Friday, October 31, 2008

OPINION: First column in Crescent Times ...

The crescent is a religious symbol. Originally it was a religious symbol of the Byzantine church/empire. After the conquest of Constantineople in the 15th Century by the Ottomans, it was adopted by the Ottoman empire. Eventually it became a Muslim symbol, and was adopted by a large number of nominally Muslim countries such as Tunisia, Malaysia and Pakistan.

And now it is the name of a newspaper published in Perth. The Crescent Times is sort-of a Muslim paper. But then, its target audience is the Muslim sort-of community.

I'm not sure if Muslims in Australia form a single community. Perhaps in smaller cities (such as Perth and Adelaide) they form a community. But what a about Sydney and Melbourne, where you can find Turkish and Lebanese and Pakistani and Bangladeshi mosques everywhere but nowhere an Australian mosque?

Anyway, here's my first "Planet Irf" column for the Crescent Times ...

Over the past few weeks, 28 million copies of a DVD have been distributed to homes in swing states across the United States. By swing states, I mean states where neither the Republicans nor Democrats hold a strong sway and which could determine the outcome of the November US presidential election. They are the equivalent of what we call “marginal seats”.

You’d expect the DVD would concern topics directly related to the candidates, their parties and/or their policies. In fact, the DVD’s title is: “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against The West”. Among the “experts” featuring on the video is a blogger who has repeatedly claimed that Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama isn’t being up front about his Muslim past, even suggesting that Obama “practised Islam” by wearing a sarong! In Jakarta!!

As a direct result of the financial crisis, millions of American citizens are having trouble paying their mortgages and even more trouble selling their homes at a price high enough to just cover the principal amount of their loans. Millions more cannot even afford basic healthcare. Yet the hate-mongers aren’t worried about the real issues facing ordinary American voters. Their concern is to spread as much hatred as possible.

This hatred doesn’t just affect people who call themselves Muslims. Some days back, I received an e-mail from an Indian Christian living in New Zealand. I was struck by these words: “When I moved to western nations, I faced the prejudice of looking ‘middle eastern’ by many in the general public”. Hatred is so blind that it cannot tell the difference between an Indian Christian man and a Muslim woman wearing a hijab.

When spread far enough, hatred and ignorance affect every sector of society. The first FBI photo of suspects released after the September 11 terrorist attacks included two turbaned passengers, both Sikhs. The first hate-crime in reprisal of the attacks was also against a Sikh. Balbir Singh Sodhi, was gunned down while planting flowers at his family-owned petrol station in Arizona. His killer later admitted he shot the young man thinking he was a Muslim.

How do we overcome such hatred? Some people probably cannot be helped. Others are inspired more by ignorance. The opposite of ignorance is also its ultimate remedy – knowledge. We need to arm ourselves and our communities with knowledge.

I’m not suggesting we all go and enrol in an Islamic studies course. It isn’t so much ignorance of Islamic sciences that’s the problem. It’s more the great ignorance of Muslim reality. If people understood what we ordinary Muslims think, as opposed to what self-appointed Muslim leaders appearing in popular media claim we think, perhaps the hatred would decrease.

We cannot rely on leadership organisations to reflect our views. They don’t seem to care what we think, which explains why they spend more money taking each other to court than surveying ordinary Muslims about their views.

The ultimate solution is for ordinary Muslims to get involved in both other Muslim communities (including those outside our cultural and sectarian comfort zone) and the mainstream community. We need to be seen contributing to mainstream discussions and debates on mainstream issues, and be seen to be active in mainstream organisations. Many of us are already doing this, but many more need to get involved.

Once we do this, we’ll soon realise just how much we have in common. Our non-Muslim neighbours will understand that Muslim women don’t all wear hijab, and our fellow Muslims will learn that Muslim women (hijab or no hijab) are equally concerned about issues affecting all women – domestic violence, a decent education for their kids and a healthy environment for our future generations.

The fact is that there is no such thing as a peculiarly Muslim issue. The issues that affect Australian Muslims affect all Australians and vice versa. Whatever we might think of John Howard, we must surely agree with his mantra: “The things that unite us are more plentiful and more important than the things that divide us.”

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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