Wednesday, May 16, 2007

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 AltMuslim.com. A version of this article appeared in the Canberra Times on 16 May 2007.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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