Saturday, August 14, 2010

REFLECTION: A night with the brethren ...

The following was first published on the Aussie Mossie blog on 22 May 2005.

Muslims come in all shapes and sizes, colours and flavours. They speak all different languages at home. And like all major religions, Muslims have different denominations with different understandings of Islam.

Yet regardless of colour or sect or belief, Muslims all become equally upset when neo-Conservative commentators and shock jocks speak with ignorance about Islam and Muslims. Usually the ill speech consists of the presentation of a huge conspiracy that Muslims are conspiring to destroy western civilisation. The ill speech is often made to sound less defamatory by pretending that a clear distinction exists between “Islamists” and the “moderate” Muslims.

Daniel Pipes is a great supporter of the notion that “Islamists” are evil and must be destroyed. He estimates that 10-15% of Muslims are “Islamist”. In a community of 1 billion people, that means that at least 100 million of these are eligible for elimination.

Hitler killed 6 million Jews. Daniel Pipes allegedly wants to see 100 million Muslims eliminated. Who is more dangerous? Or is that an unfair question to ask?

Of course, what hate-mongers like Mr Pipes do not focus on is the enormous diversity of faith and culture that exists within Muslim communities. I witnessed that diversity first-hand on the evening of 21 May 2005 when I attended a cultural night organised by the Ismaili Shia community in Sydney.

The Ismailis are a small sect that branched off from the mainstream varieties of shia (being the ithna ashariyya and the zaydiyya). The spiritual leader of the branch of Ismailis I met is known as the Agha Khan. Hence, this branch are often described as ‘Agha Khanis’.

The bulk of the Ismaili Muslims I met that night hailed from Gujrat in the Indian sub-Continent. They form a large minority within a broader Ismaili community that find their homes in Central Asia, China, the Middle East and Africa. Most of my Indian Ismaili friends travelled widely, and many settled in Pakistan following partition in 1947. Many speak Urdu and Gujrati, but almost all speak fluent English.

The Agha Khani community are extremely organised, and have a very slick public relations machine. Many of our allegedly mainstream Muslim organisations could learn a lot from this small Ismaili branch about building bridges with their host communities and communicating their contributions and achievements.

The night commenced with drinks and tandoori chicken. I felt right at home in the company of ‘desi’ (i.e. from the Indian sub-Continent) people. There were plenty of saris floating around, and I even noticed mums eyeing me as a marriage prospect for some female relative.

How on earth did they know I was single? I pondered on this point over a samosa before remembering a common refrain of my own desi mum: "Hindustani aur Pakistani ma'o ko sab kuch patha lag jaatha hai" (more or less translated as "Indian and Pakistani mums have a unique system of matrimonial telepathic radar").

The Communications & Publications Director of the Australia/New Zealand wing of the international Ismaili community addressed a mixed crowd of politicians, civic leaders and other people of actual and supposed influence. He cited the verse from the Quran in which God says that He created us from one male and one female, then making us into tribes and nations so that we may come to know each other, not hate each other.

The Director went onto mention the Clash of Civilisations thesis of Samuel Huntington. He said that in reality, civilisations can only enrich each other, and that a clash of civilisations was impossible. Sadly, what was possible was a clash of different forms of ignorance. And so it is when ignorance spreads within and between communities that conflicts begin.

It was not hard to read between the lines of the Director’s message. On the one hand, he was signalling that Ismailis were mainstream Muslims and mainstream Australians, and that most Muslims are of this description. On the other hand, he was telling his audience (which included a close Parliamentary colleague of the Prime Minister) that Muslims are not a monolith and are not to be treated as the enemy.

His message is hopefully still ringing in the ears of the Mayor of Baulkham Hills Shire (where the function was being held). The Shire Council had recently shown its commitment to the Muslim communities by refusing to allow a development application from a Muslim to build a small inconspicuous prayer facility on his property. The property was located in the heart of an industrial zone and on a main road, well away from residential areas where parking and noise may have affected residents.

The Director’s message was later expressed to me in more strident language by some young Ismailis I met. They are highly educated, articulate young men and women who had travelled far and wide. Their view of the world was far more realistic than so many Muslim young people from mainstream sunni and shia communities (many of whom rarely venture outside of the Muslim ‘ghettos’ of south western Sydney).

Words © 2005-10 Irfan Yusuf

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OPINION: Wanted - home-grown imams ...

Radical sheiks have attracted a following because of their ability to relate to young people, writes Irfan Yusuf.

SOMETHING is rotten in the state of Australian Islam. Mainstream imams are preaching mainstream peaceful Islamic theology in a language young Muslims don't understand. More young Australian Muslims are attending classes given by locally born imams who are educated and radicalised overseas, mainly in Saudi Arabia. What is the solution?

The Prime Minister's Muslim Advisory Council wants a system for regulation and accreditation of imams which it hopes will weed out the radical imams, who are accused of misleading gullible youth to a version of Islamic theology which isolates them from broader Australian society.

What the council fails to mention is the reason mainstream imams are not able to attract more young people.

In Christian churches, the hierarchy is dominated by clerics who determine not only theological issues but also manage church affairs. Lay members have varying degrees of input. But imams are not priests or clerics but are more akin to legal counsel who can be consulted on matters of religious law.

Australian mosques are governed by societies whose members generally come from its congregation. These societies are generally divided on ethnic and linguistic lines. Membership is often limited to members of a single ethnic community.

The Lebanese Moslems Association, based in Lakemba, manages the Imam Ali ben Abi Taleb Mosque, one of Sydney's largest. Yet the association's constitution refuses full membership and voting rights to anyone ineligible to hold a Lebanese passport. The Muslim League of NSW manages the Green Valley Mosque. Its constitution allows only persons of Fijian-Indian origin to be members.

Mosque management committees are therefore run along ethnic lines. As such, the imam is generally someone who will toe the ethnic, cultural and linguistic line of whichever group runs the society.

Inevitably imams are brought from overseas. Often they are related to members of the societies' executive committees, many of which are run like family fiefdoms. The ability to speak English and relate to young people is not a prerequisite for employment.

Imams are expected to play roles consistent with Islam's status as a cultural artefact in most mosques. The sermon is rarely, if ever, in English. Women are excluded from many mosques. One Pakistani imam was dismissed in part for holding classes for women inside the mosque.

Yet for the majority of Australian Muslims, such cultures are irrelevant. The most recent study of Australian Muslims, conducted by Professor Abdullah Saeed of the University of Melbourne, shows that most were born in Australia and are aged under 40.

With few imams able to speak English, and with mosques unable to provide a culturally relevant version of Islam, it is little wonder many young people flock to the more radical sheiks. One of these, Feiz Mohamed, was brought up in Australia and speaks fluent English. He heads the Global Islamic Youth Centre in Liverpool.

Many will remember Feiz for his remarks attributing sexual assault to the manner in which some women dress. But for thousands of young Muslims, Feiz is the only person who stands between them and jail or drugs.

Feiz might have some unusual views on theology, but his ability to relate to young people has enabled him to attract a large following. His centre is welcoming to young people; its prayer hall doubles as an indoor sports arena, it has internet facilities, a gym, a cafeteria, and a multimedia and book store. All classes are conducted in English. Women are welcome.

Few mosques are willing to imitate this model. Mosque societies are not prepared to open their doors to women and young people.

Regulating imams is only part of the answer. But who will manage the regulation process? It isn't the role of government to tell religious congregations who should preach from their pulpits.

Unless Australian Muslims at a grassroots level take back control of their mosque societies from the governing ethnic cliques, the system will remain in the hands of the same people who have overseen the system of overseas and largely irrelevant imams.

This will lead young Australian Muslims to turn to the "thick sheiks" or leave their faith altogether.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 December 2005.

Words © 2005-10 Irfan Yusuf

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