Monday, June 30, 2008

COMMENT: The Oz and Tanya

The Australian today provides a lengthy piece about an Australian woman who converted to Islam (presumably in Australia) before joining some Australian Muslims to study religion in Yemen. It’s hard to believe I’m writing this, but by printing stories like this, The Oz is doing Muslims an enormous favour. Here's an excerpt ...

In December 2006, Ms Smith, from Winston Hills in Sydney's northwest, posted a note on an Australian newspaper's website explaining why she had converted to Islam. "To share and enjoy the life and love of a relationship that is not managed by fear and abuse, especially not abuse that is cloaked in the name of any religion," she wrote. "As a Muslim woman I am free from any abuse because of my religion - Islam. It is because of my Islam that I don't live infear of a husband that comes back every night to bash me untilI'm black and blue, and then rape me."

The posting went on to blame alcohol - banned in Islam - for most domestic violence. "It is because of Islam that I am empowered as a woman and not sexually exploited by man, I dress for God and not for man," she went on. Islam did not permit women to be used and abused to sell alcohol and bubblegum, she wrote. "That's why I am one of many converts to Islam and that's why Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world amongst women."

Ms Smith defended her religion on the newspaper website. "Islam liberated women 1500 years ago," she wrote. "We have enjoyed the freedoms and rights of keeping our last names as we are not the property of our husbands, we have had the right to vote before the women's liberation movement in the last century, the right to keep our own money, choose who I want to marry, have the right to inheritance, run a business, the right to be protected and maintained by our husbands regardless of how rich I am."

It all began a few years ago. Ms Smith first arrived in Yemen in October 2006, and quickly settled into a community of pious Islamic Australians studying Islam and Arabic in Sana'a. Among the expatriates were Mohammed bin Ayub and Abdullah bin Ayub, the sons of the alleged former leader of Jemaah Islamiah in Australia, Abdul Rahim Ayub. The two men were arrested along with a third Australian, Marek Samulski, as part of a broad anti-terror sweep by Yemeni and British authorities.

The trio was held for more than two weeks, but were later released without charge and asked to leave Yemen with their families. Samulski is living in South Africa with his wife, while the Ayubs and their families are believed to have travelled to Dar-es-Salam and then to Lebanon.

Ms Smith's Palestinian in-laws say she converted to Islam four years ago, and she was awarded a certificate of Islam from the Yemeni Government last year.

Regardless of her travails in Gaza, Ms Smith has apparently remained committed to Islam since returning to Australia, and she has consulted a fundamentalist Salafi imam.

I’m sure some Muslims will read this story and ask: “Why do they always print the simpler and less controversial convert stories? Why do they focus on the ones full of complications and controversy?” To some extent, I agree with that. But after reading the story of Tanya Louise Smith, I couldn’t help but ask myself why leaders of peak Muslim religious organisations spend so much money fighting each other in courts and so little providing basic support services to converts.

I also couldn’t help asking why so many mosques in Sydney and Melbourne are managed by first generation migrants who want to reproduce the Pakistan or Lebanon or Turkey they left behind in the 1960’s or ‘70’s. And why they insist on employing imams who cannot communicate Muslim orthodoxy in the English language and in a culturally appropriate manner.

Most of all, I wondered why so many young Muslim Australians find themselves going overseas to study just the basics of their faith, basics which kids in Indonesia and other Muslim-majority states master in primary school.

The day our ethnic and language-based religious organisations started helping new Muslims instead of shutting them out or using them as political fodder is the day we will start reading less of such stories.

Or maybe I blame peak bodies and mosque committees too much. Maybe the fault lies with ordinary Muslims. After all, our leaders reflect who we are. Perhaps we should have a situation where ordinary Muslims "adopt" a new Muslim and provide her or him with some kind of moral or spiritual support.

In fact, it seems Tanya may have received more support from her in-laws in Gaza than from Muslims in her home town.

Still, it may all just be a complete beat-up. Either way, the story should really get us thinking.

UPDATE I: My purpose in writing about this was not to in anyway denegrate Tanya, her family or her experience of her faith. Rather, it is to get Muslim and other concerned readers to consider what we are doing and what more we could be doing to provide more support services to new Muslims. It was for similar reasons that I wrote this piece.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

COMMENT: Polygamous ponderings ...

It seems Keysar Trad just can't get enough of polygamy. Just when Aussie Muslims were enjoying the calm of a Howard-free existence, with no Ministers breathing down their allegedly non-integrating throats, Keysar managed to manufacture a completely unnecessary controversy and make us all look stupid in the process. You can read Keysar attempting to undo the damage (only to make things worse) here. The nerve of him to write these lines ...

From my perspective as a Muslim, I really do not wish to rock the boat. I am happy not to talk about the issue and not to disturb the status quo ...

It's true. Keysar doesn't wish to rock the boat. He'd much rather sink it.

A more nuanced and sensible approach to the topic comes from Melbourne researcher Rachel Woodlock. Writing in The Age, Wooklock acknowledges (and asks her readers to perhaps grudgingly acknowledge) that there may be grounds for polygamous marriage. She then tells about her own experiences and those of the people she knows ...

... since embracing Islam I have become friends with about half-a-dozen different women who are co-wives (none of them with each other). Tellingly, all the relationships involved include at least one convert, which means that polygamy is not merely the preserve of refugees who can barely speak a lick of English and who know nothing of our culture or way of life.

Whether or not we like to admit it, polygamy is part of the diverse fabric of family life in 21st century Australia, although admittedly a minority practice. This is partly because although Australian multiculturalism requires assent to the law of the land, many groups (for example, Jews, Catholics, Baha'is and Aborigines) also operate under community-imposed religio-legal codes, particularly when it comes to family relationships.

Religio-legal codes. I like it. Though I prefer to use the term "sacred law". But do all Muslims insist on the right to polygamous marriage? Or rather, how many Muslims want polygamous marriages recognised in Australia under the Marriage Act?

When news started filtering around the Australian Muslim grapevine of lobbying for polygamy to be recognised, reactions ranged from outrage to ambivalence to cautious approval. If ever there was evidence that Muslims do not speak with a single, homogeneous voice, this is it.

Muslims come from many different cultures, some of which historically viewed polygamy with great disapproval and imbued it with social stigma, and others that considered polygamy perfectly normal, although it seems the practice is becoming less popular even in many traditionally polygamous countries.

Woodlock even claims a possible feminist argument in favour of polygamy. You'll have to read the article yourself if you want to learn more.

Now for those who, like me, prefer to laugh than engage in serious discussion, Lisa Pryor's column in the Sydney Morning Herald is essential reading. She begins her article with this profound observation:

Keysar Trad, you cheeky old fox.

Her summary of current marriage practices is a gem:

Australia has been well served by the Judaeo-Christian interpretation of marriage, in which two people fall in love, commit themselves to each other for life, pop out some sprogs, get divorced, shack up with someone younger and bitch about child support.


Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

MEDIA: Giving credit where credit is due ...

Regular readers (all 2 of you) will know that I have used this blog and other forums to bag the reporting of certain journalists and columnists reporting and writing about issues relating to Islamic faith, Muslim cultures and Muslim societies. One journalist who has occasionally come up for criticism has been Natalie O'Brien from The Australian.

When the polygamy issue was raised on Triple-J's Hack program and then reported widely in the press, I expected The Oz to lead the charge with vicious editorials and columns over the past 24 hours or so. And as I write these lines (at ~11:20pm on 26 June 2008), it is quite possible that some rather nasty articles may appear.

However, I must congratulate Ms O'Brien and her colleague Sian Powell for putting together two thoughtful articles on this issue. Their articles can be found here and here.

I personally do not believe it was appropriate for Keysar Trad and Khalil Chami to raise this issue at this very point in time or indeed at all. Still, this is a free country and they are entitled to express their views.

On the other hand, as we have increased migration from parts of the world where polygamy is widely practised (and not just by Muslims), this issue was bound to come up sooner or later. Further, it needs to be recognised that some communities among the first Australians also traditionally practised various forms of polygamy.

I've praised the two articles appearing in The Australian on this issue elsewhere. The Herald-Sun in particular ran a rather silly headline on its website today - "Muslim polygamy ruled out" - although Mark Dunn's article was quite fair.

The headlines of today's articles in The Oz didn't make Muslims or their faith the issue. They acknowledged that polygamy is practised by non-Islamic faiths and communities including certain African Christian communities and breakaway sections of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. A wide range of views, including those of researchers and experts in various fields, were canvassed.

I guess we'll have to see how the next 24 hours pans out. Most likely, media will be focussing more on issues that families of all faiths and backgrounds will be concerned with - the increasing child abuse and neglect amongst largely non-indigenous Australians. Perhaps it's time for an intervention ...

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Monday, June 23, 2008

COMMENT: Ali Sina's medical madness ...

Centuries ago, the great Iranian Muslim philosopher and physician Hussein ibn Ali Sina (known as Avicenna in the West and shown above) wrote a 14-volume treatise on medicine called al-Qanun (the Canon). He is believed to have been barely 19 years old at the time.

Now, a modern-day Iranian Ali Sina tells the Jerusalem Post that the faith of Avicenna is the result of a mental illness which allegedly afflicted the Prophet Muhammad (s.).

... his latest book, Understanding Muhammad: A Psychobiography of Allah's Prophet ... Sina suggests that Islam's central figure suffered from a series of mental disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy and obsessive compulsive disorder.
"These disorders," he says via telephone, "can explain the phenomenon known as Islam... which is nothing but one man's insanity."
He then says that Muslims have inherited ab "original hatred" in a manner comparable to the Christian doctrine of original sin.
"In Islam, it's not the community that is bad, but the religion. Islam has nothing like 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.' Islam is full of hatred, and the hatred is in Muhammad himself. I argue in my book that Muhammad was insane - and that Muslims, by emulating him and by emulating his ways, his insanity is bequeathed to them."
Sina then provides this prediction:
Sina knows that his blunt, outspoken approach can be "problematic." But he is confident nonetheless that the force of his arguments will ultimately prevail.
"I am sure that, with time, I will convince millions and millions of Muslims, and the foundations of Islam will collapse," he says.
The foundations of Islam will collapse and 1.2 billion people will see the light thanks to Sina's blog and a few books. Methinks, Mr Sina, that you should be worrying about your own mental health.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

REFLECTION: Flippant thoughts on Comrade Steyn

I’m watching Mark Steyn being interviewed by a Canadian journalist (at least I think he is Canadian – it’s hard for us poor sods down under to tell the difference!) Steve Paikin about the thesis in his book America Alone. You can watch the interview by clicking here and following the prompts or by clicking here.

Here is this pompous theatre critic who doesn't know the first thing about about demography talking about the demographic history and future of Europe. This sanctimonious windbag wondering why no one in Europe wants to breed.

And this chap claims to be a conservative! He is pontificating about a topic he knows absolutely zilch about, and expects us to treat him as an authority just because he writes lots of columns for newspapers many Americans use to wrap fish with.

Real conservatives don’t talk about topics in a critical manner without first learning about the subject. This kind of ignorant critique is what the Left are known for. It’s the sort of stuff I was taught to do by my McGill-inspired Marxist law lecturers at Macquarie University back in the days when you enrolled in the law school to get a degree in sociology (or rather, socialist-ology). Mark Steyn should just cut the crap and produce his Communist Party membership now.

The most hilarious bit of the interview is where Steyn is asked about whether Muslim migrants to Europe might actually Westernise and therefore not pose as big a demographic or cultural "threat" as Steyn makes out. Steyn knew that Paikan had nailed his argument by this one simple question, and then proceeded to talk about some e-mail fired off from his end to the producers of Paikan's show.

This is the sort of third-rate mass-debate Steyn often engages in. And he is so easy to intellectually punch in the guts, as I discovered when Steyn came here as a guest of the Centre for Independent Studies some years back. You can read about it here. As one scribe wrote to me after hearing the podcast on Radio National ...

i finally heard your question to mark steyn at that cis function the other day (it was on this morning's background briefing on abc radio). you clearly scored a direct hit, which left him winded, so much so it took him an inordinate amount of time to get back on top of his pitch arguing the inevitable that islam has a problem with its silent majority (which group doesn't) before he lost his cool with the zion protocols rubbish. well done!

I wish I could understand why the folks at Canadian Islamic Congress are wasting their time and resources on this chap. What they should be doing is focussing their time and resources on innoculating ordinary Canadians against the disease of collective responsibility Steyn and his ilk represent.

If his appearance on the Steve Paikin show is any indication, Steyn might best be described as a fruitloop. I used to eat fruitloops when I was young. Now that I’m older and more mature, I prefer cornflakes or muesli.

What the CIC should be doing is providing the facts. And not just doing it on their own. There are plenty of intelligent smart demographers, ethnographers, sociologists, anthropologists, historians and other social science gurus on both sides of the Atlantic who can do to Steyn’s 'ideas' what that character played by John Travolta accidentally did to that guy who was sitting in the back seat and had his brains splattered all over the car.

(Naturally, even a nominal Muslim like me has no idea about the joys of Western popular culture!)

Steyn is the last person who should be made into a martyr of free speech. Thanks to Steve Paikin for the interview. At least now I don’t have to waste my $2 buying Steyn’s book when it makes its way to Basement Books or some other remaindering factory.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Shirin Ebadi facts continued ...

[06] Recently the conservative speaker of the Iranian parliament wrote a dissertation on the philosophy of Kant which was published in a supplement to a mainstream newspaper.

[07] In some areas of mathematics and physics, Iranian research is amongst the best in the world. But the question is: why isn't this new cultural and academic energy being translated into pro-democracy political energy?

[08] Democracy has increased but has also been manipulated by the regime in Iran. In 1997, Mohammad Khatami (a reformist Shia imam) won a landslide victory in the presidential election. He even defeated a conservative candidate backed by the supreme spiritual leader Ali Khamanei. Khatami won with a 70% majority. His election rhetoric was about the rule of law, the status of women and the need for "dialogue among civilisations".

[09] Iran has comparably more real democracy than other Middle Eastern or Arab states. Two heads of state have stepped down after completing their set constitutional terms and are now living peacefully in their homes. This kind of stability is almost unheard-of in the Arab world.

[10] Since the fall of the Shah, there have been 9 presidential elections and 7 parliamentary elections. Unfortunately, there is still serious vetting of candidates by the ulama.

[11] An entire generation of Iranians has grown up with ballots and promises from politicians. The democratic groundwork is there.

[12] The minimum voting age under Iranian law is 15.

[13] "The Iranian constitution vests sovereignty in God, but Iranian politicians look to the people for their mandate ... The problem is not with the embrace of democratic practices but with their full and effective enshrinement in politics."

[14] The "Tehran Spring" - by 1998, 740 newspapers were in circulation.

[15] Khatami didn't live upto the expectations of many reformists. His emphasis on the rule of law without constitutional reforms merely allowed unelected 'clerical' rulers to tighten their grip. During his 8 years in office, the Guardian Council blocked one third of Khatami's legislative agenda.

[16] 30% of Iran's population is between 15 and 29 years. Unemployment is close to 20%. Income per capita is a quarter of what it was in 1979.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

PROFILE: Shirin Ebadi facts ...

I'm again typing out some hand-written notes found in my study, this time of a TV interview with Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi.

(Seriously, I've got some really radical stuff in this room. Someone should ring MI6 and send them over to raid my room. Then again, London trains have enough litter on them as it is.)

[01] Ebadi was a judge during the Shah's era. However, the same regime punished her for her political choices. Her brother-in-law was executed and she was stripped of her position on the Bench. She was then imprisoned. So why did she go through all this? She responds: "I'd rather be a free Iranian than an enslaved attorney".

[02] Ebadi says many highly Westernised and liberal Iranians were "hypnotised" by Khomeini's revolution. They saw it as a better alternative to the Shah's brutality.

[03] Iran's 1979 revolution mobilised, educated and ultimately frustrated Iranian women. The rhetoric of the revolution promised to break down patriarchy, but merely replaced it with new forms of discrimination.

[04] The 2005 elections saw a clear majority voting for Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

[05] Iran's society is youthful, literate and web-savvy. Iran has thousands of activist NGO's. Iranian universities have more women than men. Farsi is the 3rd most popular online language (after English and Mandarin Chinese). There are tens of thousands of Iranian blogs. Hundreds of newspapers, periodicals and magazines are published with thinly-veiled political and philosophical debate. Full-page debates on post-modernism and other philosophical topics appear in major newspapers. Iran isn't what many Westerners think it is.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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COMMENT: Islamo-fascist fundamentalist extremist cleric Tariq Ramadan exposed promoting radical madressas for Barack Hussein Obama's children ...

OK, now that I have your attention, I thought I'd share with readers some notes I took from a workshop led by Dr Tariq Ramadan in Melbourne in January 2005. That way I can throw these hand-written notes away and move one tiny step further to having an office free of all this junk!

I made some reference to this workshop in an article in The Age ...

The Age reported (February 25, 2008) that more than 200,000 children - almost 40 per cent of
non-government school students - attended a religious school outside the main Catholic, Anglican and Uniting systems. Some are taught creationism as part of their science studies. A teacher at one small Christian school was quoted as saying that evolution was taught as a theory. This is exactly how I was taught about evolution by my year 9 science teacher at a Sydney Anglican school.

Another critic of faith-based schools, psychologist and educationist Louise Samway, believes faith-based schools are leading to a whole lot of disparate sub-groups that are suspicious of each other.

Such views are not limited to supposedly more secular professionals. In January 2005, I was in Melbourne at a workshop led by Swiss Muslim scholar Dr Tariq Ramadan. Now you'd expect that the grandson of the founder of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood), the Arab world's
largest Islamist movement, would support Muslim minorities establishing their own schools.

Dr Ramadan, however, suggested that the whole idea of Islamic schools was problematic as it implied that secular schools were somehow less Islamic or even anti-Islamic. He asked participants to consider whether the long-term process of mainstreaming their faith in Australia was being helped or hindered by having their children attend schools open only to Muslims. Dr Ramadan also insisted
that learning mathematics and sciences were just as much a requirement of religion as learning how to read the Koran in Arabic.

Anyway, here are just some of the notes from that session, divided into numbered paragraphs.

[01] In any discussion on Islamic independent schools, a number of key questions need to be asked. What exactly is "Islamic" education? What is an "Islamic" school? Why do some Muslim parents insist on sending their children to an "Islamic" school? Why do other (equally) Muslim parents choose not to send their children to an "Islamic" school?

[02] And there are other questions. Like this one: What steps do Muslim independent schools take to provide a broad-based education instead of just providing an allegedly more sheltered "Islamic" environment?

[03] Genuine spirituality equates to living with an understanding that we have a creator and a spirit. This should make us far more universalist, wholistic and ecumenical in our outlook.

[04] Genuine Islamic education encourages and harnesses such spirituality. Islamic education makes time for sport and leisure activities, especially organised structured sport. It encourages students to become involved in their local communities, including charity and welfare work. It doesn't discourage Muslim young people from involvement in popular culture such as fashion.
[05] True Muslims won't shut themselves off from people who don't necessarily share their faith. We take the initiative to get to know our neighbours. In our dealings with people, we focus on similarities and not differences. We are also not afraid to use local facilities and infrastructure (e.g. community centres) for religious and cultural activities, and are happy to participate in activities organised by our Christian, Jewish and neighbours of other faiths and no faith in particular.

[06] Our children will have little or no attraction to Islamic "culture" unless it is part of and comfortable with mainstream culture. We should start looking at Islamic culture as being anything good in any culture.

[07] One important step to make Muslim cultures mainstream is to contact local museums and encourage them to bring collections from nominally Muslim countries and communities.

[08] Not all Muslim independent schools are the same. Some are isolationist, protective and quite scary. Others encourage their students to participate in the wider community. We need to support the latter.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

MUSIC: Awesome song for an awesome monument ...

Sorry, no subtitles. Learn Hindi/Urdu, lazy people! Or click below and learn some Tamil!!

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Friday, June 13, 2008

REFLECTION: God, mum and Maxine McKew ...

A Muslim proverb says that a child’s first university is her or his mother’s lap. Young children at this age are like soft clay and can be moulded into more or less a permanent shape that will prove difficult to change in later years. It’s a process that might be called education by osmosis.

I graduated from the university of my Indian mother’s lap with a fear of the prayers of others, especially those I have wronged. The word for oppression in both Arabic and Urdu (my mother’s North Indian dialect) is zulm. An oppressor is zaalim and the oppressed is muzloom. Mum’s Urdu formula was fairly straight forward.

Zulm na karo. Kiyun kar Allah Ta’ala muzloom ka dua hamesha soontahey, chahe muzloom kaafir ho aur zaalim musalman.

Literally this means: “Do not commit zulm. Because God Almighty always hears and responds to the prayers of the muzloom, even where they refuse to acknowledge Him and the zaalim believes in Him”.

I’ve seen this formula work time and time again in my own life. Even if sometimes the effect was somewhat delayed. At primary school there was one boy in my class named Matt who always bullied me for having the wrong-coloured skin.

Then one day I was walking home when I noticed that Matt was teasing a blonde-headed white-skinned child from another school who lived up the road from me. I couldn’t understand why. After Matt left, I introduced myself to the boy who told me his name was Tim. I asked Tim: “Why are they teasing you for? You’re not dark”.

Tim told me the reason. We agreed it was time to take action, but felt powerless to do anything. I rushed home to tell mum about these people with white skin and blonde hair who get teased and bullied just like I did. She was confused.

“Who are these strange white people?”

“Tim said they’re called Catholics.”

Immediately mum put her favourite proverb into practise. She went with me to Tim’s place and spoke to his mum. Within days, she had befriended all the Catholics in the street. A delegation of Catholic mums, led by an Indian Muslim woman, approached my Grade 4 teacher and registered a complaint against Matt.

My mum and her new-found Catholic friends had their prayers answered through collective action and solidarity. And to think the first time mum ever voted Labor was when Maxine McKew was the candidate! Maybe it’s because Maxine was Catholic.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

COMEDY: Robert Spencer completely loses it ...

Robert Spencer is absolutely fuming over my book review in The Australian. In fact, fuming is probably an understatement. And what makes him especially angry is that I refer to him by the title of ... wait for it ... a Catholic.

Poor fellow. He now gets a taste of his own medicine. This is the same Robert Spencer who regularly attributes acts of violence to the faiths and cultures of 1.2 billion people. And all disguised as "scholarship".

... at Jihad Watch I provide on a daily basis mountains of evidence, cascades of evidence, for the reality of Islamic supremacist activity around the world ... the extent of jihadist activity and sympathy in the Islamic world ...

What the ...? Evidence? All Spencer does is trawl through newspapers and websites and search for anything even resembling intolerance or violence by people with some link to Muslim communities. In fact, he doesn't do much of the trawling. His army of fellow hate-crusaders like this chap (who even thinks actor Omar Sharif is part of a grand Islamist conspiracy) do all the trawling for him.

I refuse to believe that each and every Catholic is guilty of the excesses of a few. I understand that group responsibility is a concept which went out of fashion after the Holocaust. The tabloid media that paints the stereotype of Islamic terrorists is the same media which reminds us of pedophile Catholic priests. But don't expect me to set up a blog filled with innuendo and smear or suggesting that pedophilia is supported within "the Catholic world" (if such an entity existed).

So what was it that has angered poor Robert? The answer can be found in these paragraphs ...

WE don't often associate the skin tones, exotic culture and poverty of the world's largest Catholic continent with Catholicism.

Few Australian Catholics would recognise the popular beliefs and practices of their Latin American co-religionists.

So if I were to make an ambit criticism of Christianity based on the extreme poverty and draconian politics of Latin America, Catholics would be justified in poking their fingers at me and ridiculing my simplistic reasoning. But among those pointing at me in ridicule would be the polemicists and cultural warriors with three fingers pointing back at themselves. Google jihad. Featuring prominently is JihadWatch, a blog moderated by far-right Catholic polemicist Robert Spencer.

It takes a certain degree of intellectual laziness (often combined with irrational prejudice) to attribute negative characteristics to an entire group of people, especially when members of this group rarely, if ever, regard themselves as sharing some uniform identity.

Do entities such as the Muslim community or the Muslim world really exist? Do all Muslims regard themselves as belonging to the same community of believers? Indeed, do all Muslims regard each other as Muslims? If so, how do we explain the rhetoric of Iraqi Sunni groups who attack Shia Muslim shrines with a view to destroying the infidel? And how do we explain that an elderly Lakemba-based imam who once claimed the title of mufti of Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific wasn't recognised by many Australian Muslims as playing any religious role whatsoever?

Yet we still see, hear and read of the Muslim community and the Muslim world having a uniform manifestation of faith in a monolithic (usually violent and hostile) manner. We so easily lump together 1.2 billion people in the same category.

What is so contentious about claiming that it's almost impossible to generalise about 1.2 billion people? Where is the controversy in suggesting that a Muslim in Malaysia probably has more in common with a Singaporean Catholic than a Muslim in Morocco? What is so offensive about suggesting that, culturally speaking, Robert Spencer has more in common with former boxer Muhammad Ali than Indian cricketer Yusuf Pathan?

I'm not sure. But I do know this: If the likes of Robert Spencer are angered by what I write, it means I must be on the right track.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Saturday, June 07, 2008

COMMENT: Malek Fahad Islamic School, double-dipping and public funding ...

Congrats to the Sydney Morning Herald for resisting the urge to turn this story into another Muslim-bashing exercise.

The Herald reports today of a Sydney private school which is fobbing off its weaker students to the publicly-finded TAFE system ...

Private school sends strugglers to TAFE
Anna Patty Education Editor
June 7, 2008

YEAR 12 students at a private school in Sydney are forced to complete HSC subjects at TAFE if it appears they will not score high marks.

Malek Fahd Islamic School, in Greenacre, joined the top 10 HSC performers in the Herald's league table for the first time last year, ranking ninth - a jump from 15th position the previous year.

Malek Fahd students, who pay fees to attend the school, make up close to half the free HSC chemistry class at Bankstown TAFE this year.

Ken Enderby, who co-ordinates the Bankstown TAFE HSC program, said in recent years students had told him they had to take HSC subjects at TAFE because they could not sit them at Malek Fahd. He said one Malek Fahd student who was asked to leave the school achieved a lowest score of 60 per cent and a highest score of 72 per cent at TAFE.

"I have had parents in tears because their children have not been allowed to sit subjects at the school," he said.

"I'm happy to have those kids here. These are very good students - well behaved and a pleasure to teach."

Here's how one subscriber to the "Sydney Muslims" yahoogroup responded ...

Of course by sending the strugglers elsewhere they aren’t counted n Malek Fahd’s scores and don’t bring the average down. This boosts the schools position on the HSC league table. No doubt other private schools do the same regardless of which religion they subscribe to.

The disturbing thing about this is that the school a recipient of $12.9 million in taxpayer largesse last year sees fit to fob off its weaker students to the publicly funded TAFE system. This is even more galling when the $3.4 million surplus for 2006 is considered. Why is this money not being put into helping the weaker students boost their performance? The school should cater for all its students and not be a cash cow for its masters.
Is he right? I think he has a point.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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BOOKS: What does it mean to be Islamic now?

Inside Muslim Minds
Riaz Hassan
MUP, 380pp

Who Speaks For Islam: What A Billion Muslims Really Think
John L Esposito & Dalia Mogahed
Gallup Press, 204pp

We don’t often associate the dark skin, exotic culture and third world poverty of the world’s largest Catholic continent with Catholicism. Few Australian Catholics would recognise the popular beliefs and practices of their Latin American co-religionists.

So if I were to make an ambit criticism of Christianity based on the extreme poverty and draconian politics of Latin America , Catholics would be justified in poking their fingers at me and ridiculing my simplistic reasoning.

Among those pointing at me in ridicule would be polemicists and cultural warriors with three fingers pointing back at themselves. Visit the Google search engine and type in “jihad”. Featuring prominently is “JihadWatch”, a blog moderated by far-Right Catholic polemicist Robert Spencer.

It takes a certain degree of intellectual laziness (often combined with irrational prejudice) to attribute negative characteristics to an entire group of people, especially when members of this “group” rarely if ever regard themselves as sharing some uniform identity.

Do entities such as the “Muslim community” or the “Muslim world” really exist? Do all Muslims regard themselves as belonging to the same community of believers? Indeed, do all Muslims regard each other as Muslims? If so, how do we explain the rhetoric of Iraqi Sunni groups who attack Shia Muslim shrines with a view to destroying the infidel?

And how do we explain the fact that an elderly Lakemba-based imam who once claimed the title of “Mufti of Australia, New Zealand & the South Pacific” wasn’t recognised by many Australian Muslims as playing any religious role whatsoever?

Yet we still see, hear and read of the “Muslim community” and the “Muslim world” allegedly having a uniform manifestation of faith in a monolithic (usually violent and hostile) manner. We so easily lump 1.2 billion people together in the same category.

Riaz Hassan, a sociology professor from Flinders University , argues that the tendency to generalise about Muslims is caused largely by the lack of empirical research. As someone familiar with the literature in this area, Hassan is well-placed to suggest that “sociologically informed analysis that explores the nature and content of Muslim piety remains very underdeveloped.”

Hassan’s recently published Inside Muslim Minds outlines some of the results of a comparative study of Muslim religiosity that began some 12 years ago. Just under 6,400 Muslims from seven Muslim-majority countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Kazakhstan) were interviewed on propositions covering the nature of jihad, blasphemy laws, segregation and the role of Islam in politics.

Unfortunately Hassan's propositions do not (and perhaps cannot) factor in the notion that different religious terms conjure up different meanings and images in the collective minds of Muslims from different regions. For instance, most respondents agreed strongly with the proposition that Muslim societies must be based on the Qur'an and sharia law. On the surface, this may suggest widespread support for theocratic Islamist political parties and opposition to secularism.

However, Islamic sacred law means different things to people from different cultures. In Pakistan, even the most secular parties would not dare oppose the operation of courts that decide on family law and inheritance matters based on the “shariat” (as it is referred to in Urdu). Meanwhile, in a conservative (yet ironically matriarchal) mercantile societies such as West Sumatra, the idea of governments not pursuing policies that support usury-free financial products based on (to use Bahasa Indonesia spelling) “syariah”-compliant economics would be an anathema to entrepreneurs, many of whom are women.

Further, while public manifestations of sharia law may signal theocracy for some, it may merely refer to increasing religious observance in civil society for others.

Hassan’s conclusion from his research is that the near-theocratic “safafabist” (a term he borrows from American Islamic jurist Kaled Abou El-Fadl) religious mindset is alive and well in Muslim communities across the world. Abou El-Fadl identifies 8 characteristics of this mindset, including “patriarchal, misogynistic and exclusionary orientation”, “profound alienation … from Islamic heritage and tradition” and “denial of universal moral values and rejection of the indeterminancy of the modern world”.

El-Fadl is a well respected Islamic jurist in the West with a strong grounding in both the classical tradition and modernist “Salafi” or “Wahhabi” (the terms are often used interchangeably, though this isn’t always accurate) thinking. A lay reviewer is hardly in a position to dismiss his work lightly.

Still, one would expect that strong salafabist tendencies translate into an increase in electoral support for parties espousing the 8 salafabist attributes. If recent elections in Pakistan , Indonesia and Malaysia are anything to go by, such tendencies are certainly resisted at the ballot box. Still, Hassan’s results seem to explain why a more liberal Islamist party with strong roots to classical Islam as espoused in Sufi orders has made electoral history in Turkey . Hassan’s sample of Turkish Muslims displayed among the weakest salafabist tendencies.

The size of the sample is also problematic. Do some 6,400 persons’ views reflect the allegedly common collective religious sentiment of 1.2 billion people spread across every nation on the planet?

Notwithstanding, I still find Hassan's analysis very useful. Without wishing to be a bush anthropologist, my own travels through some of the countries surveyed and my exposure to young Australian Muslims leads me to believe that many misogynistic and narrow-minded forms of theology are alive and well in many Muslim communities.

John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, co-authors of Who Speaks for Islam: What A Billion Muslims Really Think, aim to give voice to what they described as “this silenced majority” of Muslims. Their source material is the research findings of “tens of thousands of hour-long face-to-face interviews with residents of more than 35 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have substantial Muslim populations”.

The research was 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 … the largest, most comprehensive study of contemporary Muslims ever done”. The goal of their research is to “democratise the debate” on issues relating to Muslims.

The outcomes would surprise those regularly pontificating on Muslims on the opinion pages of metropolitan broadsheets. So much of what we read about who Muslims are, what they think and how they live is based on speculation laced with understandable yet unhelpful emotional responses to attacks by extremists acting in the name of Islam.

The irony is that when extremist groups set out to harm the “infidel”, they include in this category ordinary Muslims who refuse to join their pseudo-jihad. It’s little wonder the survey confirms results from other studies of Muslim opinion – that many Muslims may sympathise with the causes cited by terrorist groups (Palestine , Kashmir etc) but they strongly oppose the methods used by these groups.

Like Hassan, Esposito & Mogahed cover a wide range of topics – democracy versus theocracy, gender issues, radicalism and relations with the West. However, their focus isn’t so much on religiosity than on contemporary issues going to the heart of alleged civilisational conflict. Their results evidence a majority Muslim sentiment not hostile to the West but seeking to emulate the West’s liberal democratic freedoms without the baggage of moral decay which even Western conservatives and liberals would wish to remove.

Both works emphasise greater emphasis on empirical evidence in debates on Islam’s relations with the West. Or as Esposito & Mogahed plead: “Let the data lead the discourse”. It’s not a message extremists from either side wish to dominate the dialogue between civilisations. But then, since when have extremists ever been interested in dialogue?

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and recipient of the 2007 Allen & Unwin Iremonger award for public affairs writing. An edited version of this article was published in The Weekend Australian, 7-8 June 2008.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

HUMOUR: The tablighis and the sadhu ...

A young man sits at the bus stop. He is wearing tracksuit pants and a long white kurta, tabligh jamaat style. He has a small cap on his head which is surrounded by a small turban. We'll call him T1.

Another tablighi chap comes to the bus stop and sits with him. This tablighi (let's call him T2) has a larger turban on. They exchange salams. T2 asks T1: "Where are you off to?", to which T1 responds: "I am going in the path of Allah for 3 days insh'Allah". T2 says "Mash'Allah. I'm going for 40 days".

Within minutes, a third tablighi chap ("T3") comes to the bus stop and sits with them. His turban is even larger, perhaps 80 cm in diameter. T2 and T1 look at him and his curiously large turban. T3 tells them: "I am going out in the path of Allah for 4 months, insh'Allah".

Then a 4th and final tablighi chap (T4) wearing a turban so big, he can hardly balance his head. A bit like the cat shown above. There isn't enough room for him to sit in the bus stop. He looks at the others and proclaims: "I am going in the path of Allah for a whole lifetime, insh'Allah".

The bus is running late. A naked Hindu sadhu (mystic) walks toward the bus stop. His hair is long and dishevelled, and he carries the trident of the Hindu god Shiva.

The 4 T's look at him in a confused manner. He proclaims: "Why are you looking at me so strangely? I am Swami Sivagurusitambhangrawalanihari, and I am going in Allah's path for 40 lifetimes!!"

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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