Bad boys exception, not rule
John Howard's Muslim comments do not reflect mainstream Islam, writes Irfan Yusuf.
About a month ago, I joined four other Australians travelling to Indonesia on a leadership exchange program organised by the Australia Indonesia Institute and funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The purpose of the trip was for us to see first-hand just how much variety there is among Muslims in Indonesia. And because our delegation consisted entirely of young Australian Muslims, it was also a chance for Indonesians to see just how diverse Aussie Muslims are.
Our delegation included an Anglo-Australian couple who spoke fluent Indonesian. We also had two other females – a Victorian government engineer of Egyptian background and a Victorian policewoman of Lebanese background. And there was myself, an Aussie lawyer of Indian parentage.
If there was one lesson I learnt on the trip, it was this – don't generalise about anyone.
I respect the Prime Minister for speaking his views about some people within the Muslim communities with hostility to the Australian mainstream. He's also correct to point out that a minority of Muslims have bad attitudes to women. I've seen and experienced this myself.
Unfortunately, the PM's message is being portrayed as if this is a broader Muslim problem. Some journalists and commentators are saying the PM's words are directed at Muslim culture.
This analysis wrongly assumes a singular "Muslim culture" exists. But anyone who knows anything about Aussie Muslims knows we certainly aren't one cultural monolith.
My Delhi-born parents brought me to Australia in 1970 when I was five months old. We grew up surrounded by people who spoke the languages of Bollywood movies – Hindi and Urdu. My mother's first friend in Australia was a Hindi-speaking Jewish woman.
The first non-Indian Muslim woman my mother met at work was a Cypriot Turk who tried to force my mother to drink a glass of beer. First impressions are lasting, and my mother still has this mistaken impression that many Turks are alcoholics.
Our family friends were Hindus, Sikhs, Parsees, Jains and Indian Catholics. When we discovered that Aussie Catholics were teased as much as we were at school, our circle of friends expanded to include all Catholics.
My Lebanese friends of similar age tell me similar stories. Their parents tended to mix with other Lebanese, whether they be Muslim or Catholic or Orthodox or Druze.
The parents of my Bosnian friends used to mix with Serbians, Slovenians and Croatians with whom they shared language and culture.
Muslims in Australia come from more than 60 different countries. Religion is just one source of their identity. For my parents, the most important source of their identity was language and culture.
Howard has suggested that it is recent arrivals who show the sort of behaviour whose backlash led to the Cronulla riots. But the Cronulla rioters vented their anger at second- and third-generation boys of "Middle Eastern" (presumably Lebanese) appearance.
Our most recent Muslim arrivals aren't from Lebanon. Rather, they're from Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. I've yet to meet a Somali of Middle Eastern appearance.
In my view, the kids with bad attitudes who show disrespect to Anglo-Australian women are the same kids who show disrespect to all women.
Some weeks back, I attended a Channel 9 forum on the Cronulla riots. One girl stood up and complained of experiencing harassment from Middle Eastern boys. She had light brown hair and white skin. She was an Afghan Muslim who spoke with a strong Farsi accent.
So why do these boys behave this way? Is it Lebanese or any other Muslim culture to be rude to women on beaches or wearing skimpy dresses?
If so, how does this explain the fact that such behaviour rarely occurs at beaches or on the streets of Beirut, Tripoli or other Lebanese cities?
Actually, it isn't culture which causes this behaviour. Cultured people don't behave like this. In reality, it's about lack of culture. Most Muslim women dress in the same way Michelle Leslie did after she left her Bali prison.
From what I saw Muslim women wearing in Jakarta, Leslie wouldn't look strange in hipsters and a singlet top.
Actually, perhaps what these boys need is a trip to Lebanon. Let them behave like that on a Lebanese beach to a Lebanese woman who could be their aunt or cousin or future wife. Let them see how they will be treated by the woman's male friends and family members.
It's not about culture or religion. It's about attitude.
All religions teach us to have an attitude based on respect for ourselves and others.
By reporting the PM's words as targeting one set of cultural and religious values, some journalists are providing louts with a convenient excuse to continue with their behaviour.
Let's remember this. The PM spoke about a tiny minority of people who identify as Muslim.
He didn't talk about all Muslim cultures and all Muslim Australians.
• Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and former president of the Islamic Youth Association of NSW
(This article is published in the Courier-Mail on 22 February 2006.)