Tanya Louise Smith, a young Australian woman who converted to Islam and eventually went to Yemen. She met up with some other Australians and started studying a more fringe form of Islam, which sometimes going by the name "salafi" or "wahhabi".
She married a Palestinian man, fell pregnant and went to Gaza to live with her in-laws. Her husband, who hoped to join her, was stuck outside thanks to the Israeli blockade and Egypt closing the border. You can read her story in The Australian here.
How did she and her Australian classmates end up pursuing studies in a more fringe form of Islam and in an apparently more radical institution?
No doubt some will say that it's logical that a person adopting Islam will become a danger to themselves and society. Since 9/11, it has become fashionable in some circles to equate the 14 centuries of evolving religious tradition known as Islam with just about all the ills of the world.
Hence, anyone who says anything even remotely positive about the "i" word is treated as if they've just screamed out the "f" word repeatedly on TV.
Still, let's not live in denial. There are a bunch of crazies out there happy to make a political point by blowing themselves up or flying jet aircraft into skyscrapers. They have their own peculiar ideology, and their message is essentially a political (as opposed to a religious) one. This explains why Osama bin Ladin's taped messages are always dominated by references to political grievances.
A major problem bin Ladin has is that he follows a sect of Islam that Smith adopted. This particular sect is the official religion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, though apparently only a minority of Saudis actually follow it. In the non-Saudi world, it is regarded as quite heterodox.
Some Muslims (especially shia Muslims) regard it as downright heretical.
So bin Ladin is a wahhabi. He also was for many years (but not anymore) a Saudi citizen. However, that doesn't mean all Saudis and/or Wahhabis are sitting on the "friends" section of bin Ladin's Facebook page, even if some scribes think they are.
We have some Wahhabis in Australia but not a huge number. At least one of them says he meets with the boys and girls from ASIO fairly regularly to "talk about everything".
More extreme Wahhabis do recruit, though their efforts among first generation Muslim migrants haven't been too successful. Why? Because these migrants have been spiritually and ideologically inoculated against any extremist influence.
When you grow up in Pakistan or Turkey or Indonesia or other Muslim country, you develop a sense of what mainstream theology is.
But what happens to those who haven't gone through this mainstream religious osmosis? What happens to young kids brought up in Australia?
It's no secret that extremists target young people and converts. Sean O'Neill and Daniel McGrory, two British journalists working with The Times, wrote a book in 2006 entitled The Suicide Factory: Abu Hamza And The Finsbury Park Mosque.
The book tells the story of how radical preacher Abu Hamza recruited the children and grandchildren of Muslim migrants and a small band of converts. Some of his former students were among the London bombers.
Abu Hamza's group took advantage of the weak management of religious institutions. British Muslims are largely of South Asian extraction whose cultures regarded involvement in religious institutions as a rather lowly endeavour.
Mosque managers also saw their institutions as places where they could keep alive the culture they left behind in Pakistan or Bangladesh in the 1970s. Hence, mosques are stuck in a cultural time-warp, relics of religious and social attitudes that are rarely found even in modern South Asian countries.
Into this vacuum strode Abu Hamza and his cronies, many of whom had criminal records for violence and fraud offences. After being removed from one small mosque, Abu Hamza set his sights on the large Finsbury Park Mosque built with Saudi money and supported by Prince Charles.
Could someone like Abu Hamza just as easily operate in Sydney or Melbourne? The descriptions in The Suicide Factory given of the parlous state of British Muslim institutions – political intrigue, scarce resources wasted on litigation, cultural irrelevance to name just a few - are what I've seen in Australia for over two decades.
Of course, Muslim Poms and Aussies are as dissimilar as Catholic Brazilians and East Timorese. But what many mosques in both the UK and Australia share is disregard for the spirirtual needs of second and third generation Muslims and converts.
Further, Muslims are by and large a very secular lot most of whom will only be seen at the mosque on the two major feast days. You don't see prominent Muslims from BRW's top 100 list getting involved in managing religious institutions.
The good news is that young Muslims are taking control of their own spiritual destinies. Young Muslims are looking to Europe and the United States for sensible relevant voices like Hamza Yusuf Hanson and Tariq Ramadan.
The only opposition they face is from a coalition of radical thick-Sheiks who label them infidels and radical neo-conservative pundits for whom the only good Muslim is an ex-Muslim.
Young educated Muslims are now taking over religious institutions. The new face of the Lebanese Muslim Association in Lakemba is a surfing sheik who visits schools with a young rabbi. And you can watch the CEO of the Islamic Council of Victoria compering an SBS talkshow each Wednesday night, while a member of his executive is a stand-up comic who wants to run for Mayor in the Sydney's Camden.
An Australian Islam with a genuinely Aussie accent is a key element to ensuring the Abu Hamza's of this world don't gain a foothold in Australia, and that the Tanya Smith's can learn their faith without having to travel into a culturally unfamiliar environment.
First published in ABC Unleashed on 9 July 2008.
Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf
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