Sunday, January 28, 2007

Who is Terry Baldwin?

Today I attended the Hizb ut-Tahrir conference in Lakemba. I was there covering the event for an online publication I write for on a regular basis. Among the people I saw there was a familiar face I also saw at a recent forum I attended where I shared a podium with Danny Nalliah from the Catch The Fire Ministries.

That familiar face was Terry Baldwin, a middle-aged chap with a small beard and jovial appearance. Baldwin attends a number of events related to Islam and Muslims, and takes a strong interest in Muslim affairs.

I have also seen Mr Baldwin at the Journalist and Islam conference organised by the Middle East Centre of Macquarie University. There, Baldwin boasted that he had recorded the speeches of a number of Muslim speakers and handed them to journalists. In particular, he admitted to forwarding a recording of Sheik Feiz Mohammad’s infamous 2005 lecture where he suggested women who dressed a certain way are eligible for rape.

Baldwin’s own expressed views on Islam are quite jaundiced to say the least. He believes Islam is an inherently violent faith. At the Journalism and Islam conference, he had a verbal altercation with a speaker who claimed Muslims as a whole had peaceful intentions which arose from their theology.

I took the opportunity of sitting down with Mr Baldwin today at the HT conference and finding out more about his activities. Baldwin was surprisingly cagey, especially when I asked about his dealings with The Age’s religious affairs writer Barney Zwartz.

Mr Zwartz recent cited Baldwin in a recent write-up of the HT in Australia:

Sydney Islam-watcher Terry Baldwin says the history HT presents of the West and Islam is simply fantasy. "It's not just a little bit wrong, it's grossly wrong: 'Your (Western) history was violence and oppression whereas ours (Islam's) was wonderful, and if you go back to that we can solve your problems as well as ours.' " Baldwin says the Doureihi brothers, Ashraf and Wassim, seem to lead the group, "but you can never be sure of that. In many groups there are gnomes in the background who pull all the strings and control the finances."

He does worry about HT's attempts to politicise Australian Muslims, to drive a wedge between them and the wider community. Many Muslims come to Australia to escape trouble and simply want to build a better life, he says, but HT wants them involved in the politics. "They go house to house around my neighbourhood and ask: 'Do you know any Muslims in your street. We have a new mosque and we want to tell them.' Then they try to recruit them."

I’m not sure what makes Baldwin an "Islam-watcher" apart from the fact that he attends many events and records them. Certainly this is his right. Further, it is clear that he has some kind of relationship with at least 2 journalists.

However, one wonders of the quality of information Baldwin gives to the reporters and columnists he deals with. His own expressed views on Islam resemble something out of JihadWatch. More importantly, one wonders about his ability to identify different Muslim groups.

For instance, Baldwin’s claim that HT goes around door knocking and inviting people to the mosque to hear a talk sounds absurd. My own experience with HT (spanning over a decade) is that HT would never use such methodology. Rather, this methodology is largely the trademark of the Tabligh Jamaah, an Indian-based Sufi missionary movement.

It therefore surprises me that someone like Zwartz would quote someone who, it seems to me, is clearly not a knowledgeable or credible source. I’m particularly concerned about Baldwin’s insistence on being so cagey about his dealings with journalists at some times, whilst at other times boasting of recording and “leaking” (to use the term he used at the Journalism and Islam conference) material to scribes.

Still, it’s obvious we will be seeing more of Baldwin over the coming months. He is a pleasant chap, and I hope Muslim groups continue to show him the hospitality HT showed him today.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

CRIKEY: The PM discovers YouTube

It’s been slow news days at the Daily Telegraph with Luke McIlveen had to trawl the portal to come up with stories.

All he found were some offensive videos online since November 2006. And some offensive comments attached to them. As if the comments here aren’t bad enough.

Fairfax websites also jumped onto the bandwagon. Yet no one could explain a simple issue which even a school boy could figure out:

I went to 'Cronulla riots' on YouTube and there's all these videos of Anglos saying 'We are proud of what we did'. So there's already other race hate videos out there. Why are they only targeting one [community]?

You can find some of them here and here.

The PM claimed that the video serves as

... a reminder that there is undoubtedly within a section, a small section, of the Lebanese Muslim community a group of people who are antagonistic to the values and the way of life in this country.

Really? Did he ascertain whether Lebanese Muslims created and/or uploaded the video before making such provocative sectarian remarks? Did he hold information that wasn’t available to either the NSW Police or the NSW Education Minister?

I watched one of the videos before it was taken down. I saw/heard:

• Rap music in the background.
• Images of stereotypical young Lebanese boys with bad haircuts and hotted-up cars.
• Repeated images of the green and red cedar symbol of the Lebanese flag.

And I never knew that Lebanese Muslims had a monopoly on rap music. Either that, or Eminem must have changed both his ethnicity and his religion.

Further, in what sense do images of hotted-up cars and pop music show hostility to Australian values and lifestyle? I used to see the Anglo thugs doing the same in East Ryde in the ‘70’s. They’d shout racist insults at me and whistle and hoot and anything slightly resembling a female. Instead of rap, they had heavy metal.

But that doesn’t stop the PM from turning this into a sectarian issue. Nor does it stop the Tele from running the story again and from running Paul Kent’s hysterical column comparing “fundamental Muslims” to Nazis. Not even John Ilhan’s column (published last week in the Herald-Sun) makes the DT look better.

Here’s more.

An edited version of this first appeared in the Crikey! daily alert for 25 January 2007.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Halal Snippets

This year, John Howard will be speaking to some 17 Christian groups at the Festival Hall in Melbourne. The pre-recorded speech has been arranged by Danny Nalliah, a Sri Lankan-born pastor of the Assemblies of God Churches and founder of the Catch the Fire Ministries.

The event was reported in Melbourne’s Herald-Sun. What the newspaper doesn’t report is that Nalliah’s service has also been advertised prominently in the 12 January 2007 edition of the Australian League of Rights publication On Target.

Allegedly conservative columnist Andrew Bolt writes for the Herald-Sun, and has been consistently supporting the Ministry in its defence of religious vilification. Treasurer Peter Costello provided a letter of support for the Ministry in the litigation. In this respect, both Costello and Bolt are in league with the Australian League of Rights, an organisation Nalliah has addressed on numerous occasions.

How about this for insightful comment. Here’s what blogger Kieran writes on The Dead Roo blog …

If I were to go around proclaiming myself Pope of Australia, perhaps
backed by some small bunch of religious extremists, and then claim to speak on
behalf of all catholics, I’d be laughed at. Would it be too extreme to speculate
that the Australian media and certain elements of the political establishment
legitimize this idiots bizarre claims to speak for all Australian muslims
because it suites their interests to have Australian Islam represented in this
fashion? …

Everyone has jumped onto the bandwagon, there was barely
a state premier that didn’t get an indignant sound bite. It’s John Howard who
owes Hilaly a bunch of flowers. Coming up to flag waving day John Howard has had
yet another chance to build an Australian ‘majority identity’, defined by the
obvious unAustralianness of some dark skinned minority that probably wouldn’t
vote for him anyway. These are election winning wedges.

But this isn’t the 1980’s, this is the 21st century, when one uses
a dog whistle.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Indonesia, Islam & Cultural Integration

Not far to look for a beacon of Islam we can embrace

I WAS CLEANING out my library the other day when I came across a book I hadn't seen for some time. Titled Islam Versus the West, it had been written by a conservative Pakistani senator from the conservative Jamaat-i-Islami party.

Like our own conservative politicians who love preaching (but rarely practise) Judeo-Christian values, the JI (no relation to Indonesia's fringe Jemaah Islamiyah) constantly reminds Pakistanis of the need to establish Islamic values. Yet JI's version of Islam always contrasts it to the conventional Western values.

Like many Muslims growing up in Australia, I had to learn Islam from books. Few imams could speak English, and most books we received were printed in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Many were published by JI and other groups linked to the Saudi religious establishment. The premise of almost all these books was that Islam and the West are almost always on a collision course.

It took years to learn that mainstream orthodox Islamic theology and its authorities regard such isolationist views as heretical.

Saudi-style Islam has hardly been with us for long: in fact, only since 1744, when Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab (founder of the Wahabi cult) entered into an alliance with a tribe of desert pirates led by one Muhammad bin Saud.

The Wahabi cult would have remained a fringe sect even after it became the state religion upon the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. The cult's teachings and influence spread far and wide in Muslim communities across the world, with petrodollars bankrolling Wahabi religious foundations.

In some cases, Saudi religious authorities have repeatedly declared Shi'ite Muslims to be apostates, and their rhetoric has inspired Iraqi and Pakistani Sunni groups to engage in sectarian massacres. Yet perhaps most dangerous has been Saudi-style Islam's influence in Western Muslim communities, especially among youth.

This teaching emphasises differences between Islam and other faiths, reinforcing in young Muslims' feelings of alienation, of not being part of the cultural mainstream.

Recently, Britain's Channel 4 screened an investigative program, Undercover Mosque. A British Muslim agreed to record in secret the lectures of Wahabi preachers and Saudi scholars. I took the chance of watching the program (via a link from a Sydney newspaper editor's blog) and was not surprised at what I saw.

This kind of fringe Islam poses enormous challenges for Muslim communities. Its spread could lead to generations of young home-grown Muslims alienated from the broader community.

Thankfully, the solution could lie closer than we think. In the coming months, a delegation of young Muslims will be visiting Indonesia on an exchange program organised by the Australia-Indonesia Institute and financed by DFAT.

Indonesia is a fascinating Muslim country for a variety of reasons. First, it is a thriving liberal democracy, perhaps the most truly free country in Asia. Second, Indonesians have a truly open culture. The language, Bahasa Indonesia, frequently borrows words from other languages. Most important, Indonesia has a history of adopting and adapting Islam. Islam came to Indonesia through trade with Yemen and other parts of the Muslim world.

Indonesia's indigenous culture is a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist influences. Instead of seeking to replace or Arabise this culture, the Yemeni traders and their Indonesian hosts used existing cultural symbols to communicate Islam. Indonesian tradition says that Islam was spread across Java by nine Sufi saints. One, known as Sunan Kalijaga, adopted classical Javanese Hindu symbols of shadow puppetry (wayang) and orchestral music (gamelan) to communicate Islamic ideas.

Far from imposing itself as an alien force, Islam was adopted by Indonesia on indigenous cultural terms. It is now the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. It is also one of Australia's closest neighbours and a strong ally in combating terrorism.

Allegedly conservative politicians and commentators enjoy alienating Muslims by repeatedly insisting they integrate. Yet on our national doorstep, in the largest Muslim country in the world, Islam long ago proved its ability to integrate.

Having attended last year's Muslim exchange program, I can certainly attest to the impact of such programs in helping inoculate young Australian Muslims against the isolationist Islam they are frequently exposed to in Saudi-style literature.

If Indonesian Muslims can adapt their faith to their indigenous Asian culture, there's no reason why Australian Muslims cannot express their faith through Australian cultural symbols. Such exchange programs are far more effective than the alienating rhetoric of integration.

(First published in the Canberra Times on 22 January 2007.)

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Putting the GIYC into perspective ...

In April 2005, a young Sydney sheik from a youth centre in Liverpool in South-Western Sydney found himself in hot water. Sheik Feiz Mohamed delivered a lecture some months before and was recorded as having said that women who dress in a certain way were “eligible for rape”.

Within days, the Sheik ended up offending Muslim women in particular. He attempted to clarify his remarks by saying he was only referring to Muslim women who do not wear headscarves. In essence, he was potentially justifying sexual violence being committed against the vast majority of Muslim women in Australia.

The tabloid media have had a field day, making much of the fact that some 4,000 young Muslims are members of his centre. What they don’t point out is the context within which this and other Muslim youth centres operate.

Since the 7 July terror attacks on London, there has been plenty of focus on Muslim youth (and, to a lesser extent, on converts). All available evidence shows that the London attacks were the work of ‘home-grown’ British Muslims influenced by the radical teachings of politicised religious figures. Naturally, governments and the broader community have sought reassurance from Muslim community leaders that such attacks are unlikely to occur in Australia.

However, that assurance was not provided with sufficient urgency. For instance, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) took some 21 days to issue a written condemnation of the London attacks.

The situation was different in Victoria, whose Islamic Council issued a stern condemnation of the attacks within less than 2 hours. So why are Victorian Muslims different from the rest of the country?

Some two years back, the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) executive was the subject of a quiet but effective takeover. It was a bloodless coup which brought 2nd and 3rd generation Muslims to take on leadership positions. This group of intelligent, educated and savvy operators came from a variety of grassroots youth and women’s organisations. They shared a commitment to developing a genuine Australian Islamic identity, even if it meant possibly sacrificing certain cultural orthodoxies their parents’ generation took for granted.

The ICV is unique in this regard. The situation isn’t as good in other states. In New South Wales, there are three Islamic councils competing for influence and government funds. The national body, AFIC, is currently being managed by a court-appointed administrator after warring factions wasted thousands of community dollars on expensive litigation. AFIC has also tried to litigate against other state councils (including Victoria) in an attempt to enforce more compliant executives.

Meanwhile, many Australian mosques are languishing, their executives dominated by middle-aged migrant men who want their mosques to resemble mosques in the home country just before they left. Most mosques are just ethnic cultural artefacts, their services held in Arabic and just about any language other than English. It is common for mosques to be dominated by one ethnic or linguistic group, to the exclusion of other groups.

The increased scrutiny of Islam and Muslims by media and political leaders has ensured a steady rise in the number of young people from nominally Muslim backgrounds gaining a fresh interest in their religious heritage. Naturally, the first place these people look to is the mosque their parents attend. For many, especially women, this first impression isn’t a positive one.

Mosque elders and imams frequently bar women (even those modestly dressed) from entering the mosque. Imams rarely are able to speak the language virtually all young Muslims speak – English. The few who can speak English are unable to understand the struggles young people face living life on a cultural pendulum.

Some young people have taken matters into their own hands. In 1985, I attended my first national Muslim youth camp. Until that time, I was unaware that Muslims existed anywhere outside the Middle East or my parent’s homeland in the Indian sub-Continent. A group of young people had gotten together to form the Islamic Youth Association of NSW (we called it the IYA).

We organised activities for young people – picnics, study circles, cultural nights and camps. Many elders complained. Some accused us of being irreligious by allowing boys and girls to mix. Others were worried their children might insist on marrying someone outside their culture.

Sadly, with very few exceptions, we could not rely on leaders of religious organisations or imams for support. Most of these people felt threatened by our presence, especially organisations receiving government funding to organise activities we held on a self-funded basis. It was as if we were “showing them up”.

Some of our young people could see the problem and wanted to become imams. Sadly, many could not afford to study in mainstream institutions in Malaysia or other countries. For these people, one way out was to obtain a scholarship to study in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, many of those who took up the offer came under the influence of Saudi Arabia’s fringe Wahhabist theology which regards both mainstream Sunni and Shia Islam as heretical.

Sheik Feiz is one of these people. The views he espouses are reflective of the fringe teachings of certain Saudi religious authorities. However, it would be foolish to judge his centre – the Global Islamic Youth Centre (GIYC) – as inherently dangerous. The GIYC provides facilities that few mainstream mosques in the area provide – indoor sports, fitness classes for men and women, internet access. Those managing the GIYC are sincere young people providing services to people of their own age, people that many mainstream Muslim organisations had written off.

If I lived in Liverpool and my son had a problem with drug addiction, I doubt any of the imams of mainstream mosques could help me. But I know Sheik Feiz could. For a start, he can speak my son’s language. Further, Sheik Feiz grew up in Australia and hence understands the realities of peer group pressure and the allure of drugs.

I don’t like Sheik Feiz’s theological leanings. I certainly find his expressed views on women, Jews and martyrdom abhorrent. But the reality is that centres like Feiz’s are providing services to young people. That’s more than I can say for the middle aged migrant men whom the Prime Minister prefers to consult on Islamic community matters.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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CRIKEY: Why do radical Sheiks have a following among young people?

Once again, the infantile rants of Australian imams make international headlines. Saudi-trained Sheik Faiz Mohamed’s hate-filled lectures have been exposed in the UK Channel 4 documentary Undercover Mosque.

It was only a matter of time before Faiz Mohamed would be caught out again. Readers might remember Faiz as the young firebrand who described women who dressed a certain way as being “eligible for rape”.

So why is it that these kinds of Sheiks have a following among young people? The Daily Telegraph claims Faiz’s Global Islamic Youth Centre has some 4,000 followers. For Martin Chulov of The Australian, no stranger to exaggeration, this number of followers was enough to describe Faiz’s centre as

... the nerve centre of Islamic youth in Sydney.

In fact, Sydney has numerous centres servicing young Muslims and Muslim converts. Many are run by sensible young imams such as American-born and Turkey-trained Na’eem Abdul Wali.

Why are the centres run by radical Saudi-trained sheiks so popular? Without meaning to reinvent the wheel, the answer is simple – mainstream Muslim institutions run by first generation migrants are disinterested in providing facilities for young people and converts. The middle-aged men who dominate these institutions maintain mosques that function as cultural museums reminding them of what Pakistan or Lebanon or Turkey was like when they left for the good life down under. Mosques typically employ imams unable to speak English and unable to convey Islam in a manner relevant to young people in 21st century Australia.

Centres like GIYC fill a vacuum left by decades of disinterest of mainstream mosques and institutions. Many have the resources (petrodollars) and support from Saudi institutions and financiers to run activities and send young men to be trained in Saudi institutions.

Even more scandalous is the fact that at least one of these financiers (responsible for arranging at least three young people I know to Saudi Arabian seminaries) is close to the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General.

Thankfully, serious inroads have been and are being made to combat Saudi-style Wahhabi Islam in Australia. One excellent initiative is the Australia-Indonesia Institute’s Muslim Exchange Program. But more needs to be done to ensure young Aussie Muslims are able to find the necessary theological and cultural tools to adapt their faith to mainstream Australian life.

First published in the Crikey Daily Alert for 18 January 2006.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Muslims, media and my conservative law lecturer

I studied law at Sydney's Macquarie University, then a hotbed of the Critical Legal Studies (CLS) movement. The majority of our tutors and lecturers expected us to take a 'critical' view of the law. But not all believed in the CLS approach to teaching and studying law.

My lecturer in commercial law was a staunch opponent of CLS. Unlike most of his colleagues, he was politically conservative. I asked him once what was his objection to the CLS approach. This was his response ...

How can one possibly be expected to criticise the law before on has even had a chance to properly understand it?

Which, I guess, is another way of saying: "If it ain't broke, don't try and fix it".

I wish some commentators on either side of the ideological divide took the same approach when discussing Islam and Muslim communities. These days, it seems anyone can become an expert critic on Islam just by using a few catch phrases.

Late last year, I attended a conference on The Journalist & Islam. A variety of academics and researchers presented papers. Most focused on the complexity of reporting on Islamic cultures and Muslim communities, both in Australia and overseas.

What fascinated me were the presentations of a columnist from The Australian newspaper who defended the reporting of Muslim issues in her newspaper. What surprised me was the simplistic approach taken to Muslim communities and to the various interpretations of Islam in Australia.

Dr Janet Albrechtsen, a columnist and ABC director, spoke of recent comments of Sheik Hilaly as evidencing another episode in an apparently long-running struggle between “conservative Islam” and “Western modernity”. She spoke of the Hilaly incident in the context of events in Europe and the Middle East, as if Sheik Hilaly’s misogynistic comments were indicative of criminal and terrorist actions of a small number of European and Middle Eastern Muslims.

Of course, writers and editors like Albrechtsen others have every right to write about Muslim-related issues. But when criticising Muslims without first trying to understand them, columnists should themselves expect to be subject to criticism.

At the same time, Muslim organizations have a responsibility to ensue journalists and editors are provided with accurate information about the real extent of diversity among Muslims in Australia.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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