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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