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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