Sunday, August 26, 2007

COMMENT: The missionary position ...

It's amazing how Christian missionaries who have spent substantial periods working in Muslim countries often come away with a greater degree of empathy and understanding for the shared heritage of the great Abrahamic faiths.

In Sydney, the Columban Mission Society runs an excellent Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations. Fr Patrick McInerney from the Centre spent many years as a missionary in a Columban mission in Lahore, Pakistan, and speaks fluent Urdu and Punjabi. He is active in interfaith work, and appeared as an expert witness on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations in the controversial religious vilification case involving the Catch The Fire Ministries and the Islamic Council of Victoria.

In the Netherlands, another long-time missionary has thought of a novel idea to improve relations between Christians and Muslims. Bishop Tiny Muskens of Breda has proposed that Dutch Catholics address their prayers to Allah.

Someone like me has prayed to Allah yang maha kuasa (Almighty God) for eight years in Indonesia and other priests for 20 or 30 years. In the heart of the Eucharist, God is called Allah over there, so why can't we start doing that together?

Bishop Muskens' words were reported on the Catholic News website on 15 August 2007. The website's report also noted that ...

In the Arab world God is called Allah. The long history of Christianity in the Arab world led to the development of a rich Christian-Islamic theological vocabulary, which makes God a normal equivalent to Allah. Both Muslims and Christians use the word in the Middle East.

Bishop Muskens worked in Indonesia as a missionary some 30 years ago. He predicts that within 100 years, Dutch churches would be using the name "Allah" to address God anyway. It's hard to tell whether his comment on this regard reflects the paranoid views of far-Right fruitcakes who claim Europe will become "Eurabia" or whether he just hopes Muslims and Christians will come to the realisation that they are both worshipping the same God.

The Bishop's comments follow a call by Geert Wilders, Dutch far-Right politician and former colleague of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, that the Qur'an should be banned.

The Bishop's call hasn't been welcomed in quarters hostile to anything resembling Islam. One academic lawyer poked fun at the Bishop's name before making these remarks:

Muskens makes it sound as if the problems in Muslim–Catholic relations were merely silly arguments about semantics that distract from the truly important things on which we all agree. In fact, there is a serious, substantive problem dominating Christian–Muslim relations at the moment, the same problem that dominates Muslim–Jewish, Muslim–Buddhist, Muslim–Hindu, and Muslim–Orthodox relations, and that problem is that Muslim fanatics keep murdering innocents of all faiths, including their own, in terror attacks.

Using Robert Miller's reasoning, Muslims should cease all dialogue with Jews. After all, there are Jewish fanatics who keep murdering innocent Palestinians of various faiths. I guess Hindus and Muslims in South Asia should stop talking given that Hindu fanatics (be they BJP-linked religious extremists or the Tamil Tigers) continue to murder Muslims, Buddhists, Catholics and other groups.

And the whole world should stop talking to the United States, which seems to be ruled by a cabal of far-Right Republicans backed by evangelical Christians that love spreading freedom and democracy by invading countries and killing lots of people.

I'm so glad we don't live in a world ruled by this kind of logic. Because if we did, only God/Allah/G-d/Bhagwan could help us!

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Words of wisdom from a British journalist ...

Few journalists have travelled as far and wide through the troubled-zones of various Muslim-majority states as author and Chief Reporter for the Observer Jason Burke. In his 2006 book On The Road To Kandahar: Travels Through Conflict In The Islamic World, Burke writes of:

… a wave of appallingly misinformed statements on Islam or ‘the Islamic
world’ in general. The huge variety of practice, belief and observation in
Muslim-dominated societies, so much of it fused with local cultures and
conditions, so textured and so complex … reduced in much of the debate … to a
single stereotype … based on the vision of the most conservative, the most
rigorous and the most belligerent interpretations for the faith. A single thread
of a huge and rich tapestry had been drawn out and declared representative of
the whole.

All major religions have resources within
them that can be exploited for different uses, belligerent or pacific, tolerant
or intolerant, yet it
[is] a minority strand within a minority strand,
epitomized by Osama bin Ladin and his fellow extremists, men who mined Islam for
all that was most inflexible, violent and bitter, that
[stand] for the
faith …

If only more scribes thought and wrote like Mr Burke.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Monday, August 20, 2007

REFLECTION: The pain of partition caused by some lines drawn on a map

MY FAMILY sits on the partition fence. Dad and Mum were born in the same year in the same neighbourhood in Old Delhi, in the shadow of the Red Fort. In 1947, Dad's family managed to fly over the border to Sialkot, thus avoiding the slaughter in Punjab between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

At this time, Mum's family were living a comfortable middle-class existence in the university town of Aligarh. Mum's father taught undergraduate philosophy, geography and a few other subjects.

So Dad is Pakistani and Mum is Indian, despite both being born in the same year in the same neighbourhood.

Now for a really tough question — what on earth am I? Perhaps this week, marking the 60th anniversary of the partition of India, would be a good time to revisit this question.

I've been thinking about this for some time now. I was born in Karachi, but was bundled onto a cruise liner bound for Sydney after barely five weeks. Growing up in John Howard's electorate, I was surrounded by family friends, virtually all of whom were South Asian — Hindus, Sikhs, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, even a Pakistani Anglican priest.

Mum and all the "aunties" wore saris or shalwar kameez (baggy pants with a long loose shirt hanging outside). They always wore red to weddings and had henna art painted on their hands. The men — especially the medical doctors — wore flared pants or safari suits and showed off their flash cars.

At age six, I spent seven months in Pakistan and forgot English. I relearnt it after spending six months at school in New Jersey. Then I returned to Howard's electorate and was teased for my brown skin, my strange name and my New Jersey accent.

It wasn't until I reached double figures that the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim became apparent to me. One day I was at one of those South Asian Sunday lunches where everyone rocks up at 4pm ("Indian standard time") for what turns into dinner. Our host, a Sikh doctor-uncle, offered me a glass of Coke. I refused.

"Why don't you want Coke? You always used to like it," he asked. "I'm sick, uncle," I said. "No, you're not, son. You're Muslim!" Dr Uncle replied, setting all the other uncles and my Dad into fits of laughter. I thought they were laughing at me and walked away in tears.

Dad could tell I didn't get the joke. He then explained to me in simple language how Sikhs and Muslims differed. Sikh religious uncles grow beards and wear turbans like religious Muslim uncles. Sikh aunties wear the same loose clothes as my Mum did. Sikhs worship the same God, speak the same language and eat the same food. Sikh religious songs sound like Sufi Muslim qawwali songs.

After saying all this, Dad expected me to believe Sikhs and Muslims are different. I had good reason to be sceptical.

Guru Nanak (the founder of the Sikh faith, although regarded by many Indian Muslims as a Sufi saint) performed the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca at least once.

Sadly Sikhs often suffer abuse due to misdeeds of fanatics claiming to act in the name of Islam. Following the September 11 attacks, the first victim of a reprisal hate-crime was Balbir Singh Sodhi, an American Sikh who was planting flowers at the family-owned petrol station in Arizona. The killer told police he thought Balbir was a Muslim.

Sixty years ago Sikhs and Muslims massacred each other in the months leading up to and following partition. My uncles, both Indian and Pakistani, tell stories of trains arriving at Lahore and Amritsar filling the air with the stench of death, carriages turned into communal coffins filled with innocent Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs massacred by religious militants.

But were all these deaths caused by militants? Or were they caused by innocent people manipulated by militants spreading rumours? Or by survivors of massacres who saw family members massacred and raped and burnt alive before their eyes? Who knows? My uncles certainly had no idea who started all the madness. But they did want me to know that it happened. And that members of all communities suffered.

Pakistan was a nation carved out on the basis of ethno-religious identity. Its founder and first governor-general, Mohammad Ali Jinnah — known as Quaid-i-Azam, or "Great Leader" — was an irreligious Bombay barrister who made his fortune representing the wealthy in London.

India's founders were no less elite. Professor Raj Mohan Gandhi has just released a biography of his saintly grandfather, known to us as the Mahatma (or "great soul"), detailing among other things his troubled family life and sexual indiscretions.

Pakistan was established to protect Muslims from being an oppressed minority. Muslims were told by Pakistan's founders that they were a nation separate to the rest of India. I never saw much evidence of that growing up.

Dad still talks about how his father dreamed of returning to Delhi. I'm sure he wasn't the only one whose memories transcended politics.

This week, the near-futility of partition was on display in the Bombay High Court, where lawyers for the daughter of Pakistan's founder argued for her father's palatial Bombay residence (now Indian state property) to be returned to the family. Among the evidence presented will no doubt be a statement Jinnah made to the Indian high commissioner in 1948:

Tell your prime minister not to break my heart by taking over my Bombay residence. You know well how much I love Bombay. I hope to return there some day.
Even after achieving partition, Jinnah could not erase his very human emotions by referring to lines he insisted be drawn on a map.

Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer and associate editor of This article was first published in The Age on 15 August 2007 and then on on the same day.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Something is Rotten in the State of Pakistan

The following article was published in the Dominion Post in Wellington New Zealand on Tuesday 24 July 2007, a few days after the storming of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) by Pakistani security forces in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital ...

For the past month until early last week, over 1,000 theology students and their
instructors turned a mosque and adjoining religious colleges into a heavily
armed fortress. They kidnapped foreign nationals and enforced their own
vigilante brand of sharia law. They smuggled heavy weapons and took over
adjoining state-owned buildings, including a library. Burqa-clad female students
pledged martyrdom before international media

And all this in the
centre of Islamabad, within minutes of the National Assembly and within a block
of the headquarters of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
When Muslim militants can show such utter disregard to the rule of law,
something must surely be rotten in the state of Pakistan.

leaders of the rebellion, Maulana’s Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi (‘Maulana’
is an honorific title commonly given to religious scholars in the Indian
subcontinent), openly called for the introduction of hudood (capital punishment
for select crimes). Whilst holding mock crimina trials for rape cases, they
also defiled their mosque with threats of suicide bombing attacks. They sought
to inject their demented version of “Islamic” back into the Islamic Republic of
Pakistan, the country’s official title.

The siege ended when
Pakistani troops stormed the complex at 4:30am on Tuesday 10 July 2007 in what
was labelled Operation Sunrise. Reports vary on the number of persons killed.
The government puts the figure at less than 150, while the opposition religious
Jamaat-i-Islami party puts the figure in the thousands. Already nationwide
protests are being led by religious and other opposition

That a mosque could be turned into a fortress of lawless
militancy raises issues going to the heart of Pakistan ’s identity crisis. Just
how Islamic is Pakistan meant to be? Or rather, why kind of Islam do Pakistanis
want to see in their homeland? The Lal Masjid (literally ‘Red Mosque’) rebellion
and its bloody end reflect the deep ideological divide that has plagued the
country since independence.

Pakistan is a nation founded on the
basis of ethno-religious identity, on a presumption that Indian Muslims were
somehow a separate nation from the rest of India. Yet in his speech to Pakistan’s first parliament on 11 August 1947, Pakistan ’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah

“You are free … to go to your temples, you are free to
go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan.
You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the
business of the State … [I]n course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and
Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is
the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of
the State.”

Yet in the years leading upto Partition, the Pakistan
cause had little support from Muslim religious figures. The Indian Muslim League
was led by the very secular elitist Jinnah, a Bombay barrister who spent much of
his working life practising law in English courts. Although involved in Indian
secular politics since 1913, it was only in 1940 that Jinnah publicly announced
his support for a separate Muslim state.

Indian Muslim historian
Asghar Ali Engineer sums up Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan : “Thus politics, not
religion was responsible for partition … It is true that Mr Jinnah spearheaded
the movement and he articulated the aspirations of the Muslim elite, especially
of the Muslim minority areas”.

Jinnah’s secular modernist
vision of Pakistan very much resembled that of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of
modern Turkey . However, Ataturk was able to successfully control religious
orders and mosques due to Ottoman Turkey’s historic tradition of ensuring
religious bodies remained subservient to the state.

Unlike Turkey ,
South Asian Muslim religious institutions and figures have always fiercely
guarded their independence from any governmental authority. Prominent religious
leaders with close links to the impoverished Muslim masses opposed the Creation
of Pakistan. These included a prominent Indian religious scholar Syed Hussein
Ahmed Madani, known among Indian Muslims by the title of “Sheik al-Hind” or
spiritual elder of India .

Madni and his colleagues in the
Deobandi sect regarded Muslim separatism as forbidden in Islam. Another
prominent Islamic scholar, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, was close to Gandhi and
became India ’s first education minister. The founder of Pakistan ’s largest
religious party, Abul Ala Maududi, was himself opposed to Partition at first.
Indeed, only one major Deobandi scholar was known to have supported the creation
of Pakistan. It’s little wonder that more Muslims remained in India than move
to the new Muslim state.

Despite the elitism of the secular vision
for Pakistan, secular politics has done surprisingly well. Pakistan ’s
religious parties have, until recently, performed poorly at the polls. Secular
politics has thrived for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Pakistan’s Muslim
identity couldn’t overcome pre-existing tribal, linguistic and other
non-religious identities.

Secondly, Pakistan is still an
overwhelmingly rural society. The main secular parties are dominated by powerful
rural (almost feudal) landed families such as the Bhutto and Zardari clans.

Soviet intervention in Afghanistan helped undermine secular
parties. Pakistan was a key ally of the United States, and was at the forefront
of supporting militant Afghan rebel groups. Pakistan also played host to Arab
mujahideen leaders supported by the United States, including a prominent member
of the Saudi bin-Ladin family.

For decades, the most radical
religious groups and parties have had the support of the army, ISI and state and
provincial governments. This cosy relationship worked well when supporting
religious radicals suited Pakistan ’s foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan
and Kashmir. However, supporting radicalism abroad eventually had adverse
consequences back home.

The Lal Masjid is not the first mosque to
be sympathetic to more radical versions of religion. So why did the army wait so
long before acting against the militants? And why were preliminary steps (such
as cutting off water and electricity to the mosque) not tried before the attack
and its consequential loss of life? Some Pakistani observers believe President
Musharraf acted deliberately so as to convince the West that he is the only
person able to stop Pakistan descending into a full-blown

Opposition figure and former Pakistan cricket captain
Imran Khan wrote in the Canberra Times on 13 July that Musharraf should keep in
mind “Indira Gandhi’s order for troops to attack the [Sikh] Golden Temple ”. Yet
the Red Mosque hardly plays an equivalent role to the holiest shrine of Sikhism.
Still, even those opposed to the theocratic politics of militant religious
parties will be upset by the desecration of a mosque.

The real test
for Musharraf and for Pakistan will be seen in the coming months. Pakistan’s
former Chief Justice, sacked by Musharraf, has become a key symbol for more
secular-minded forces in the opposition. Should they join forces with the
better-resourced and organised theocratic parties, Musharraf’s stated plans of
ridding Pakistan of Muslim extremism may come to naught. Ironically, this may
strengthen Musharraf’s support in the West. Yet again, a Muslim dictator might
just survive with Western backing. In the long run, such a development will only
strengthen the appeal of theocratic trends in Pakistan.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Paragraphs on Partition

As we lead up ro the 60th anniversary of the Partition of India, I will be expressing my own personal thoughts and reflections on the re-emergence of post-colonial India and the creation of what would become the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Perhaps a good place to start is to build upon what I’ve written already on the subject.

A year ago, I wrote the following lines in an article for

My family sits on the Partition fence.

My paternal grandfather was a Crown Prosecutor based in the outer-Delhi neighbourhood of Gurgaon. When the communal riots started in Delhi in 1947, he and his family were moved to the border town of Sialkot in Punjab. His family never managed to get back, and they ended up as accidental Pakistanis.

My maternal grandfather taught philosophy at the Aligarh Muslim University. He had no plans of leaving behind a cushy job and a nice home provided by the university. He remained in India with his family following Partition.

I grew up in Sydney, the son of mixed Indian and Pakistani parents. Most of our family friends were from the sub-Continent: Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Parsis, Catholics and even a Pakistani Anglican priest. We spoke the same language, listened to the same music, watched the same movies and ate the same food. We celebrated each other’s religious festivals.

I also grew up with harrowing stories told by my Hindu, Muslim and Sikh uncles of the communal bloodbath that claimed over 1 million lives during the 1947 Partition that created two independent States of India and Pakistan.

One image features prominently in these tales; trains arriving at Lahore and Amritsar filling the air with the stench of death, carriages turned into communal coffins filled with innocent Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs massacred by religious militants.

But were all these deaths caused by militants? Or were they caused by innocent people manipulated by militants spreading rumours? Or by survivors of massacres who saw family members massacred and raped and burnt alive before their eyes?

Who knows? My uncles certainly had no idea who started all the madness. But they did want me to know that it happened. And that members of all communities suffered.

The memory of ‘carriages of death’ runs deep in the sub-Continental psyche ...

As is often the case in the sub-Continent, the real terror begins when the shock of the initial terror subsides. Terror breeds a worse terror, out of all proportion with the initial terror. When religion is hijacked by terror, essential religious values are thrown with the enemy into the furnace of hatred.

Then in late July this year, I wrote these words about Indian communal violence in the Canberra Times ...

Communalist violence in the Indian subcontinent is a reality of which many Australians are unaware. Historically, the general rule is and always has been one of followers of different faiths living side by side peacefully. India is a religious country where believers often display their religious symbols. This generally doesn't hinder respect for each other and even taking part in each other's religious festivals.

Sadly, South Asia has also been the scene of ethno-religious intolerance which has led to organised and violent attacks on one group by the other, violence that makes our 2005 riots at Cronulla look relatively tame. The 1947 partition of the subcontinent saw about onemillion people massacred.

The conventional view is that the attacks were largely orchestrated by religious fanatics on all sides. But how many were the work of militants? And how many were caused by otherwise innocent people manipulated by militants spreading rumours? Or by survivors of massacres who saw family members massacred and raped and burnt alive before their eyes?

India's 20th century political saint Mahatma Gandhi was himself assassinated. His killers emerged not from a disgruntled extremist element from a religious minority but from a movement wishing to establish a Hindutva nation, a Hindu theocratic state in which non-Hindus would become second-class citizens. Just as extremists have hijacked Islam for their own ends, similarly the peaceful and tolerant theology of Hinduism has been held hostage by an array of extremist groups misusing Hindu symbols to rape, pillage and murder.

India has its own groups of religious extremists, many of which are not afraid of using both electoral politics and communal violence to achieve their goals. Indeed, voters in this largest democracy in the world have been known to elect religious fanatics at both state and federal level.

Before the May 2004 elections, India's Federal Government (and many of its state governments) was ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist coalition that was arguably dominated by religious fanatics who inherited the militant ideology of Gandhi's assassins. In India's commercial hub of Mumbai, former leader Bal Thackeray openly expressed his admiration for Adolf Hitler.

Some Indian commentators make much of Pakistan's previous support for the Taliban (and indirectly for al-Qaeda). The al-Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001 resulted in some 3000 deaths. Human Rights groups estimate that a similar number of members of India's Muslim and other minority communities were massacred during the riots in Gujrat in February and March 2002.

What made the Gujrat massacres even more disturbing was the involvement of governments. Human Rights Watch reports that some rioters were guided by voter lists and printouts of addresses of Muslim-owned properties and businesses obtained from local municipal administration. Police and soldiers stood idly and in some cases participated in the carnage.

Yet religious fanaticism is generally the exception and not the rule. Indian voters showed this in March 2004 when they elected a government led by India's first prime minister from a religious minority. The significance of this event cannot be underestimated.

Some 23 years ago, the holiest shrine of Sikhism was stormed by Indian troops. Within five months, prime minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguard. Thousands of innocent Sikhs in Delhi and across the country were massacred in reprisal attacks. Now, 23 years later, Mrs Gandhi's own party is led by a member of this faith minority.

So what does Partition mean to an Aussie kid who hardly stayed in Pakistan for 5 weeks before being whisked away on a cruise ship bound for Circular Quay? I have spent some considerable time in Pakistan. Well, that's if you call a combined period of 9 months (consisting of 7 months when I was 6 years old plus 2 or 3 holidays, each of 3-6 weeks duration) to be significant. I've hardly spent a week in Bombay.

Yet I still have this enormous sense of nostalgia for South Asia. If someone asked me what my religion was, it would be insufficient to describe it as "Muslim". Really, I am a "Mussalman" (an Urdu word for "Muslim" but perhaps the best word to use to denote that unique kind of Muslim from South Asia).

When wanting to define what kind of Muslim I am, in my mind I don't go for the usual divisions of Sunni or Salafi or Shi'i as many Western Muslim kids do. Rather, I think in terms of South Asian maslaq differences - Deobandi, Barelwi, etc.

Yet somehow, I don't quite feel Indian or Pakistani. If I feel anything South Asian, I feel somehow in between the two.

But who gives a stuff about what I think? After all, at best I have an emotional attachment to South Asian culture, music and language. And food, of course. But it wasn't until recently that I discovered things about my own ancestral heritage. And the sources I used were hardly the sort of stuff Pakistani and Indian kids would study at school.

The first book I read about the Partition was Freedom At Midnight. It was a rivetting read, though I couldn't help but wonder while I was reading the book at why the authors always presumed communal riots could only be initiated by Muslims.

The first book I read about Delhi was William Dalrymple's terrific City of Djinns. In fact, much of my understanding of Indian history comes from Dalrymple. In a later instalment, I might share some of what Dalrymple told an audience at Macquarie University when he was here for the Sydney Writers' Festival.

Perhaps the most important book I read on Indian Muslims was a set of biographies entitled Eight Lives by an Indian journalist who also happened to be Mahatma Gandhi's grandson. It was the first time I had read a coherent biography of Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (rahimahullah - God have mercy on him).

So for the next week or so, this blog will focus on South Asia, its history, religions, cultures and politics. Hopefully by the end of this, I'll be able to make some sense of the South Asian part of my jumbled-up identity!

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

ESSAY/PROFILE: An Unreliable Narrator

When I was growing up, there weren’t many English language books on Islam available in Australia. The ones that were available were usually about current events. Hardly the stuff my mother could use to teach me about my ancestral faith.

Instead, my mum’s aunt in Pakistan used to send over books printed in Pakistan and India. Mum’s aunt was a senior member of the women’s wing of Pakistan’s Right-wing religious Party, the Jamaat-i-Islami (which literally means ’the Islamic Group’ — not to be confused with the nasty Jemaah Islamiyah of Indonesia, the dreaded Gemaah Islamiyyah of Egypt or the ruling Jamiat-i-Islamia that dominates the Northern Alliance Government of Afghanistan.)

Hence, most of the books we received were written by officials and ideologues of the Pakistani JI. They used bombastic Indian English and were filled with spelling and grammatical errors.

In 1983, I was in my third year attending an Anglican school. I had a huge chip on my shoulder and assumed my divinity teachers conspired to convert me. I was always on the lookout for anything vaguely related to comparative religion.

Then a shipment arrived, containing an intriguing book by an American woman living in Pakistan. I opened the book, but I couldn’t tell if she really was American. Her photo showed her covered head to toe by a large black veil. Not even her hands or feet were showing — just a black figure with 'The Author' typed underneath.

The woman’s name was Margaret Marcus. She claimed to be from a New York Jewish family, growing up in a secular Jewish household and later studying Jewish theology and literature. She also had a history of mental illness, writing of being hospitalised.

Eventually Marcus struck up a chain of correspondence with the late Abul Ala Maududi, founder and head of the Pakistani JI.

Marcus abandoned Judaism, adopted Islam, left her parents, changed her name to Maryam Jameelah and moved to Pakistan. There she wrote books about political Islam; her underlying assumption always being that Islam and anything she deems Western (including Judaism and Christianity) are necessarily on a collision course. Marcus managed to beat Huntington’s thesis on the clash of civilisations by at least three decades.

The book I had in my hands was entitled Islam versus Ahl-i-Kitab: Past and Present, a summary of which can be found here. The phrase ‘Ahl-i-Kitab’ is an Urdu corruption of the phrase Ahl al-Kitab (literally ’People of the Book‘) that appears in the Koran and is a respectful term used to describe Christians and Jews.

Marcus’s book mentions a letter she received from her parents. They enclose for her a newspaper clipping of a New York imam who visits a synagogue and speaks of peace between Jews and Muslims. That imam was none other than Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has visited Australia at least twice.

Marcus shows contempt for her parents’ overtures, declaring there could never be peace between Jews and Muslims until Israel was destroyed and its leaders executed. I was hardly 14 when I first read the book, and even at that age I could tell Marcus wasn’t exactly the most objective source on her ancestral faith.

Sadly, for many Pakistani Muslims, Marcus’s views on Judaism are all they ever get to read. Pakistanis assume this Muslim convert Maryam Jameelah must be telling the truth. She must know what many Jews try to hide. She has ‘insider’ knowledge.

Despite having a fair few Jewish friends at school and as family friends, I always wondered whether they were hiding the things that Jameelah/Marcus revealed. And now, I’m sure some of my non-Muslim friends must look at my mother and wonder if she has been mutilated.

For many non-Muslims, the first book on Islam they read will be Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin, or her autobiography Infidel. No doubt many non-Muslims will regard Hirsi Ali as a reliable source; someone who was brought up as a Muslim and now wants to reveal all the secrets that Muslims have allegedly tried to keep swept under the carpet.

In this sense, Jameelah and Hirsi Ali are similar — both 'insiders' of their ancestral faiths (which they now reject), both writing critically about their upbringing and the communities and cultures they were nurtured in.

Furthermore, they have both been adopted by the lunar-Right of their respective societies. Jameelah remains an ideologue of Pakistan’s JI, her works cited and used by some of the most rabidly anti-Semitic Muslim groups and writers.

Hirsi Ali was elected to the Dutch Parliament on an anti-immigration ticket, and is now employed by a neo-conservative think tank. She continues to project herself as an authority on just about anything and everything even remotely associated with Islam and Muslims.

But the similarities end there. While her conclusions on Jewish theology and culture are far-fetched, Jameelah’s works on Judaism are impeccably researched and referenced. Further, she maintains a certain reverence for her ancestral faith and its symbols.

Hirsi Ali, on the other hand, is happy to lampoon and malign the symbols of her ancestral faith, even if it means unconsciously lampooning the faiths of non-Muslims (including Jews) who share these symbols.

Further, Hirsi Ali’s knowledge of Muslim societies is in many cases non-existent. I discovered this during a robust 45-minute discussion New Matilda editor José Borghino and I had with her last month in Sydney. Our interview 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.

I’d already reviewed Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin for The Australian in October 2006. The book is a collection of speeches and articles written mainly during her period as a Member of the Dutch Parliament.

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

Hirsi Ali openly describes herself as 'pro-choice', although she doesn't believe that abortion should be seen as a form of contraception. In this respect, her views are probably close to those of the mainstream position of the sharia (Islamic sacred law) 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. She even calls for people promoting Creation science to be jailed. Christian conservatives will therefore have two reasons to hate her.

Hirsi Ali's most unusual claim in our interview was that Indonesia’s dominant strand of Islam was Saudi-style 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?’

I’ll try using that line in court next time a judge asks me for evidence I don’t have.

Yet when I asked her evidence for her claims about Indonesia, it was clear she was the one conducting the witch hunt on the world's largest Muslim country. She stated that religious schools in Indonesia were called ‘madressahs’. She looked confused when I used the Bahasa Indonesia term ‘pesantren’, and even more so when I spoke of an organisation called Nahdatul Ulama, who run Indonesia's largest network of pesantren’s.

Hirsi Ali then claimed that Muslim extremists in Indonesia were now calling for sharia 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 think tank 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-sharia parties has actually reduced.

Hirsi Ali makes sweeping statements about a diverse range of societies whose only common feature is some element of Islam. She hasn’t travelled through many Muslim countries, nor met the Muslim communities she comments on. She is the equivalent of the ignorant mullahs who condemned Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses without having even read it.

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.

It’s the same sympathy I feel for Islamist groups who use the works of a bitter and twisted ex-Jew to pursue an anti-Semitic agenda.

First published in on Wednesday 25 July 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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