Tuesday, March 20, 2007

CRIKEY: How to turn 150 Muslims into a national threat

Crikey readers must grow tired reading about the smallest roaring mouse among that 1.5% of Australians who tick "Muslim" on their Census forms. Yet readers of The Oz apparently just can’t get enough.

Today’s report concerns the alleged takeover of a tiny mosque servicing hardly 600 people in Newcastle, north of Sydney. Dick Kerbaj reports the "moderate" leadership were deposed by "hardline" newcomers. Gee, that says a lot.

Apparently former Newcastle Muslim Association president Yunus Kara is concerned a group of overseas students make home visits to ordinary Muslims to preach their beliefs.

On the basis of this, Kerbaj speculates:

This home preaching may suggest that the appointment of a new imam is not an immediate priority of the new leadership.

Kerbaj should know that many metropolitan, regional and rural mosques don’t have imams. Having a basic understanding of Muslim religious ritual means he’d know virtually anyone can lead a prayer service. A full-time imam is a luxury many mosques don’t need and (in many cases) cannot afford.

You really have to wonder whether this saturated coverage of every tiny mouse that roars inside Australia’s Muslim communities makes any difference to Australians of any faith and no faith in particular. Let’s face facts. Muslim folk hardly make up 1.5% of the population.

Further, The Oz’s reporting tends to be so meaninglessly stereotypical (with words like "extreme", "hardline" and "moderate" thrown around like clothes in a dryer) that one wonders whether the goal is just to keep Muslims somehow in the news.

I spoke to the former President of the Newcastle Muslim Association, Yunus Kara, some four weeks ago about the issue. He acknowledged the caretaker imam Bilal Kanj was not a trained "sheik" but rather was a young student associated with a Lebanese sect known as "al-Ahbash". Kara acknowledged that many Muslims regarded the al-Ahbash as a fringe cult, but he preferred their beliefs to those of the Wahhabis.

And what are these beliefs? What are the theological nuances that distinguish these groups? How does this play out in the real world of Muslim congregations?

Perhaps Kara’s most telling answer was when I asked him how many Muslims attend his mosque for Friday prayer. He said around 150.

150. Out of 600. Kara, Kerbaj, Kanj & Ko may be interested. But the rest of Novocastrian Muslims are too busy getting on with life in the real world.

First published in the Crikey.com.au daily alert on 20 March 2007. Crikey is a superb source of news, commentary, gossip and lots of other interesting stuff. It is widely read by journalists, parliamentarians, staffers, editors, academics and an assortment of other persons with far too much time on their hands. To subscribe, click here

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Prayers for Allison Sudrajat

Tomorrow at 1:30pm, after dhuhr prayer, Canberra’s small Muslim community will join friends and family of Allison Sudrajat for a traditional Muslim janaza (funeral) prayer service followed by burial.

I never had a chance to meet Allison either in Canberra or during the two weeks I was in Indonesia in January 2006. However, I did receive an e-mail from someone who knew her. The e-mail read …

Allison was a Muslim Australian who achieved wonderful outcomes for people in need all over the world. A terrible loss. Inna illahi wa inna ilayhi rajiun.

The last sentence is the transliteration of an Arabic prayer from the Qur'an which means: "From God we come. To God we return."

The following paragraphs are taken from the press release issued by AusAID where Allison worked for many years ...

Allison was one of our most capable and dedicated officers. During her 18 years with AusAID, her intellectual and practical approach to the challenges of development was truly extraordinary. Allison led Australia 's humanitarian response to some of the region's worst disasters in recent years. She was also a bold, passionate advocate for attacking poverty at its roots, working for better schools, better health and better government.

Allison had an extraordinary impact on her colleagues both in Canberra and at the two Australian missions in Indonesia and PNG where she had spent a total of 10 years working to improve the lives of people in those two countries. She was an inspirational leader and people looked to her with great respect, admiration and fondness. We will miss her enormously.

Our loss, however, pales when compared to her family's.

In her family's own words, Allison is dearly loved and missed by her husband, Ris, her children, Jamila, Imran, Zaini and Yasmin, her parents, brother, sister and extended family. Her family has suffered an unbearable loss. Allison was a wonderful daughter, a wonderful sister, a wonderful wife, a wonderful mother. Her family is proud that she spent her life and ultimately gave her life in service to humanity.

Please remember Allison and her family in your prayers.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Prayers for Cynthia Banham

Back in 1992, I joined a close circle of friends, students at Macquarie University Law School. We came from a variety of backgrounds, and went onto work in a variety of fields. One recruited a whole bunch of us to his Young Liberal branch!

Quite a few of us were suffering lawyer burn-out. One went off to join a legal publisher and hasn’t looked back. Another toyed with the idea of teaching in an independent school and forming his own Dead Poets’ Society.

I had my own style of burnout in early-2002. One of this group of friends sat me down one day and suggested this: “Irf, you’re good at writing. You know how to sniff a story and put an angle to it. Why don’t you consider journalism?”

I didn’t believe it was possible. Going from legal practice to journalism? My friend persisted.

“You remember Cynthia from uni? She didn’t stay in law for very long. She went off to write stuff here and there in smaller publications. Now she has a small gig in the Good Weekend. Who knows where that might take her?”

I started looking out in the Good Weekend for the familiar name. Sure enough, there was Cynthia Banham doing some kind of trivia thing in the magazine.

Years later, I was helping a lady with a rather difficult matter involving her deceased husband. We weren’t getting anywhere with government authorities. The lady wanted to approach TV tabloid current affairs programs. I had other ideas.

I rang Cynthia Banham at the Canberra office of the Herald and introduced myself. She remembered who I was. We made arrangements to meet with my client in Parliament House in Canberra.

Cynthia went through my client’s story patiently and thoroughly. She checked and double-checked every single aspect of my client’s story. She then advised my client of what steps she would have to take and who she would have to approach from my client’s ‘opponent’.

I know few lawyers who would be this thorough, let alone journalists. Perhaps this reflects the stereotype I have that journalists are more able to play fast and loose with the facts. Cynthia certainly didn’t meet that stereotype.

Then late last year, I e-mailed Cynthia to get some advice about making the move she made out of legal practice all those years back. We arranged to meet, and then one of us had to cancel at the last minute. A few more rendezvous were planned and cancelled. Then on the afternoon of 7 March, as I was entering Canberra to attend a lecture at ANU, I thought I would give Cynthia a call at her work number and arrange to meet. No one picked up the phone.

At ANU, I saw my fiancĂ© who told me about the plane crash. Within a few hours, it was clear why Cynthia hadn’t picked up her office phone.

I can’t claim to be a close friend of Cynthia. I was part of a large circle of friends which she was also part of at university.

Cynthia is now battling away in Perth, surrounded by family and loved ones. Please remember Cynthia, her partner and her family in your prayers.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Peter Manning discovers Beit Lahm

Peter Manning has penned an excellent book entitled Us And Them which discusses his research into systematic bias against Islam and Muslim societies in general and Palestinians in particular in Australian media.

Much of the book is devoted to Manning’s own travels through the Middle East and his discovery that Muslims are not just a bunch of 5-headed monsters who worship the Moon-god and drink a mixture of camel urine and yak fat.

I found Manning’s descriptions of Beit Lahm to be most interesting. Some readers will be aware that Beit Lahm is a large town in the occupied West Bank. Like many West Bank towns, Beit Lahm has a mixed population of Christians and Muslims.

Manning decided to visit that part of Beit Lahm which is not promoted by Israeli tourist guides and not cut off by the insecurity wall. He calls the visit “one part of my own private pilgrimage”.

More importantly, travelling to Beit Lahm was a journey to retrace how his perceptions, assumptions and prejudices of the “other” had become entrenched.

Although we normally associate Beit Lahm with piece on earth and goodwill to all men, there isn’t much goodwill shown at the Israeli checkpoints, border crossings etc. In the nearby Christian village of Beit Jala, Jewish settlements are being built on stolen land. Beit Jala was where a 5th century Archbishop (formerly of Anatolia) settled to be closer to Beit Lahm. He lived and prayed in one of the many caves in the district. In 1928, the local Palestinian Greek Orthodox community built a church in his honour which to this day is known as St Nicholas’ church.

Yes, the occupied West Bank was the eventual home of Santa Claus! And better still, Santa Claus was indeed a follower of Christ!!

The heart of Beit Lahm (which we also know of as Bethlehem) is Manger Square. Adjacent to it is the Mosque of Omar. Here, in the heart of Christ’s birthplace, believers in Christ worship God side by side.

Manning found the Church of the Nativity more impressive than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which he had seen in Jerusalem. In Bethlehem, the different Christian denominations – Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic – showed a greater degree of cooperation than their brethren in Jerusalem.

Manning talks about how overawed he was to see such ancient sites. He remarks that it is hard for Australians to appreciate what it is like to see something 1,700 years old given that our own written history goes back hardly 200 years.

Bethlehem is a town which largely survives in tourist dollars. Yet sadly it is suffering. The locals tell Manning that the reduced tourism is caused by Israeli tourist operators scaring away Christian tourists by telling them that Bethlehem is too dangerous.

One site that especially troubled Manning was to see children begging in the streets, something he had not seen anywhere else in the Middle East. This was a town that had suffered under siege of the Israeli armed forces who had surrounded the Church of the Nativity and shot one of its bellringers dead.

Manning’s book is well worth reading, if only for the chapters dealing with his Middle Eastern travels. Instead of pontificating from the sidelines, manning actually travels to the region and discovers the reality of the place by meeting with its people, be they taxi drivers, intellectuals, hoteliers and even children.

Far-Right Western Christians who blindly defend and support Israel in all its military incursions would do well to read Manning’s description of Beit Lahm and Beit Jala and then visit these places themselves.

Maybe one day God will bless us all with the ability to experience Christmas in Christ’s birthplace.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Friday, March 02, 2007

CRIKEY: Aussie muslims are no Londonistanis

Alan Jones was fired up last Friday, arguing that the fact Easter eggs were being sold as early as January at Woolworths (or Safeway for Mexican readers) and Coles supermarkets was evidence of the demise of Australian Christian culture.

"It is legitimate to ask how far we will go to accommodate those of non-Christian faith when we live in a predominantly Christian country," says Jones.

Melanie Phillips argues a similar line (minus the chocolate) in her recently released book Londonistan, a favourable review of which is found here and an unfavourable one here.

Phillips spoke at a Quadrant dinner in Sydney and was earlier hosted in Melbourne by the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council (who also were going to host the tour of Raphael Israeli). Avidly opposed to multiculturalism, Phillips argues the war against terrorism must go beyond security measures.

She argues Britain (and by implication, other Western countries) has been bending over backwards to appease religious, ethnic, linguistic and even sexual minorities.

I could always condemn Phillips' argument as racist and Islamophobic. But to some extent, she is spot on. There are radical Islamists, i.e. proponents of a politicised ideology which wants Muslims to wage war on the West.

Phillips states her book offers no opinion on whether political Islamism is consistent with orthodox theology. Her disclaimer becomes meaningless when she states that political Islamism is the dominant strain of theology in nominally Muslim countries. When even experts in the field aren’t prepared to make such claims, it takes extraordinary hubris for a tabloid columnist to make them.

Phillips also says British multiculturalism allowed the Islamist xenophobic agenda to foster and grow. Presumably, that means pre-multicultural Britain didn’t take a hard line against hostile xenophobic ideology.

But as Israeli reviewer Michael Fox (hyperlinked above) notes, George Orwell was hard-pressed to find a publisher for his satire of Soviet Russia Animal Farm. Even TS Eliot (then at Faber & Faber) knocked the book back. Monocultural societies are often the first to adopt xenophobic politics.

Even if Britain’s Muslims have been radicalised, of what relevance is this to Australia? British Muslims are largely from South Asia and (to a lesser extent) the Arab world.

Aussie Muslims are from over 60 different countries, the two dominant ethno-religious groups hailing from a former French protectorate and a deeply secular state knocking on the doors of the EU.

First published in the Crikey daily alert for Friday 2 March 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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