Wednesday, May 27, 2009

INDONESIA: Reflections from a recent dinner ...

Well, not that recent. The Australia Indonesia Institute held its 20th anniversary dinner in Sydney on Thursday 19 February 2009. I was there armed with a notepad and a cheap ball-point pen. I typed out some of the points made in a number of speeches which I thought were of interest (at least to me).

Geraldine Doogue, a prominent ABC personality, was MC at the event. Among the speeches was that of AII Chairman Professor Tim Lindsay. Professor Lindsay spoke in fluent Bahasa Indonesia, albeit with a slight Aussie accent. Lindsay said that without the foundation of people to people links, little chance of proper diplomatic relations. He noted there is a declining Indonesian language capacity in Australia.

Katika Kari, an Indonesian journalist, then spoke. She described relations between Canberra and Jakarta as being similar to those between Tom and Jerry. They fight sometimes, criticise each other sometimes but remain good friends. Kevin Rudd has already visited Indonesia 3 times. She made special mention made of the victims of the Victorian bushfire and their families, and remined us that Indonesia sent a forensic team to assist with the bushfire investigation.

Sarah Malik, an alumnus of the 2007 Muslim Leaders Exchange Program, spoke as a first time traveller. She said our views of Indonesia were mediated by the media. Yet this was a country of 17,000 islands and dozens of ethnic groups which recognised the need to balance everyone’s sentiments. Multiculturalism here is not just a luxury but a necessity.

In the tropics of Indonesia, in its sights and sounds, a piece of me still wonders.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave an off-the-cuff speech with no speech notes whatsoever! Here is a summary of his speech in numbered paragraphs:

[01] In 2008, Rudd and SBY met 7 times. This in itself shows just how vital the relationship is to Australia. Indonesian government and people showed enormous generosity to Australia during the recent bushfires. Indonesians proved they wanted to be not just good neighbours but also good friends. The brutal power of nature affects both nations, and both came to each other’s help.

[02] In 1947, Australia declared that it would stand with Indonesia in seeking independence from the Dutch. This was very unusual for a Western country.

[03] Indonesia is a country of 230 million people spread across 17,000 islands. It’s an extraordinary nation building achievement. One can see the extreme diversity in Indonesia just after spending a few weeks or months. To build a nation out of such diversity is an extraordinary achievement.

[04] Indonesians have had to work and struggle hard to build and maintain their democracy.

[05] For the past 60 years, a major foreign policy preoccupation of leaders of both Indonesia and Australia has been how to manage relations with each other.

[06] Australia, a nation with a Christian heritage, works closely with the largest Muslim country on earth in a seamless fashion. Surely this must send a strong message to the world.

[07] We have embarked on the century of the Asia-Pacific.

[08] Australians need to do more to understand the complexities of Indonesian Islam. Australia needs to be the most Asia-literate country in the West. We need to regard the languages, cultures and religions of our region as familiar and not foreign.

[09] Australia and Indonesia will host a large conference on interfaith dialogue. Rudd and SBY have agreed that Australia and Indonesia must play a key role in the dialogue between Christianity and Islam.

[10] The prepared speech is on the internet in case anyone is interested!

More to follow.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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Friday, May 22, 2009

ADDRESS: A Common Word ...


Before I start, I’d like to pay my respects to the indigenous owners, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, of this land.

Thank you for inviting me to join with you to celebrate the document entitled “A Common Word” (ACW). The document was prepared by some 138 Muslim scholars and intellectuals across the world and from every denomination, and was addressed to Christians of every denomination. The document sought a basis for discussion and cooperation between Christians and Muslims, whose combined population made up well over half the world’s population.

“Without peace and justice between these two religious communities,” reads the Summary and Abridgement, “there can be no meaningful peace in the world”. The document further stated that the “basis for this peace and understanding already exists ... [in] … the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour”.

The document then provides in detail the textual evidence for both these foundational principles in the Old and New Testaments as well as in the Qur’an and Ahadith literature.


Educating Theology

It’s all wonderfully esoteric and theological, but as many of you know, I am no theologian. Religious texts matter to me to the extent that I see them acted out by those around me.

We are very close to the grounds of a school managed by the Melkite Catholic Church. Each of the children attending that school will learn about their Christian faith and heritage from their teachers and school elders. They will learn this from studying the Bible and other religious works. But more importantly, they will learn this from their exposure to their Christian teachers and elders and community leaders and (hopefully) from their own families acting out the teachings of the Bible. They will learn how to be what Jesus Christ (p.b.u.h.) described as “the salt of the earth”. They will not only learn the words of the Ten Commandments, the Lords Prayer, the Sermon of the Mount and of Paul’s wonderful description of love and charity in I Corinthians 13.

Up the road from here is a Muslim independent school. Each child attending that school will learn about their Islamic faith and heritage from their teachers and elders. They will study the Qur’an, the Ahadith and other religious works. But more importantly, they will learn from their exposure to their Muslim teachers and elders and community leaders and (hopefully) from their own families acting out the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunna. They will learn how to be what Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) described as people of “ihsan” who “worship God as if they see Him, and if not then they are at least conscious that He is seeing them”. They will learn the words of the Ayat al-Kursi, Surat al-Fatiha and the Prophet’s extraordinary communion with God after being pushed out of the city of Taif.

But like most Muslim kids brought up in Australia, I never attended a Muslim independent school. Instead, mine was a rather confusing and confused upbringing, a mish-mash of Urdu linguistic fascism, ecumenical north Indian Bollywood culture and very spicy food. So what I wanted to share with you today is how I learned my lessons in loving God and loving my neighbour. I learned these lessons from my parents, my (largely Christian) teachers at my Christian school and the few decent imams I was exposed to during my youth.


Common Values

For my middle class North Indian parents, the idea of a “Common Word” seemed almost superfluous. They took it for granted that Christianity and Islam taught the same values. But then, so did Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, Buddhism and other major religions. Mum taught me that the best people were generally the most religious, and that all religions taught you to be good to people.

At primary school, Thursday afternoon was devoted to what was called “scripture”. Volunteers were sent by various churches to take children whose families belonged to their denominations. Mum left it to me to attend whichever denomination I wished, and I’d flirt between Catholic and Anglican. Much of our time was spent studying Bible stories, and my favourite was the dramatic story of Joseph. It was a full-scale Biblical blockbuster in which the good guy came out on top in the end and showed extraordinary magnanimity to his foes who ironically were his own brothers.

I also enjoyed the nativity plays we’d perform during Christmas time. For some reason, I was always assigned the role of one of the three wise men from a strange country called “The East”. The other two wise men were a boy from New Guinea and Chinese girl dressed up as a boy. The baby Jesus was played by a white skinned doll, while our teacher insisted that Mary and Joseph be played by blond-headed children. Perhaps she thought Bethlehem was somewhere north of Scandinavia and that Mary and Joseph lived next door to Santa.

Later my parents wanted to extend my religious and secular education. Like many migrant parents, they wanted their children to have the best education money could buy, even if they could barely afford this amount of money. They ended up sending me to St Andrews Cathedral School, a very Protestant low church Anglican.School located in Sydney’s CBD. It was here that Christianity was less about culture and skin colour and more about values. My first school captain was the son of a Pakistani Anglican priest. I repeatedly learned, almost memorised, the beautiful words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 about the primacy of love.

Christianity was less about culture and more about values. It was about God loving us so much that he was even prepared to sacrifice a part of Himself, and about how we must show love to those around us. But the Islam I learned was in a strictly Indo-Pakistani cultural zone which I never quite understood. We didn’t have many Islamic books in English, and mum would read to me from books in Urdu.


Culture and Tribalism

When we associate religion and religiosity with culture, we turn it into a closed chop, into a club. We tribalise religion. The kids at my primary school could perhaps never imagine the existence of a Pakistani Anglican priest, let alone elect his son as school captain. But then, many Pakistani Muslims I grew up with also probably couldn’t imagine a Pakistani Anglican priest.

When people use religion and religious identity to serve tribal causes, the results are not only deadly but also highly irrational and involve a complete misreading of theology, history and reality – not just that of the “other” but also of our own. For instance, Christianity (or the so-called “Judeo-Christian” tradition) is often cited in support of prejudice against persons from the Middle East, forgetting that Christ himself wasn’t exactly Caucasian.

Conclusion

ACW reminds both Christians and Muslims that they can only find commonality by becoming (in a sense) fundamentalists, by returning to the fundamental themes of their faith. Tribalised religion is about turning people away, while Islam and Christianity are missionary faiths that seek to attract people.

The basic principles of loving God and loving one’s neighbour negate religious tribalism. Or as my mother taught me as a child, the best people are those most true to their religion.

(Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney-based lawyer, author and columnist. His first book Once Were Radicals: My years as a teenage Islamo-fascist has just been published by Allen & Unwin. The above address was delivered to a conference on the Common Word document organised by the Australian Muslim-Christin Friendship Society and the Melkite Welfare Association on Friday 15 May 2009.)

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

VIDEO: The brutal practice of daughter exchange ...

Normally we should take for granted that people will mix religion and culture. The idea that religious practice can only exist in a cultural vacuum is absurd. But what happens when those cultural influence leads to the exploitation of women?

The following video from Al-Jazeera English shows the tragic results of certain cultural practices being enforced by religious leaders among Kurdish Muslims in Iraq. The text accompanying the video is as follows:

In the tribal areas of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, arranged marriages have been a way of life for centuries.

But society is changing. Families who engaged their daughters when they were still children are now renegotiating old contracts.

Nicole Johnston reports from Rania district, where some girls are choosing death over an arranged marriage.


Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf



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Sunday, May 03, 2009

BOOK: Bollywood exegesis of Once Were Radicals - Part I

Well my book Once Were Radicals: My years as a teenage Islamo-fascist has finally been released. You can buy it at most shops for $27, or you can save $2 and buy it from me direct. However, if you do that, then chances are that I will have to charge you at least $2 just to post it to you! Unless of course if you are prepared to meet me in an agreed-upon location. Preferably something very tasteful such as ElSweetie Cafe in Granville, though I'll happily settle for places like the Auburn Soccer Club, Ryde/Eastwood Leagues Club or the Pymble Hotel.

Anyway, from time to time, I will share with you some tafsir (a technical term in Islamic sciences meaning exegesis) of the text with reference to a cultural institution I spent much of my growing years being tortured by - Bollywood. So here goes ...

My parents resumed their fascistic language regime which involved us not being allowed to speak English at home ... My linguistic education included a regular regime of Bollywood movies.
(from Once Were Radicals: My years as a teenage Islamo-fascist)


Bollywood movies like Namak Halal, starring Amitabh Bachchan. Here is the big man playing the character of Arjun Singh, a villager who has just arrived in the city for a job interview.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf



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Saturday, May 02, 2009

VIDEO: Shias in Bahrain ...

Video from Al-Jazeera English. Here is the text accompanying the video.

Tensions are simmering between Bahrain's Sunni rulers and the kingdom's Shia majority population.

The Shias, seeking greater representation in the country's political sphere, accuse the government of fanning sectarian divisions.

But as Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra reports from Manama, some Sunnis see the Shia-demand as an attempt to undermine the monarchy.



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VIDEO: On attacking Ayaan Hirsi Magaan/Ali ...

Hirsi/Magaan wants to change how Muslims relate to God. Yet she doesn't believe in God. And she wants Muslims to take her seriously. Makes sense?

You can watch the full video by clicking here.

But are her Muslim critics also beyond question? What do her experiences say about Muslims themselves, especially those living in Western democratic countries?



Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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