Friday, November 17, 2006

When murder changes religion …

When does the religion of a teenager accused of murdering her parents become relevant? Is it when police describe her motive as religious? Is it when she screams black and blue that she killed them for religious reasons? Is it when the magistrate mentions her religion?

Nope. Religion is only relevant when she follows the wrong kind of religion. And for the Daily Telegraph, on this occasion the wrong religion seems to be Islam.

The Tele runs a story of the Supreme Court bail application made by lawyers for a teenager. The last time I read of this story, the girl’s name had been suppressed as she was under age. I’m not aware if that suppression order has been lifted.

Still, that doesn’t stop the Tele from naming her and describing her as a “Muslim teenager”. The only real relevance of the girl’s religion to the story is that the girl’s parents objected to her going out with a 21-year-old uni student. The Tele wrote that the girl was “angry because her Muslim parents did not approve” of the relationship.

Why didn’t they approve? Was it because he wasn’t Muslim? Or was it because she was in Year 12 and her studies were suffering? Or was it because they preferred their daughter to marry later once she had completed her tertiary education (South Asian parents are often obsessive about their kid’s academic achievement).

The Oz has also made religion an issue when it first reported the story. It’s most recent report virtually avoids all mention of it.

The Courier-Mail report does suggest the police facts sheet mentioned witnesses hearing the girl yelling: “they are trying to kill me" and "I've just converted to Christianity from Islam, now he's trying to kill me”. The report goes onto mention that police dismissed this excuse, and found evidence the girl’s motivation had little relation to religion.

If the girl pleads not guilty, it may be that religion does feature heavily in this case. Until then, mention of her religion will serve no purpose except to further entrench stereotypes that people of certain religions are more prone to violence.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

UN says politics is to blame!

Two days ago, a group of political, intellectual and cultural leaders from across the world issued a report containing the secret to the widening gap between the allegedly monolithic entities known as “the West” and “the Muslim world”.

The group, known as the Fourth High Level Group of the Alliance of Civilizations, consists of 20 eminent persons including a Catholic historian, the Jewish adviser to the Moroccan King, the former Iranian President, an Anglican Archbishop and even a New York Rabbi.

The Group has been deliberating over the nature and causes of the alleged clash of civilisations. It was set up as a joint initiative of the Turkish Prime Minister and the Spanish PM some 6 months after the Madrid bombing by Islamist extremists that killed 191 people in 2004.

The Spanish PM, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, could easily have followed the lead of other Western nations and invaded countries deemed to be linked to terrorism. Instead, he withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq and initiated a process to get to the root causes and grievances which terrorists exploit.

The final report was released at the Group’s meeting in Istanbul , Turkey . And their conclusion? Here’s what Kofi Annan had to say:

… the problem is not the Koran, nor the Torah or the Bible … the problem is never the faith – it is the faithful, and how they behave towards each other.

Although religion is often exploited to support alarmist claims that the planet will soon face an apocalyptic religious war, the real root of the matter is … wait for it … politics!

The most intractable source of conflict has been perceived double standards by many Western powers in their approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Also mentioned were Western military occupations in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq .

All this confirms research conducted by Professor Robert Pape of the Chicago Project for Suicide Terrorism. Pape argues that the real problem lies not with religion or religious fundamentalism. His study of all “successful” suicide attacks shows that the common thread was foreign occupation of particular land. But don’t expect John Howard to embrace such hard realities in a hurry. He’s still waiting for orders from the White House …

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Andrew Robb & The Government's preferred Lebanese sect

Andrew Robb has some serious explaining to do.

On Sunday morning, 12 November 2006, Robb appeared on ABC TV program Asia-Pacific Focus acknowledging his government openly favoured one Lebanese Muslim faction over another in both funding and in liaising with Muslim Australia.

They are really on the front foot and they're taking responsibility for the problem and I do think that's the answer … The Prime Minister has sent a short and special message of support and I'd like to read that now, if I may. And the Prime Minister says, “I commend the group on the work it has done in promoting harmony and tolerance throughout the nation.

Lebanese represent the largest ethnic grouping among Australian Muslims. Many live in South-West Sydney, coming from three major sects – Sunni, Shia and Alawite (an offshoot of the Shia).

Since the early 1980’s, the Lebanese Sunni Muslims have been divided into two factions. The smaller faction follow a Somali imam named Abdullah Hareri al-Habashi. They are known in Lebanon as ‘al-Ahbash’ and control a handful of Sydney mosques as well as a school with campuses in Bankstown and Liverpool. Outside Sydney, the group is non-existent.

The al-Ahbash sect tends to have what might be described as a George W Bush style of religion. You are either with them totally or you are against them. Those with the al-Ahbash are expected to oppose any Muslim sect, denomination, Sufi order or religious scholar al-Ahbash leaders decide.

At least one senior sect member in Lebanon, Ahmed Abdel-Al, has been implicated by an independent UN investigator in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (no relation to Sheik Hareri al-Habashi). Another person named in the report, Mahmoud Abdel-Al, has visited Australia at the invitation of the Australian wing of the sect.

The larger Lebanese Sunni faction consists of a coalition of both supporters and critics of Sheik Tajeddine Hilaly, senior imam at the Imam Ali ben Abi Taleb Mosque in Lakemba. It is supported by Lebanese communities across Australia, including by supporters of Melbourne-based Sheik Fehmi El-Imam, who is known to be closed to the Prime Minister.

The al-Ahbash sect are implacable enemies of Sheik Hilaly. The intense hatred predates Sheik Hilaly’s arrival in Australia in the early 1980’s, to a time when Hilaly and the sect held different theological and political positions over the sectarian conflict in Lebanon.

Hilaly proved his media timebomb credentials on Sunday night by justifying his infantile claims about allegedly exaggerated figures in the Holocaust, unnecessarily upsetting the vast majority of Jewish Australians (many of whom actively support ‘Muslim’-friendly causes). But al-Ahbash are not much better.

My initial exposure to the al-Ahbash sect was when they took over my childhood mosque in Surry Hills, Sydney. Their newly-elected mosque Vice President advised me that all heretical and secular books in the library (including ones I and other parishioners had donated) had been burnt.

In 1999, I ran as endorsed Liberal candidate for local government in Bankstown. I supported a proposal by a local Vietnamese Buddhist group to extend their temple. Senior members of the al-Ahbash sect told me that supporting non-Muslims in this manner was forbidden according to their puritanical interpretation of Islam.

So much for Muslim integration. Yet Andrew Robb and the Federal Government now openly side with this fringe Lebanese sect, supporting their claims to represent all Australian Muslims, including non-Lebanese Muslims who are not parties to what is essentially a Lebanese turf war.

Sheik Hilaly is unable to speak English, the native language of at least 70% of Australia’s Muslims. His claims to holding any representative position (including that of Mufti) are suspect. At best, he represents only a fraction of one ethnic group among Muslim congregations from over 60 different countries. The Government should never have appointed him to the Muslim Reference Group.

But even more suspect than Hilaly’s representational credentials are attempts by the Howard government to impose another competing Lebanese faction – the al-Ahbash sect – on 350,000 Aussie Muslims from over 60 nationalities.

This favouritism has led to suggestions that the government is openly favouring projects of the al-Ahbash sect in distributing funds for its $30 million-plus program to combat extremism and promote harmony. Now a former member of the executive of the Islamic Charitable Projects Association (an al-Ahbash front body) and of the Prime Minister’s Muslim Reference Group now publicly boasting on Muslim e-mail lists of receiving otherwise confidential information by people he describes as “DIMA bureaucrats”.

In an e-mail sent on Saturday 11 November 2006, Mustapha Kara-Ali claims that more than one DIMA officer advised him that a certain grant application was unsuccessful. He also claimed the application was related to an organisation in the ACT.

I’ve been told about Mr X’s unsuccessful involvement in a Department of Immigratrion (sic.) project by bureaucrats at DIMA. They also seem to know matters about his personal life … [name removed]

This is an extremely serious allegation. Kara-Ali is effectively accusing DIMA staff (including potentially staff in Mr Robb’s office) of breaching confidentiality and privacy laws.

Of course, this all assumes Kara-Ali is speaking the truth. However, the allegations are extremely serious and must be investigated forthwith.

To be fair, the government is faced with a religious community heavily fractured along ethnic and sectarian lines and lacking any formal hierarchy or structure. But by openly dealing with a fringe sect servicing only one ethnic group, the government is effectively ignoring some 59 other ethnic and cultural groups within Muslim Australia.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The man who could determine Hilaly’s fate …

Sheik Hilaly’s future as Mufti of New Zealand has already been determined. The Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) has declared he is not their mufti, and have condemned his remarks on women’s dress and sexual violence.

However, Hilaly’s role as Mufti of Australia could well be determined by a National Board of Imams. A large number of these imams belong to the Turkish bloc.

Turkish Muslims are among the oldest ethnic Muslim communities to migrate to Australia. They are also among the most secular, and have by and large successfully integrated into mainstream Australian life. Turks have established mosques across Australia, including in regional towns and rural areas.

Each Turkish mosque is serviced by a Turkish imam. Most Turkish imams are trained by the Turkish Presidency for Religious Affairs, and their wages are paid by a trust known as the Diyanet Vakfi (literally translated as “Religious Trust”). Hence, the Presidency for Religious Affairs (known simply to most Turks as Diyanet) has an extraordinary degree of influence over the management of Islamic institutions in Australia.

Apart from mosques, Turkish religious and cultural foundations have also established schools. In New South Wales, Sule College has three campuses operating in Auburn, Liverpool and the Illawarra. Similar schools have been opened in Melbourne and Brisbane. Although independent of Diyanet, these schools teach a form of Islam acceptable to Diyanet’s Turkish secular focus.

Turkish communities tend to work within the broader Muslim community as a bloc. Unlike the rest of the Muslim community, Turkish mosques all celebrate religious festivals on the same day. Turkish imams have their own meclis (consultative assembly).

Turks rarely gain much media attention largely because they maintain a low profile. But with the upcoming formation of a National Board of Imams and the issue of Hilaly’s mufti-hood up for grabs, Turkish imams will become a more powerful force.

Hence the significance of the visit this week of the Head of the Diyanet, Dr Ali Bardakoglu. This Sunday, he opens the newly-completed Bonnyrigg Mosque, located in South Western Sydney. Apart from the Hilaly issue, Turkish imams would also be interested in hearing about preparations for an upcoming visit by the Pope to Turkey in November.

But will newspapers like The Oz pick up such crucial news? Or will they be carried away by the tide of caricatured Muslims protesting in support of Sheik Hilaly on Saturday? Time will tell.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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