Saturday, September 15, 2007

COMMENT: Campus Muslims ...

Stephen Crittenden’s Religion Report program on Radio National this week interviews a range of people who spoke at a recent conference on Muslim students held at the University of Western Sydney.

Among them is former UWS Muslim Students’ Association President Mona Darwiche. I’m not sure how much of Mona’s comments have been edited out. Perhaps what has been left in doesn’t reflect what she meant to say.

Still, what has been broadcast isn’t terribly helpful. Darwiche focuses on the “special needs” of Muslim students which she expects universities to meet. Among these are [h]alal food, adequate prayer facilities, adequate ablution facilities, and segregation between men and women.”
In relation to halal food, perhaps Darwiche should consider that many Muslims regard it as perfectly permissible and halal to eat food prepared by non-Muslims which doesn’t contain pig meat and/or alcohol. Hence, the issue of halal really doesn’t arise. Further, why expect the university to deal with this? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for Muslim students to approach food retailers on campus and suggest halal food as a commercial proposition? Why turn this into an issue of “special need”?

Darwiche has this to say about prayers:

It's important that the University provides adequate facilities for Muslim
students where students can observe prayers on campus, and I also mention the
time of prayers, because I know with myself, sometimes when it came time to
praying, I would be in a lecture, I would be sitting an exam, I would be giving
a presentation, so it's important for Muslims to pray at the designated times,
and so sometimes that could be a bit challenging for Muslim students to meet
their prayers on time when they have other commitments at Universities, such as
attending lectures, sitting exams, which sometimes go between two different
prayer times.

Darwiche seems to be getting two completely different issues confused – the alleged need for special facilities and the alleged need to account for prayer times.

Certainly it makes sense for universities to provide Muslim students with the same facilities as provided for students of other religious denominations. But how hard is it to take out a few minutes from your lecture or tutorial (or even exam) to say your prayers? And must you have special designated places all over campus for this purpose?

Further, in relation to segregation, what is the issue? If you want to live in a segregated environment, what are you doing at university in the first place? Darwiche comments:

Now I want to touch on a bit of a controversial topic. When I say the
segregation of men and women on campus, I say this with... segregation must be
considered in its context. There seems to be a lot of misconceptions about the
way in which Muslim men and women can interact with each other and also with
other non-Muslims.

Yes, and sadly many of the misconceptions are perpetuated by Muslims themselves. For instance, the whole idea that men and women can never shake hands. Or never even sit next to each other. When I went with a group of Aussie Muslims to Indonesia and Malaysia last year, our hosts wondered which planet us Aussies were from. This was because we always ensured we were seated in such a manner that no man sat next to a woman unless she was his wife. Yet in the world’s largest Muslim country, men and women sat next to each other all the time. They also weren’t afraid of shaking hands.

Darwiche continues:

And in regards to social interaction at university, whether it be lunch breaks
or otherwise, generally Muslim females and males do stay separate in terms of
social interaction. But in regards to fostering a relationship in terms of
university studies and working on particular tasks between males and females,
working as a team, achieving a core aim or objective towards a course, is
definitely allowable in Islam because you actually have a purpose behind your
interaction between interacting between males and females.

So unless they are studying together or organising some Muslim function, Muslim guys and gals always keep away from each other. Now this might be true for people from certain cultural backgrounds. But to make the blanket suggestion that all students of Muslim background and/or faith and/or heritage will all necessarily practise segregation requires an uncomfortable level of hubris.

It seems that Darwiche is confusing actual practice of Muslim students with what she regards as Islamic orthodoxy. It’s OK to express your opinion of what religion requires of you. It isn’t ok to insist that all Muslims agree with you and that therefore (largely non-Muslim) university administrators presume that they should make special allowances for this.

Sadly, once again, we see spokesmen and women for religious institutions pretending to speak for all people from their group who happen to be Muslim. Representing Islam and representing Muslims are not one and the same.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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I know it is Ramadan but ...

Time for a trip down memory lane.

This is a song from the first Hindi/Urdu movie I ever saw in Australia.

That's right. The first one. Down under. Ever.

Rajesh Khanna wearing an olive skivvy and a traditional Central Asian fur cap.

The overly-made-up Tamil Princess Sharmila Tagore on the train enjoying Rajesh's flirtatious behaviour while showing off her sideburns and reading Alistair MacLean.

And let's not forget the stupid driver who thinks he can play an electric guitar with his lips.

All this set in the old English hill station of Simla, on the foothills of the Himalayas.

And the words of love and devotion. Here's a line together with a rough translation:

HINDI: Challi aah, thoo challi aah

ENGLISH: Get over here. Oi! You! Get over here!!

Which woman worth her salt could resist so sensitive an invitation?

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Friday, September 07, 2007

CRIKEY: The Middle Eastern Gerard Henderson?

Imagine writing a monograph on Islam in Australia: Democratic bipartisanship in action including interviews with prominent players in law enforcement and politics but without interviewing a single Muslim, and launching the monograph in ... of all places ... the United Kingdom!

I was a little sceptical yesterday when I was forwarded an e-mail announcing the launch of Gerard Henderson’s monograph published by UK conservative thinktank Policy Exchange.

Especially when the study claimed that Australia actually had a "model" to "approach its Muslim population". (I feel so special knowing Dr Henderson has identified a special model to approach me!) Yet only four of the eight points in the model actually mention Islam or Muslims.

The first three points deal with security and the fourth tackles the end (well, sort of) of multiculturalism. Muslims are only involved to the extent that they do not

... fail to uphold core Australian values of citizenship ...
... it is not enough for self-appointed Muslim community leaders to oppose violent and aggressive jihad in Australia whilst supporting it beyond the shores of the Commonwealth.
In short, Muslims are a security threat to be managed. They aren’t people to be consulted or involved or even understood.

I felt it important to show Henderson the respect he failed to show the subjects of his monograph. I telephoned Henderson to ask about his study. He told me the original title was Islam and Democracy: The Australian Experience.

When I asked him whether there was any reason for not interviewing Muslims (or at least Reference Group members), Henderson became rather Middle Eastern.
Are you lecturing me? Who are you to tell me what I should write? What sort of question is that? This is most unprofessional.
Henderson claims the first Muslims to emigrate to Australia were Afghan cameleers. For someone with a PhD in history, this is a serious error. Indeed, Henderson need only look back to the speech delivered at his thinktank by West Australian author Dr Nahid Kabir.

Still, that’s neither here nor there. What is strange is that Henderson, a fellow with no serious knowledge of Australia’s Muslim communities only cites Kabir once. He doesn’t cite any other scholar on Muslim communities. I don’t expect Henderson to cite sycophantic non-critical writers. But Policy Exchange describes itself as taking an

... evidence-based approach to policy development … in partnership with academics and other experts.
Henderson is no expert on the topic, and he reaches questionable conclusions without citing experts. For instance, Henderson makes claims concerning Lebanese Muslims without citing a shred of evidence. He claims (on p10) that many of Australia’s Lebanese Muslims live in south west Sydney and that ...
... [n]o other Muslim group is so concentrated in a specific area.
He obviously hasn’t been to Auburn (known to many as "little Istanbul") or Coburg. Henderson’s ignorance of Australia’s Muslim organisational landscape especially became evident when he claimed (on p24) that ...

... the Howard government consciously chose not to consult with existing Muslim groups ... Instead the Prime Minister set up the Muslim Community Reference Group.
I’m sure many on the MCRG would find such claims amusing. If anything, the Group was deliberately stacked with existing religious organisational heads and stereotypical imams (like Hilaly). Among those invited by the PM to his Muslim leaders’ summit was Shafiq Khan, a prominent Saudi financier. In fact, Henderson feels quite able to write about the MCRG without even interviewing a single member of the group.

Further, his claim that

... the criticisms which John Howard ... levelled at al-Hilali’s January 2007 outburst created a climate in which Muslim Australians felt freer to state their own views than would otherwise have been the case.

So Aussie Mossies weren’t criticising religious leaders before January? Which planet has Henderson been living on? And as if we needed Howard’s blowing of the dog whistle to release us from our shackles!

If anything, Muslim critics of Hilaly were wishing Howard would shut up and let them deal with the issue. Howard’s interventions made things only more difficult. The study includes interviews with law enforcement, intelligence and political leaders. Instead of asking Muslims in Lakemba for their thoughts, Henderson interviews Bob Carr and Tony Burke (MP for Watson). Instead of asking anyone from the MCRG how they viewed the process, Henderson asks Andrew Robb.

Henderson suggested I "go and write a rant for The Age or the Canberra Times" before hanging up.

He may well find Aussie Muslims aren’t as rude. Assuming, of course, he bothers to talk with them and not just at or about them.

An edited version of this was first published in the Crikey daily alert on Thursday 6 September 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

PROFILE: On Ibn Warraq ...

I'm always amused by persons who claim to live in secret locations out of fear of threats received from "Islamic extremists". Heck, I've received some threats in my life - from anti-Muslim extremists, from Muslim extremists and from people with no identifiable agenda. I guess it's the price one pays for being involved in public discussion.

Ibn Warraq is one such author. He uses a pseudonym apparently for safety reasons. He has authored and edited a variety of books, claiming to hold some scholarly credentials in Islamic sciences. Dr Jeremiah McAuliffe has dealt with some of Ibn Warraq's more controversial arguments and methodology here.

Ibn Warraq has also been criticised by other writers and scholars, including Fred Donner of the University of Chicago. Here is part of what Donner has to say about Ibn Warraq's The Quest for the Historical Muhammad:

... the compiler’s agenda ... is not scholarship, but anti-Islamic polemic

... “Ibn Warraq” and his co-conspirator “Ibn al-Rawandi” detest anything that, to them, smacks of apologetic; for this reason they criticize harshly several noted authors for their ‘bad faith’ or ‘moral ambiguity.’ Yet this book is itself a monument to duplicity. The compiler never has the honesty or courage to divulge his identity, even though a list of contributors (pp. 551-54) gives a biographical sketch of all the other contributors who, unlike “Ibn Warraq” and “Ibn al-Rawandi,” are already well-known. Far more serious is the fact that this book is religious polemic attempting to masquerade as scholarship. It is a collection of basically sound articles, framed by a seriously flawed introduction, and put in the service of anti-Islamic polemic dedicated to the proposition that Islam is a sham and that honest scholarship on Islam requires gratuitous rudeness to Muslim sensibilities. By associating these articles with “Ibn Warraq’s” polemical agenda, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad will raise suspicions among some Muslims that all revisionist scholarship is
motivated by such intolerance. This is likely to make the future progress of sound historical scholarship on Islam’s origins harder, rather than easier.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

CRIKEY: Yes, Jesus was indeed a "sand nigger" ...

In 1998, I visited Brazil. In the world’s largest Catholic country, I saw icons of Jesus and Mary everywhere. There was one not-so-subtle difference between these and the icons I see in Australia. For millions of Brazilian Catholics, the Blessed Virgin with child both had black skin.

Of course, we all know that Jesus wasn’t a negroHe was, after all, born in a place called Beyt Lahm, an Arabic/Aramaic phrase meaning literally "House of Lamb Meat" or 'House of Bread". He spoke fluent Aramaic. His mother wore (at the very least) a traditional head scarf worn today by many orthodox Jewish and Muslim women.

A delegation from Jesus’ town is currently visiting Australia. All delegation members are Christians. All are accused of being terrorists. All no doubt look like Middle Easterners. All look like Arabs. Usama bin Ladin is a Middle Easterner. The Mayor of Bethlehem is a Middle Easterner. Jesus was a Middle Easterner. No doubt Jesus probably bore some resemblance to other Middle Easterners.

Yet for some reason, American-owned tabloids in Sydney and Melbourne are behaving in a very Middle Eastern fashion over one entry to an art prize. One that shows Jesus' mum in traditional arab garb (see right). Even the PM joined the fray, telling journalists ...

The choice of such artwork is gratuitously offensive to the religious beliefs of many Australians.
Yes, it is offensive if you believe Jesus looked something like Merv Hughes and Mary looked like Jennifer Hawkins. Yet the fact is that Mary wore something on her head (and, given her noble ancestry and her cultural heritage, quite likely something over her face).

What all this shows is how far the far-Right evangelical view of Christianity has strayed from the reality of Jesus. Allegedly conservative mono-cultural fruitloops keep referring to Australia’s Christian heritage. Yet how would they react if the real Jesus returned and arrived in Australia?

Well, for a start, they’d probably think he was a terrorist. He wouldn’t be speaking English, and would suddenly appear from the wilderness looking rather dishevelled.

Jesus’ photo would be splashed across our American-owned metropolitan tabloids. Piersed Akumen and his colleagues would be waxing unlyrical about this latest foreign threat. Gerard Henderson would attack the "civil rights lobby" for defending Jesus. Janet Albrechtsen would castigate lawyers and judges for defending a man who wants to establish the Kingdom of God (read sharia law) in Australia. The Australian Federal Police wouldn’t understand a word Jesus was saying but would charge him anyway. Some magistrate would grant Jesus bail, and the good Catholic Kevin Andrews would cancel Jesus’ visa and send him back to … um … er … God The Father?

As William Dalrymple keeps reminding us, Christianity (like Judaism and Islam) is a Middle Eastern religion. And Jesus was a Middle Easterner. Just accept it.

First published in the Crikey daily alert on Thursday 30 August 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Praying to Allah in Bethlehem

On Friday night, 31 August, I had the honour of joining around 100 persons of all ethnic and religious backgrounds witnessing the signing of a sister-city agreement between the Cities of Bethlehem and Marrickville.

Attendees included prominent politicians (including both State and Federal Members for the local seat), clergy of all denominations, journalists, academics and other invited guests. Among the people I spoke to was Father Amjad Sabbara, the Catholic parish priest of Bethlehem.

I don’t want to give away too much as my interview with him is (hopefully) going to be podcasted on the website. One thing I couldn’t help asking him was the name used by people in his church (the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christ was born) when addressing God in prayers, hymns and liturgy. Here was his response ...

We address God as Allah. For us, of course, Allah is Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

So there you have it. The descendants of Christ’s extended family and neighbours in Christ’s home town address God as “Allah”.

Father Amjad also tells me he will be leaving Bethlehem soon to take up a position at a church in Nazareth. No prizes for guessing what name they use to address God there.

The Church of the Nativity was under Israeli siege in 2002 (as shown in the photo). Numerous Palestinians (including the church bellringer) were killed in the siege at one of Christianity's holiest sites.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

Does having a Muslim-sounding name make you qualified?

One of the earliest Muslim voices in the Australian op-ed scene was a young trainee psychiatrist named Tanveer Ahmed. At the time, Dr Ahmed was also doing a journalism cadetship with SBS. He would write about his experiences as a young Muslim of Bangladeshi origin growing up in Australia. He’d also talk a lot about other young Muslims as well as Muslims in general.

I’ve been watching with increasing dismay at Dr Ahmed’s development into some kind of commentator on Muslims in the West generally. Naturally, he has every right to say whatever he likes about Islamic theology. I may not agree with everything he says on this topic. But we are living in a secular post-belief society. We have to be prepared to have our beliefs questioned, even if by people who regard themselves as Muslims.

(In this respect, it surprises me when I read some young Aussie Muslims complaining about Dr Ahmed’s writing on Islam. They claim he is bordering beyond heretical. Perhaps they should travel to Indonesia or Malaysia or Pakistan or Turkey and see what Muslim writers and scholars say about Islam there!)

However, it does concern me when Dr Ahmed talks about Muslim community sectors in Australia. Particularly when I know how far-Right sections of the community (such as the op-ed page of The Australian and certain right wing think tanks) use his material to make all kinds of claims supportive of their cultural agenda.

When you talk about theology, feel free to say what you like. But when you talk about communities, make sure you have done your research. Make sure you have spoken to people in these communities and have read the literature. Make sure you are familiar with the institutions, the groups and the ideological slants at play.

And make sure you can speak objectively. That you can call a spade a spade and not a hand grenade.

There are lots of problems within Australian Muslim communities. Particularly at a peak body level. Just as there are in New Zealand and other Western countries.

Earlier this year, a respected scholar of Islam from Christchurch named William Shepard sought comments from Muslims about a chapter he was writing for an Islamic encyclopaedia. Now Dr Bill Shepard has been around for a long time. He knows classical Arabic very well. He studied Islamic studies at Harvard under the late Professor Annemarie Schimmell, an authority on Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu Islamic literature and sufism. Shepard has lived in Christchurch for years and has extensive contacts with Muslim communities, institutions and mosques across New Zealand.

Yet even someone with Shepard’s scholarly pedigree continues to consult with Muslims before writing about them.

I find it disturbing that Dr Ahmed talks about Muslim communities in a manner that shows a lack of familiarity with communal structures, theological leanings and related issues. To his credit, Dr Ahmed admits he has never really moved within Muslim religious circles, and that his only real exposure has been with the Bangladeshi expat community in Sydney.

Which then raises the question: On what basis does Dr Ahmed make the kinds of claims reported in the Higher Education Supplement of The Australian?

UNIVERSITIES must resist politicised Muslim groups seeking special
treatment on campus, a commentator has warned.

Tanveer Ahmed, a psychiatric registrar and a graduate of the University of
Sydney, said it was now clear that British universities had inadvertently lent
support to the growth of home-grown radicalism by giving in to this kind of
campus pressure.

"(These groups) are very assertive, very quick to cry racism, they've taken
advantage of the impression among some academics that they're a marginalised,
victimised minority,'' Dr Ahmed said.

On Monday he will address the first national conference on Muslim
university students, being held at the University of Western Sydney. He said
overseas Muslim students, appreciating the freedoms of Australia, often become
less religious. But local Muslim students, who had suffered "social
deprivation'' tended to be attracted to an Islamic identity of opposition to the
wider culture.

"University is often the beginning of their path to greater religiosity and
at times radicalism too,'' he said.

Politicised Muslim groups might seek to build their profile by pressuring a
university to allow a certain speaker on campus, for example. Dr Ahmed said
another pattern was for these Mulsim groups and leftists to ally themselves.

"I remember going to a protest (in Sydney during the recent
Hezbollah-Israel conflict in Lebanon) and seeing environmental groups going
Allah Akhbar (God is great) in harmony with some Lebanese groups,'' Dr Ahmend

"The God is great line wasn't about religion, it was about social

An outside observer would read this material and presume Dr Ahmed speaks from experience and has had extensive contact with Muslim student circles on campuses across Australia. And what is his evidence?

He talks about it being "now clear" that "British universities had inadvertently lent support to the growth of home-grown radicalism by giving in to this kind of campus pressure". But in what sense is the experience of British universities transferrable to Australia? In what sense are Muslim communities in Britain similar to those in Australia?

And in what sense has this now become apparent? Anyone who has been reading British Muslim newspapers and magazines (such as Q-News) will know that Muslims have been expressing concern about the growth of groups like Hizbut Tahrir on campus since the mid-1990's.

Which Muslim student groups has Dr Ahmed recently visited? How many Islamic Awareness Week programs on campuses has he attended? Which campus Friday prayer services has he attended recently? Which lectures or seminars organised by Muslim Student Associations has he attended recently?

Which Australian Muslim student publications has Dr Ahmed read? For how long has he been following their publications? What kind of theology is being promoted in these publications?

Has Dr Ahmed spoken to any Muslim chaplains? Has he spoken to Muslim academics on campus? Have any expressed concerns to him about radical groups infiltrating MSA's?

Or is Dr Ahmed relying on a combination of Ed Husain's book The Islamist and/or the somewhat problematic British study co-authored by Munira Mirza?

Sadly, few journalists and commentators are prepared to ask these difficult yet crucial questions. Many take for granted that, given his name and background, Dr Ahmed is an "insider" and speaks from a position of knowledge and experience. Yet if called upon to provide expert testimony on Australian Muslim communities by a court of law, one wonders whether Dr Ahmed would survive the scrutiny of even the most gentle cross examination.

Still, Dr Ahmed is free to say whatever he likes about any topic he chooses. And we are free to question his expertise, to criticise his arguments and to reject his theses.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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