Wednesday, April 30, 2008

MEDIA: Crittenden attacks Georgetown inter-faith centre ...

ABC Religion Report presenter Stephen Crittenden today viciously attacked Georgetown University and one of its leading academics, Professor John Esposito. Professor Esposito is the author and editor of numerous books on Islam, Muslim societies and Islamist movements. He is also the author of a number of standard texts and authoritative reference works including:

* The Oxford History of Islam
* The Oxford Dictionary of Islam
* The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World (4 volumes)

Apart from these and many other works, Professor Esposito recently co-authored with Dalia Mogahed the book Who Speaks for Islam? What A Billion Muslims Really Think. That book is based on a Gallup World Poll - the largest study of its kind - conducted between 2001 and 2007, using a sample which represented

... residents young and old, educated and illiterate, female and male, and from urban and rural settings … representing more than 90% of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims.

I'm not aware of Mr Crittenden conducting any similar surveys or fieldwork amongst Muslims or indeed followers of any other faith. Still, that doesn't stop Crittenden from describing Esposito in these terms ...

... Georgetown University in Washington DC- the Jesuit University there - where the big department that looks at interreligious dialogue between - I think it is called Muslim and Christian understanding - is run by John Esposito who is in fact, in the West, one of -I guess- the leading academics of that "It's all the fault of the West" approach. (emphasis mine)

It would be interesting to see Crittenden point out which parts of Esposito's works would fit this description. It's easy to make throw-away remarks that disclose one's underlying sectarian prejudices. But Crittenden is employed by the ABC, an organisation that prides itself on balance and fairness. Unfortunately on this, as on so many other occasions, Mr Crittenden doesn't seem to have lived upto the standards set by his employer.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Letter to the Editor of The Australian

The following letter has been written to The Australian for publication tomorrow, and has been distributed today by Ikebal Patel, President of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils ...

More ridiculous claims against Dr Abdalla

If ‘secretive’, as claimed by The Australian, then the Tabligh Jamaat (TJ) group must be one of the worst kept secrets in the Muslim world. Established in India in the 1920s, TJ has a presence in over 80 countries around the world. The main activities of the apolitical movement are to encourage Muslims to be more religiously observant, particularly in terms of prayer, charity, and fasting, as well as to provide social support to Muslims who are isolated, sick, or disadvantaged. Muslims associated with the TJ spend considerable time in mosques and regularly make spiritual journeys to mosques in different towns, states, and countries.

In Australia, the TJ operates with the full knowledge and support of the mosques in which its members are present. Although many Muslims see TJ members as conservative in terms of their views and appearance, they are generally appreciated for their simplicity and reminders of traditional Islamic values, norms, and manners. While actual TJ members generally comprise only a small proportion of the congregation in most Australian mosques, it is not uncommon for large numbers of the congregation to join TJ study circles after prayers to listen to narrations of Prophetic traditions.

It is this traditional focus that attracted Dr Mohamad Abdalla to the movement in his younger days. While he is not a leader of the TJ, he maintains a close association with the group as he does with various other organisations within the Muslim community. As Acting Imam of the Kuraby Mosque for many years, Dr Abdalla was expected to develop positive relations with various Muslim groups and to build bridges of tolerance and understanding between the Muslim community and the wider Australian society. He is widely acknowledged for his success in both these regards.

Time and again Dr Abdalla has been a voice of forgiveness and restraint. In the aftermath of the burning down of the Kuraby Mosque in September 2001, it was Dr Abdalla who calmed the Muslim community and began working with various levels of government on engagement strategies. He has subsequently played this role at times of other major issues such as the Cronulla riots. Dr Abdalla should be judged on his work; false assumptions and innuendos are no bases for a fair assessment of this important Australian figure. It is unbecoming for The Australian as the national daily of this country to tolerate sensationalist, inflammatory, and biased journalism like that of Richard Kerbarj. Mr Kerbarj has previously been proven to have written misleading articles but has chosen to not correct these. A correction is expected this time.

Statement endorsed by:

Ikbal Patel
President, Australian Federation of Islamic Councils

Suliman Sabdia
President, Islamic Council of Queensland
(Representative body of 16 Islamic Societies of Queensland)

Shaykh Moez Nafti
Australian National Council of Imams

Imam Yusuf Peer
Chairman, Queensland Council of Imams

Dr Mohamad Hanief Khatree
President, Muslim Business Network

Mahmood Surtie
Kuraby Mosque

Naseem Abdul
Islamic Society of Gold Coast

Mustafa Ally
Crescents of Brisbane

Nora Amath
Managing Director, AMARAH inc.

I personally would also endorse the comments contained in this letter. I have travelled with TJ groups in both Australia and Pakistan. I don't agree with much of their methodology. But to describe them as secretive, sinister and linked to terrorism is as absurd as claiming that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are linked to American excesses at Abu Ghraib. Yes, it's true that many American Mormons vote and/or are members of the Republican Party. It's also true that a Republican President sent troops to Iraq who have carried out these atrocities. Are we now to accuse each and every current or even former Mormon of being responsible for war crimes?

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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COMMENT: On quoting the Bible to support veils ...

Christians regard Paul as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Although Paul never met Christ in person, he did see a vision of Christ during a journey to Damascus.

Paul's letters form part of the New Testament, which Christian theology regards as inspired by God. Of course, unlike Judaism and Islam, Christianity is not a law-based faith. Hence Christians are not bound by dietary and other rules contained in the sacred law of Moses.

According to a recent report in The Australian, Sheik Tajeddine Hilaly has written a book in which he claims that the Bible "mandates" women to wear veils on their heads. The headline of the article suggests that Hilaly is effectively saying that non-Muslim women are also required to veil in the same manner that Muslim women are.

The report then quotes a prominent Sydney Anglican cleric:

The Anglican Bishop of South Sydney, Robert Forsyth, challenged Sheik Hilali's comments about the veil being "mandated" in the Bible, saying they were misleading.

"The New Testament does call upon people to dress modestly," he said. "But there is no understanding that women are commanded to wear the veil. But it is mandated that you should dress appropriately for your social context."
Fair enough. So what are the actual words used in the New Testament? This is where Paul of Tarsus comes in. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes (KJV, verses 4-16):

Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.

But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.

For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.

For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.

For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man.

Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.

For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.

Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.

For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.

Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?

Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?

But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.

But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.
And in the 14th chapter of the same letter, Paul writes (NIV, verses 35-36):

As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
Do the instructions outlined in these verses represent some kind of law for Christians? Are all Christians bound by these rules? As a non-Christian, I don't think it is appropriate for me to comment on this. But I do observe that in many Christian cultures, women do veil when attending church (and even outside church). Certainly in many Orthodox churches, women continue to veil in church.

If Sheik Hilaly had quoted these verses and similar Biblical verses in his book, does that mean he is ordering non-Muslim women in Australia to veil? Or is he merely suggesting that non-Muslims should not feel affronted by veiled Muslim women as similar practices are mentioned in both Jewish and Christian scriptures? And if so, why should Bishop Forsyth or any other non-Muslim Australian have a problem with this?

(Thanks to BC for pointing out the Biblical references.)

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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MEDIA: Natalie O'Brien verbals Sheik Hilaly?

When I read The Oz’s reporting on local Muslim matters, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The serious ignorance of recent reports by Dicky Kerbaj and Natalie O’Brien make me feel like laughing. But it makes me cry to think that, when reporting on some issues, the national broadsheet can produce hysterical reports more fit for a cheap tabloid.

Under the heading “Christians ‘should wear veil’”, O’Brien claimed on Saturday that Lakemba imam, Sheik Hilaly,

... says the Bible "mandates" the wearing of the veil by Christian women.
Now lets examine the actual words of Hilaly that O'Brien quotes in her story:

Through this I hope to raise awareness and understanding and eliminate apprehensions and misunderstandings about the veil ...

The veil upholds the modesty and protects the dignity of women, whether Muslim or non-Muslim ...

Wearing the veil creates the most realistic similarity with the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ ...

The Muslim has no right to impose the rules of his religion on others. My religious duty is to advise the Muslim woman to be modest and to wear the Islamic dress. It is her choice whether to comply or not ...

Through these words I wanted to protect women from rapists who have lost their humanity, lost their minds and religion.

Whilst I believe that the rapists are responsible for their crimes, I wanted to protect my daughters by encouraging them to adopt all available lawful means of protection ...

I did not mean this analogy to denigrate immodestly dressed women; rather I meant to denigrate those men who set aside their humanity and turn into predators.
Now could someone please show me where in these words Hilaly has said that the Bible mandates women to wear veils? Indeed, the closest thing to this in O’Brien’s quotation of Hilaly was a claim that “the Virgin Mary is often depicted with a veil covering her head”. Naturally, the Pope will be rebutting this scurrilous suggestion during his address to the crowds at World Youth Day.

This is a classic case of O'Brien almost verballing Hilaly. At the very least, she seems to be deriving a meaning from his words that simply isn't there. This is the work of someone who is allegedly a senior reporter for the national broadsheet.

UPDATE I: Ms O'Brien telephoned me on the morning of 30 April 2008. She advised me that the headline to the article was not written by her. It is definitely true that she doesn't write headlines. However, the sub-editor who prepared the headline did so after reading her words. The headline reflects the sub-editor's understanding of Ms O'Brien's article, an understanding that is confirmed in this letter to the editor ...

Hilali: voice of unreason

TAJ Din al-Halili, once again proving himself to be incapable of rational insight or epistemic humility, now presumes to interpret the Bible for Christian women ("Hilali tells Christian women to wear veils”, 26-27/4).

If Halili had any understanding of the Bible, he would know that Christianity is fundamentally about regenerating the state of our hearts rather than conforming to a mode of dress: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). There is no obligation for women to wear a veil in the Christian faith. Nor should there be. Halili’s insistence on this matter is just another outworking of his desire to oppress and denigrate women.
Andrew Hastie
Larrakeyah, NT

Ms O'Brien further said that Hilaly had used the term "mandates" in his book which was written by the Sheik in English and not translated. And where does she say this? She refers me to the first paragraph of her story:

OUTSPOKEN Muslim cleric Taj Din al-Hilali says the Bible "mandates" the wearing of the veil by Christian women.

The word "mandates" appears in inverted commas and therefore represents a quote. Yep, a one-word quote. The sentence in which the word is quoted isn't reproduced in full. Just one word. Very convincing.

Ms O'Brien claims that my alleging that she verballed Sheik Hilaly was defamatory, threatening to "refer the matter to the lawyers". With these threats in mind, I have amended the original entry somewhat.

It is possible that the term "verballed" may be a little over-the-top. Perhaps a better phrase may have been "put words into his mouth" or "provide a rather novel interpretation of his actual words". I stand by my claim that nothing in the sentences of Hilaly she reproduces suggests that non-Muslim women are required to wear the veil.

Then again, Ms O'Brien claims she has read the relevant chapter of the book. She tells me that the Sheik wrote the book in English, and that what she read was not a translation.

If that is the case, she might ask her editor if the newspaper (or its website) can find room to reproduce the entire chapter where Hilaly uses the term "mandate", as opposed to allowing her only enough room to quote the actual word without much context. If, after reading the entire chapter, it becomes clear that Ms O'Brien was not quoting Hilaly out of context, I would be happy to unreservedly apologise. Until then, I can only comment on what she reports.

Finally, I managed to ask Ms O'Brien about the extent of her knowledge on the Tabligh Jamaat. She advised me that she spoke to them with some regularity and had also referred to a PhD thesis on the subject (I presume she means Dr Jan Ali's thesis, which she has referred to in previous articles). However, she claims that she cannot go to their gatherings as women are not allowed. She was, however, aware that they meet regularly at Sefton and Lakemba mosques.

I asked her basic questions about their theology and methodology - What were the six guiding principles of tabligh? What is the TJ textbook called and who wrote it? Basic questions. Kindergarten stuff. Ms O'Brien had no answers. She also didn't seem to know about the TJ gathering in Bangladesh where some 3 million people gather each year.

Despite not knowing even the basics of TJ's methodology and theology, Ms O'Brien is prepared to cite reports claiming this completely apolitical group which forbids all discussion of politics at its gatherings is linked to al-Qaida or is a recruiting ground for al-Qaida. The question thus arises: Is it appropriate for someone with little direct knowledge or experience with an organisation (beyond reading a PhD thesis and talking to some of its members on the phone) to be citing reports containing serious allegations?

UPDATE II: A source close to Sheik Hilaly has told me that Hilaly did not write his book on women in English. Rather, the book was written in Arabic and then translated into English by a translator arranged by Hilaly's Egyptian publishers. In other words, what Ms O'Brien has quoted is an English translation. The source also advised that Sheik Hilaly had cited over 20 verses from the Old and New Testaments (including the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians), his intention being to show non-Muslim readers that the hijab should not be seen as something alien as it is also part of their religious tradition.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

MEDIA: The niqab hasn't covered Crittenden's intellect entirely ...

The Vice Chancellor of Griffith University published the full version of his op-ed submission to The Australian on the ABC Unleashed portal. His op-ed included a rather curious explanation for why Saudi Arabia would want to fund Western universities teaching Islamic studies.

The Saudi Government seeks to moderate reactionary elements in its own society by funding Islamic research centres in prominent Western universities to develop a form of progressive Islam that has credibility and legitimacy.

The Saudi Government can appeal to the product of these Islamic research centres as a legitimate alternative to their country's more conservative policies and perspectives.

Generally, I can understand the other arguments in the VC’s op-ed. But I cannot understand how the Saudis would hope to moderate their more reactionary elements at home by funding institutions overseas? Will some of the wacky lecturers at the Islamic University of (or rather, outside) Madeena be sent to be de-programmed at Griffith or Harvard?

Thankfully, this point hasn't escaped even jaundiced commentators such as Stephen Crittenden. Sadly, Crittenden's prejudices toward some Muslim cultures have led him to instead preferring to focus on a photo of two Saudi students who wear customary Saudi head-dress. Still, it's good to see Crittenden’s self-imposed intellectual niqab hasn't totally affected his approach to this issue.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

CRIKEY: A rather silly attack on the Griffith Islamic Research Unit ...

Jesus Christ is reported as once declaring: "Ask and ye shall receive." But when it comes to Griffith University’s dealings with foreign embassies, Richard Kerbaj reckons what Christ really said was: "Ask and we’ll treat it as begging and attach lots of Wahhabi ideological strings."

His article in today’s Australian claims Griffith University in Brisbane "practically begged the Saudi embassy to bankroll its Islamic campus for $1.3 million." The headline (which Kerbaj probably didn’t write) screams: "Top uni 'begged' for Saudi money".

And what was the size of the bankroll? $1.3 million? $1 million? $500,000? Nope. A measly $100,000, representing just under 7.7 % of the total funds required. And the rest of the money? Where did it (and will it) come from? Perhaps from another government...

Kerbaj makes much of criticism from Dr Mervyn Bendle, an academic from James Cook University, who is critical of Griffith for accepting the donation. Kerbaj describes Bendle as a "senior lecturer in the history of terrorism". Though that’s not quite how James Cook Uni’s website describes Dr Bendle.

Kerbaj also repeats the mantra that the official religion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (known as Wahhabism) "is espoused by al-Qaida." Yes, Dicky, that’s true. But then Wahhabism is also espoused by many Saudi scholars, both religious and secular, with little truck for Mr bin-Laden and his gang of not-so-merry men.

And what has been the impact of this Saudi largesse? Well, at the Griffith Islamic Research Unit’s most recent conference, the Saudi Ambassador did manage to give a speech. Then again, so did Indigenous Elder Auntie Valda Coolwell and Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services Laurie Ferguson. As did staunch critics of Wahhabism such as myself and an openly anti-Wahhabi American imam now based in Sydney who left a university in Saudi Arabia to study religion under Turkish scholars hostile to Wahhabism.

In fact, the place was virtually stacked out with anti-Wahhabists. If my religion allowed gambling, I’d be prepared to place money on the fact that you’d see more Wahhabis at World Youth Day events. If influence is what they wanted, the Saudis certainly aren’t getting value for their dollar at Griffith Uni.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

COMMENT: Tanveer on terror ...

Some time ago, a friend of mine (Tanveer Ahmed) wrote an article for The Australian that tried to link Islamic theology to terrorism.

Tanveer made this interesting observation in his article ...

Muslim communities must openly argue precisely what it is they fear and loathe about the West.

I'm not sure which Muslim communities he is talking about. Perhaps the Bangladeshi Muslims he grew up with might hate the West. But most Muslims I grew up with would rather live in Australia than any nominally Muslim country.

However, what interests me about this quote is Tanveer's invitation for us to "openly argue". With that in mind, I wanted to start a conversation based on my own observations of Tanveer's article.

At its core, Islam is deeply sceptical of the idea of a secular state. There is no rendering unto Caesar because state and religion are believed to be inseparable.

I'm not sure if Tanveer can provide evidence for this claim beyond the rants of groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir. Tanveer should provide relevant texts (verses from the Qur'an and/or ahadith), as well as references from classical and modern jurists of Islamic sacred law.

Perhaps Tanveer doesn't quite understand Islam or even secularism in the same manner as I do. I touched on this topic in an article for The Canberra Times on May 26 2006:

Classical Islamic sacred law was codified by private imams supported by Muslim civil society with minimal state involvement. The earliest and most authoritative imams of Islam frequently found themselves on the wrong side of rulers ... Islamic history is, therefore, a case of reverse secularism. In the Catholic West, the State fought to keep itself independent of the Roman Church. Throughout the Islamic world, Muslim religious authorities struggled to remain independent of rulers who attempted to usurp the mantle of religious leadership.

In Sunni theology, religious and temporal leadership was united in the person of the Prophet Muhammad and his four, rightly-guided successors. In Shi'ite theology, the two forms of leadership were united in the prophet and his 12 direct descendants, whom Shi'ites refer to as the 12 imams of the prophet's household, and who are also held in high esteem by Sunnis.

Yet rulers of both persuasions have tried to re-unite the two leadership forms, and have often suffered greatest resistance from imams themselves. Modern Muslim states have tried to regulate religious institutions by establishing ministries to employ and train imams, often with only minimal success.

Surely to claim that Islamic sacred law insists on the unity of religious and temporal authority is a highly suspect position.

Tanveer's article continues ...

It was completely normal to view Jews as evil and responsible for the ills of the world. It was normal to see the liberal society around us as morally corrupt, its stains to be avoided at all costs. It was normal to see white girls as cheap and easy and to see the ideal of femininity as its antithesis. These views have been pushed to more private, personal spheres amid the present scrutiny of Muslim communities.

How is anti-semitism, racism and sexism the norm in non-Bangladeshi (or even Bangladeshi) Muslim societies? Is Tanveer suggesting Bosnian and Albanian Muslims teach their children to regard white women as cheap?

Further, how does this tie in with the fact that, for many Muslim migrants and in many Muslim communities, friendship with Jews is a given? Is Tanveer suggesting, for instance, that my mother's relationship with my Aunty Annie is something atypical? Is Imam Khalil Chami's and Sheik Fehmi El-Imam's close friendship with people in the Jewish community something strange?

Has Tanveer done any fieldwork among different ethnic Muslim communities, or is he aware of any fieldwork among ethnic Muslim communities, which supports this thesis?

Finally, Tanveer makes this claim, already mentioned above ...

Muslim communities must openly argue precisely what it is they fear and loathe about the West. Much of it centres on sexuality. This is the first step in rooting out any Muslim ambivalence about living in the West.

On what basis does Tanveer assume that Muslim comm unities fear and loathe the West? Has he done, or is he aware of, any research which suggests Muslims in Australia loathe the West? Further, on what basis does he suggest this is based on sexuality?

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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COMMENT: Did Daniel Pipes learn to read Arabic at madressah?

It’s something I always resented about coming from a South Asian background. This insistence on kids learning how to read and make the noises of the Arabic text of the Qur’an. But not being able to understand what the Qur’an is actually saying.

My old teacher at Jamia al-Falah in Karachi used to say to me: “read the Qur’an with attention and respect, as if it is a letter from someone you love”. That’s all good and fine, but no one who has loved me has ever sent letters in a language I don’t understand.

So many critics of the madressah system rightly point out that it produces graduates who can read and memorise the Qur’an, but don’t know how to implement it in their lives. OK, so you know how to read it out aloud. Yes, that in itself is a source of blessing. But what happens after that?

However, I’m pleased to now learn that one chronic anti-Muslim bigot from the United States shares something in common with millions of kiddies of South Asian Muslim background. According to a profile published by the organisers of the Intelligence Squared Australia debate on the alleged incompatibility of Islam and democracy

Mr Pipes speaks French and reads Arabic and German.

Fantastic. That should be enough to make him an expert on political Islam. The fact that he can read Arabic is enough. Whether he understands it or not is a different thing altogether.

Pipes makes much of his ability to read Arabic. The problem is that so many influential texts on 20th century political Islam were not written in Arabic. Syed Maududi wrote most of his work in Urdu. Ali Shariati, regarded as one of the ideologues of the Iranian revolution, wrote in Farsi. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, the closest thing Turkey has to a political Islamist, wrote in modern Turkish.

The extent to which Pipes has any understanding of political Islam is open to question.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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