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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