This article was first published in NewMatilda on 11 October 2006.
The Australian's editorials and columnists frequently praise Muslim 'reformers' for doing little more than abandoning Islam altogether, writes Irfan Yusuf.
John Howard recently expressed his belief that 99 per cent of Muslims have successfully integrated into mainstream Australia and have adopted a set of uniquely Australian values.
Unique values. You know the ones like mateship. Just ask the current Telstra board.
And like democracy. Yes, apparently this is a uniquely Australian value. Howard has repeatedly lectured Muslims on why their countries should adopt democracy. His Treasurer lectures Muslims on why they should support secularism, separating Mosque from State.
Over the next few days, Howard will announce the new Muslim Community Reference Group (MCRG), a set of ‘leaders’ he will consult on matters affecting Australia’s 360,000 Muslims. The MCGR was formed in September 2005, and its first term recently expired.
And what democratic processes will be used to select these people? Will ordinary Muslims get to nominate people? Will Muslims get to vote on who is selected?
Yeah, right. The Government may have just enough of a majority of shares in Telstra to select one director but the Howard Government seems to hold 100 per cent of all shares in Australia’s Muslim communities.
When it comes to democracy, Howard will be misleading by example. He and his ministers will handpick which Muslims they wish to talk to. Who knows what the criteria will be.
Lately, one of Howard’s favourite newspapers has been busy supporting, promoting, and then condemning, certain current MCRG members.
Consider The Australian’s interest in Dr Ameer Ali, a former president of the virtually defunct Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, and outgoing chair of Howard’s MCRG. Some readers will remember Ali as the man whose organisation took 21 days to issue a letter condemning the London bombing, while taking less than 21 minutes to condemn Michelle Leslie’s dress sense.
Ali is now writing an academic paper on how some Muslims seem to be interpreting Islamic texts literally: an interesting theological and philosophical subject.
But for Richard Kerbaj, The Oz’s specialist reporter assigned to report on all things Muslim, Ali’s research findings have become a yardstick against which to decide who is and isn’t a moderate Muslim.
The circus began on 4 October with an article headlined ‘Prophet not perfect, says Islamic scholar’. The article followed a predictable script, with words thrown together randomly to produce a meaningless yet scary message. Try this sentence on for size:
The chairman of John Howard’s Muslim advisory board yesterday warned that Islamists would continue to breed jihadis unless the Koran was œreinterpreted for today’s society.
So when Islamists do some horizontal folk dancing and one falls pregnant, you can bet your bottom dinar that nine months later out will pop a jihadi. The bastards are breeding like rabbits!
It gets better.
He also said mosques were increasingly being used by imams to deliver sermons that were not open to discussion.
What the? How can imams stop people from discussing their sermons?
Following this are quotes from Ali about how the Koran needs to be reinterpreted to suit modern times; that people should question its teachings; that Muslims should stop reacting to every provocation; and that Muslims should stop judging people’s religiosity by the length of their beards (presuming they are blokes).
It’s hard to know what to make of Kerbaj’s article. He treats Ali’s theologically benign statements as a virtual revolutionary manifesto for an all-Aussie Islamic revolution. Such a characterisation shows he has little understanding of current debates in Western Muslim communities.
Ali isn’t the first person to condemn Muslim responses to the Danish cartoons. He also isn’t the first to criticise literalism in Koranic interpretations, nor is he the first to call for honest dialogue with Islam’s critics.
The usual suspects roundly condemned Ali’s comments. The Oz then published a somewhat patronising editorial about the issue, which made out that the Alis of this world will rarely find support within Muslim communities. The article even went so far as to suggest that Ali’s remarks dealt with ‘some of Islam’s most controversial issues, which have already sparked widespread displays of anger and retaliatory violence around the world’.
I’m not aware of a single riot within the Muslim world on the issue of literalism in Koranic interpretation or on the notion of questioning Islamic teachings. Indeed, in the world’s largest Muslim country, followers of liberal reformers like Nurcholis Madjid are setting up foundations and even establishing universities. And the grandson of the founder of Egypt’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is openly calling for a limit to the application of Islamic sharia .
Most amusing was The Oz’s explanation of Ali’s scholarly authority.
Dr Ali’s standing cannot be easily dismissed. He is a doctor of economics who works at Murdoch University in Perth and is writing an academic paper entitled Closing of the Muslim Mind.
So let me get this right: an economics lecturer has the right to authoritatively comment on matters pertaining to religious law and esoteric theology. Presumably, this applies vice versa. I look forward to seeing Cardinal Pell appointed to the Reserve Bank board.
The Oz editorial then manufactured facts, claiming that the entire Muslim world was on fire as a result of the Pope’s speech and the Danish cartoons. The paper suggested that violence was a default position to be expected of Muslims:
Thankfully, the response of Australia’s Islamic leaders has been rhetorical and not vengeful, in stark contrast to the response overseas to publication of the Danish cartoons and the Pope’s speech and the treatment of French philosophy teacher Robert Redeker, who has been forced into hiding for linking Mohammed to violence.
I am the first to admit that some Muslims behaved in an extreme and inappropriate manner, to say the least. But seriously, these responses represent a minority. The vast majority of Muslims protested peacefully. Some voted with their wallets by boycotting Danish goods. Others organised peaceful rallies. There are 1.2 billion Muslims on the planet, if even half of them each lit a match, global warming would soon become global boiling.
The Oz would have us believe that Ali is a brave lone voice in the wilderness. The paper’s editorials and columnists frequently praise Muslim ‘reformers’ for doing little more than abandoning Islam altogether. Openly ex-Muslims like Wafa Sultan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are put on pedestals. Rushdie-wannabes like Irshad Manji are frequently quoted making outlandish claims that they single-handedly rediscovered ijtihad , a fundamental concept and process used by just about everyone from Osama bin Ladin to Anwar Ibrahim.
(Ali has since criticised the headline and slant taken on his comments by The Oz .)
People should be free to enter or leave Islam as they wish. They should be free to practise whatever religion, if any, takes their fancy (so long as it doesn’t involve blowing themselves and/or others up). And they should be able to define who they are, instead of having pseudo-conservative newspapers and politicians trying to impose alien definitions on them.
Words © 2010 Irfan Yusuf
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