Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Letter to the Sydney Morning Herald regarding Ayaan Hirsi Ali and female genital mutilation ...

The following letter was submitted to the Sydney Morning Herald ...

In her profile of Somali-born author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, your reporter Angela Bennie claims the disgusting sub-Saharan cultural practice of female genital mutilation is common in countries where Islam is dominant, including Ethiopia.

In fact, Islam is not the dominant faith in Ethiopia. FGM is widely practised among Ethiopian Coptic Christians, and is also widespread among Ethiopian Jews (including those settled in Israel).

Further, FGM is completely unknown among Muslim communities in Central Asia, China, Turkey, Bosnia, Albania and the Indian sub-Continent (from where 1 in 4 Muslims originates).

Thankfully, the practice is banned in Australia. Muslim women were prominent in lobbying for it to be banned. They understood it to be a cultural practice with no support in the Islamic sacred law.

Ms Hirsi Ali has every right to be angry about being subjected to the barbaric practice of FGM. But by blaming Islam itself, she is doing no favours to FGM's millions of non-Muslim victims.

I Yusuf
Sydney, NSW

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Bridging the divide between secular Muslims and the imams

WHEN a longstanding priest loses the confidence of parishioners of a mainstream church, the matter is dealt with using internal and established church law. A church hierarchy exists to arbitrate or establish a tribunal.

In the dispute between longstanding Imam Swaiti, of the Yarralumla Mosque, and some of his parishioners, it isn’t so simple. The dispute raises fundamental issues affecting the management of Muslim religious life in secular Australia.

Unfortunately, Australian Muslims aren't as adept at juggling the requirements of Islamic sacred law (sharia) and Australian law to resolve internal religious disputes. This is despite the fact that so much Australian law on alternative dispute resolution is derived from sharia.

Imam Swaiti relies on the fact that he has served as imam of the mosque for more than a decade. Under sacred law, he may be entitled to argue this. But what exactly is an imam's role in Australia?

The term imam means a leader. In an Islamic liturgical sense, it refers to the person who leads five daily prayer services at the mosque. Traditionally, a mixed-gender prayer service can be conducted by any male selected by the congregation. Once the imam loses the confidence of most of the congregation, he can be replaced.

In Muslim diaspora communities, imams don't just lead prayer services. They also act as resident scholars, advising parishioners on questions of religious law.

Classical Islamic sacred law was codified by private imams supported by Muslim civil society with minimal state involvement. The earliest and most authoritative imams of Islam frequently found themselves on the wrong side of rulers. Government-sponsored imams were seen as corrupt and compromised, lacking the independence to carry out what the Prophet Muhammad described as the greatest jihad to speak the truth to a tyrannical ruler.

Islamic history is, therefore, a case of reverse secularism. In the Catholic West, the State fought to keep itself independent of the Roman Church. Throughout the Islamic world, Muslim religious authorities struggled to remain independent of rulers who attempted to usurp the mantle of religious leadership.

In Sunni theology, religious and temporal leadership was united in the person of the Prophet Muhammad and his four, rightly-guided successors. In Shi'ite theology, the two forms of leadership were united in the prophet and his 12 direct descendants, whom Shi'ites refer to as the 12 imams of the prophet's household, and who are also held in high esteem by Sunnis.

Yet rulers of both persuasions have tried to re-unite the two leadership forms, and have often suffered greatest resistance from imams themselves. Modern Muslim states have tried to regulate religious institutions by establishing ministries to employ and train imams, often with only minimal success.

Australian imams inherit this traditional defiance to leadership structures, with despotic kings and rulers replaced by boards and committees who manage mosques. Australian mosques were usually established in areas where a Muslim community reached a critical mass and required a place for communal worship and religious festivals.

Indeed, sacred law requires that Muslim congregations above a certain size are required to hold a Friday service where a khutbah (or sermon) on the sacred law and on current events is delivered.

To meet these needs, parishioners first establish an association in accordance with local law, agreeing on a constitution and electing an executive. As the community grows, the mosque might decide to appoint someone to lead prayer services and provide advice on ceremonial matters, often on a part-time voluntary basis to begin with.

Sydney and Melbourne mosques tend to be established along ethnic and cultural lines. Hence, the imam tends to be from the same ethnic and linguistic background as the congregation. Muslim Canberrans, on the other hand, are a uniquely multiethnic community, with all Muslim sects and ethnic groups represented.

During the 1960s, when my parents first lived in Canberra, the community consisted mainly of embassy staff, students and academics. Canberra Muslims still regard themselves as a more educated, secular and gentrified congregation. As it is, many modern Muslim cultures regard imams as belonging to a lowly profession. Imams claim specialist knowledge of intricacies of the sacred law which many parishioners see as largely irrelevant. Imams are poorly paid, and many are forced to rely on taking a second job or to engage in some kind of business.

One would expect that such an educated community would have organised itself and its structures in a manner whereby recourse to courts (whether of law or of public opinion) would not be necessary. One would also expect the community to have developed strategies enabling imams to perform traditional roles while enabling them some security of employment and a decent salary.

The unfortunate response of many Muslims, disgruntled with conservatism and the irrelevance of imams, has been to avoid the mosque altogether. Those frequenting the mosque tend to avoid involvement in management issues. The result is that management is frequently left in the hands of those least capable.

Ironically, sacred law provides little specific guidance on how imams are to be appointed or dismissed. Different cultures have established different norms. Resolving Muslim institutional disputes in Canberra is a new phenomenon, especially with many cultures and two legal systems at play.

An ACT magistrate recently told Canberra mosque factions that her court did not have the wisdom of Solomon and Allah, and that the factions needed to resolve the dispute themselves. Perhaps Muslims could look to their spiritual elder cousins for some guidance.

Islam and Judaism have more in common with each other than with any other faith. In religious terms, the roles of both rabbis and imams are similar. Both assist their congregations in understanding and practising the sacred law. Both advise and frequently lead prayer services. At the same time, both faiths operate without a priestly hierarchy and allow lay persons to lead major services.

In this sense, both faiths enjoy a kind of liturgical democracy. So what happens when an influential part of a congregation decides it wishes to replace its leader? In this regard, Jews have had at least 2000 years experience living as Diaspora communities, with internal mechanisms for resolving such disputes. Both the Canberra Mosque and the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation are experiencing this situation right now.

In the case of the Adelaide Shul, the Australian Jewish News recently reported that parishioners and the rabbi in question have agreed for the matter to be arbitrated by the London Beth Din. The Beth Din (meaning literally House of Judgment) is a religious court set up by the Jewish congregation and consisting of rabbinical jurists with special training and experience in dispute resolution. In Adelaide, the parties have signed a binding arbitration agreement. This would presumably make any decision enforceable by a secular court.

The Canberra Mosque management have argued in the media that Imam Swaiti was an employee subject to their direction. Imam Swaiti's supporters argue that he cannot be stopped from leading prayer services as he still maintains the confidence of his congregation.

In a sense, both are right. Surely, it is not an act of rocket science for Canberra's mosque managers and a group of Muslim lawyers to develop some procedure for resolving the matter. Unfortunately, Muslim leaders have a poor track record in resolving internal disputes. The umbrella Australian Federation of Islamic Councils established a system of Muslim arbitration. Sadly, that system wasn't in evidence during more than 18 months of internal AFIC disputation and resulting litigation.

In the long term, as more Australian mosques follow Canberra's lead and cross ethnic and sectarian boundaries, such problems will become more common. Mosque congregations must develop some kind of model for the employment of imams. The present situation in which imams are expected to act as a highly underpaid combination of priest, jurist, counsellor, teacher, community spokesman and spiritual guide cannot continue indefinitely. Muslim communities need to develop an alternative model for imams, ensuring it becomes a respected profession.

This, however, will require educated, secular Muslims becoming at least partially interested in management of their religious institutions. John Howard insists 99 per cent of Muslims have integrated and adopted Australian values. Perhaps complete disinterest in religion is an Australian value Muslims should ignore for the time being.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer who has acted for Muslim peak bodies, independent schools, mosques and imams in employment and structural matters. He is associate editor of This article was first published in The Canberra Times on Saturday 26 May 2007.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

The (Daily) Tele(graph) quotes everything - (brackets and) all

Sydney's tabloid Daily Telegraph ran a story on May 24 2007 concerning blind passengers who were "regularly refused" passage by taxi drivers. The headline of the story was "Taxi drivers refusing to carry blind passengers".

Among those refused were Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commissioner Graeme Innes. Mr Innes has been refused on average once a month, though in recent times twice a month.

The story also mentioned ...

He has been told on a number of occasions that it would be against a driver's religion to allow a dog in the cab.

No specific religion was named.

The story goes onto mention Mr Innes being supported in his complaints by Vision Australia, an advocacy and service group for the visually impaired. The DT claims that Vision Australia's policy and advocacy head Michael Simpson said ...

... that the problem was worse in the Sydney metropolitan area where there were more drivers unwilling to carry dogs based on Muslim objections.

This was not a direct quote from Mr Simpson. The direct quote is as follows ...

"It is fair to say that the (Islamic) religion has made the problem worse in the metropolitan areas than regional areas, where I've found taxi drivers are generally excellent"

So let me get this right. Did Mr Simpson actually mention a specific religion? Why mention something he said and then add something between brackets? Did Mr Simpson actually use brackets in his quotation? Surely the DT reporter could have found some direct reference to the religion involved.

Further, is Islam the only religion potentially known to have some reluctance to handling dogs? Is not the same reluctance found in the sacred religious codes of other faiths e.g. Hindus and Sikhs?

If indeed there are Muslim drivers refusing to take guide dogs for alleged religious reasons, surely these are matters that can be handled more effectively than tabloid newspapers effectively attributing blame to entire congregations.

To make matters worse, the DT then ran an editorial entitled "Faith dogged by shame's shadow". Here the DT made no bones about which faith it referred to ...

For Mr Innes is also blind and travels with his guide dog Jordie. But as often as once a month, Mr Innes is refused service by cab drivers on the basis that Jordie is unclean and some sort of affront to their faith.

Their faith? Islam - it goes without saying.

Now today, in all likelihood, there will be a response from moderate Muslims saying that taxi drivers guilty of that disgraceful offence against common decency and humanity should have known better, that they are wrong in their extremist interpretation of Islamic lore, and that they should apologise and mend their ways.

At least, it is to be hoped that such a response might be forthcoming. And if it does, it will be no more than we have a right to expect.

The great pity is that there is a need for such a response in the first place - a pity it is possible for such a shocking and degrading misapprehension to be held in the first place.

For the people who have refused to assist Mr Innes - who was only asking, after all, that they fulfil their professional obligation - have shamed themselves, and shamed their religion.

And if any suggestion is allowed to remain that such conduct is somehow acceptable under Islam, that shame will endure.

I wonder who wrote this editorial? Certainly the sentiments sound similar to those of comments left on the blog of the DT's Opinion Editor, Tim Blair.

So an entire editorial attacking a religious faith and its various congregations has been written on the basis of a word in brackets. Yep, that's why they call it a tabloid.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Some Thoughts on Muslim Cultures & The Workplace

There’s no rest for the wicked. Even my obvious bronchitis didn’t stop ABC journos from phoning me in the early hours to talk about a rather innocuous course the folks at the Canberra-based Australian Homeland Security Research Centre were running about how employers can manage and avoid cultural conflict in the workplace.

"Employers want to be seen to be making reasonable adjustments for their Muslim employees," Mr Yusuf said. "It's a risk-management issue."

It is illegal for employers to discriminate against employees on the grounds of religion, or to fire them because of it, but many are confused about what constitutes discrimination, he said.

"I can help people try to define where that line is." ...

He will also explain that different brands of Islam may observe Ramadan on slightly different dates, and while some sects celebrate the birthday of the prophet Muhammad, others frown upon it. This can be confusing if Muslim workers asking for different days off for the same religious holidays. "People might ask, 'Is this employee really serious when he says this is a religious requirement or is it just cultural requirement?'"

Courses like this are nothing new. In Australia, the remedy of unfair dismissal is dying a sure death. However, in its place, Work Choices has unleashed a revamped unlawful termination remedy that makes discriminatory treatment unlawful on the basis of religion.

There are, of course, exceptions and exemptions. But employers still need to understand the terrain they are navigating. In the case of Muslim employees, that isn’t always easy.

In the United Kingdom, at least 75% of Muslims are of South Asian background. So running a course for employers on Muslim cultural sensitivity would be similar to a similar course on Sikh cultural sensitivity, given both speak a similar (if not identical) language and have similar cultures. And that granny from the Kumars @ No.42 looks and acts just like my mum (login required).

Australia has a much more diverse set of Muslim cultures. Australian Islam is an ethno-religious phenomenon. We have just about every sect and denomination of Muslim here, and we have Muslims from different ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups. Further, different cultures express religiosity in different ways. And not all Muslim women resemble my mum or Granny Kumar.

Believe it or not, in many Muslim cultures, it is extremely rare for a woman to cover her hair when she isn’t at the mosque or at a religious gathering. Further, not all Muslim cultures are averse to the consumption of alcohol. One ABC radio host yesterday told me about her friend who works for a Muslim radio station in Sydney who says her religion doesn’t allow her to be in the same room with a man alone. So what happens when she is in the studio? And would all Muslim women in the workplace insist on the same strictures?

What makes running such courses difficult is that so often Australian discourse about Muslims is governed by persons purporting to represent Islamic orthodoxy. What made the Herald series on Islam in Australia so valuable is that it had less to do with religion and more with people. Managers in the workplace need to know about theology, but what really interests them is what adjustments their employees of various kinds might want to negotiate at certain times.

There are religious groups running these courses. The problem is that they focus more on what theology has to say and less about how it is played out in practice. I once was part of a course run by an Islamic religious group run for public sector lawyers. It was a whole-day course, with a whole 2 hours devoted to what Islamic law has to say about certain things. My section, which focussed on cultural factors affecting Muslim family and criminal law clients, was left to the final hour of the day.

It might serve the funding and ideological purposes of certain organisations to promote the myth that all Muslims abide by their religion in a uniform manner. But this simply doesn’t solve the typical problems which employers and HR managers face with culturally Muslim employees.

Many Australian Muslims are incidental Muslims. That means their being Muslim arises from being Turkish or Albanian or Indonesian or of some other ethnic group. Culture and religion are tied up. Believe it or not, Cypriot Turkish Muslims have culturally more in common with Cypriot Greek Orthodox Christians than with Bangladeshi Muslims who in turn have more in common with Hindus from Calcutta than with Muslims from Morocco.

Differences in culture mean differences in emphasis. Some Muslim cultures emphasise gender segregation more than others. I was shocked to visit Indonesia and find men and women entering and exiting the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta from the same door. And my Indonesian hosts were shocked to see that I was shocked!

More on this later.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Friday, May 18, 2007

The Chaser and Sheik Taj

It’s not everyday that one can find lessons in religious and community leadership in an episode of The Chaser’s War On Everything. But the response of Sheik Hilaly to a good-humoured 1.5 minute skit entitled “Sheik Gaffe Tape” hardly warranted the response he gave.

The show was broadcast on Wednesday 16 May 2007. Lawyer and comedian Julian Morrow approached the Sheik to see if he’d prepare to wear gaffe tape on his way overseas, in accordance with a previous offer he’d made last November. The Sheik’s response spoke volumes. He told Morrow:

Your tongue has no manners. I’ll punch you in the face to teach you some manners. You are stupid. Your tongue’s getting you into trouble. You’re racist.

At one stage, Sheik Hilaly even lifted his arm as if to assault Morrow.

The Chaser is the most popular comic team on Australian TV. It has in the past used sharp humour to take the piss out on our attitudes toward national security, terrorism, Arabs and Muslims. So many young Muslims I know love raving on and getting themselves into hysterics over superb Chaser skits – Chas Licciardello dressed as bin-Ladin crashing Jack Thomas’ house after the control order, differing responses to tourists dressed as Americans and those dressed as Arabs visiting Lucas Heights, and the hilarious “World’s Biggest Muslim”.

Over 50% of Muslims are aged under 30. The ratio of Muslims born in Australia to those born in Lebanon is at least 3:1. This is a very young community, many of whom are quite frustrated with media and politicians bagging them out. The Sheik should know all this. Had he been aware of what kinds of shows many young Australians (including Muslims) watch, he should have been able to recognise Morrow straight away. He could have played along quite easily and had a few laughs on Morrow. He should have known that Morrow’s intention was satire, not insult.

Instead, a very ugly side of the Sheik was shown. The audience picked this up immediately. The Sheik’s inability to lighten up when faced with a comic situation shows to me he simply isn’t in tune with how young people entertain themselves. And so a bunch of comics provide yet more evidence that Sheik Hilaly should consider retiring and writing his memoirs.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

OPINION: Flippant thoughts on the Canberra Mosque fiasco

You can always tell when Prime Minister John Howard's policy backflips aren't helping him in the polls. He'll always look for a diversion or a cultural punching bag. It's so typical for John Howard.

Last week, Howard defended a special budgetary allocation of $461,000, saying it was to help Muslims assimilate. There's every reason to try to assimilate and I unapologetically use that word assimilate a section of the community, a tiny minority of whose members have caused concern.

So while it's sufficient for most migrants to integrate, Muslim migrants must go further and assimilate. The reason that religion is used as a descriptor is it's a small category of radical Muslims that have adopted attitudes we think are bad for the country and the most sensible thing to do is try to change those attitudes.

True. Just as a small category of radical Christians refuses to teach its children computing or allow them to eat with people outside their church or allow them to mix with parents who leave the church. This might explain why the Howard Government loves providing concessions and money to the Exclusive Brethren.

Sadly, so many Muslim religious leaders insist on confirming the worst fears of the broader community. One popular perception is that Muslims hold extreme views and are prone to violence. The various factions involved in the Canberra Mosque dispute have proven just that.

Of course, Canberra isn't the same as Sydney. Most Canberrans know that Muslims are just as human as people of any other or no faith. Canberrans are quite happy to share their city with Muslim diplomats, public servants, academics and students. They're also quite happy to munch on halal kebabs from Ali Baba after some Saturday night fever down at the King O'Malley's pub.

(Then again, that's probably because the nearby McDonalds shuts so damned early!)

It's little wonder the closest thing you'd find to a Cronulla-style anti-Muslim riot is inside the mosque itself. The argument started some months back when a faction of worshippers decided they didn't like the imam any more. They decided to tell a Melbourne reporter the imam's supporters were extremists.

To understand this mentality requires some historical background. A medieval Syrian philosopher, Abul Hasan al-Maarri, made the following remark on the eve of his city being overrun by the Crusaders:

In this world, there are only two types of people: those with lots of intelligence and little religion, and those with little intelligence and plenty of religion.

Eight hundred years later, Australia's Muslim religious leaders are proving Sheik Maarri correct. In July 2005, Brian Toohey reported in the Australian Financial Review of an ASIO budget blow-out for Muslim informants. How so? Muslim leaders were taking taxpayers' cash in return for dobbing in factional enemies.

Now, one Canberra Mosque faction is using similar tactics, accusing their opponents of extremism, perhaps taking advantage of people's fears over nasty Muslim extremists hiding under our beds. One of their number, clearly a political moderate, started his own political party called The Best Party of Allah, with sensible policies like zero interest rates and tax breaks for not eating pork. I'm sure my friends at the National Jewish Centre in Forrest would have been as impressed as I was.

The opposing faction had the good sense to rebut the presumption of extremism and violence in the most effective manner possible by allegedly punching the living daylights out of the party founder and mosque secretary. Smart thinking, chaps. (I say chaps deliberately. I doubt Muslim or indeed any other women would be nutty enough to put on such a spectacle.)

When it comes to mosque management in Canberra, Howard's assimilation thesis might actually have a point. Mosque administrators need to assimilate into their own community. Most Muslims are quite sensible people. Many have ordinary jobs, families, a mortgage and aspirations of an overseas holiday. Others are completing their degrees or writing their theses. That might explain why hardly any get involved in the affairs of the mosque.

However, it will take more than $461,000 to get Australia's mosque tycoons, many of whom are used to receiving larger sums from Saudi and other governments, to assimilate.

Yes, many Muslims attend Friday prayers. Yarralumla is convenient for ANU students or for those working in or near Civic. However, their attendance is inspired by a desire to obey God and perhaps meet up with some friends afterwards. Love for either mosque executive faction is rarely a consideration.

In fact, in many Muslim ethnic cultures, mosque management is regarded as a pastime for no-hopers, people with not much going for them in life. An Indian imam was asked why so many imams talk so much nonsense. The imam answered with a question: If you had two sons, one smart and the other not-so-smart, which one would you send to ANU and which would you send to me? Or something like that.

Jokes aside, the antics at Canberra Mosque are a reflection of the general malaise of ordinary Muslims who take too little interest in religious affairs. Then again, is this a malaise restricted to Muslims?

An Anglican friend once complained about the Sydney diocese being taken over by a minority of what he described as fundamentalists. I asked him if most Sydney Anglicans were fundamentalist. His response? Of course not. They're just too lazy to do anything about the ones that are.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and associate editor of A version of this article appeared in the Canberra Times on 16 May 2007.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

"Where are all those so-called moderate Muslims?"

When terrorists strike, we often hear skeptics ask questions like "Where are all the so-called moderate Muslims?"

In Iraq, one possible answer is that they are too busy burying their dead. But outside Iraq, the question continues to be posed. It's as if ordinary people who just happen to be Muslim are expected to stop whatever it is they are doing and engage in a few hours of very public righteous indignation.

North American journalist Paul Barrett believes the reason this question is raised so often may have something to do with the fact that many Muslim religious leaders always add qualifications and caveats to their condemnations. Many say: "Yes, terrorism is bad but then so is ..."

Specifically, until recently, Muslim leaders often added caveats to their condemnations that robbed them of real force.

In a 1 March essay for Slate, Barrett cites the responses of one prominent American, UCLA Law Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, to this apparent Muslim equivocation regarding the September 11 2001 attacks. Here's what he says about UCLA Law Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl ...

Non-Muslims who insist they haven't heard from moderate Muslims on the topic of terrorism simply haven't paid attention to outspoken figures like Khaled Abou El Fadl. A scholar of Egyptian descent who teaches Islamic law at UCLA, Abou El Fadl takes an unambiguous stand opposing religiously motivated violence against innocents, no matter what the alleged justification.

After 9/11, Abou El Fadl appeared frequently in the national media. He emphasized the restrictions the Quran placed on stealth attacks, rebellion and harm to noncombatants. He told the CBS Evening News in October 2003: "You cannot kill a woman, you cannot kill a child, you cannot kill a senior individual, you cannot kill a hermit, you cannot kill a member of the clergy, you cannot even kill peasants who are not fighters." He emphasized that in modern terms, these prohibitions translate into a ban on all terrorism.

While he rejects the idea that moderate Muslims have been mute on terrorism, Abou El Fadl has argued that Muslim leaders in the U.S. have failed "to convince the American public of the outrage felt by most Muslims over the tragedy of September 11." Abou El Fadl has proposed a huge Muslim demonstration of mourning at the World Trade Center site: something truly dramatic and designed to attract television coverage, so the world would have to take notice.

Barrett almost suggests this kind of unequivocal position is rare among US Muslim community leaders. Of course, Abou El Fadl could hardly be regarded as a community leader in that he doesn't (as far as I am aware) hold any elected position in any grassroots community organisation. Rather, he is an academic whose views are his own, even if they are influential.

In terms of the Australian experience, it is true that a number of Muslim community leaders have engaged in equivocation. But is it really equivocal to link terrorist acts to underlying causes? After all, many alleged conservatives make excuses for the Cronulla rioters by referring to "underlying causes" (lack of police presence, years of alleged Lebanese abuse of Anglo-Australian females etc). Even John Howard referred to the underlying causes of the Cronulla rioters.

In fact, Mr Howard refused to condemn the rioters at all. One could argue that Muslim leaders are at least condemning terrorism, calling a spade a spade. It's one thing to equivocate. It's another to refuse to even acknowledge that a wrong has been done.

What do readers think?

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

COMMENT: Sheik Swaiti and job security for imams ...

Canberra ’s Sunday Times (i.e. the Sunday edition of the Canberra Times) beat my old chum Dicky Kerbaj from The Oz to report the fracas at the Abu Bakr Mosque (named after the first Sunni caliph, not after the Indonesian JI leader) in salubrious Yarralumla, home to numerous embassies (the land reserved for a new Iranian embassy is across the road from the mosque) and lots of Canberra’s filthy-rich.

The mosque is managed by the Islamic Society of ACT, one of numerous Muslim religious organisations serving Canberra ’s well-heeled Muslims. The society’s secretary, who years ago tried to set up the clumsily-named Best Party of Allah, was assaulted in the disturbance and had to be hospitalised.

Dicky last month suggested the sacked Imam Swaiti was “a hardline cleric”. Why? Because he “praised mujahideen (Muslim holy warriors) in his sermon”.

Being an Islamic liturgy expert, Dicky would know that prayers for God to assist “mujahideen” is frequently part of the compulsory Arabic part of the Friday sermon which non-Arabs (who’d are the majority of Canberra ’s Muslim congregation) wouldn’t understand. For Muslims, the term “mujahideen” refers to anyone who is fighting in a just war (or “jihad” in Arabic).

This isn’t necessarily the same as inciting violence and anti-Western hatred. During my teens, Friday sermons included prayers for the Western-backed Afghan “mujahideen”. Then, during the 1990’s, we prayed for the “mujahideen” in Bosnia . No one seemed to care that the “mujahideen” meant the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Bosnian army, many of whom were Orthodox and Catholic Christians.

Still, I can’t say for certain which “mujahideen” Imam Swaiti referred to in his sermons. What I do know from Canberra sources is that his replacement is a lovely chap who studied in the ancient Turkish city of Konya where the great Sufi poet and jurist Mevlana Jelal ad-Din Rumi is buried. He's also known to have made nasty remarks about sexual minorities in public gatherings. Then again, how many clerics of any faith say nice things about gays and lesbians?

This episode shows just how precarious is the employment status of imams in Australian mosques. Despite serving the mosque for 13 years, it took hardly a month for the mosque executive to dismiss Swaiti. He isn’t the first imam to be treated so shabbily. Muslim congregations don’t exactly place imams on pedestals. A distraught imam once told me:

When I graduated from Darul Uloom (Islamic university), my professor advised I take any job except being imam at a mosque. If only I’d listened. No one respects imams.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Monday, May 07, 2007

COMMENT: Ayaan Hirsi Ali on Jewish fundamentalism ...

Muslims often attack Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her criticisms of the Islamic faith and Muslim cultures. Anti-Muslims adore her for these very reasons, using Hirsi Ali's (often legitimate) critiques of Muslim culture as an excuse to attack all Muslims.

Now, Hirsi Ali's attacks on religion have extended to overly religious and fundamentalist Israeli Jews. The result is that she is beginning to lose favour with her old supporters, many of whom come from the Jewish circles she criticises.

In August last year, the Jerusalem Post newspaper published Hirsi Ali's views on Jewish fundamentalism ...

From my superficial impression, the country ... has a problem with fundamentalists ... The ultra-Orthodox will cause a demographic problem because these fanatics have more children than the secular and the regular Orthodox.
As a result of these comments, one far-Right Jewish blog has described Hirsi Ali as an ...

... intellectually challenged anti semite ...
So there you have it. When Hirsi Ali criticises Muslim extremism, she is applauded. But when she attacks the Israeli equivalent, she is hounded. Still, at least she is consistent, unlike so many of her (now increasingly former) supporters.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Roman Muslims?

Tony Abbott is one of the few Federal Ministers to speak about Aussie Muslims in a respectful tone. He does raise serious questions about Muslims and their integration in mainstream Australia, but he doesn’t pretend to know all the answers and asks his Muslim audience to pardon his ignorance. This compares favourably with the arrogance often displayed by Peter Costello, Brendan Nelson and a number of backbenchers whose names escape me and are rather forgettable in any event.

One important point Abbott frequently makes is that the current experience of Muslims today is comparable to the treatment of Roman Catholics for over a century. Further, the rhetoric used about Muslims “outbreeding” everyone and having allegiances outside Australia also has been used to describe Catholicism.

Perhaps, then, Muslims can learn something from the Catholic experience. Sadly, we don’t have lots of Muslims doing research into the experiences of Catholics, Jews and other faith communities who overcame the challenges we now face.

Then again, organisations that claim to represent Muslims in Australia have never bothered to spend money on researching the composition and characteristics of those they claim to represent. Clearly Muslim leaders have little interest in spending time and resources in finding out who Muslims are and what they think on various issues.

In today’s Herald, Peter Manning explores Tony Abbott’s argument about the shared experiences of Muslims and Catholics. The result is a well-considered op-ed piece that concludes in the same manner that my piece did yesterday.

Here’s a sample …

In Federal Parliament last year, Senator John Faulkner argued there was once a minority religion in Australia that threatened the fabric of our society, whose members bred faster than the rest of "us" and whose poor and uneducated were taught weird beliefs in their own schools. They were called Catholics ...

... in Sydney there's a religion which has a set of religious laws for its faithful, running parallel to state law, and encourages its young to do civil and military service in a Middle Eastern country. It's called Judaism.

Many of the things thrown at Australian Muslims in the past five years - bundled together as "un-Australian" - are features of other religions in our multicultural society: they're breeding "us" out; their women are oppressed; the imams speak in Arabic; their sharia law is weird; their links are to Middle Eastern lands ...

What would an Australian Islam look like? A way of getting an answer might be to look at how Catholicism in Australia has become Australian. From a religion under siege, it has melded into Australian culture, both defining the culture and being defined by it.

Australian Catholicism now is not Irish, Roman, South American or American Catholicism. It is the pragmatic, unevangelical version that Sydney's Cardinal George Pell hates so much ...

The key principles of Islam, so similar to the other Abrahamic religions Judaism and Christianity, will not change. But cultural influences - and geography - will demand significant changes at the edges ...

The quicker a recognisably Australian Islam - with Australian-born and Australian-trained imams with broad Aussie accents - comes into being the better for everyone.

Welcome inside the tent.

Manning is no enemy of the Muslim communities. He has stuck his neck out on numerous occasions to ensure balanced coverage of issues directly related to Muslims or which many Muslims feel sensitive about. Manning is also an experienced player in all forms of media. He is therefore not someone to be ignored.

And in case some Muslims wish to ignore Manning, they shouldn't ignore Muslim scholars taught in the classical tradition. Scholars like Dr Umar Faruq Abd-Allah whom I quoted yesterday as saying ...

For centuries, Islamic civilisation harmonised indigenous forms of cultural expression with the universal norms of its sacred law.

In China, Islam looked Chinese; in Mali, it looked African. Sustained cultural relevance to distinct peoples, diverse places and different times underlay Islam's long success as a global civilisation.

We ignore these messages at our peril. If we continue to behave like a set of tribal entities, we will be abandoning the cultural and theological consensus of 14 centuries of Muslim migration experience.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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CRIKEY: Some terrorists are more muslim than others

George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm that all animals were equal but some were more equal than others. The muted journalistic responses to the arrest of two Melbourne Tamil Tiger terror suspects suggests the same principle applies to terrorism.

Absent from yesterday’s tabloids were frontpage headlines like, 'The faces of hate in our suburbs'. Salivating columnists didn’t tell us how Hinduism and/or Tamil nationalism were serious threats to freedom and democracy, how these terror suspects were part of a broader Tamil conspiracy to destroy our values and way of life.

We don’t see the PM pleading for Tamils to do more to expose terrorists, adopt Australian values, teach about Poms and donkeys in schools etc.

The Herald-Sun reported on 2 May 2007 that the Tamil Tigers

... have conducted dozens of suicide bombings.

Huh? Dozens? I’d love to see the response Aussie journos would get if they tried to publish this sanitized tripe in an Indian newspaper.

Indians and Sri Lankans (including most Tamils) know the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are bad news, conducting more suicide terror attacks than any other terror outfit. Their scalps include numerous Sri Lankan government ministers and even former Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi.

American terrorism expert Robert Pape writes that

... the world leader in suicide terrorism is … the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka ... the Palestinians got the idea of the suicide vest from the Tamil Tigers.

The Age, whose reporting was similarly sanitised, reminds us that the “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are not a proscribed terrorist organisation in Australia”.

So Phil Ruddock reckons only groups like Hamas that borrow widely used forms of suicide terrorism, not those that invented these forms and implement them more than anyone else, are real terrorists. It’s as if Ruddock believes only Muslims can be terrorists.

I’m not advocating we go all hysterical at Australians who just happen to have Tamil and/or Hindu background. Entire groups shouldn’t be held accountable for the actions of an extreme few. But just imagine the hue and cry had the arrested pair been Muslim, not Tamil, leaders. Imagine if Indonesian Muslims were caught raising funds for JI under the cover of tsunami relief. Perhaps the double standard’s reason can be found in these words from The Oz’s report yesterday:

The pair are the first non-Muslims to be charged under Australian terror laws. (emphasis mine)

Politicians and news editors should consider whether their apparently favourable treatment of certain forms of terror serves the cause of national security. Perhaps they should listen to Mick Keelty and ask themselves whether fostering a generation filled with Muslim-haters and alienated Muslims makes us any safer.

First published in the Crikey daily alert on Thursday 3 May 2007.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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