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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