Thursday, June 28, 2007

More from Ed Husain

In the very-left-leaning New Statesman, Ed Husain blows the whistle on what he sees as

... an unchallenged, unreported Islamist underworld in the UK in which talk of jihad, bombings, stabbings, killings and executions is usual.

The article is a little hysterical and over-the-top for my liking. Husain seems to think Muslim kids are all a bunch of numbskulls who are easily influenced by what they read online. Surely he must realise that Muslim internet consumers are just as savvy as non-Muslim ones.

Further, I've seen plenty of violent rhetoric on conservative, Christian and even Jewish websites and forums. Does that mean conservatives are going around blowing themselves up?

There is a huge difference between someone who accepts part of the thinking of Syed Qutb or Maududi and someone who is prepared to blow themself up in Iraq or Tel Aviv. To suggest that ideology is the only factor is really quite simplistic. Husain would be wel-advised to read further on what actually inspired people to commit acts of suicidal terror. He might start with Robert Pape's work.

I'm no fan of political Islamism. But to put all the blame for terrorism on political Islamism goes a little over-the-top.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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COMMENT/PROFILE: Mahbub (Ed) Husain and Islamic Zionism

Some years back, I wrote an article on Margo Kingston's webdiary in which I referred to political Islam as "Islamic Zionism". That really set the cat among the pidgeons, with some claiming that the similarities between political Islam and Zionism were only superficial.

Now Ed Husain, the author of The Islamist, has taken up that theme in a column for The Guardian. Here's his argument in a nutshell ...

... are Islamists and Zionists really all that different, despite their blatant enmity? I think not.

Zionism and Islamism are both political perversions of ancient Abrahamic faiths of Judaism and Islam. They were both born out of protest and anger: Zionism in response to tsarist pogroms and Islamism as a retort to colonialism. The heavy political content of both ideologies came from men who had no theological training in the centuries-old traditional understanding of the Torah or the Koran.
This is an area that needs to be explored further. Political Islam is dangerous because it is a perversion. Yet more and more Jews are beginning to realise that political Judaism can be just as dangerous.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Dick Kerbaj elects Australia's next Sunni Mufti!

If you believe what you read in The Australian, every single Aussie who ticks the box “Muslim” on his or her census form supports the umbrella of Lebanese Shia Muslim groups Hizbullah and opposed Israel.

Aussie Muslims belong to numerous denominations. Internationally, Sunni Muslims make up 90% of all Muslims, the balance mainly Shia Muslims. In Australia , the ratio is perhaps more skewed toward Shia Muslims, largely because of asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Iraq . However, exact figures are unknown.

Many Shia asylum seekers have come to Australia escaping theocratic regimes or sectarian or tribal violence. Many don’t regard religion as their primary source of identity. For instance, Sydney ’s Afghan Hazara refugees were persecuted by the Taliban because they were Shia. They’re now persecuted because of tribal rivalries. Hazara Shia Muslims generally don’t congregate with other Shia Muslims such as the largely Lebanese congregation at Arncliffe or the largely Iranian congregation at Earlwood. Indeed, many Afghan Shias hold religious functions at a small Auburn mosque which they share with Afghan Sunni Muslims.

Yet for The Oz’s reporter on all things Muslim, one man represents all Shia Muslims. And conveniently for Sheik Dicky Kerbaj, that man needs an Arabic interpreter (or a journalist who reckons he speaks Arabic) to translate for him. Regardless of what most of Australia’s predominantly non-Arabic-speaking Shia Muslims of Iranian, Azerbaijani, Afghan, Pakistani, East African and Indian may think, Mufti Kerbaj has issued a fatwa that they all must follow Sheik Kamal Mousselmani.

I’m so grateful to Ayatollah Dicky for clarifying who all Sunni Muslims follow. After speaking to just one person, Kerbaj reached this startling conclusion:

AUSTRALIA'S Sunni Muslims have pushed aside ideological differences with their Shia counterparts to form a united front against Israel and declare their support for the Iranian-backed terrorist network Hezbollah”. Better still, Sheik Dick’s subeditor gives the story the headline of “Aussie Muslims unite against Israel.

And on what basis has Kerbaj declared the words of Keysar Trad definitive evidence of what all Sunni Muslims think? Well, we know that Trad was voted off the executive of the Lebanese Moslems Association and has set up “The Australian Islamic Friendship Society” out of his own living room. Trad, whilst president of the LMA, preserved membership rules that barred full membership to all women and men ineligible for a Lebanese passport.

Here we have the former leader of an organisation that practises gender and racial apartheid, that excludes at least three quarters of all Australian Muslims. Yet that doesn’t stop Kerbaj from describing Keysar as “Sunni Muslim leader and community spokesman”.

Kerbaj hasn’t spoken to a single Turkish imam, including the Melbourne imam who lectured me on recognition of Israel . Like many Turkish imams, he’s a strong supporter of Turkey ’s Muslim democratic AK Party government that has been pushing a number of Muslim countries to make peace with Israel .

And as if the article wasn’t bad enough, Kerbaj mistakenly claimed the UN had declared Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Monday, June 25, 2007

PROFILE: Writing About Muslims (in English & Spanish) cont ...

Just over a year ago, I started writing about a Spanish author the New York Times described as “The Anti-Orientalist”. Juan Goytisolo is regarded as the greatest living writer in the Spanish language. He writes extensively on medieval Islam’s impact on Western civilisation as well as on the plight of Muslim immigrants struggling to find a place in modern Europe.

With continuing interest on Islam in Europe, it is perhaps a good idea to re-visit this author who was profiled at length in the New York Times Magazine in an article by Fernanda Eberstadt on April 16 2006.

[01] During the 1990’s, Goytisolo wrote a series of essays on the Muslim world entitled Landscapes of War. In that series, he warned that radical Islam is mobilising a generation impoverished and disenfranchised by the disastrous experiments of post-colonial Arab governments with the rhetoric of nationalism and secular socialism which thinly veiled the reality of military dictatorship.

[02] Goytisolo compares more theocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia as being like centuries of Spanish monarchy following the Reconquista of Ferdinand and Isabella. This was a society characterised by “intransigent homogeneity” and “autistic self-absorption and inquisitorial vigilance”. That regime used gold from the American colonies in the same way Saudis use oil wealth – not on real development or reform but rather on hounding dissidents and providing religious and political elites with ever larger castles.

[03] Bush’s invasion of Iraq is described in a recent essay as “the illegitimate war of an illegitimate president”, a crowning catastrophe in a series of US blunders in the Muslim world. That series included American backing of Saddam Hussein and the Afghan Mujahideen/Taliban during the 1980’s as well as US support of unpopular and repressive regimes in Egypt, North Africa and the Gulf.

[04] Goytisolo is not all negative. He describes “seeds of modernity” in the Arab world, and hopes Islamist parties are tempered and matured by their participation in national politics.

[05] Goytisolo lives in the Jemaa el Fna in Marrakesh’s old quarter. This is a square where open-air storytellers, snake charmers and witch doctors ply their trade. Goytisolo has struggled to keep Jemaa el Fna’s original character against attempts by the government to turn the place into a parking lot. It is now classed by UNESCO as a site preserving “the oral history of humanity”.

[06] Goytisolo is a strict secularist, allergic to the mingling of state and religion. He loves the popular Islamic traditions of North Africa and Turkey as well as the rich cultural and religious heritage of Arab civilisation. However, he isn’t pleased by some puritanical strains of political Islam that are trying to displace this heritage. Goytisolo says:

I am against all fundamentalisms … The Muslim world needs to do an autocriticism, to take what’s good from other cultures, prepare the way for social and economic change and not merely recall the extinct glories of Al Andalus.
Goytisolo supported the 2004 ban in France of religious symbols in state schools.

... to be continued ...

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Lina Joy and religious freedom in Malaysia

In today's Sydney Morning Herald, NSW Supreme Court Judge David Hodgson provides a compelling summary of the recent decision of Lina Joy, a Malay woman who abandoned her ancestral Islamic faith.

Malaysia’s constitution declares Islam to be the official state religion. At state level, it establishes Islamic courts which govern the legal affairs of Muslims in certain defined areas. At state and federal level, it also has secular courts applying the common law and statute law, just as an Australian court would do.

So what happens to a person who falls somewhere in the middle? What happens when a case involves an ex-Muslim or an alleged Muslim convert with non-Muslim family members? Which court is supreme? Which legal system operates?

This is an ongoing legal and constitutional saga in a country where at least 40% of the population are non-Muslims.

His Honour says:

As a member of the United Nations, Malaysia is committed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ...

Sadly Malaysia hasn’t ratified a host of international human rights treaties, including those dealing with eliminating racial discrimination. This means the contents of these treaties need not be reflected in Malaysia's domestic law.

Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) has, in its 2005 Annual Report, mentioned the case of former Army Commando M Moorthy, a Hindu by birth given a Muslim burial after he allegedly converted to Islam. His Hindu wife and family wanted him cremated in accordance with Hindu custom. Civil courts refused to consider the widow’s application that religious courts erred in declaring Moorthy a Muslim.

His Honour erred, in my opinion, in claiming that the majority ruling of two Muslim judges in the Federal Court decision of Lina Joy “raises the doubts about Islam’s compatibility with religious freedom”. If His Honour could establish that Malaysian Federal Court rulings represent the definitive consensus of 14 centuries of Islamic sacred jurisprudence, I might accept his statement. Is the Joy case really a failure of Islam itself? Or is it a failure of those who drafted the Malaysian constitution?

Malaysia has no constitutional court able to sort out clashes between secular and religious jurisdictions or to review decisions of secular courts refusing to intervene in religious court decisions having direct impact on non-Muslims.

His Honour suggests Malaysian Muslims “applauded” the Joy decision. Perhaps His Honour might subscribe to and read the many letters and articles penned by Muslims critical of the Joy decision. He might also talk to people from groups like Sisters In Islam.

His Honour then challenges Muslim Australians to speak out against such excesses, even suggesting any silence on their part only reinforces these doubts.

The decision was applauded by Muslims in Malaysia. But what do moderate Muslims in Australia think about it?

Suppose that there was a law enforced in Australia. which made conversion from Christianity a criminal offence, punishable by order of Christian tribunals.

Suppose that there was also a law that prevented a woman who had converted from Christianity to Islam from marrying a Muslim man, unless she obtained a certificate from a Christian tribunal that she was no longer a Christian, and that these certificates were difficult to obtain. I'm sure Muslims in Australia would find this utterly repugnant, and rightly so.

Do Muslims in Australia not think that the converse situation in Malaysia is similarly repugnant? Would it be possible for Muslim leaders in Australia, and in other countries with religious freedom, to speak firmly and clearly against the denial of religious freedom in countries such as Malaysia?

If they can and do, this would certainly help to show that Islam can be compatible with religious freedom; but if they cannot and don't, doubt must remain.

In principle, I agree to some extent. Muslim lawyers, at least, should express their dismay in the strongest possible terms. These issues can be easily dealt with. The stalemate between religious and secular courts must be resolved in a manner that maximises and preserves freedom of religion. As one Malay anthropology professor told me in June last year:

"What sort of Islam is this that we have in Malaysia where I don't have the right to be non-Muslim? The Prophet Muhammad gave me that right. Why can't the Malaysian law?"

Further, to suggest that the law of one Muslim country and the decision of one of its courts somehow reflects on the religious heritage of 1.2 billion Muslims and 14 centuries of Islamic juristic heritage is surely drawing a long bow.

To claim that silence of any Australian Muslim represents his or her agreement with Malaysian law effectively suggests Muslims here are somehow responsible for the actions of Malay Muslims. Do we hold all Jews responsible for ever excess of the State of Israel? Of course not.

But in practice, what possible influence could Australian Muslims have on Malaysian lawmakers? I tested this in June last year when I visited representatives of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a party in the ruling coalition government. MCA officials spoke passionately to our Australian Muslim delegation about the lack of religious freedom in Malaysia. We were appalled.

We repeatedly asked MCA officials whether they’d like us as Australian Muslims to lobby Malaysian Muslim MP’s on behalf of non-Muslim minorities. MCA officials repeatedly avoided the question. I couldn’t understand why, though later I received the following explanation when speaking to a Malaysian Chinese lawyer with links to an opposition Malaysian Party.

“Irfan, these guys benefit from Malaysia’s near-apartheid. They’ve been bought off with government contracts and tenders for their business. Why would they want you to threaten the system that butters their bread?”

Is this true? Who knows? What is certain is that MCA and other groups are campaigning hard to raise awareness about the difficulties faced by religious minorities in what is regarded as one of the world's more progressive Muslim-majority states.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

CRIKEY: Shock! Muted Muslim response to Salman Rushdie's knighthood ...

I searched and searched everywhere on Google News for a grand international Muslim protest over the awarding of a knighthood to British author Salman Rushdie.

All I found was Pakistani MPs talking about diplomatic crises and some predictable ruptures in Iran. Woops, I almost forgot to mention protests by one of Malaysia’s opposition parties.

Not a peep, it seems, out of anyone else. Irshad Manji asks this question in today’s Australian:

In a battle between flaming fundamentalists and mute moderates, who do you think is going to win?

Given the mute response to Rushdie’s knighthood across most of the Muslim world (including among Muslims living in Australia), it seems the fundies aren’t having much fun.

That, however, didn’t stop The Oz’s sub-editors from giving Manji’s article the title of "Islam the problem". As if Islamic theology incites Pakistani MPs to make bold statements to divert their electorate’s attention away from their failure to address more pressing issues.

Manji, of course, said nothing of the sort. What she blamed wasn’t Islam but rather "hypocrisy under the banner of Islam". I doubt many Muslims would disagree with her.

Of course, Rushdie’s works haven’t just upset Muslims. His 1995 novel The Moor’s Last Sigh was effectively banned by the Indian government, and Rushdie received death threats from Hindu extremists.

Last June, I was in Malaysia on an exchange program sponsored by the Australia-Malaysia Institute. Our delegation was surprised to learn of certain books being banned, "deemed to be able to disrupt peace and harmony". Among them were works of prominent authorities who write on Muslim societies and theology, such as Karen Armstrong and John Esposito.

Strangely enough, Karen Armstrong is in Malaysia on a lecture tour and recently spoke on "The Role of Religion in the 21st Century".

On my final day in KL, I went to the Kinokuniya bookshop in the Petronas Towers. There, on the front counter, were a range of banned books being openly sold! No police or religious authorities were in sight.

Perhaps one day, the hysterical minority of Muslims who love wasting their time and energy on protesting against writers will realise that banning books and threatening authors achieves little more than to make these authors damned rich.

First published in the Crikey daily alert for Thursday 21 June 2007.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Honour killing? More like dishonourable homicide ...

A recent article on the popular website by columnist and lawyer Rafia Zakaria is well worth reading.

Zakaria provides a sharp analysis of the discovery in late June of the remains of 20 year-old Banaz Mahmod Bakabir Agha, an Iraqi Kurd . Her body had been cut into pieces and hidden in a suitcase. A court later convicted her father and brother for her murder.

Zakaria holds back no punches. She asks some tough questions which Muslim organisations and law enforcement officials should be asking ...

Banaz's case illustrates how a host of factors can come together to allow such grotesque honour crimes to occur. Archaic and misogynistic cultural beliefs, on the one hand, reduce women to objects of ownership and control, whose family members have no qualms in obliterating them for imagined sins against tradition. On the other is a host foreign culture suspicious of a ghettoised and economically disenfranchised Muslim minority, and hence slow to provide protection. Banaz had repeatedly asked the police to provide her with protection and even given them a list of three people whom she believed would try to kill her, to no avail.

Finally, also blameworthy is the persistent silence of the Muslim Council of Britain, and other Muslim groups who jump to organise protests when Muslim women are denied the right to wear niqabs but choose to ignore their plight when they fall prey to the brutality of their own families.

The collusion of all of these factors, the low priority given to Muslim women's freedom by their own cultural tradition, their host nation and ultimately their religious community are all to blame in the Banaz case.

Zakaria sums up the absolute immorality of such homicides as follows ...

There is nothing that can mitigate the horror of an innocent life taken at the behest of the very people that were responsible for bringing it into the world. At the most primary level, a crime which involves a father killing his own daughter, whose only mistake was to choose her own mate, should evoke the deepest disgust in every human heart. But the Banaz case is also an indictment against the religio-cultural confusion becoming increasingly symbolic of West-European society in the twenty-first century.

Immigrant communities, Muslim or otherwise, have to address this crisis. Law enforcement officials also need to be reminded that domestic violence doesn't become less serious just because the victims are 'foreign'.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Monday, June 11, 2007

ESSAY: Holland's Hirsi: A gentlewoman she is not

AYAAN Hirsi Ali is a persona non grata in many Muslim circles. Fiercely independent and with little concern for the sensibilities of others, the Mogadishu, Somalia-born 38-year-old Dutch ex-parliamentarian is not afraid to take Muslims out of their comfort zones. She openly states that she is an ex-Muslim, and that she does not believe in any divine figure. Given the suffering she went through in a war-torn country and the victim of female genital mutilation, I cannot help but pause to some extent. Suffering generates its own reverence.

Many Muslims have attacked Hirsi Ali for her ignorance of Islam as well as for her links with far-Right groups in the Netherlands and now in the United States. She certainly has become a darling of cultural warriors from the lunar-Right, who are fond of her insider critique and exposure of aspects of Islam and Muslim cultures which Muslims allegedly try to hide.

Whatever one may think of her leaving Islam, Hirsi Ali's knowledge of the Muslim societies she condemns is certainly lacking. I discovered this during a robust 45 minute discussion I had with her on Tuesday in Sydney. Our discussion covered political, social, cultural and theological issues. At the conclusion, Hirsi Ali said it was one of the better and more enjoyable interviews she had done in Australia.

Hirsi Ali was in Australia as a guest of the Sydney Writers Festival. Although she was chief guest, many in the writers establishment were sceptical of her. After being exposed as an immigration fraud (she used the actual word "fraud" to describe her asylum application during an interview with Dutch journalist), she ended up leaving the Netherlands in disgrace.

Some years back, a number of Australian writers' festivals also made a huge issue of Norma Khoury, the author of Forbidden Love, a book dealing with the honour killing of her Jordanian Muslim friend Dalia. Khoury claimed to live in hiding in Queensland, allegedly fearing for her life from Dalia's family members. Her book became a huge bestseller and was used by cultural warriors to attack Muslim cultures and to reinforce the stereotype of violence in Muslim families.

Khoury was regarded as an untouchable figure in Australia. Taking enormous personal risks, and following an 18 month investigation in three countries, then literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald Malcolm Knox declared Khoury a literary fraud. The writing establishment and Khoury's publishers ended up with egg on their faces. Its little wonder so many have been cautious to embrace Hirsi Ali.

I must say I have my own doubts about Hirsi Ali's claims. I reviewed her book The Caged Virgin for The Australian newspaper in October 2006. The book is a collection of speeches and articles delivered and written mainly during her period as a Member of the Dutch Parliament.

In May 2006, following the broadcast of an investigative programme on Dutch TV, Hirsi Ali admitted to telling lies about her migration status. The Dutch journalists exposed Hirsi Ali as a serial liar who made numerous claims about her family, her past, the countries she lived in and the circumstances of her allegedly forced marriage.

Those revelations led to the downfall of the then conservative Dutch government, and led to Hirsi Ali resigning from Parliament. For many Dutch former supporters of Hirsi Ali, she was a hypocrite who happily campaigned for other asylum seekers to be forcibly removed for telling less significant untruths than the ones she told.

It's unclear, though, whether Hirsi Ali will last very long in the lap of American conservatives. I have many doubts about Hirsi Ali's knowledge of her ancestral faith, but I have no doubt about her ability to speak her mind. Hirsi Ali's views on abortion and creation science will not sit well with an American conservative establishment that builds its support base on conservative protestant Christians.

She openly describes herself as "pro-Choice", though she doesn't believe that abortion should be seen as a form of contraception. In this respect, it is ironic that her views are probably close to those of the mainstream position of the syariah which she so despises.

Further, Hirsi Ali believes that creation science should not be taught in schools. She regards creationism as unscientific, an attempt by religious people to impose religion on secular education. Christian conservatives will therefore have two reasons to hate her.

Indeed, Hirsi Ali is very insistent on the separation of religion and state, a staunch secularist who openly opposes anything that she believes compromises secularism. In this respect, her opposition to the current government in Turkey is most unusual.

Hirsi Ali told me Turkey is a staunchly secular country and that the AK Party wished to re-unite religion and state. She also claimed the AK Party wanted to implement shariah as the law of the land. Her evidence was that the Justice Minister allegedly tried to change Turkish law to make adultery a criminal offence.

I'm not sure if her claims are true or not. Supposing they are, how is declaring adultery a mere criminal offence an example of implementing shariah when the shariah insists that adultery be treated as a capital offence, with a mandatory death penalty? And was the proposed crime one of adultery or one of public indecency (having sexual intercourse in public), regarded as a crime in many Western jurisdictions?

Hirsi Ali's commentary on Turkey is just one example of a tendency to talk about issues way beyond her league. She suggests Kemalist secularism involves a separation of church and state. As far back as 1981, Turkish political scientist Dr Binnaz Toprak wrote in her Islam and Political Development in Turkey that

... the Kemalist version of separating Church and State took a different form from what is generally understood by the term ... Mustafa Kemal's programme of secularisation defeated its own purpose. Religious institutions were not separated from the State but rather became subservient to it.
Hirsi Ali's most unusual claim was that the dominant strand of Islam in Indonesia was wahhabism, and that Saudi Arabia funds the majority of Indonesia religious schools. I asked her if she had been to Indonesia. She replied:
Do I have to go there to know a self-evident truth? Do I have to have lived in Salem to know of witch hunts?
Yet when I asked her evidence for her claims about Indonesia, it was clear she was the one conducting the witch hunt of the world's largest Muslim country. She stated that religious schools in Indonesia were called madressahs. She looked confused when I used the term pesantren, and even more so when I spoke of an organisation called Nahdatul Ulama who run Indonesia's largest network of pesantrens.

Her evidence that al-Qaeda influence in Indonesia was growing was the number of Indonesians who attended protests against the Danish cartoons. I'm not sure how protesting against cartoons is evidence of al-Qaeda membership. I cited a report in Asian media which said some 600 people took part in the protest at the Danish embassy.

That's 600 people in a city of 9 million. Ideas which only galvanise 0.0067 per cent of a community hardly represent evidence of a substantial growth in their popularity.

Hirsi Ali then claimed that Muslim extremists in Indonesia were now calling for shariah to be implemented in Indonesia. I asked her whether she had any evidence of this in terms of Indonesia's electoral politics. She had no idea. I advised her of a speech delivered to conservative Sydney thinktank The Centre for Independent Studies by legal academic and Nahdatul Ulama leader Mohammad Fajrul Falaakh who said that in each successive Indonesian election since independence, the number of seats held by pro-shariah parties has actually reduced.

Hirsi Ali is happy to make sweeping statements about a diverse range of societies whose only common feature is some element of Islam. She has not travelled through Muslim countries nor met Muslim communities.

One would think that, as a former Dutch MP, she would have had occasion to meet many Indonesians living or studying in the Netherlands. Indonesian and other sources of classical Islam are freely available in universities such as Leiden, also home to the respected International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World. The Netherlands has no shortage of scholarly material on Islamic cultures and theology, almost none of which is reflected in her book.

Yet none of this appears to have left any impression on Hirsi Ali. I left the interview feeling sympathy for Hirsi Ali after all the suffering she had been through as a child, but more so for all the Islam-haters out there who could not find a more credible insider to promote their cause.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and writer who recently interviewed Ayaan Hirsi Ali for This article was first published in the Brunei Times on 11 June 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

On Pell, Hilaly and the separation of religion and state ...

I really don't need to say much on this as NSW National Party MP and practising Catholic Adrian Piccoli has said it all ...

Look, if the Catholic Church want to take measures against members of Parliament who vote in favour of this legislation, then I guess it's up to them. But, look, I don't expect that the Catholic Church would do that.

I, in fact, think that the vast majority of Catholics don't believe that the church should influence politics and politicians. So I think the vast majority of Catholics are certainly on the side of members of Parliament and don't agree with the Archbishop's intervention.

So, look, if they want to take measures against me or anybody else it's entirely up to them, but I don't think it's going to happen.

Well, I certainly, you know, in the last few years there's been a lot of talk about the Islamic faith and the attempt, or the perception that, particularly in other countries, that the Islamic faith is having a, is putting a lot of pressure on politics. And I think in Australia, if Sheikh Al Hilali had made that same kind of declaration to Members of Parliament of the Muslim faith, telling them how to vote, I think there'd be outrage.

I think it would be front page of every newspaper and there would be outrage against him. I see this by the Catholic Church as being a similar thing.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Monday, June 04, 2007

More On Imams

I’ve written elsewhere on the rumblings at the Canberra Mosque here, here and here. Yet the Canberra Mosque issue does raise interesting issues about the roles imams play in different countries and cultures. It also raises issues about the terms and conditions in which imams are employed. Perhaps now is a good time to revisit some of these issues.

Typically, imams deliver Friday sermons and lead the Friday congregational prayers. However, many mosques and other locations where Friday prayer is held (such as musallahs and prayer rooms on university campuses) don’t employ full-time imams. Typically, members of the congregation take it in turns to deliver the Friday sermon.

A common problem in Muslim communities is the status of imams. In many parts of the Muslim world, imams are at the lower end of the social and financial ladder. There is a perception that you become an imam because your grades weren’t good enough to get into anything more ‘useful’.

Hence many trained imams have had to find other things to do. Many imams are self-employed. In Turkish-speaking communities, it isn’t uncommon to find one’s local kebab store being owned or managed by an imam. Other imams are employed in Muslim independent schools as teachers of Arabic or Islamic studies. Still, others try to enter academia (perhaps the most successful in this regard as been Professor Abdullah Saeed, who holds at least one degree in Islamic sacred law from an Islamic university in Saudi Arabia).

The situation in the United States isn’t much different. However, in the US, a number of imams have set up their own think tanks and academies. Some imams in Australia are trying similar projects. One American imam, Na’eem Abdul Wali, works under the auspices of a college in Auburn.

Imams are frequently criticised for overseeing an environment where women and youth are driven away from mosques. Yet often this environment existed before the imam first arrived. To survive in their position, imams must gain the confidence of the congregation, especially of the executive committee of the mosque managing society which employs them. This often means not rocking the boat too much initially.

In classical Islamic sacred law, the imam should abandon his post when he loses the confidence of the bulk of the congregation for reasons recognised by the sacred law e.g. having a blameworthy source of income, keeping company with oppressive rulers etc. Yet how is this to be implemented in practice? In this sense, there is a real tension between the role of imam as employee accountable to the executive and the role of imam as someone with whom the congregation are satisfied. After all, not all members of the congregation are necessarily members of the mosque management society. And it is generally the case that few mosque executive members regularly attend prayers at the mosque.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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