Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Albrechtsen patronises Muslim women?

There was more than one reason many attendees at The Journalist & Islam conference were unimpressed with Janet Albrechtsen’s lacklustre performance.

Albreachtsen refers to one such reason in her latest column in The Australian. She alludes to the complaints of a number of participants, identifying them by their headgear:

HER voice shaking, the young woman in the hijab sitting about five rows back from the podium was clearly angry with me. As were other women in the audience, some in hijabs, one wearing a nikab, only her eyes visible through a narrow slit. Angry with me for writing about Muslim women.

Of course, the young girl present said nothing of the sort. What she objected to was the obsession of allegedly conservative columnists like Albrechtsen to speak with authority about Muslim women. Especially when there are plenty of Muslim women quite capable of speaking for themselves.

Janet sort-of alludes to this objection later into the article:

Apparently, white Christian girls should not write or speak about such things. My error, they said, was to presume to speak on behalf of Muslim women.

My recollection of the girl asking the question was that her skin colour wasn’t exactly tanned. In deed, my guess is that if she took off her hijab, the young lass (like so many girls of Lebanese and Palestinian extraction) probably had red hair. The girls sitting next to her (including the one described by Albrechtsen as the "one wearing a nikab, only her eyes visible through a narrow slit") were virually all Anglo-Australian.

Is it the case that, in Albrechtsen’s narrow world of “white Christian girls”, a woman ceases to be white and Christian when she covers her hair and/or face? If so, perhaps that makes Mary, the mother of Christ, just another nasty foreign woman of Middle Eastern extraction.

Albrechtsen doesn't mention another issue her Muslim critics caught up with her on. During question-time, Albrechtsen repeatedly alluded to an ongoing battle within Muslims for what she described as the "soul of Islam". Yet when one of these women pressed her on how she defined the soul of Islam, Albrechtsen asked incredulously: "How should I know?"

Quite a few members of the audience laughed. It really was an embarrassing moment. Here was an alleged authority, a syndicated columnist, caught out lecturing Muslim women on their faith. And then being unable to define basic terms. Unable to set the parameters of her discussion.

From what I could gauge of Albrechtsen's speech, the battle for "the soul of Islam" is one that pits women allegedly critical of Islam against woman who still regarded some form of Islam as a substantial source of their identity.

How do i reach this conclusion? Because of the emphasis she placed in her speech on one example. This also happened to be the sole example Albrechtsen mentions in her column – the former Dutch politician and ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

No doubt Albrechtsen will have read my review of Hirli Ali’s book which appeared in The Oz.

She may have also read recent reports about the authenticity of Hirsi Ali’s work which have appeared even on right-wing websites:

So here we have serious conservative sources openly questioning the authenticity of Albrechtsen’s major source. One would have expected Albrechtsen would be more careful with her sources, especially after her recent experiences.

The balance of Albrechtsen’s article concerns basic problems affecting women not just on Muslim countries but throughout the third world, including Catholic Latin America and Philippines and Buddhist Indo-China. Naturally, Albrechtsen won’t blame Catholicism or Buddhism for these problems. Nor will she quote ex-Buddhists or ex-Catholics as her sources.

Perhaps Albrechtsen should leave the resolution of these problems to the genuine efforts of women’s groups such as Rifka An-Nisa of Indonesia and Sisters In Islam of Malaysia. The millions of Muslim women whose Albrechtsen claims to be concerned about would love the help of women of any background (including “white Christian girls”).

But they certainly don’t need the patronising and demeaning nonsensical generalisations of pseudo-conservative columnists who would just as quickly support the carpet-bombing of these women if it were the wish of a neo-Conservative US President. Don’t expect Albrechtsen to be hurriedly writing about the plight of Iraqi Muslim women whose villages were destroyed by Coalition forces.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

The alleged jihad on Christmas

This year, for the first time, I’ll be joining my in-laws for Christmas up on the Sunshine Coast. Normally, I’d have Christmas lunch with an old school buddy after doing the Midnight Mass thing at St Mary’s Cathedral.

For me, Christmas is very much about Christ. Believe it or not, 1.2 billion non-Christians across the globe regard the Christmas story as part of their sacred tradition. Yet for some reason, Muslims are being blamed for some undeclared secular fundamentalist war on Christmas. The extent to which some will go to remove Christian (and Muslim) references to Jesus is truly astounding.

In the UK , some municipal councils want all public documents to refer to Winterval. Hopefully, councils here won’t be talking up “Summerval”.

Also, one Yorkshire school offered to serve halal meat at their Christmas dinner, to the outrage of some parents. What no one bothered to report was that none of the Muslim pupils or their parents is known to have requested halal turkey for Christmas!

Meanwhile in Indiana , one council won’t even allow a nativity scene on its courthouse lawn.

This year, Christmas coincides with Eid al-Adha, the most important religious festival on the Islamic calendar. The US Postal Service have been printing Eid postage stamps for years, despite complaints from some.

So Muslims are now being labelled as the Grinches of Western countries. And they aren’t happy. So unhappy that they have joined the Archbishop of Canterbury in calling for Christianity to remain in Christmas. Dr Ataullah Siddiqui, vice-chair of the Christian-Muslim Forum, is quoted as saying:

The desire to secularize religious festivals is in itself offensive to both our communities.

Perhaps the problem was best summed up by the Anglican Bishop of Bolton who said that any attempt by councils to re-name Christmas

… will tend to backfire badly on the Muslim community in particular … Sadly, it is [Muslims] who get the blame for something they are not saying. And after all, the Koran speaks with honour about Jesus and tells of his birth to Mary, a virgin.

Perhaps a Sydney newspaper could remember this before it prints editorials blaming Muslims for the woes of Bethlehem ’s Christian community.Then again, that same newspaper did publish a rather nice article last year on Christmas.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Friday, December 15, 2006

OPINION: Why Sheik Hilaly Has To Go

Over the weekend, I joined people from a range of backgrounds and faiths in the heart of Canberra for the annual Eid Mela festival — which celebrates the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. This year, the festivals of Eid and Divali (the Hindu ‘Festival of Lights’) took place within days of each other, and the Hindi word ‘mela’ (Hindi/Urdu for “festival”) was used to provide a peculiarly sub-Continental flavour to the event.

In Canberra , Muslims gathered to celebrate the multicultural, multilingual and multi-confessional nature of our great capital city. Two Sikh gentlemen started the day, entertaining guests with a gorgeous rendition of traditional sitar music. This was followed by prayers and songs by performers of Sri Lankan, Chinese and Spanish origins — without forgetting a group of young children singing the Australian national anthem.

Representatives from Jewish, Catholic, Hindu and other faiths spoke of how pleased they were to attend such an event. Dr Anita Shroot, a respected member of the ACT Hebrew congregation [check word], greeted the crowd with ‘Salamu alaykum. Shalom aleichem’ and spoke approvingly of celebrating with her ‘Muslim cousins’ — the weekend also coinciding with a Jewish festival as well.

And why shouldn’t she and the other faith leaders be pleased? Ordinary Canberrans are happy to celebrate multiculturalism, as were Sydney-siders attending the Multicultural Eid Festival & Fair at the Fairfield Showgrounds.

It seems the only people unpleased with Australia ’s multicultural reality are a minority of pseudo-conservative politicians and commentators determined to impose their own version of a mono-cultural revolution on Australia . Unfortunately, the words of Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali in an address given in Sydney ’s Lakemba Mosque some weeks back have provided them with plenty of fuel.

Sheik Hilali’s remarks were first reported in The Australian — a newspaper which many Muslims regard as conducting a vendetta against their community. It is impossible to make sweeping generalisations about any newspaper — The Oz has provided space for commentators such as John Stone and Janet Albrechtsen to sprout their conspiracy theories about the alleged threats posed by Muslim migrants and their children, but similar theories are published in the Fairfax Press by the likes of Paul Sheehan and Miranda Devine.

For its Muslim critics, what makes The Oz different, however, is the frequency with which such views are published. Many Muslims see this in the context of reported comments made some months back by Rupert Murdoch when he suggested that Muslims weren’t to be trusted as they always put faith over loyalty to the nation.

In relation to Sheik Hilali’s comments, the Friday 27 October 2006 edition of The Oz carried a full 8 pages of broadsheet material on the issue. Yes, you read it correctly. Eight pages! You’d think the Sheik had just completed 10 years as Prime Minister or delivered his 10th budget!

John Howard, in particular, has shown a startling level of hypocrisy and double standards in his comments on the Hilali case.

He has placed the onus on Muslims to deal with Hilali. Ultimately, the only bodies that can control Sheik Hilali are the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) and the Lebanese Moslems Association (LMA). AFIC created the position of ‘Mufti of Australia’ and immediately appointed Hilali to fill it. Howard is aware that AFIC is currently under administration. I doubt any court-appointed administrator would be prepared to take so sensitive a decision as to sack the nation’s most senior Islamic religious jurist, notwithstanding the outrageous nature of his remarks.

That leaves the LMA, which owns and manages the Imam Ali ben Abi Taleb Mosque in Lakemba, where Hilali generally preaches. Hilali is not employed by the LMA as an official resident religious scholar (or ‘Imam’). Indeed, one former LMA Vice President has advised me that Hilali has never been on the payroll. Even before he was appointed Mufti, his wages were paid from a combination of sources — the Libyan Islamic Call Society and private individuals.

A few years ago, Howard clearly showed his views on sexual assault victims in his response to comments made by a former Governor-General of Australia. Readers will well remember this saga, and I do not wish to repeat details which could cause further distress to the parties directly affected. The point is that on that occasion, Howard could have pressured (and maybe even forced) the Governor-General to stand down. He chose not to.

Indeed, Howard’s cheer-squad from the allegedly conservative commentariat claimed at the time that the entire campaign against the Governor-General was a huge conspiracy by republicans to discredit the Vice-Regal office — just as today, Hilali’s supporters claim the attack on the Sheik is a conspiracy by News Limited and elements within the Sydney Lebanese community.

Conservative politicians and commentators critical of Hilali should recall their own refusal to deal with the gross offence caused to all victims of child sexual assault. That offence and hurt was compounded by the refusal of the conservative establishment to act on the matter. Indeed, far from acting, conservatives ignored loud protests from across the Australian community for the then Governor-General to resign.

Today, the LMA and many Sydney Lebanese Muslims seem to be playing the same game of strident defence that the PM and his allies did. In this sense, the LMA’s approach is perfectly in accord with the PM’s precedent and hence with the his vision of ‘Australian values.’ The PM has no right to criticise those who effectively follow his example.

Of course, the Governor-General on that occasion showed more decency than his conservative supporters. Notwithstanding the shield he received from their moral and political support, he resigned.

Contrary to claims from some media quarters, Hilali is not being shielded by the majority of (largely non-Lebanese) Muslims he claims to lead. Across Australia and New Zealand , Muslim leaders and community members are up in arms over the Sheik’s comments. Muslim women have expressed particular disgust. Even members of the PM’s Muslim Reference Group have expressed outrage.

Sheik Hilali should follow the example of our former Governor-General and resign of his own accord. But this seems unlikely. His followers are already planning a rally to show their support this Saturday. Their antics are orchestrated by a small minority of die-hards who rely on Hilali’s status as Mufti to gain some notoriety of their own. These people wish Mufti-day would never end, regardless of how much damage it causes to the image of Muslims or the person of Sheik Hilali himself.

Hilali was handed the mantle of Mufti-hood to suit the politics of then Acting Prime Minister Paul Keating, who felt nervous that his backyard was turning Liberal after the NSW State seat of East Hills was lost to the Liberals in 1986 following a by-election swing of 17.5%. It was a short-term decision with long-term consequences.

What the broader community knows about the Sheik are his frequent gaffes and his refusal to learn English. But many in his Lebanese Muslim congregation love him dearly. Even his Muslim critics have had no hesitation in acknowledging the good that Sheik Hilali has done over the years.

The Sheik has made himself available to people of all ages and ethnic groups and at all hours of the day and night. In most Muslim-majority countries, people holding the title of Mufti live like Governors-General, residing in palatial homes and attended to by servants. Their relationship with law-making is certainly similar to those holding Vice-Regal address. Often the Mufti has his fatwas (or religious decrees) written for him by government officials, and he merely rubber-stamps it.

To his credit, Hilali has not been owned by any government. He has been critical of all Arab governments, and he has steered his large congregation away from the nefarious influence of Middle Eastern governments that are ever-ready to provide short-term funding in return for long-term influence.

(It’s interesting to note that the man Hilali replaced as Imam of the Lakemba Mosque went onto form his own splinter group and established the Markaz Saddam Hussein Islami — The Saddam Hussein Islamic Office!)

And if Hilali goes, who will take his place? For many Muslims living outside the Lebanese ethno-religious ‘ghetto’ of southwest Sydney , the position of Mufti means nothing. But if there is going to be a Mufti, they believe they would be better off having someone who will not do such damage to the image of Muslims in Australia.

(First published in New Matilda on 1 November 2006.)

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Varying approaches to media and Muslims

Last week, the NSW Parliament played host to a conference on the difficult subject of The Journalist and Islam. The conference ran over 2 days.

The first speakers included Tom Switzer from the News Limited broadsheet The Australian. Switzer defended The Oz’s reporting of 3 issues pertaining to what he described as “the Muslim question” – Hilaly, the Cronulla riots and the anti-terror laws. In relation to Hilaly, Switzer repeated almost word-for-word the criticisms of myself he made here. His criticisms didn’t go as far as the hysterical lynching I received in his paper’s editorial yesterday.

In question time, Switzer was asked to define three terms he frequently used – the “Muslim question” (a re-hash of Nazi Europe ’s obsession with the “Jewish question”?), the “Muslim community” and “Muslim clerics”. Switzer acknowledged diversity within Australia ’s Muslims, but mistakenly claimed that a Muslim cleric has the same authority and role as a Catholic priest.

Melbourne journalist and academic Nasya Bahfen dealt with how lazy journalists manufacture stories from internet forums. She castigated Luke McIlveen’s manufacturing of a story alleging Iktimal Hage-Ali is the subject of an organised vilification campaign. Instead of talking to Muslim critics of Hage-Ali, McIlveen lazily relied on infantile comments left on the Muslim Village forums by anonymous persons probably too young to vote.

(Presumably McIlveen won’t be doing a future story about hate-speech at this blog.)

Vic Alhadeff from the Jewish Board of Deputies made a brave presentation on anti-Semitism in (often government-controlled) media of Muslim-majority states. He certainly opened up my eyes to this scourge of anti-semitism which has been exposed even by prominent Muslims.

Alhadeff hardly mentioned Israel or Palestine during his presentation. That didn’t stop some people from asking him to explain the actions and attitudes of Israelis. When I criticise Western media for their anti-Muslim bias, I’d be insulted if people turned around asking me to explain the actions of al-Qaida and the Taliban. Surely some supporters of the Palestinian and Lebanese causes could relate to this and not have treated Alhadeff so shabbily.

The second day of the conference saw two contrasting conservative approaches to Islam.

Health Minister and former journalist Tony Abbott reminded us that for over a half a century, Catholicism had been the officially despised faith in Australia .

When asked in question time what Muslims could learn from Catholic experiences, Abbott admitted that he saw little violent anti-Catholic prejudice. Abbott said Muslims needed to understand that, while group defamation is easy, Australians find it difficult to demonise their neighbour or workmate.

Further, Catholics and Protestants were forced to share nation-building tasks. Muslims could overcome group defamation by simply getting on with mainstream life. Abbott said the presence of prominent Muslims like John Ilhan, Hazem ElMasry and Ahmed Fahour would assist in this process.

Both Abbott’s parents were converts, which perhaps might explain the overt fervour in his faith. It also explains why Abbott is more respectful to Islam and more sympathetic to the current Muslim experience in Australia . Abbott knows what it is like to be pilloried in the media for holding unfashionable religious beliefs.

Janet Albrechtsen showed little of that empathy, choosing instead to lecture her audience on the alleged clash between “conservative and radical Islam” and “Western modernity”.

Albrechtsen’s precise views on Islam as a mainstream religion were difficult to gauge. On the one hand, she acknowledged that terrorists had hijacked Islam, an assessment few Muslims would argue with. On the other, she called for Muslims to adopt the approach of allegedly “moderate” Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan, both of whom had openly renounced their faith.

Albrechtsen described Hilaly’s views as part of the Islamist attack on the West, similar to that of extremist groups in Europe . When further probed, she admitted Hilaly’s views posed no security threat and that he had no known links to terrorist groups or ideologies. She therefore contradicted the views of others expressed in The Oz.

After skirting around various questions, Albrechtsen finally described the struggle as not one between Islam and the West but rather an internal Muslim struggle for “the soul of Islam”. Yet she could not define exactly what this soul was. When asked to define “moderate Muslim”, the best she came up with was “someone who comes to terms with liberal democracy”.

Not very convincing.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Polygamy in Indonesia

My old high school buddies would frequently tease me for being the school’s only “Mossie”. I’d remind them that being Muslim has its perks. Who needs 72 virgins in heaven when you can enjoy upto 4 wives here? Of course, polygamy isn’t that simple. It’s a contentious issue even in Muslim majority states.

In January this year, I visited Indonesia on a Muslim exchange program sponsored by the Australia-Indonesia Institute. I visited Bandung , a hill station used by Dutch colonists to escape Jakarta ’s heat. We stayed in a luxurious hostel owned and managed by Abdullah Gymnastiar, an eccentric and popular Sufi preacher known for wearing his trademark turban whilst driving a Harley Davidson.

Aa Gym (as his followers call him) has just announced he’s marrying a 2nd wife, sparking an enormous controversy in the world’s largest Muslim-majority state. I’m not sure where he’ll keep her. His small 2-storey house in Bandung (next door to our hostel), has hardly enough room for Aa Gym, his first wife and numerous children.

The decision has sparked angry e-mails and text messages from even his powerful and largely upper middle class admirers. Women’s groups will also, no doubt, complain. And with good reason. One NGO we visited was Rifka an-Nisa, a Yogyakarta-based Muslim women’s organisation dealing with domestic violence and other issues affecting women. RN activists told us that, while polygamy is rare, it’s frequently associated with physical and sexual violence against subsequent spouses.

The issue of polygamy was also raised by women’s activists I met during a similar exchange program to Malaysia in June. Groups like Sisters in Islam are agitating for reform in Malaysia where polygamy is far more common and culturally accepted.

Sadly, all too often shariah (Islam’s sacred law) is used as an instrument for repression. Women and non-Muslim minorities are frequently the victims. Hence, it’s little wonder that more and more Muslim scholars are calling for an end (or at least a moratorium) on the selective application of shariah that keeps the Mullahs happy but leaves the rest of us in shock.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Muslim Village forums attacked

Daily Telegraph scribe Luke McIlveen has made some very unfair attacks on internet discussion forums frequented by a small minority of Muslim kids. His expose today of the attack on prominent young Muslim Iktimal Hage-Ali also makes interesting reading.

The reported attack on the Muslim Village forums has included claims that she has no right to represent Australian Muslims because she occasionally drinks alcohol and refuses to wear a traditional Muslim hijab. But others have also been pilloried on the same forums, including Asma Hilaly, the Lakemba Sheik’s talented and well-spoken daughter. Ms Hilaly was criticised for … wait for it … plucking her eyebrows!

I’ve been described on the Muslim Village forums as being in need of liposuction. Tanveer Ahmed and other prominent Muslims have also been attacked. It’s disturbing and it’s nasty. At times, it’s even defamatory.

But is it newsworthy? And how is the abuse on some Muslim forums any different to some of the abuse I cop from anonymous posters at the Online Opinion forums? Or to abuse copped by Stephen Mayne in moderated comments (not to mention editorial imputations) published on the personal blog of the DT’s own opinion editor about the assault on Stephen Mayne? Are we to conclude from this that Blair and/or the Tele support and promote violence?

McIlveen disturbingly claims Hage-Ali was “vilified for behaving like an Australian”. Is he suggesting you aren’t a real Aussie if you refuse alcohol and leave your head uncovered? If so, where does that leave non-Muslim teetotalers like Fred Nile? Would McIlveen castigate the Virgin Mary were she to return with her son for his second coming?

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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