Thursday, March 27, 2008

EVENT: Aspire2Inspire Conference in Melbourne ...

Another excellent initiative by the ICV and partners. I'd go except that I'm too old! Click on the poster below for more info ...

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REFLECTION: Lessons from an older cousin ...

There were Jews on the First Fleet to Australia in 1788. According to Bilal Cleland, author of a definitive history of Muslims in Australia, there were Muslims on the Second and subsequent Fleets. In terms of European settlement on this continent, that makes Jews our elder cousins.

Our virtually-twin faiths ensure we have even more in common. For a long time now, I've been wondering why leaders and concerned citizens from Muslim communities don't spend more time learning from their Jewish cousins.

Which makes it pleasing that the Australian Intercultural Society and the Anti-Defamation Commission in Melbourne jointly organised a National Cohesion Summit in February this year. The topic of the summit was ‘The Australian Jewish Experience and Challenges Faced by Muslims’. You can read more about the event here.

Among the keynote speakers was Hon Justice Howard Nathan, a Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria. Justice Nathan spoke of the early achievements of Jewish settlers in literacy and numeracy. His advice to us is certainly worth its weight in gold ...

Not only were they literate, but they were also numerate, which put them ahead of others and stood the Jews in good stead ever since. Education, education, and yet more education was the key.

Also important was the contribution of Dr Helen Light, Director of the Australian Jewish Museum. Yes, museums do make an enormous difference in helping to construct an historical identity and in building bridges with the broader community. Consider these wide remarks ...

While museums are secular organisations, they are important venues to discuss cultural identity and talk about religion ... They teach the value of diversity, share the importance of respect between different people and provide a model of a community that has been able to make a real contribution to society.
I am not aware of a single Muslim community in the West which has established a museum. We so often complain about others constructing a negative identity about us. Yet the fact is that we are often too lazy or too pre-occupied with short-term issues to consider projects (such as a museum) which will have lasting effect.

Words © Irfan Yusuf 2008

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

HUMOUR: The Cult of the Big Nosed Demon is back ...

Nasty Jewish conspirator spreading racial impurity through oversized nose ...

Nasty Islamic conspirators with Israeli names spreading more racial impurity through their oversized noses ...

The Nazis were a rather strange bunch. Completely obsessed with certain harmless minorities (Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled etc), they blamed the ills of the world on any individual they deemed linked to these groups.

Today's Nazis have replaced Jews with Muslims. Yet their racist and sectarian bigotry shares certain common features with the German Nazism of the mid-20th century.

The Nazis assumed that Jews had bigger noses than the rest of humanity. Today's Nazis from the far-Right have attributed big noses to Muslims, be they of the more observant variety (such as Cat Stevens) or of the more nominal variety (such as myself).

As if to make matters worse, the website also asks whether the Arabic word "Yusuf" means liar. For the benefit of the in-breds who pollute cyberspace with their imbecilic site, allow me to clarify the matter.

"Yusuf" is in fact a form of HEBREW spelling of the name of the Bliblical and Koranic prophet Joseph. Arabs tend to spell the name as "Yousef" or "Youssef". Israelis and Jews who use the Hebrew pronunciation tend to spell it as "Yosef" or "Yusuf".

In fact, on quite a few occasions have I been approached by Jews and asked if I was an Israeli. Why? Because of the way my surname is spelt.

Aah well, I guess in the eyes of some chronic racists, that makes me the type of chappy who tends to have a big nose.

(Thanks to BC of Melbourne for the tip-off.)

Words © Irfan Yusuf 2008

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COMMENT: Tabligh Jamaat - media scrutiny and genuine research

Tablighi Jamaat ijtima (gathering) in Pakistan.

In a lengthy story on the unfortunate situation facing the imam at Sefton Mosque, Natalie O'Brien (senior editor for The Oz) cites the work of Dr Jan Ali, who completed his PhD on the topic of "Islamic revivalism: a study of the Tablighi Jamaat (let's call them "TJ" for short) in Sydney" at the University of New South Wales in 2006.

You can download and read the entire 325-page thesis here. Dr Ali has also authored a paper for the April 2003 edition of the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs which can be found here. I'll certainly be going through the thesis as it is of direct interest to my own research toward the "Iremonger" book.

TJ played an important role in my own religious development. It disturbs me that this movement is being described as a recruiting ground for terrorism. I can imagine that the TJ's open doors policy of allowing just about any Muslim to join them can make them an effective cover for any aspiring terrorist. But to describe them as a "conduit" is certainly over-the-top.

English researcher Yahya Birt has reviewed a collection of essays on the TJ which can be found here.

The TJ are an outgrowth of the Deoband movement of Muslim religious education in India. Deoband is the name of a village in the Saharanpur district of the Utter Pradesh (UP) state in northern India. South Asian Sunni Islam is unique in that it is the subject of a divide between Deobandi and Barelwi schools. The rivalry between these two competing schools of thought is often at the heart of disputes between South Asian Muslims and the management of religious institutions in South Asian diaspora communities.

One American scholar who has spent much time with the TJ leadership in South Asia is Professor Barbara D Metcalf. Professor Metcalf has written extensively on the TJ and their relationship with the Deoband school. Professor Metcalf is fluent in Urdu and has also completed an excellent partial translation of Behishti Zewar, a book of Islamic sacred law written especially for women by a Deobandi jurist named Ashraf Ali Thanawi.

Words © Irfan Yusuf 2008

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Monday, March 24, 2008

MEDIA: Natalie O’Brien on Rabbi Hilaly?

I’ve written elsewhere about how Natalie O’Brien, a senior reporter for The Australian, has suggested that Sheik Hilaly is somehow linked to Usama bin-Ladin. It seems that, according to O'Brien, if you find yourself on the same side of an argument as bin-Ladin, you are somehow linked to him.

But now, having re-read the same article, it also seems that O’Brien is suggesting that Sheik Hilaly delivers his Friday sermons on Saturdays. Do we apply O'Brien's convoluted logic and presume Hilaly is also linked to the Beth Din?

Read these paragraphs and wonder …

At his sermon at Australia's biggest mosque, in the southwest Sydney suburb of Lakemba, Sheik Hilali said the cartoons, published in a Danish newspaper in 2005 - and republished last month - showed the "hatred and envy" felt by the West against Islam.

He said today's sermon at the mosque would be followed by a march to a nearby park to protest against the cartoons …

At his sermon today, Sheik Hilali is expected to … He will make an appeal to …

In his sermon, Sheik Hilali will also …

He will say … He will express his grief at …

Um, is she talking about two separate sermons? Or is the same sermon being delivered in two instalments? Or is Sheik Hilaly delivering his Friday sermon on a Saturday?

© Irfan Yusuf 2008

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BOOKS: Light-hearted memoir dispels Muslim stereotypes with deft

Unimagined: a Muslim boy meets the West
Imran Ahmad
Aurum Press Pty Limited, London
HB: $35

Unimagined is the story of a middle-class English boy who goes to a grammar school, completes university studies, falls in love with various girls and women along the way and ends up pursuing a career in the internal audit department of a major multinational, earning enough money to buy a house and the same Jaguar his hero James Bond drives.

So what on earth does all this have to do with Islam? How can we understand the processes of alienation, terrorism, violence, lack of integration and all that other nasty stuff we allegedly need to understand in order to understand Western Muslims? How does this book help us understand them when it provides us with only the picture of one with whom we can readily identify?

This memoir contains no violence (apart from some schoolyard bullying and references to news reports of overseas events), no honour killings and only the feeblest reference to a possible arranged marriage. In fact, what makes this work so abnormal among so many other Muslim memoirs published in Britain, such as Ed Husain's The Islamist and former Guantanamo inmate Moazzam Begg's Enemy Combatant, is that the life it describes is just so normal.

Don't expect to find cultural warriors like Melanie Phillips (author of Londonistan) or Daniel Pipes (journalist and director of the Middle East Forum) referring to this book as an example of British or Western Islam in action (or should that be inaction?). Imran Ahmad has written an amusing and highly accessible book which deals with a range of theological and cross-cultural issues by telling the story of the Muslim he knows best.

One lesson we learn from this book is that for many Muslims, religion can only be understood within a cultural context, often with little relation to that within which a certain 7th-century Arabian Prophet presented his message. In practice, this means many South-Asian Muslim parents have almost identical expectations of their children as South-Asian Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Catholic or Jewish parents. It is of little consequence to such parents whether you can read the Koran in Arabic or the Guru Granth in Punjabi or even the Torah in Hebrew. So long as you study hard and become a doctor or engineer and marry a good South-Asian girl of your own social class and faith (with emphasis especially put on the former), not much else matters.

Perhaps what makes Imran's experience different from that of an English boy of Hindu or Sikh parents is that his own faith and scriptures share much in common with the Biblical stories he learned in school. I can certainly relate to this as an important factor allowing me to ''fit in'' more easily.

Don't expect to find cultural warriors like Melanie Phillips or Daniel Pipes referring to this book as an example of British or Western Islam in action. For me, the discovery that the Koranic account of Joseph's life was virtually identical to that in the Bible (and that my own surname was merely an Arabic pronunciation of this famous person) was a seminal moment in the development of my own religious identity.

I did find it unusual that Ahmad's parents were happy for their son to attend religion classes limited to the Old Testament only. My own parents insisted I learn what Christians (at least those of the Anglican variety) believed. Perhaps

this lack of exposure to New Testament theology made it harder for Ahmad to face what little intellectual challenge could be posed by the "Rapture" theology of his fellow university students sucked in by American commercial evangelism.

Like so many other South-Asian migrants to Britain, Ahmad receives only the bare minimum religious education in childhood. He lasts only a short time at the Sunday school of his local mosque. Ahmad learns more about religion at school, and ends up knowing more about Old Testament prophets (also mentioned in the Koran) than about contemporaries and successors of the Prophet Muhammad.

In fact, like so many children of Muslim migrants, Ahmad must figure out the answers to a range of theological questions without assistance from parents or imams. Instead, most of his learning is at the University of Sterling in Scotland, where Ahmad has enrolled in a chemistry course in which he takes no interest, but which he believes might make him more employable and respectable in South-Asian circles.

Theological issues feature heavily in the book, with Ahmad constantly toiling with the whole idea of spending an eternity burning in hell because he made the wrong religious choice. Ahmad is also troubled by certain moral choices, and operates on the common South-Asian Muslim presumption that salvation is obtained by doing good deeds and avoiding naughty ones.

Ahmad spends hours in the library reading books about Sufism, and also borrows tapes of religious polemics from fellow students. He is put off by the narrow-mindedness of the chap who delivers sermons at Friday prayers, but is attracted to the intellectualism of study circles organised in a London mosque by Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens).

Ahmad doesn't venture anywhere near political Islam. Perhaps this is because he had already entered the workforce by the time the Afghan jihad and its Islamist theology was being promoted by conservative governments and right-wing think tanks (not to mention mosque imams) across the West.

This book is a rather light read, making it accessible to a wide audience. Ahmad has no difficulty in poking fun at himself, whether describing his childish approach to theology as an infant or his almost equally childish and extremely shy approach to women as an adult. In its focus on everyday issues and its sheer ordinariness, Ahmad's memoir dispatches the myths of Muslim-phobic cultural warriors with almost as much ease as an in-form Nasser Hussein would have dispatched the deliveries of his opponents when he captained England's national cricket side.

Irfan Yusuf is associate editor of His book proposal about young Australian Muslims navigating their way out of political Islam received the 2007 Allen & Unwin Iremonger Award for public affairs writing. This review was first published in the Canberra Times on 22 March 2008.

© Irfan Yusuf 2008

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

MOROCCO: Liquid gold ...

I was clearing through my old editions of the Australian Financial Review when I came across an article hiding in the Travel section of the December 21-27 edition. The article was reproduced from the New York Times and was given the headline of “A holiday that guarantees you strike liquid gold”.

The liquid gold in question was the oil of a nut called argan. The argan tree which produces the nut can be found in a coastal town of Morocco called Essaouira, once a Portuguese fishing village now populated largely by Berbers.

Essaouira apparently was once a huge hippy hang-out, boasting of the patronage of such greats as Cat Stevens and Jimi Hendrix. Today, the town is more famous for its liquid gold, the paste produced from the argan nut which has become a major source of income for local Berber women.

Morocco may not be the most democratic nation on earth, but its King (Muhammad VI) is regarded as having a more enlightened attitude when it comes to women’s rights. The King has started supporting the formation of coops managed by women which produce argun oil that then makes its way into various skin cremes. Apparently the argan oil and paste have a high concentration of Vitamin E, not to mention phytosterols which are good for treating scar tissue and lacklustre skin.

So how is the oil/paste made? Amy Larocca writes in the AFR/NYT story ...

Approaching Essaouira’s sandy-colored ramparts, passing the olive groves and grazing donkeys, you see signs announcing women-run argan cooperatives: Argan Co-Op, Women’s Argan Collective, Miracle Oil. And so on. If you pull over to a cooperative, the Berber women — and it is only women who make argan oil — will often invite you in to watch them work. In most of the cooperatives, the older village women sit in the courtyard and work as the younger bilingual girls walk you around, giving a tutorial about the process. (Pull over too many times, though, and be prepared to hear all about the process again. And again.)

The nuts, which look like a cross between a walnut and an almond, are picked out of the fruit of the squat, gnarled argan trees that dot the yellow hills above Essaouira. Depending on the season, there might be goats up in the branches, munching on the fruit. The nuts destined for salad oil are roasted on an open flame over a large steel drum, like chestnuts, which brings out their distinctive peppery flavor; those that will be used for skin- and hair-care products are left raw.

The women first crack the shells with sharp stones. They then place the kernels between two Flintstone-size slabs of rock, grinding them into a brown paste, which resembles chunky peanut butter. The paste, kneaded by hand to extract the oil, transforms into a solid hunk and is sent to nearby factories, mainly in Agadir, where more oil is extracted by a press. Some is made into soaps, creams and shampoos, but it is the pure oil that is most sought after.

And how are the coops managed? How do they get funding? What kind of support do their receive from local and overseas investors?

... thanks to the substantial efforts of the Moroccan King Mohammed VI (who has been praised for his efforts to promote women’s rights) and the local government, the oil is being exported worldwide, moving from the mud-and-stone co-ops into spas and Sephoras around the world.

Because the extraction of argan oil is a labor-intensive task perfected by the Berber women native to the area (it takes a few days to produce one liter), the government has established a fund for the cooperatives. Outside groups, like the government of Monaco, have gotten involved as backers. Women from the villages nearby are invited to work half days (so they can still tend to their families) in exchange for fair wages and good working conditions. Eventually, the cooperatives should pay for themselves. Unesco has designated the 10,000-square-mile argan-growing region as a biosphere reserve.

Meanwhile, more Western cosmetic companies are starting to distribute this “liquid gold,” as it is often called. Liz Earle, who runs an organic skin-care line in England, uses argan oil that she buys from two of the cooperatives in Essaouira in her Superskin Concentrate.

Yep, globalised capitalism can benefit the otherwise economically vulnerable. And it seems not all Muslim monarchs are despots.

Words © Irfan Yusuf 2008

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

SPAIN: Where did all the mosques go?

Some years back, I read a book by an English Muslim author named Ahmed Thomson. The book concerned the history of Islam in Spain during and after its Jewish-Muslim golden age. That was a time when Cordoba housed the largest mosque on the planet. And when people of all denominations flocked to al-Andalus in search of knowledge, wealth, health or just somewhere to live in peace.

Basically, people went to Spain for the same reason so many people settle in Australia or New Zealand or some other stable Western country.

Today, Australia has plenty of Muslims and no shortage of mosques. In fact, in some cities and localities, we have too many mosques. When I was growing up, we had to travel 30 minutes to get to our nearest mosque. Now, we have 2 or 3 mosques within 5 minutes drive. One of these mosques was established when there was a split in the leadership of the other nearby mosque. The splinter faction went 3 km south-east and established a small prayer hall adjacent to a shopping centre carpark.

These days there are so many splinter-group mosques that it is hard to know where all the splintering started. One community elder once told me that even the Imam Ali ben Abi Taleb mosque in Lakemba started out as an ethnic splinter mosque.

Yet if a recent article in the New York Times is any indication, it seems we should start exporting some of our mosques to Spain. It seems that in many Spanish towns, Muslims have had to start saying their Friday congregational prayers in converted garages.

Although Spain is peppered with the remnants of ancient mosques, most Muslims gather in dingy apartments, warehouses and garages like the one on North Street, pressed into service as prayer halls to accommodate a ballooning population.

The mosque shortage stems partly from the lack of resources common to any relatively poor, rapidly growing immigrant group.

Then, of course, there is the usual factor of ordinary Muslims with no interest in violence or even politics having to suffer thanks to the violence of a few extremist ratbags.

But in several places, Muslims trying to build mosques have also met resistance from communities wary of an alien culture or fearful they will foster violent radicals.

Distrust sharpened after a group of Islamists bombed commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004, killing 191 people, and in several cities, local governments, cowed by angry opposition from non-Muslims, have blocked Muslim groups from acquiring land for mosques.

Complicating the issue is Spain's historical enmity between Islam and Catholicism and the steady rise in Muslim migration that has only taken place in the last decade or so.

Muslims ruled much of Spain for centuries, but after they were ultimately vanquished in the 1400s, their mosques were either left to ruin or converted into churches. Since then, fewer than a dozen new mosques have been built to serve Spain’s Muslim population, which has grown in the past 10 years to about one million from about 50,000 as immigrants have poured into the country.

That rise has coincided with a decline in church attendance in overwhelmingly Catholic Spain, giving new echo to an old rivalry between the two religions. It was the Catholic king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella, who defeated the last Moorish ruler in Spain in 1492 and oversaw the expulsion of Jews and Muslims. Now, as churches struggle to draw a dwindling flock, Muslim prayer halls are overflowing.

“The reality of this country has changed much faster than that of other countries,” Ángel Ros, Lleida’s mayor, said in an interview. “A process that took 30 years in Italy or France has taken 10 years in Spain.”

The situation is so bad that in one region of Spain, the local parliament is even considering passing a law forcing local councils to allow land to be set aside of religious buildings, including mosques.

... the ruling coalition in Catalonia submitted a bill in the regional parliament in December that would oblige local governments to set aside land for mosques and other places of worship. Representatives of Muslim organizations hope it will inspire a similar national law.

“People are realizing the world has changed and they can’t look the other way,” said Mohammed Chaib, a member of the Catalan parliament and the only Muslim lawmaker in Spain.

Not everyone sees things the same way.

Cardinal Luis Martínez Sistach, archbishop of Barcelona, opposes the bill, which would entitle all religious groups to land on an equal basis. He argues that Catholicism requires different rules.

“A church, a synagogue or a mosque are not the same thing,” he said, according to the conservative Spanish newspaper ABC. The bill, he said, “impinges on our ability to exercise a fundamental right, that of religious liberty.”

While no law on religious land use exists, the wealthy Catholic Church faces no difficulty acquiring land, experts in law and religion say ... Spain’s secular state cannot finance religious buildings, though it has a special arrangement to subsidize the Catholic Church.

And we thought we had it bad here in Australia.

© Irfan Yusuf 2008

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

COMMENT: Hirsi Magaan and the loopy bloggers ...

I have a google alert on the name "Ayaan Hirsi Ali". I'm interested to find out what kind of publicity can be gained by abandoning Islam and adopting far-Right pseudo-liberal politics. Each day, I receive at least 3 places where Hirsi Magaan (her real name) is referred to. Mostly these mentions are in far-Right blogs where she is promoted as some poor suffering brave woman forced to seek sanctuary and faced with the burden of counting so much cash from her best-selling autobiography.

Yep, it's a tough job but someone has to do it.

One such blog mention sent to me today is at this blog. I almost vomited when I read the references to bravery. Seriously, what planet are these loopy bloggers living on? I couldn't help but leave this response ...

There is nothing brave about people like Ibn Warraq and Ayaan Hirsi Magaan (Hirsi Ali is the false name she used to defraud Dutch immigration authorities).

The fact is that Ms Hirsi Magaan travels freely around the world, with little or no threat from anyone.

I myself interviewed Ms Hirsi Magaan when she was in Sydney for the Sydney Writers' Festival. I sat within 30 cm of her, and no guards were present.

However, ultra-Right cultural warriors determined to generate war with anyone not as culturally chauvinistic as them will always paint the Hirsi Magaans as brave.

There are Muslims working within Muslim communities seeking genuine reform.

They risk their lives trying to work within the communities. They don't take the easy (and lucrative) option of just giving up on their faith and communities and seeking (often by dishonest means) "refuge" in Western countries.

I myself have received death threats because of stands I have taken. What do I do? Do I go crying to Daniel Pipes begging him to write a column about my bravery? Do I seek refuge in the EU under a false name? Or do I quietly struggle on?

Real struggle is carried on without behaving like a drama queen in a neo-Conservative pantomine. But I doubt readers of this and other far-Right blogs will appreciate that.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

MEDIA: Did Dicky misrepresent Laurie Ferguson?

In the Crikey daily alert for 11 March 2008, ANU researcher Shakira Hussein suggests that my old buddy Dicky Kerbaj from The Australian may have been engaging in some poetic (or should that be journalistic?) license in relation to comments made by Minister for Multicultural Affairs (and Federal Member for Reid, perhaps the most multicultural federal electorate in the country) Laurie Ferguson.

I'd have to say I never suspected Dicky would be putting words and policies into Laurie's mouth. Further, Dicky's report (that any future Muslim Reference Group advising the Federal Government would focus less on male middle aged migrant religious leaders) was certainly a breath of fresh air compared to the coposition of John Howard's Reference Group.

Yet Ms Hussein actually appears to have spoken to Mr Ferguson on the issue.

This morning, the paper [as in The Australian] reports that the federal government is considering appointments to a new Muslim advisory board. The Muslim Community Reference Group established under the previous government was dominated by conservative religious leaders. It became a lightning rod for internal Muslim community conflicts and recriminations, and was eventually discontinued. The Australian reported that Ferguson is determined that any new government appointed body should represent a wider cross-section of Muslims, and include secular as well as religious figures.

But The Oz may have exaggerated the government's intentions a little with the headline "Rudd's quest for true blue Muslims." In an interview with Crikey this morning, Ferguson hosed down talk of a re-established reference group, emphasising that any such plans were at a very early stage. While the government is "mindful of the need for dialogue" with Muslim communities, it was impossible to say what shape that dialogue might take.
I sure hope that this government spends more time listening to ordinary Aussie Muslims, many if not most of whom aren't terribly observant. I hope they abandon the previous government's approach of talking about and at Muslims instead of talking to them.

© Irfan Yusuf 2008

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COMMENT: Four Corners episode "On Dangerous Ground" ...

Around 300,000 Australians tick the “Muslim” box on their census forms. They don’t have to tick the box. In fact, they don’t have to tick any religion box.

But the public image of these people is determined largely by the statements, actions and responses of (and reports about) the more religiously observant among them. Why?

Laurie Ferguson, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs, had some sound answers which my old pal Dicky Kerbaj has reported in front page story in the 11 March edition of The Australian:

Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs Laurie Ferguson told The Australian yesterday… religious leaders were not representative of the mainstream Muslim community …

“A lot of it is about symbolism; it's about who gets promoted and who gets identified and who gets an option to be seen by Australian society.

“Australia has produced (Muslim) academics, business types, sporting types and it's often not celebrated enough."

Mr Ferguson said the idea that all Muslims were religious was a "misconception" he wanted debunked.
Well hurrah for Mr Ferguson! I know few people (including imams) more qualified to speak about the variety within Muslim communities than an MP with more Muslims and a greater ethnic and linguistic mix of them in his electorate than any other Federal Member of the House of Representatives.

Sadly, Monday’s episode of Four Corners largely repeated the tired old stereotypes and interviewed the usual suspects. The only young Muslims we heard from were habibs with omogaud accents and long beards together with their young macho students.

(And girls wearing Lebanese-style head scarves. Though they couldn’t get a single word in.)

By the end of the show, a tourist watching in their hotel room could be forgiven for believing our nation was just one huge battleground between redneck skips and alienated Arab/Lebanese Muslims. The vast majority of (non-redneck) Anglo-Europeans and (non-alienated Aussie-born) Muslims (many of whom are also Anglo-Europeans) were left out of the “Dangerous Ground” picture.

So how do the 40% of Aussie Muslims born in Australia and having ancestry from over 60 different countries actually feel about foreign policy, youth alienation, national security and other issues about which they are supposed to be obsessed with? The simple answer is: I wouldn’t have the faintest.

And I doubt anyone else does. Because no one, in particular no religious body claiming to represent Aussie Muslims, has bothered to ask these forgotten Muslims what they actually think.

One important message from the Four Corners episode was that the most effective weapons in fighting terrorism are communities. But how can you engage communities until you actually know who they are and what they are thinking? Or do we just rely on the kinds of middle-aged male religious leaders that our former PM placed on his Muslim Community Reference Group? Or self-serving young “leaders” of one ethnicity playing the same “gate keeper” games as their elders?

UPDATE 1: The Austrolabe blog's insightly comments on the story can be found here.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Monday, March 10, 2008

CRIKEY: Dr Ramadan and slur by association

Some Crikey writers have speculated about a change in government possibly leading to our national broadsheet toning down some of its far-Right cultural warrior ways. But if the journalistic lynching of Swiss-born philosopher and author Dr Tariq Ramadan in The Australian is anything to go by, monocultural hawks at the paper aren’t giving up without a fight.

Leading the sectarian attack against Dr Ramadan over the weekend was new Opinion Editor of The Oz Rebecca Weisser. She makes a huge issue of the fact that Dr Ramadan happens to be the grandson of the late Hasan al-Banna, the founder of an Egyptian organisation called al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (literally “Muslim Brotherhood”).

Yes, and? Is Weisser alleging that Dr Ramadan agrees with everything his grandfather’s movement stood for? Using the same reasoning, would Ms Weisser also allege that Senator Eric Abetz is a neo-Nazi? After all, Senator Abetz’s great uncle played a senior role in a rather nasty political movement that held sway over much of Europe during the first half of the 20th century.
Abetz rightly refers to those who play the game of “slur … by association with such a distant relative” as being completely unfair and un-Australian. It would be a shame if an editor of a newspaper calling itself The Australian would engage in such un-Australian conduct.

It’s hardly surprising Weisser provides space on her page to tabloid columnist Melanie Phillips. Some readers might recall Phillips’ visit to Australia some 12 months back to promote her book Londonistan, which makes the extraordinary claim that political Islamism is the dominant strain in contemporary Muslim societies. I’d love to see her make that claim in Pakistan, where Islamist parties suffered near-annihilation in recent elections.

Phillips’ diatribe against Dr Ramadan includes the extraordinary claim that he supports the implementation of sharia (Islamic sacred law) as the law of the land in all (including Western) countries. She obviously hasn’t read Ramadan’s call for draconian criminal punishments often associated with sharia to be the subject of an indefinite moratorium where they exist in Muslim-majority states. She also doesn’t refer to Ramadan’s criticism of the recent sharia speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Ramadan is attending a 3-day conference in Brisbane starting today. Prior to his arrival in Australia, Dr Ramadan visited New Zealand where his tour was supported by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs & Trade. None of the Kiwi papers made a fuss about the visit.

First published in the Crikey daily alert on Monday 3 March 2008.

© Irfan Yusuf 2008

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

COMMENT: Obama the Antichrist?

Writing in the New York Times on 9 March 2008 under the heading "Obama and the Bigots", columnist Nicholas Kristof mentions a new kind of bigotry entering the US Presidential race.

He notes that normally gender is a bigger factor than skin colour with American bigots. However, a new factor is trumping them all - religion. Or in Barack Obama's case, deemed religion.

The whispering campaigns allege that Mr. Obama is a secret Muslim planning to impose Islamic law on the country. Incredibly, he is even accused — in earnest! — of being the Antichrist.

Proponents of this theory offer detailed theological explanations for why he is the Antichrist, and the proof is that he claims to be Christian — after all, the Antichrist would say that, wouldn’t he? The rumors circulate enough that Glenn Beck of CNN asked the Rev. John Hagee, a conservative evangelical, what the odds are that Mr. Obama is the Antichrist.

These charges are fanatical, America’s own equivalent of the vicious accusations about Jews that circulate in some Muslim countries. They are less a swipe at one candidate than a calumny against an entire religion. They underscore that for many bigoted Americans in the 21st century, calling someone a Muslim is still a slur.
Wierd. On a mainstream media outlet like CNN, a talkshow host actually poses a question about the odds that a presidential candidate might be the antichrist. Have Americans lost their collective senses?

Believe it or not, Obama isn't the first candidate to have his ancestry (actual and alleged) used against him. Kristof mentions how ...

... the Federalists charged that Thomas Jefferson was “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
But so what is this was Jefferson's ancestry? And who cares about what Obama's ancestry is?

I guess it's best to let Kristof speak for himself ...

... with countless people today spreading scurrilous rumors that Mr. Obama is a Muslim, the most appropriate response is a denial followed by: And so what if he were?

A 2007 Gallup poll found that 94 percent of Americans said they would vote for a black candidate for president and 88 percent for a woman. In contrast, a Los Angeles Times poll in 2006 found that only 34 percent of respondents said they could vote for a Muslim for president.

Even if a prejudice is directed to a matter of choice, like religion or long hair, it’s still prejudice. It’s possible to believe that Catholics have every right to be president while opposing a particular Catholic candidate who would ban contraception; likewise, it’s possible to believe that Muslims have every right to hold office without necessarily embracing the candidacy of particular Muslims
who advocate enveloping all women in burkas.

To his credit, Mr. Obama has spoken respectfully of Islam (he told me last year, on the record, that the Muslim call to prayer is “one of the prettiest sounds on earth at sunset”). If he were to go further — “and so what if I were Muslim?” — many Americans would see that as confirmation that he is a Sunni terrorist agent of Al Qaeda who is part of a 9/11 backup plan: If you can’t reach the White House with a hijacked plane, then storm the Oval Office through the ballot box.

This is a case where Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain should take the initiative and denounce the fear-mongering about Mr. Obama as hate speech. The wink-wink references to “Barack Hussein Obama” and lies about his going to a madrassa are the religious equivalent of racial slurs, and Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton should denounce them in the strongest terms. This is their chance to show leadership.

When Mrs. Clinton was asked in a television interview a week ago whether Mr. Obama is a Muslim, she denied it firmly — but then added, most unfortunately, “as far as I know.” To his credit, Mr. McCain scolded a radio host who repeatedly referred to “Barack Hussein Obama” and later called him a Manchurian candidate.

Martin Luther wasn’t a model of tolerance but even he took the position that, “I’d rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian.” In this presidential campaign, we should at least aspire to be as open-minded as 16th-century Germans.

If only the German leadership had such broadmindedness in the middle of the 20th century.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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COMMENT: The Australian Christian Lobby and the Camden proposal ...

The Australian Christian Lobby recently ran a piece on the proposed Camden Muslim independent school. That piece was interesting in that it refused to condemn Fred Nile and others who use this issue as a divisive ethno-religious wedge.

Further, the ACL refer to me as "Islamic Spokesman". Do ACL think I would be stupid enough to claim such a position? In what sense am I an Islamic spokesman? Have I ever claimed this title? Do I represent any Muslim religious organisation?

ACL may have sufficient hubris to claim to represent all Christians. Jim Wallace may travel through the corridors of power agitating against Australia's Western secular democracy and promoting his fringe approach to social and moral issues, all the while claiming he represents all Christians.

I have never made any such representative claims, nor do I intend to. My opinion in the ABC Unleashed piece cited by ACL was my own personal view.

I would request that ACL correct their inaccurate post. ACL should understand that I don't wish to follow their example by claiming a leadership mantle that is not properly mine.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

BOOK: Travelling through Muslim minds ...

Riaz Hassan is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Flinders University in South Australia. You can find out more detail about his 4 decades of academic work here.

I'm in the process of reading his most recent book Inside Muslim Minds which I'll be reviewing for The Australian. That book is a continuation of his 2002 work Faithlines: Muslim Conceptions of Islam and Society.

The importance of work by sociologists and anthropologists of Muslim societies cannot be underestimated. It's one thing to talk about what one's preferred version of Islamic orthodoxy teaches. It's another to be able to definitively state how Muslims actually live out their faith.

So often we hear self-appointed religious leaders pretending to know what Muslims think and believe and do. We also hear self-appointed experts make similar claims, often with a view to projecting the most negatively monolithic (or should that be monolithically negative?) image of Muslim reality.

How do we rebut such claims? By talking to Muslims themselves and finding out the facts. And being prepared for some results that might make us feel somewhat uncomfortable.

Certainly my eyebrows have been raised a few times as I've ploughed through the first few chapters of Hassan's book. Questions raised in my mind include: Was his sample big enough? Has he considered the possibility that Muslims in different parts of the world may apply different connotations to the same concept?

For instance, Muslims from different parts of the world view the term sharia differently. For what they're worth, here are a few lines from something I wrote elsewhere in the context of the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent pronouncement on the subject ...

Different Muslim cultures understand sharia in different ways.

For instance, Indonesians tend to associate sharia with non-interest banking and ethical investments. In South Asia, where the common law has incorporated sharia codes in family law and inheritance, Muslims view sharia in these terms. Hence, it will be almost impossible to find any consensus among Australian Muslims as to exactly what sharia is.

Social research has its limitations. But this should not detract from nits importance. Those of us with some interest in building bridges across the broad Western and Muslim worlds should know how people in different parts of these world sectors view themselves and each other.

Riaz Hassan's book is useful because it gives us at least some idea of how many Muslims in various parts of the world approach both personal and social aspects of their faith. We need to know this information for at least two reasons.

Firstly, we need empirical evidence to answer the speculations of cultural warriors from all sides. But more importantly, if we are committed to social and spiritual reform in Muslim majority states, we need to understand where the objects of reform are now located. You cannot take a community with you toward a better path if you don't know on which path they are presently travelling.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Friday, March 07, 2008

EVENT: Fundamentalist comedy ...

For more details, check out their extremist fundamentalist website here.

NB: This show is rated M for Muslim. Not recommended for Fred Nile, Pauline Hanson, Mark Steyn, Daniel Pipes, etc etc.

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LETTERS: The Oz letters on Muslim literalism ...

This letter was published in The Australian recently ...

Muslims tied by orthodoxy
March 06, 2008

SUPERFICIALLY, it would appear that there are many different shades of Islam around the world and many different types of Muslim.

But there does appear to be one aspect in which they are truly monolithic and that is in the acceptance of an Islamic orthodoxy.

To go outside the orthodox position is to risk being labelled a heretic. Any moderate position is locked into the orthodox position. And when viewed from a framework that is locked in by the orthodox position, moderates know that they have little or no doctrinal support for a liberal interpretation of the Koran from within the Koran itself.

A literal interpretation of the Koran, coupled with a total acceptance of the orthodox version of the life of Muhammad, and the history of the origin of Islam, leaves the doctrinally weaker moderates mortally wounded and the Salafists in the ascendency.

Riaz Hassan (Inquirer, 1-2/3) does not challenge the orthodox position, nor does he seriously challenge the Salafist position. All the moderates can do is maintain a sullen silence and keep a low profile, and not risk being added to the list. The fear of the label of heresy also requires the mandatory ostentatious demonstrations of loyalty, shows of anger, chest beating, flag burning, and the like, at every perceived slight against Islam. And they like to moan about the way they are all lumped together with extremists by non-Muslims.

A. Crooks
Adelaide, SA
Talk about issuing blank cheque fatwas! Crooks has obviously surveyed each and every Muslim-majority state and Muslim community across the planet, and can say definitively that they all regard literalism as an essential component of orthodoxy.

This kind of nonsensical analysis could not go unanswered. My response to Crooks (published on The Oz letters blog) is as follows ...

So all Muslims are tied to a literalist interpretation of the Koran? If that is the case, why is the English translation of the Koran done by Abdullah Yusuf Ali still the most popular translation? Ali was a civil servant under the Raj who went against orthodoxy and regarded many of the heavenly rewards mentioned in the Koran as metaphors. He also applied metaphoric interpretations to other verses in the Koran.

My advice to far-Right polemicists is to stop cutting and pasting whatever they read from migration-fraud Ayaan Hirsi Magaan or from Robert “I’m not Opus Dei even though I look and sound like them” Spencer’s JihadWatch. You just make yourselves look really dumb.
Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

MEDIA: Why Eric Abetz would regard Rebecca Weisser as un-Australian ...

Recently Rebecca Weisser, Opinion Editor of an American-owned newspaper known as The Australian, wrote a profile of Swiss-born author Dr Tariq Ramadan. In her profile, Weisser made much of the fact that Tariq Ramadan's grandfather was the late Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Islamist movement al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (the Muslim Brotherhood). My own take on that profile can be found here.

Effectively, Weisser was engaging in a slur by association. At least one Liberal Senator would regard this kind of behavious as "distasteful muckraking", as "unfair" and "un-Australian".

In case any readers are wondering, I'm talking about Tasmanian Senator and former minister in the Howard Government Eric Abetz. In an article on today's Sydney Morning Herald website, it is reported that Eric Abetz's uncle was a convicted Nazi war criminal. Here are some excerpts:

Senator Abetz, the deputy Liberal leader in the Senate, last night volunteered that his great uncle Otto Abetz had been a high-ranking Nazi as he sought to head off what he said was a slur by association.

... Otto Abetz was Nazi ambassador to occupied France, where he is believed to have ordered anti-Jewish drives and adopted a style that earned him the nickname King Otto I.

Senator Abetz ... was confirming the connection because some newspapers would today be carrying the story, which he suggested most Australians would find distasteful muck-raking. "Can I say that he died the same year I was born? I never met the man," Mr Abetz said.

"I think most reasonable Australians would regard any attempt to slur me by association with such a distant relative as completely unfair and, if I might say so, un-Australian."

... Otto Abetz was heavily involved in the Nazi regime as Hitler's ambassador in Paris, then tried and jailed for war crimes in 1945 ...

... Senator Abetz said the story of his connection had been "around for a while", and was raised before the last election by Labor interjection in the Senate.

"I don't have any links with national socialism," he said. "Indeed, anybody who knows … my public record knows it has been one of speaking out against socialism, be it national socialism, or Soviet-style socialism."
In the same manner as Senator Abetz, Dr Ramadan has spoken out against violent religious extremism, against draconian criminal punishments and against monocultural politics. Yet Ramadan allegedly shares such demented intellectual facinations which, according to Weissner and other critics, Ramadan inherits from his grandfather.

One wonders if Weisser will now attach Senator Abetz on the same basis. After all, Otto Abetz was responsible for orchestrating the massacres of thousands of Jews, communists and others in France murdered and persecuted for their ethnicity, religious and political beliefs.

Or does Weisser suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood is comparable to the Nazis? Does she have evidence that Hasan al-Banna called for the genocide of Jews, Gypsies and other allegedly undesirable races?

I can't say I agree with Eric Abetz on alot of things. But I do agree that to slur someone based on the actions or words of a distant relative is just cheap muck-raking. There is no evidence that Ramadan supports any of the racist, sexist or xenophobic views Weisser attributes to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Weisser owes Dr Ramadan an apology. I certainly won't be holding my breath waiting for one.

© Irfan Yusuf 2008

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

COMMENT: Rebecca Weisser on Ayaan Hirsi Magaan ...

Dr Ramadan isn’t the only author of Muslim heritage The Oz's Rebecca Weisser has profiled. She profiled neo-Conservative former Dutch MP and migration fraud Ayaan Hirsi Magaan in an article for The Oz on 3 February 2007. Here are some excerpts:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a rare public example of moral courage for the West ...

For Hirsi Ali, Islam in its current incarnation is not just different from Judeo-Christian culture, it is fundamentally incompatible with the enlightenment values that underpin Western prosperity ... Islam, with its emphasis on passive submission to the will of Allah and finding fulfillment in the hereafter rather than on earth, discourages the work ethic that is the motor for economically successful societies.

Hirsi Ali's views have added weight because they are not those of an outsider or a dilettante ...
Weisser has nothing even mildly critical to say about a woman who has acknowledged to having told lies about her background in an attempt to queue-jump and defraud the Netherlands’ asylum laws. Weisser also doesn’t question any of Hirsi Magaan’s claims about Islamic theology or Muslim societies, regardless of the gross ignorance and prejudice than underlies them.

And why does Weisser believe what Hirsi Magaan says about Muslims and not Dr Ramadan? After all, neither is an outsider nor a dilettante. This idea of insiders being more authentic can work both ways. I could easily claim that Judaism is a racist religion which teaches God is little more than a real estate agent for the Jews. I could then claim that these are the views of American Jewish insider Margaret Marcus (now known as Maryam Jameelah).

Is it all really about believing what alleged insiders have to say? Or is it just that Weissner shares Hirsi Magaan’s prejudices about Muslims and wants to give them maximum currency? Does Weisser reject Ramadan’s optimism that Muslims can develop a European Islam while? Does she prefer Hirsi Magaan’s claim that Islam is incompatible with Western values?

I’d love to see Weisser or Hirsi Magaan tell a group of Liberal-voting Zimbabwean or South African Muslim business people from Algester or Campbelltown or Lysterfield that Islam discourages the work ethic. Or maybe they could try convincing the academics, professionals, postgrad students and senior public servants that gather once a month at the Canberra Islamic Centre.

Weisser's totally uncritical treatment of Hirsi Magaan, when compared with her brutal attacks of Ramadan, say more about Weisser's own prejudices than those of her subjects.

© Irfan Yusuf 2008

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COMMENT: Rebecca Weisser on Tariq Ramadan ...

I am sitting in Brisbane at the home of an old buddy and trying to focus on writing a paper I have to deliver at a conference at Griffith University. I expected the conference to be a fairly low-key affair – a bunch of university academics and writers talking about the future of a set of religious traditions whose adherents make up less than 2% of the broader Australian community.

Among the academics invited is a Swiss-born author who has studied philosophy and speaks fluent French. This chap has urged Muslim governments across the world to abandon any steps toward implementing hudood, the maximum capital punishments that apply to a handful of criminal offences under classical sharia. In fact, he has called for a complete moratorium of such punishments in Muslim communities across the world.

You’d think this is exactly the kind of Muslim intellectual we need more of. But Rebecca Weisser’s profile of Dr Ramadan presents him as being, at best, extremely controversial.

Rebecca Weisser has just been appointed interim Opinion Editor of The Australian. Her predecessor, Tom Switzer, had some interesting views on Islam, some of which I have discussed here.

Weisser complains of Ramadan’s apparently “contradictory” views on Israel. She writes ...

On his website, in English, he says he supports Israel's right to exist. At the same time, he says he favours a single Israel and Palestine. Presumably he does not support, in the long term, a two-state solution.
Yes, and? In what sense are his views on Israel relevant to his book or to the conference he is attending? I haven’t read his entire book, but I understand it explores how certain themes arising from the life of the Prophet Muhammad could be understand and applied today. As for the conference, I understand it is more about Australia than any other country.

I understand Ramadan has expressed the view that Muslim-majority states should and must recognise Israel’s right to exist. He has also condemned Iranian president Ahmedinejad’s calls to wipe Israel off the map. But that doesn’t seem enough for Weisser.

And why should Weisser have an issue with Ramadan allegedly not supporting a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians? Is she aware of the number of Israelis (or even Australian Jewish organisational leaders) who are opposed to the establishment of any Palestinian state? Is she aware of the work of far-Right American polemicists like Daniel Pipes (who has visited Australia on numerous occasions as a guest of major Jewish organisations) who also oppose the two-state solution?

Then Weisser complains that Ramadan was the grandson of Hasan al-Banna, the founder of al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (literally “the Muslim Brotherhood”). Those who have studied the Ikhwan carefully know it has gone through a number of stages in its development and that has it has split into various factions.

Among its most extreme factions is one which calls for the establishment of an Islamic state using violent means. I guess this faction would be the Muslim equivalent of the followers of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of an extreme Zionist faction with close links to Italian fascist leaders during the Second World War.

Jabotinsky’s movement, of course, has been through developments of its own. On the one hand, its early years were characterised by terrorist attacks on British and Arab targets. Deir Yassin and the King David Hotel come to mind. Yet the movement also produced an Israeli Prime Minister that made peace with Egypt.

If we keep harping on about people’s past, it’s because we are too afraid of the present and certainly aren’t interested in making peace in the future.

In Ramadan’s case, the past being harped on about is beyond his control. Yes, he was Hasan al-Banna’s grandson. What can he do about it? Jump into a time machine and insist his mother married someone else?

Weisser should judge Ramadan on his own merits. She might start by reading his books or listening to some of the lectures he gave when he was last in Sydney.

© Irfan Yusuf 2008

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