Friday, August 14, 2009

OPINION: Sixth column in Crescent Times - Half-Baked Taliban Wisdom?

One of my favourite sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) goes something like this: “Wisdom is the lost property of the believer. Wherever
you find it, grab it”.

Yet for some reason, I don’t seem to find much wisdom at religious gatherings in Sydney. I don’t know what it is about Sydney Muslims – we seem to do things differently, in a more culturally fractured, more divisive fashion. I’m not averse to religious gatherings as such. In the past 12 months, I’ve been to a fair few events. But they’ve all been in Canberra, Brisbane or Melbourne.

And when you’ve represented so many religious institutions as a solicitor, you get to know enough about the religious establishment that watching these people talk piety compromises your faith.

There is one Sydney gathering I don’t mind attending. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never acted for him or his organisation! Dr Mohsin Labban is an elderly chap in Sydney who has been hosting Friday night gatherings for as long as I can remember. He once taught econometrics at the University of New South Wales. He’s now in his late 70’s or early 80’s (I’ve heard different ages from his regular attendees), and despite having two strokes Labban is still zealously spreading what he sees as a more nuanced and less “extreme” (whatever that means) form of Islam.

Around 150 men and women from all walks of life, all ages, all ethnic backgrounds and all religions attend these gatherings, held at a community centre in the outer-western suburbs Sydney. Perth readers might find the idea of a city having “outer-western suburbs” rather odd. Like I said before - we insist on doing things differently in Sydney.

Dr Labban speaks at a soft, measured, almost leisurely pace. If you’re looking for a firebrand sheik to compromise your eardrums, you’d better not waste your time with Dr Labban. I have no idea what Dr Labban’s religious qualifications are. And quite frankly, I don’t particularly care. I’ve never known him to claim he’s a religious scholar. It’s admirable that an elderly gentleman would spend his precious time sharing his knowledge with people. I’m not aware of Dr Labban entering into any controversies about moon sighting or the other silly stuff that so many imams and religious elders seem to harp on about.

So last Friday I joined an old friend to attend Dr Labban’s talk. We were running late, and arrived at the venue only to be told proceedings would commence in 20 minutes. Muslim standard time! When Dr Labban finally sat on stage, he started talking about the Taliban. I was about to switch off my brain when he said something quite profound.

He said that after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the civil war that followed, the small rag-tag Taliban army emerged with super-dooper weapons and just took over the place. He also told us that the word “Taliban” meant “students”. He kept stressing this fact. A part of me wanted to scream out: “Dehhh! Of course that’s what Taliban means”.

I wrote it down anyway when the penny dropped. Students are people who should be studying. The Taliban were students from religious colleges in Pakistan. Here they were, trying to play politics and establish order in a civil war zone. They didn’t seem to notice that they were also manipulated by forces outside Afghanistan. They didn’t seem to care either.

Students of religion, establishing religious law before their religious studies have been completed? You can imagine what kind of strange and demented understanding of religion they must have had. Dr Labban claimed that no other religious group in 14 centuries of Islamic history came up with a justification for stopping women from pursuing even basic school education.

And to think that those enforcing such ignorant rules were themselves students. Perhaps they weren’t listening too carefully in class. Or perhaps their education didn’t involve too much wisdom. Now they, or people like them, are repeating the same madness in a gorgeous part of Pakistan called the Swat Valley.

When half-learned scholars implement half-baked sharia schemes, they make a mockery of religious law. The result is profound injustice and chaos. Makes sense? See you next month!

First published in the Crescent Times on 6 April 2009.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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