

By entering the dispute over the appropriate expression for Prophetic perfection, Dr Ali is in fact opening an irrelevant sectarian and cultural hornet’s nest of little relevance to young Muslims. Muslims seeking to openly discuss his well-intentioned questions might find themselves shouted down by sectarian zealots seeking attention by diverting young Muslims away from more pressing issues.

Far from helping the cause of developing an Australian Islam, Dr Ali might have just further entrenched sectarian irrelevance.

The author is a Sydney lawyer who has acted for various Muslim organisations and independent schools.

©Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Piercing through Piers on imams of hate

Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman is blogging away on the subject of multiculturalism. His blog is one of a series of blogs on the subject, with other bloggers involved including Keysar Trad, 2 Christian clergy and myself.

Akerman has been upto his old games again, holding all Muslims responsible for the attitudes and actions of a minority of dangerous and violent nutcases. In this respect, he is repeating his allegations that imams in Sydney are preaching hatred …

Irfan, you are a lawyer, aren't you. It is sufficient to say to that (1) I have spoken to a number of imams. (2) A number make what can only be described as hate-filled addresses. Your clumsy attempts to put up straw men to distract attention from the central points do you no good at all. Any respect that may have attached to you has dissipated.

I’ve asked him for specifics of his allegations. Sadly, he tries to evade my probing questions. In one post, I’ve asked him …

Piers, I’m sorry if my simple requests for basic information are causing you discomfort.

However, since you have alleged that certain imams in Australia have made hate-filled addresses, why not provide your readers with the following details:

a. The names of these imams and the mosques where they preached;
b. The languages in which the sermons were delivered;
c. The approximate dates on which the sermons were delivered;
d. The words that were used during the sermons;
e. Whether or not you had discussions with these imams following their sermon.
f. What was said during those discussions.

After all, Piers, you are a journalist. Presumably you carry a notebook to take notes or voice recorder. All you have to do is pull your notes and/or recordings out and reveal all ...

... that is, if you have anything to reveal!

Piers’ response was to advise that he had told the relevant authorities. I’ve again asked him for the details, reminding him of his frequent suggestion that ‘moderate’ Muslims aren’t doing enough to silence radicals.

Let’s see if Piers continues to evade my questions. It’s all good and fine for columnists to make claims about Muslims. However, columnists need to be held accountable and required to provide evidence for their claims.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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