Sunday, October 28, 2007

COMMENT: Baghdad - once a city for all faiths ...

The October 7 2007 edition of the New York Times magazine includes a profile of Iraqi-American author Kanan Makiya, who wrote (under the pen-name of Samir al-Khalil) one of the most influential biographies of Saddam Hussein.

There's plenty in the profile to blog about. Despite spending much of his undergraduate years a supporter of the Palestinian cause, Makiya wasn't exactly fond of fellow Columbia University Professor Edward Said. Makiya promised George W Bush on the eve of the Iraq invasion that Iraqis would greet US forces with "sweets and flowers".

What particularly struck me was the description of historical Baghdad. The profile speaks of perhaps Makiya's most important achievement - the documentation of Saddam Hussein's atrocities under the auspices of the Iraq Memory Foundation.

Since 2003, Makiya and his small staff have scoured Baath party offices and dungeons, adding to a collection that would reach more than 11 million pages of records. And they began filming interviews with the regime’s victims. 

Makiya’s dream was to build a museum for the archives on the site of the Victory Arch, the memorial commissioned by Hussein to commemorate Iraq’s so-called triumph in the Iran-Iraq War ... Among the foundation’s most vivid achievements are the 190 videotaped testimonies from Hussein’s victims. They include Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and even Jews.

One of these testimonies takes us back to a time when Baghdad was a centre of Jewish cultural life. Thanks to the infiltration of Ba'athist ideology, the tolerance of devout Iraqi Muslims was undermined. Suddenly, anyone deemed non-Arab became a target. And supporting Palestinian rights became a cover for some of the most virulent and despicable acts of anti-Semitism.

In December 2003, at the age of 98, Shao’ul Sasson, for example, described his arrest and torture at the hands of the Baath Party police. Sasson, who died in 2005, was an Iraqi Jew. As late as the mid-1930s, Baghdad was one of the world capitals of Jewish life, with Jews making up a third of its population. Most of Iraq’s Jews either fled to Israel or were expelled beginning in the late 1940s; most of the rest were harassed or killed. In January 1969, in one of the Baath Party’s first displays of public brutality, 13 Iraqi Jews and 4 other men were hanged in a public ceremony in Baghdad before a crowd of about a half million people. Iraqis were bussed in from around the country to witness the event.
“I was born in Baghdad,” Sasson says on the videotape. “My father was the chief rabbi. He sent me to a Jewish school to learn Hebrew, but I can’t remember much of it.
“I was working for Mohammed al-Damarchi. My salary had been stopped because I was Jewish, and there was a warrant out for my arrest. They knocked on the door and asked for Shao’ul. 

“My wife said, ‘Let him take his clothes or put something on,’ but they said there was no need, as I would be brought back soon. They blindfolded me and took me away. I could tell we were going to the notorious Al-Nihaya Palace prison, because I lived in the same area. . . . They asked me to confess to everything, but I told them I didn’t have anything to confess to. And yet they insisted I must. They brought a metal bar and hit me on my legs. I fell into the wall and broke two teeth. Again, they told me to confess and hit me on the legs. Again, I fell and broke a few teeth. I lost 9 or 10 teeth that day.
“I saw Abdul Rahman al-Bazzaz (the former prime minister). They had hung him up and burned his tongue with matches. . . . My worst experience was the day I saw all the prisoners hanging up on either side of the corridor. 

“They put me in a cell where the floor was covered in urine and feces. I couldn’t bear to stay in it, so I would bang my head hard against the wall in an attempt to kill myself.”

The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: "Those who so much as lay one finger on the dhimmi (non-Muslim citizen of an Islamic state) will have me witnessing against them on the Day of Judgment."

Sadly, so many Muslim politicians like to flex their political muscle at the expenses of non-Muslim minorities. Those of us fortunate enough to live as Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries should be at the forefront of campaigning for non-Muslim minorities in Muslim countries.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Friday, October 26, 2007

John Mustafa Ilhan's not-so-crazy legacy ...

I never had the honour of meeting the late John Mustafa Ilhan (rahimahullah - God have mercy on him). But my respect for him skyrocketted in August 2005 when he 'came out of the closet' about his faith.

It seemed those close to him always knew that John took his religious heritage seriously. Certainly he came from a devout Muslim family - his father was instrumental in establishing the Broadmeadows Mosque. Further, despite this not being a religious requirement, his wife Patricia took the enormous step of adopting her husband's faith as her own. Like many women of Jewish and Christian backgrounds, Mrs Ilhan could have just as easily kept her faith without compromising her husband's.

But it was in August 2005, in a profile for the Australian Financial Review magazine, that Ilhan spoke about how his faith influences his business decisions. Ilhan was the only Muslim to be profiled about his faith. The magazine said Ilhan

... carries his Islamic faith with him
everyday ... applying what he sees as basic tenets of honesty and integrity to
his business.

And what are these basic tenets. First,
there is "asking for forgiveness". Then there is loving one's neighbour as one
loves one's self. He won't open an outlet next door to a competitor he knew,
even if it be a former employee or a cousin.

The Australobe blog has an entry on Ilhan's passing, with links to a variety of news reports. Today's jenaza was was attended by Ilhan's parents, wife and close friends including Eddie McGuire, Shane Warne and Ahmed Fahour. It's a tribute to Ilhan's ability to bring Australians of all backgrounds together that Broadmeadows Mosque today looked like the scene of a large inter-faith gathering.

The Canberra Times reported the response of Turkey's Ambassador to Australia ...

Turkish ambassador Murat Ersavci said his
close friend's death was "a very, very sad occasion for me and my wife".

"I really grieved for his wife, too.

"Patricia was a very strong voice behind him,
supporting him.

"I visited him a few months back at his home
in Melbourne, and you should have seen how he was proud of that family and
children and of his wife. He was a very kind man, very kind, very hard working,
I think he was a symbol for a young Australia."

Mr Ilhan was "passionately philanthropic" and
"a good human being who wanted to help his fellow man". Closely tied to his
roots, he was proud to be an Australian and his death was a loss to the nation.

"He was a perfect example of Australia's
successful multicultural policy. His father comes from a humble background, a
working man, and Australia provided an opportunity and he wanted to return that
any way he could."

Patricia Ilhan's words were published in the order of service. The Herald-Sun reported ...

Emotions almost spilled over when Mr Ilhan's
wife Patricia, wearing a pink headscarf and sunglasses, made her way with her
three young daughters through the throng to his casket.

In keeping with Muslim tradition, they and
other women were asked to move away from the coffin so prayers could begin.

In the order of service, Mrs Ilhan described
her husband as the family's "inspiration and rock".
"He loved his family
more than anything. We always came first. We saw the man who cared so much about
people," she said.

She said their four children - Jaida, Hannah,
Yasmin and Aydin - would forever cherish the times they played with their
father, who died on Tuesday aged 42 after suffering a heart attack while walking
near their Brighton home.

"I will remember we were true soulmates - he
always knew what I was thinking."

Ilhan generated respect from friends, strangers and customers. Among his customers was journalist and former TV personality Libby Gorr who wrote these touching words in the Crikey daily alert for 24 October 2007:

I interviewed him in 2005 for Sunday Life magazine. It's the only time on
record John spoke about his faith.

This guy was a really amazing person; a great salesman yes, but a deeply
spiritual man who strove to be an integrated Muslim in Australia, despite all
sorts of prejudice hurled his way, from all corners - including from his in
laws, in the early years.

Here's a glimpse (for the piece in full click here):

This is a man who knows it’s important to look good but that appearances only
go so far. “I’m a Muslim and I realise that arrogance is a no-no,” says Ilhan,
who was born Mustafa in Yozgut, Turkey, and moved to Australia with his family
at age five. He took the name John after his best mate at primary school; the
“Crazy”, he says, came later, inspired by a customer’s remark that giving away
hundreds of dollars worth of free phone accessories was just that. “I think I
will struggle in life spiritually unless I do good things. It might sound naive
but I think life is as simple as that. If you are kind to your staff, they will
probably work harder. Arrogance kills CEOs. I think life gives you what you
deserve. But I think there is a higher being that controls us.”

He believes in destiny because “I’m a coward. Being a coward, you think
somebody else is determining your life. I’m not so courageous to be an atheist.
That just scares the hell out of me. I need to have someone looking after

Ilhan is aware that coming out as a Muslim in Australia right now is a risky
cultural business. “Some of my staff probably haven’t met a Muslim before,” he
reflects. “When I was young, I used to hear all about the wars in the Middle
East. And then you come to a country like Australia and make so many wonderful
friends who are Jewish, it’s like, what are we talking about?”

John Ilham is one of the most impressively decent people I have met on the
high achievement scale. This is so sad for his family, and unfathomable for
those of us that liked and admired him.

Readers are requested to at least recite fatiha after reading these tributes.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

A much-maligned but harmless group ...

Tonight I found myself amongst a group of people I haven’t shared company with for years. The last time I saw them, few people outside South Asian and/or religious Muslim circles knew these people even existed.

Today these people are demonised in many different parts of the world. They are accused of all sorts of ccrazy things – sheltering terrorists, plotting to spread extremism, following Saudi-style cultish Islam etc.

But I’ve always known the Tabligh Jamaat (TJ) as being a harmless bunch of blokes who take their religious observance very seriously.

Politics and the TJ? What moron thought that one up? The TJ are about as interested in politics as I am in lawn bowls. My own dealings and experiences with the TJ have led me to know that they have little interest in jihadist or Islamist groups, even during periods when these groups were being sponsored by the West against communism.

Back in the mid-1980’s, I read in the Minaret magazine(published occasionally by the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils or AFIC) that the TJ had caused controversy at one of their annual ijtima’s (as they used to call their national gatherings) in Melbourne. An executive member of the Islamic Council of Victoria had asked the TJ leadership if the Australian representative of one of the Afghan mujahideen groups could say a few words about the Western-backed jihad against the Soviets. The TJ leadership refused, citing their aversion to political discussion at their gatherings.

He correspondent who wrote about this incident in the Minaret included in his story words to the following effect: “We allow these people to use our mosques, yet they won’t allow us to discuss the Afghan jihad in their gatherings!”

I also remember one Bangladeshi imam once tell me that he used to have run-ins with the TJ at university. He used to urge them to support the Jamaat-i-Islami (a major Islamist group founded by Syed Maududi) but they would refuse. He once told me: “These people would rather vote communist than for JI”.

The TJ generally don’t allow discussion in their gatherings that goes over and beyond the 6 points of tabligh. The word tabligh literally means admonition or warning. The TJ’s theory is that their scholars have studied the lives of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions and have extracted 6 basic principles. If Muslims focus on these principles and put them into practise, they will start to show traces of the Prophet’s companions.

One important principle is ilm wa dhikr (seeking and gaining knowledge together with maximising the remembrance of God). The TJ say that both must go together. If a man gains knowledge of religion but doesn’t purify his heart, his knowledge could do little but boost his ego and make him arrogant. If he remembers God excessively but doesn’t supplement it ith knowledge, he might lose his sense of balance.

Another major principle of the TJ (though not identified as one of the 6 points) is to visit Muslims. Many Christian churches refer to this as ‘pastoral’ work. The churches are active in this work, but sadly most Muslim religious organisations ignore it. The TJ play a very important role, visiting Muslims all over Australia, especially those in isolated areas.

One person recently told me of an occasion he was with the TJ. They were staying at a regional mosque and once drove some three hours just to visit one Muslim living in an isolated area.

Tonight a group from the TJ were gathered at an inner-city Melbourne mosque. They were breaking their fast when I saw them. Amongst them was a fellow I hadn’t seen for some 10 years and who used to live in Sydney but was now based in Adelaide.

It saddens me that in the UK the TJ are being demonised as extremists. I can say much critical about the TJ. I think their insistence on the more conservative interpretations of Islam in some areas render their methodology argely irrelevant in Australia. I think their menfolk spend too much time on the road, neglecting their families. But to desbribe them as following an Islamist political cult is absurd.

At a time when even harmless groups like the TJ are being aligned as extremists, I don’t think the time is far off when Jonathan Freedland’s words might turn into a true prophesy ...

Right now, we're getting it badly wrong -
bombarding Muslims with pressure and prejudice, laying one social problem after
another at their door. I try to imagine how I would feel if this rainstorm of
headlines substituted the word "Jew" for "Muslim": Jews creating apartheid, Jews
whose strange customs and costume should be banned. I wouldn't just feel
frightened. I would be looking for my passport.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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