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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