Tuesday, July 31, 2007

BOOKS: Stories of Growing Up Muslim

THE ISLAMIST: Why I Joined Radical Islamin Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left. By Ed Husain. Penguin. 288pp. $24.95.

ONLY HALF OF ME: Being a Muslim in Britain. By Rageh Omaar. Viking. 215pp. $26.95.

IT WILL always be difficult for the likes of Osama bin Laden to convince me to hate America.

He might think of the US only in terms of a great military power that once occupied the Arabian peninsula and continues to support the world's only Jewish state against its supposed enemies.

Yet for me, America is a place where I once lived. At age seven, after spending a year overseas, I returned to my old school in the Sydney suburb of East Ryde. There I was teased as the only kid who could combine dark skin, a hard-to-pronounce name and a New Jersey accent. As I moved into my teens, my identity saw a fusion of the profound literature of John Steinbeck and the social activist music of John Cougar Mellencamp. America was much more than just the "Great Satan''.

It also shocks me when I open the newspaper and read the paranoid rants of the likes of Andrew Bolt or Paul Sheehan as they write the latest chapter of what could only be called The Protocols of the Learned Mullahs of Islam. Where I see an enormous variety of cultures, languages and denominations, these poor chaps can only see a bunch of terrorists screaming out "Jerka, jerka! Moohumed jihad!'' Or something like that.

Hence, whether they live in Libya or London or Lakemba, Muslims are all the same. They are one community and they are all out to get us. It's bin-Laden logic in reverse. Sadly, Muslims have to take some responsibility for its existence.

When even columnists of respected broadsheets fail to understand the complex nature of local Muslim communities, something is going terribly wrong. It isn't enough to blame the paranoia of cultural warriors. Unfortunately, in Australia the popular perception of Muslims is affected by the insistence of certain caricatured Muslims to stick their heads in front of the camera and pretend to spin like politicians.

The ignorance of many first-generation migrant Muslim spokespeople of the experiences of their children and grandchildren's generations is chronic. We've read much speculation about young Muslims allegedly vulnerable to the influence of radical "thick Sheiks'' and caught up in a cultural "twilight zone''.

Recently, a delegation of first-generation migrant South-Asian Muslim leaders advised the British Government that the best way to deal with youths becoming radicalised was to introduce sharia in family law. Seriously, some people just have no idea. But who has bothered to ask young Muslims themselves?

Then again, how many young Muslims of these generations have put pen to paper and informed us of their point of view? In the absence of solid facts and information, the only option left to policymakers and commentators is to speculate.

Unlike in Australia, Islam in Britain is more culturally homogenous. Over 70 per cent of British Muslims have South-Asian heritage Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi. Further, Britain has opened its doors to migrants and asylum-seekers from other parts of the world.

The two books reviewed represent two different experiences of growing up British and Muslim. Mohammed Mahbub "Ed'' Husain's autobiographical work focuses on his journey into and out of political Islam in the context of a traditional Bangladeshi upbringing. Husain's Bangladeshi background was something he sought to escape, despite the fact that Bengali nationalism remains a strong force given that the nation only separated itself from Pakistan in 1971.

Rageh Omaar's ancestral land of Somalia also only recently gained independence. His mother insisted on giving him an indigenous Somali name ``Rageh'' which has no equivalent in Arabic.

Omaar writes that his parents, both Somali nationalists, sent him and his siblings to private schools in Britain in the hope that, after graduation, they would return to Somalia to help build their nation. Omaar's family therefore regard their Somali heritage as a crucial part of their identity. As such, Omaar's experience of Islam is intimately tied to his ancestry and ethnicity.

The differences between cultural practices of Islam in Bangladeshi and Somali culture immediately become apparent within the first few chapters of each book. Both Omaar and Husain's family follow Sufi mystical orders with origins in the work of the universally respected (in Muslim circles) 12th-century Baghdad jurist Abdul Qadir Jilani. This Sufi order, known as the "Qadiri'' order, is the largest Sufi order in the Islamic world, with followers in all Muslim communities.

Yet the Somali experience of migration has been very different. Most Bengali migrants did not spend years on end in a refugee camp in the desert. Despite much political instability, Bangladesh has never been declared a failed state.

Further, religion has not defined Bengali Muslim culture as much as it has Somali culture. Bengali Muslims speak the same language and use the same script as Bengali Hindus. Writers like the Nobel Prize-winning Tagore are respected by Bengali-speakers of all creeds. What defined Bangladesh was not so much religion as language.

For me, it was quite a revelation to learn from Omaar's book that thousands of Somalis share a culture and language with northern Ethiopians. What differentiates them is religion. If you are Muslim, you are regarded as either ethnically Somali or Eritrean.

Husain's writing is self-absorbed. His entire focus is on his journey into various forms of political Islam. Husain's understanding of cultural forms of South-Asian Islam is solely derived from his experiences growing up in Britain. He never travelled to Bangladesh, and clearly had little understanding of how Bengali Muslims developed a separate Muslim cultural identity.

Omaar, on the other hand, shows a strong understanding of what it means to be a Somali Muslim, whether living in London or in the Ethiopian refugee camp of Hartishek that housed hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees. Despite being educated in Britain, Omaar's writing shares with us not just his own story but the stories of other Somalis. His profiles of London bomber Yassin Hassan Omar and dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali are especially enlightening.

Readers interested in the supposed attraction of political Islam to young Muslims will find Husain's book useful. Omaar's book, on the other hand, is a useful read for those seeking an understanding not just of one individual but of a migrant experience emerging from a failed state. Reading both accounts should be enough for any but the most jaundiced reader to realise that comparing one Muslim group with another is like comparing apples with oranges.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and associate editor of AltMuslim.com. This review was first published in the Canberra Times on 28 July 2007.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

CRIKEY: Perpetuating the Team America take on Muslims ...

On the night of 25 July, I did something I (and probably most Australians) rarely do. I switched my TV onto SBS. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself halfway through a wonderful documentary Veiled Ambition.

It tells the story of a typical young Aussie couple. Albert is a sports promoter building a dream home for his family. Frida is a small business woman running her own wedding shop and wants to have her own fashion design label. They’re about to have their first child.

I know literally dozens of couples like Albert and Frida. They represent Australia’s emerging class of young people aiming for a home, a small business and a family. There’s just one problem. To use a popular Aussie Muslim slang, Frida "covers".

Some of our commentators like to define this sector as one monolithic entity full of taxi drivers who refuse passengers with guide dogs and radical thick-Sheiks manipulating young kiddies.

I knock The Australian newspaper a lot for their coverage of Australia’s (if not Planet Earth’s) 21st century Muslim realities. But let’s give credit where it’s due. Their coverage of the Haneef case, an area where you’d expect their perceived editorial prejudices to trump over accuracy, has been second-to-none.

Yesterday, the Opinion page ran a super piece about democratic changes in Pakistan and Turkey. Entitled A watershed in Islamic History, the piece gave a positive (or rather, realistic) take on recent developments in Pakistan and Turkey.

On Saturday in Pakistan, the Supreme Court demonstrated true judicial independence virtually for the first time in the country's 60-year history when it reinstated Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, nemesis of Pakistan's "progressive" military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf.

Then on Sunday, Turks delivered the biggest electoral triumph in 50 years to the Justice and Development Party, a political movement that demonstrates the possibility of transcending the apparent tension between being devoutly Muslim in private and progressive and democratic in politics.

These two events mark a watershed in the modern history of the Islamic world: both are principled popular rebellions against military elites whose will has traditionally gone unchallenged. The rebellions could hardly have been more promising or have occurred in more important places.

Yet there remains a certain inertia, an ongoing insistence in some circles to define the 300,000-odd Aussies of all different backgrounds who tick the "Muslim" box on their census forms are somehow only defined by beedy-eyed dudes screaming “jihad jihad, jerka jerka”. Dudes looking like the chap on my left.

It was appropriate, therefore, that I first noticed my old buddy Richard Kerbaj’s latest tabloid offering at the Daily Telegraph website. Entitled "Radical sheik phones home for sermons", the story talks about how a Liverpool thick-Sheik "continued to influence young Muslim minds by delivering sermons by phone from overseas to a select group of his followers in Australia".

So Sydney’s Muslim kids are engaged in some kind of dial-a jihad operation? Er, not quite. The reality is that the Global Islamic Youth Centre gets a dozen or so kids together twice a week to ask questions of Feiz Mohamed.

And what do they talk about? The latest in suicide vest fashions? New methodologies in sleeper cell management? Nope. Just lots of
Tawheed (monotheism) ... intended to advance our understanding of this concept and to help us to understand the importance of unifying God in all of our acts of worship.
In other words, how to believe in and worship one God to the exclusion of all other false (according to Muslims, Jews, Christians, Sikhs and other monotheists) gods. So while SBS TV and The Oz’s Opinion page (and even their Review page) are finding exciting and interesting things to say about Muslims, Kerbaj can’t keep away from reporting for Team America.

First published in the Crikey alert for 26 July 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

COMMENT: No Islamophobia?

Today I met up with an ANU academic of North African Jewish descent. Dr Rachel Bloul is a sociologist who teaches, amongst other things, genocide studies. She is also highly regarded as an expert on ethno-religious racism.

Dr Bloul has written extensively on the question of ethno-religious discrimination, particularly in the context of what has become known as “Islamophobia” (or, perhaps better described as “Muslimphobia” or the fear and hatred of persons deemed Muslim). She is also regarded as a leading expert in Australia on the experiences of European Muslims and of Muslim minority affairs in general.

Dr Bloul is one of a growing number of experts questioning the mantra of the far-Right that criticising and attacking Muslims for being Muslim is not a form of racism (or, at least, ethno-rreligious hatred which, in most anti-discrimination legislation, constitutes racism).

I’m not sure what Dr Bloul would make of the claim by self-confessed migration fraud Ayaan Hirsi Ali that there is no such thing as Islamophobia. Perhaps Hirsi Ali’s definition of Islamophobia is more restrictive in that it refers to criticism of Islam as a religion.

Hirsi Ali's claims were made during an interview with a Canadian TV presenter Avi Lewis. Hirsi Ali made a range of other claims including the ridiculous one that she did not grow “up in freedom”. Yet anyone who reads of her privileged middle class childhood cannot help but laugh.

Yes, it is true that, like millions of African women, Hirsi Ali went through that disgusting procedure of FGM. But that in itself doesn’t detract from the fact that, compared to millions of other Somalis and Ethiopians, she grew up in extraordinary wealth.

Hirsi Ali also makes the extraordinary claim that Islam as a doctrine is a monolith. She clearly doesn’t know much about the major doctrinal differences between sunni and shia Muslims. Further, she is unaware of the profound disputes and debates going on within the sunni world, for instance, the debate between barelwi and deobandi Muslims concerning the status of the Prophet Muhammad. For millions of Muslims, these are hardly trivial issues.

Whilst a number of far-Right activists and bloggers applaud Hirsi Ali’s performance in this interview, for me this is just another example of how much further cultural warriors need to go before finding a more credible voice.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Please Mr Howard

A simple message from an Australian victim of terrorism. If this doesn't convince our politicians to withdraw our troops from Iraq, I don't know what will.

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BOOKS: Rageh Omaar and Somali Muslim asylum ...

I've almost finished reading Rageh Omaar's excellent semi-autobiographical work Only Half Of Me: Being A Muslim In Britain. The book was published only in 2006 and provides a window to the experiences of a community many Muslims choose to ignore.

Rageh Omaar was born in Mogadishu in 1967. He worked for many years for BBC World, and was the BBC's main correspondent during the Iraq war. Unlike other journalists, content to remain safely "embedded" in Western armies, Omaar chose to travel to different parts of Iraq and report independently on the impact of the war on ordinary Iraqis.

Omaar frequently risked life and limb to bring the true story of the human cost of this war. Choosing to embed himself with ordinary Iraqis, Omaar's reports earned him an Emma award for best TV journalist in 2002 and 2003, as well as the prestigious award of broadcast journalist of the year by the London Press Club in 2004.

I've already reviewed his amazing 2004 work Revolution Day - The Human Story of the Battle for Iraq here. That book is a must-read for anyone trying to get a true taste of the high price ordinary Iraqis have had to pay for the imposition of "freedom and democracy". Don't expect this book to be on Alexander Downer's reading list.

Omaar's latest book talks about the experiences of his middle-class Somali family, forced to flee by political instability. What makes the book particularly interesting is Omaar's personal reflections on how Somali instability and asylum have affected the visions of two Somalis settled in the West - Yassin Hassan Omar and Ayaan Hirsi Magaan.

Yassin was identified by British police as one of those responsible for organising a failed suicide bombing attack in London exactly 14 days after devastating 7/7 attacks that killed over 50 people. Yassin was one of a group described by Omaar as

... child immigrants who had arrived in Britain ten years earlier, fleeing wars in the Horn of Africa. Their terrifying journey from conflict in their home country to life in Britain was shared by hundreds of Somali families and children.
Omaar speaks of Yassin growing up in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, in the frontier town of Harar (from where Abdullah al-Harari, founder of the Lebanese al-Ahbash movement, emerged). He provides an interesting history of Harar and its place as a trading town and a place for Arab settlers. Eventually, it became a centre of Islamic culture and religion on the Horn of Africa.

Yassin arrived in the UK in 1992 with his sister and her husband. This was hardly a desirable family situation for the young boy, and he found the transition difficult to make.

They had witnessed a civil war, passed through vast refugee camps and suddenly arrived in the United Kingdom, having up until then known little about the world outside Ethiopia and Somalia. Yassin was one of those who could not adapt. The following year, at the age of twelve, he was taken into care. He was not placed with another Somali family or with Africans or Muslims but with a Christian Afro-Caribbean family. This move marked the beginning of a relentless cycle of different foster families and care homes. He would live like this for six years.
This isn't the sort of detail you'd read in a tabloid newspaper. Instead, all you'd read is "Muslim terrorist". Yet the reality was that Yassin had by now lost all links to his family and his cultural ancestry. Instead, he lived on his own in a one bedroom flat. During this period, he met Ibrahim Mukhtar Said, a refugee from the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrean independence fighters. Said had a similarly troubled history, an addiction to cannabis and had been jailed for five years in 1996 for a violent armed robbery. Said's sole family was a host of youth gangs, having run away from home many years before.

Omaar provides this crucial background, but not as an excuse.

These stories are not intended to argue that social deprivation or alienation are somehow solely to blame for terrorist acts by young British citizens and residents ... Failing to adapt, isolation from family and home, exposure to older and intimidating people from a similar background are only some of the factors that lead a young man to commit horrific crimes. There are hundreds of thousands of other child refugees ... who have endured the same experiences, but have not headed in the same direction, just as there are thousands of white teenagers from foster homes who do not end up in young offenders' institutions or become violent criminals.
In a future post, I will insh'Allah (God-willing) talk about Rageh Omaar's reflections on Ayaan Hirsi Magaan/Ali.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Lebanese al-Ahbash representative defends sectarian study ...

Mustapha Kara-Ali, a representative of the Lebanese Sunni Muslim sect known as the al-Ahbash, has come out defending his report alleging "ideological sleeper cells" in Australia. After refusing to disclose the methodology of his study and those involved, Kara-Ali was forced by questions I raised in Crikey and the Canberra Times to reveal that he has other persons working with him

My criticisms of his report include the fact that he was unqualified to conduct the research due to his not having any requisite qualifications in sociology, demography or anthropology. Kara-Ali has now countered by telling the editors of Crikey and the Canberra Times that he also has received assistance from persons with qualifications in theology, education and political science as well as a counsellor.

Which I guess makes us all feel so much better about the study.

(So when you go to the Kara-Ali al-Ahbash Hospital for some heart surgery, you can be happy that you don't just have a engineer performing the surgery. You also have a priest, teacher and even a counsellor!)

Mr Kara-Ali, on Lateline, claimed that there were "there are over 15 general top-level preachers for this [Wahhabi] movement in Australia". Gee, tell us what we didn't know already.

What Kara-Ali won't say is that his own organisation is involved in terrorist activity. His own sect, the Lebanese al-Ahbash sect, has two of its senior leaders about to face trial in Lebanon. These two senior leaders were found by an independent UN Report to have been involved in a plot to assassinate former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. That plot involved the use of suicide bombing.

Kara-Ali is happy to point the finger at Lebanese groups his sect is fueding with. Yet he won't come clean on his own links to the two al-Ahbash leaders waiting to stand trial.

One wonders whether Mr Kara-Ali and the al-Ahbash sect recruiting young Lebanese youth to form sleeper cells to participate in terrorist activity to undermine other pro-Western and anti-Syrian government figures in Lebanon. Given the strong relations between the al-Ahbash and Syria, one wonders whether Mr Kara-Ali will come clea on his sect's links to other pro-Syria groups in Australia, including Hezbollah.

Like Kara-Ali, I have strong theological objections to Wahhabism. Unlike Kara-Ali, I don't try and bring overseas sectarian conflicts and impose them here in Sydney. know there are Wahhabis who are radical and who pose a threat I also know that Mr Kara-Ali's definition of Wahhabis is extremely broad and includes alot of Lebanese Sunni Muslims who refuse to join his sect and who refuse to support the Syrian government in the manner his sect does.

In any event, Mr Kara-Ali has no reason to hide his research methodology. He has no reason to hide who his researchers are, which tertiary institutions employ them and what their qualifications are. He also has no reason to hide why his research has taken so long and why he has therefore involved al-Amanah College in potential breaches of the original DIAC grant.

This will not be the first time Kara-Ali has created trouble for DIAC officers. Some months back, Kara-Ali accused DIAC staff of providing him with confidential information concerning another grant.

Kara-Ali is also known to have caused grave embarrassment to staff at the Australia-Malaysia Institute, the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade and the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur after his behaviour as part of an Australian Muslim delegation that visited Malaysia in June. Further details of that behaviour are still coming to hand, but I can reveal that his behaviour included the making of grossly sexist remarks toward female participants on the tour as well as remarks concerning female staff at the High Commission.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Some wierd thinking on Islam and terrorism ...

If the recent spate of terror investigations in the UK and Australia prove one thing, it's that it doesn't take alot of intelligence to become an expert of what drives terrorists.

In today's Australian, Canadian Muslim controversialist Irshad Manji tells us about why the murderer of Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh shoves a knife in his victim: "The blade is an implement associated with 7th-century tribal conflict. Wielding it as a sword becomes a tribute to the founding moment of Islam."

Interesting theory. However, as Ian Buruma points out, the real reason Mohammed Bouyeri used a knife was to ensure his letter threatening then Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali wasn't lost. Further, the founding moment of Islam in 610AD took place not on the battlefield but in a cave.

Also writing in The Oz, psychiatric registrar Dr Tanveer Ahmed describes himself as "a commentator on Muslim affairs and home-grown terrorism" before admitting he is "not a theological expert". Fair enough.

But then Ahmed says that, to understand what drives much radical Islamist terror, one must understand that "theology is central and not peripheral to the problem". He then concludes that "the foundation for [terrorists'] acts lies very much in the set of ideas called Islam."

Quite a claim for someone lacking expertise in Islamic theology. One of the attitudes Ahmed claims characterises Muslims is "to see white girls as cheap and easy and to see the ideal of femininity as its antithesis". I'd love to see Ahmed repeat this statement in the presence of the not-exactly-African Mufti of Bosnia. Indeed, during the 1990's Bosnian war, I doubt it was Muslims who saw certain white women as "cheap".

Ahmed continues: "At its core, Islam is deeply sceptical of the idea of a secular state". Er, which Islam? The one practised in Turkey? And which secularism?

Ahmed perhaps forgets that a large number of Aussie Muslims fled to Australia precisely to live in a secular state and to escape theocratic regimes in places like Iran and Afghanistan.

Ahmed then lists "Islamic theology and all its uncomfortable truths". These include "its obsession with and revulsion at sex". How on earth can a religion which regards sex between spouses as an act of worship and which forbids celebacy even to its religious class be regarded as showing revulsion to human sexuality? And is insistence on sex within marriage something limited to Islam?

(To be continued ...)

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Representing & Embarrassing Australia in Malaysia

Mustapha Kara-Ali, an engineer by training, has recently started dabbling in sociological research on the prevalence of radicalism among Muslim youth. He has also taken to making false claims about receiving government funds from the Federal Government.

Kara-Ali likes to present himself as a “moderate” Muslim, despite his affiliation with a fringe sect that can only be described as Lebanese Islam’s equivalent of the Exclusive Brethren. Though Kara-Ali is ever-ready to point the finger at Australians arrested by Lebanese officials overseas, he and his cult remain defiant over the fact that senior members of their organisation have been implicated in terrorist activity in Lebanon that includes the assassination of former Lebanese MP Rafik Hariri.

Yet during a recent trip to Malaysia on a Muslim leaders’ exchange program sponsored by the Australia-Malaysia Institute, Kara-Ali caused great embarrassment to fellow delegates when he openly supported the recent Federal Court decision in the matter of Lina Joy. He did this in the presence of a number of opposition parties and human rights groups.

The Lina Joy case has been discussed here. The decision is controversial in that it limits the rights of Malays to convert out of Islam should they wish to. It raises important issues of freedom of religion for non-Muslim minorities in one of the world’s more progressive Muslim-majority states.

Kara-Ali openly questioned human rights activists and ethnic minority parties campaigning in support of Lina Joy. A number of delegates have told me that Kara-Ali went so far as to suggest that Lina Joy has no right to leave Islam and adopt a new faith.

During one session, Kara-Ali accused activists of an opposition party of being terrorists and the type of people who would have carried out the September 11 attacks. One can imagine the gross embarrassment this must have caused to staff at the Australian High Commission, let alone to the activists hosting the delegation.

Kara-Ali’s other antics include showing gross disrespect to female members of the delegation. Such behaviour reflects poorly on Australia’s Muslim communities and upon Australians in general.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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