Wednesday, April 30, 2008

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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