Sunday, October 24, 2010

COMMENT: Yasir Morsi on assimilation ...

On Sunday morning, 24 October 2010 I found myself at Melbourne University for a talk by Yasir Morsi, current President of the Melbourne University Muslim Students Association (a position formerly held by luminaries such as Waleed Aly) and one of the brains behind the Granada Project.

In the past, Yasir has taken great exception to my book and to what he perceives to be my "sucking up to whitey". His criticisms of me during public exchanges on Facebook have been so polite, have involved so little name-calling or personal attacks and have always been so focussed on the issues that they are best left for the far-right margin of Planet Irf.

So it was with some interest that I attended Yasir's lecture on Sunday. I took some copious notes and also recorded it on my rather primitive Nokia.

Believe it or not, Yasir did have some very useful things to say. What really impressed me about his presentation was his definition of assimilation, which in the context of 21st century Aussie Muslims he described as ...

... not a move toward something but rather a move away from something. Muslims are expected to move away from their tradition.

He used a very powerful image of seeing the reflection of his face with all its Arab features on the TV set while he was watching the towers collapse in New York on 11 September 2001. He remarked that since that date, it is as if ...

The towers are always collapsing.

Muslims are only being seen as those responsible for the collapsing of the towers.

I'll blog some more about this interesting talk later.

Words © 2010 Irfan Yusuf

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RACISM: Words of wisdom from Eugenia Flynn ...

On Tuesday 19 October 2010, Adelaide-based Eugenia Flynn spoke at a gathering at Melbourne University on the topic of Race & Identity in the Muslim Community. Her words and her delivery stunned her listeners as well as her fellow panellists (North American comics Preacher Moss and Azhar Usman).

I tried taking copious notes at the event, which I have typed out and reproduced below. If anyone who attended has any corrections or can add anything, please do.

[01] My conversion to Islam did not represent a rejection of my Aboriginal or Catholic heritage. I don't reject Catholicism as some kind of religion of oppressors. My path to Islam was more of a flowering of my innate spirituality.

[02] Some Muslims see Islam as a badge of honour. Because Islam is getting a rough time, they see being Muslim as giving them street cred.

[03] Some migrant Muslims claim that they have a more exclusive and legitimate connection with Aboriginal people, as if Muslims have a superior claim to Australia than non-indigenous followers of other faiths. This sense of ownership and superiority leads to a kind of arrogance, as if Muslims have a greater right to speak for indigenous people, which is compounded by the fact that many Muslim migrants are not white. Many Muslims don't realise that this kind of arrogance makes them complicit in the injustice perpetrated toward indigenous people.

[04] Why is the Aboriginal Muslim community growing? Are Aboriginal converts attracted by some alleged increase in freedom? Do Aboriginal Muslims feel Muslim for all the same reasons? Must it always be explained as a rejection of Christianity and/or Western culture?

[05] Many Muslims have adopted the same colonial mindset toward indigenous people as Christian missionaries. They see the purpose of dawah (preaching) to be saving Aboriginal people and getting them to leave behind their aboriginality. Aboriginal Muslims are also pressed to adopt migrant Muslim modes of dress etc. Underlying this is often the presumption that Aboriginality boils down to petrol sniffing, alcohol abuse and criminality.

[06] The notion that Muslims somehow become morally superior over other Australians simply because a growing number of indigenous people are adopting Islam must be challenged.

To be continued ...

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Monday, October 18, 2010

OPINION: Column for the October edition of the Crescent Times ...

Irfan, shut the hell up, you right-wing fascist bull artist!!

Recently a colleague told me that I almost didn’t get my job when I applied for it. I found this rather disturbing and wanted to know the source of the reluctance.

“They googled you,” she said. I wondered why my writing against racism, prejudice and bigotry would land me in trouble with a community organisation. Wouldn’t it be an asset in the community sector to be someone who sticks his neck out and advocates for the marginalised?

“They read you were a former Liberal Party candidate.”

It is true. I was a Liberal Party candidate in 2001. By 2002, I was no longer a member of the Party. I haven’t rejoined. Since 2005, I have lambasted the Party and Australian conservatives generally.

I printed out for my colleague a copy of all the articles I had published which lambasted, ridiculed and attacked the Right (or rather, the wrong) side of Australian politics. It went into over 100 pages. She read it. Her response? “They don’t read all this. They just read

I soon realised that even after all this time, many people will see me as a raving right wing nutcase. There isn’t much I can do about it. When you enter into the public arena, especially when you enter into politics, people will judge you by your
affiliation and by the words and deeds of those who share your affiliation. It sux, I know. But it’s life. Life sux and then you get cross examined by two angels.

I might poke fun at Kevin Andrews’ immigration policies. I might joke about John
Howard’s statements about Asians. I might describe Tony Abbott’s views on foreign policy as infantile. I might attack the Howard government for its disdain for two Australian citizens who languished at the Guantanamo gulag. I might be repeatedly attacked by right-wing pro-Liberal columnists and editorial writers.

But in the eyes of many, Irfan Yusuf is the guy who ran for the Liberals in 2001 which must mean I am anti-migrant, anti-union, anti-welfare, anti-Muslim etc. You name it, I’m anti it.

The same must happen to my friends who feel inclined to join the Labor Party or the Greens. These days if you run for the Greens, many will assume you are plotting to murder their sick granny or want their kids to be forcibly adopted by a couple of dikes on bikes.

As for the ALP, they only believe in ... um ... what do they believe in? Stabbing each other in the back? Mash’Allah, they have becoming Muslims! Julia Gillard for
AFIC President!!

In the last issue of this august publication, someone decided to have a go at a bloke who happens to be a member of the Greens. No doubt the poor brother’s marriage prospects have been affected. Then again, as we all learned from the article, Greens are anti-marriage.

If the article proved anything, it is just how little political sophistication exists in many devout Muslim circles. Heck, I wouldn’t stick my neck out and claim that the Prophet would have been a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party of
Arabia were he alive today. And despite the fact that green was one of his favourite colours, it is a bit much to argue that Bob Brown’s policies are more Islamic (whatever that means) than those of Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott.

At the same time, this is a newspaper read by people who share a common faith, even if they don’t share the same misunderstanding of the faith. And yes, there are some Green values that are arguably more Islamic in the same way that they are more Jewish or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist. Religions are about social justice and
preserving the environment. If someone from the Greens says this, why should this annoy anyone?

Let me end with two more remarks. Firstly, although I am listed as opinion editor, I had nothing to do with the commissioning or editing of either article. These days I have little to do with commissioning or editing any article (other than my own).

Secondly, the headline is a quote from a comment made to me by my fiancé during the
early days of our relationship. She will only allow me to use it here if I disclose that she stands by it to this minute.

Then again, she’s a Labor girl, which probably makes her a Feminist Communist Socialist Maoist Leninist Trotskyist Stalinist.

Talk about political sophistication!

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

COMMENT: One from my younger days ...

This was published on The Aussie Mossie blog on 24 February 2006.

No time to whinge ...

My immediate response to the comments on Muslims and Australian values [made by former PM John Howard and former Treasurer Peter Costello] was shock, dismay and disgust. It made me sick in the stomach that 2 prominent political leaders could express such ignorance on fundamental Islamic concepts such as sharia and jihad.

Of course, we all know they are doing this as a diversion to other emerging issues and scandals. But I think Muslims need to also consider why they can get away with expressing such divisive views.

The fact is that probably most Australians agree with the views expressed by Messrs Howard and Costello. Aussie Muslims know that Costello’s remarks on sharia evidenced near-chronic ignorance on his part.

They also illustrate our near-chronic laziness and inability to communicate our values to the broader Australian community. If the broader community understood what sharia really is and what it means to Aussie Muslims, the Howards and Costellos of this world would never be able to use such issues as a successful diversion.

We know that Muslim mobs rioting and burning embassies were being manipulated by their leaders to divert attention away from more pressing issues. Costello and Howard are using the same device in Australia.

Or are they? When was the last time a group of Muslim Australians sat down and explained to Mr Howard what sharia actually means? When was the last time a Muslim group even bothered to invite Mr Costello to one of their functions?

Our disappointment with our political leaders is understandable. But what else can we expect when we allow our fellow Australians to be bombarded with only ignorant views about our faith and cultures?

The time has come for Muslims to come out of the spiritual closet and to be proactive about their religious responsibilities. Our primary religious responsibility in Australia is to inform people about who we are and what we believe.

The Arabic word “dawah” is often used to describe Muslim outreach and educational activities. We know dawah is a religious imperative upon all of us. It is now becoming an imperative for our national security and our social cohesion. We cannot afford to sit back and complain about the ignorance of wedge-creating politicians. Now is not the time to complain. Now is the time to talk and act.

Words © 2006-10 Irfan Yusuf

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

EVENT: Launch of "Islam Dreaming: Indigenous Muslims in Australia"

Peta Stephenson is a scholar who has written on aspects of Australian history most of us never learned about at high school. I've learned a fair bit from her first book, which I've written elsewhere:

Genuine conservatives show genuine respect and reverence to our 40,000 year indigenous cultural status quo at least as much as they will to our 220-odd year European status quo. That involves recognising the sophistication of indigenous communities. In her 2007 book The Outsiders Within: Telling Australia's Indigenous-Asian Story Peta Stephenson tells just some of the stories of trade and cultural interaction (and indeed intermarriage) between indigenous tribes and Makassar trepang fishermen from Sulawesi (going back at least a century before Captain Phillip landed in Botany Bay) and Chinese indentured labourers.

Stephenson shows that these interactions were suppressed by colonial and Australian authorities, with members of culturally mixed families torn apart. Her book should convince even the most hardened monoculturalist the Indigenous Australia wasn't some isolated monolithic horde of noble savages waiting for the Poms to civilise them. Before and after Europeans settled and plundered, non-European peoples interacted with indigenous peoples on more equal terms, respecting their laws and customs.

We've all heard of Cathy Freeman's indigenous heritage. But how many of us are aware that Freeman is also part-Chinese? Her great-great grandfather moved from China in the late 19th century to work on sugarcane farms in northern Queensland. Stephenson writes that Freeman actively supported Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympics, and Chinese-language newspapers openly celebrate her Chinese heritage even if mainstream newspapers ignore it.

And who could forget the 1988 bicentennial celebrations, including the re-enactment of the Endeavour landing in Sydney? Our Territorian cousins up north had their own celebration, with the landing of the Hati Marege (meaning "Heart of Arnhem Land" in Indonesian) on the Arnhem Land coast. Stephenson provides evidence of Makassar fisherman from Sulawesi making annual voyages to fish for trepang (sea cucumbers) and to trade with the local Yolngu people since as early as the 17th century. This mutually beneficial trading relationship was banned by the South Australian government in 1906-07, ensuring the local Aboriginal people became isolated and insular. Mixed Makassan and indigenous families were torn apart, some only reunited recently after 80 years.

Dr Stephenson is now launching her second book, entitled Islam Dreaming: Indigenous Muslims in Australia. You can find out more about the book here.

The launch of the book is coming up in Melbourne. Details of the launch are as follows:

Friday 5 November 2010
6:30 for 7pm
Institute for Postcolonial Studies
78-80 Curzon Street
North Melbourne
RSVP by October 29

Come along!

Words © 2010 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

MEDIA: Islam 4 za Yoos?

Last month, the New York Times Magazine carried a lengthy profile of an Egyptian media entrepreneur who has started a Muslim version of MTV. Here's how the reporter describes Ahmed Abu Haiba:

At the age of 42 he is tubby and, as a sign of his deep faith, has a large zabiba — a dark smudge on his forehead born of rubbing his head repeatedly on a prayer mat. And yet he is not a conventional man and certainly not a conventional Muslim. Today he looks more like a hip-hop mogul, with a black knit golf cap on backward and a suit of all black. And a pink tie.

Plenty of hip hop. You won't find me watching it. Unless of course they feature some Islamic hard rock. Perhaps a band calling itself Aqida (Creed). When it comes to music, I'm rather fussy.

There's also plenty of folksy stuff from Yusuf, as well as Sami Yusuf (no relation). And entertainment of the "Dr Phil" variety. My mum should subscribe.

Abu Haiba is apparently part of a bigger culture war going on in the Arabic-speaking world. The wars take on a particularly political flavour given that so much of the Arab media is controlled by dictatorial governments imposed by governments of countries that would never tolerate such dictatorship. The result is the imposition of a kind of Islam that despises the development of an indigenous culture open to outside influences.

Under whatever guise, and in spite of long and storied musical traditions, there is a significant history of restrictions on music across the Islamic world. In the 1950s, according to the scholar Jonas Otterbeck, the Committee for the Advancement of Virtue and Elimination of Vice in Saudi Arabia banned music and singing, linking them to immorality and Sufism. In Afghanistan, the Taliban famously banned music and went as far as to kill musicians. In Lebanon, Nirvana was banned in the late 1990s after being linked to Satan worship. Between 2000 and 2005, 80 percent of the issues raised by Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarians concerned the need to take an Islamic stand on culture and media. And then, in November of this past year, the American pop singer Beyoncé was scheduled to play a concert at an elite resort on the Red Sea. The promotional ads for the concert — featuring Beyoncé in all manner of suggestive costumes, including a half-unitard covered in flames — inspired one Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian named Hamdi Hassan to declare her concert an “insolent sex party” in a letter written to the Egyptian Parliament. The Beyoncé affair, in turn, prompted a great drama in the press, pitting Beyoncé’s defenders against outraged detractors. The concert went on anyway, but not before inspiring an “Against Beyoncé” Facebook campaign. The group attracted about 10,000 members.

Yet these same forces are condemned by their backers for being "extremists" and "Wahhabists". I mean, what the ...?

And so you have young entrepreneurs like Aby Haiba struggling to see outside the imposed cultural square, only to find himself even more inside of it. Still, at least he is trying.

“The voices speaking for Islam today are extremists,” he went on, with his own sort of evangelical zeal. “We see an angry man throwing a stone at an embassy more often than an Amr Khaled.” ...

“4Shbab is changing the way young people look at Islam. I know we can change people at the far end, the Salafists or jihadists. Some of the people who listen to us now used to not listen to music at all!” ...

... “Imagine ‘Big Love’ or ‘The Wire’ with Islamic themes,” he said. You could see the optimism and excitement in his eyes. “I think in a short time we will be at the top of the charts. You see, Islam is like a big bus. You can be standing at the door, or you can be at the steering wheel. My plan is to be at the steering wheel.”

Should we imagine?

Words © 2010 Irfan Yusuf

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COMMENT: Saints of Colour ...

A recent Good Weekend cover featured a saintly piece of toast. Well, actually it was a picture of the image of Mary MacKillop on a piece of freshly toasted slice of white bread. The headline was

Hail, Mary! The making of an Australian saint

For some reason, the image reminded me of something I heard last night at the Majlis at-Tariqat al-Afroziyya. Dr Salih Yucel, Monash University lecturer in Islamic studies, a follower of Turkish religious scholar Fethullah Gulen and former Imam of Redfern Mosque, spoke about his knowledge of African-American Islam based on his doctoral studies at Boston and meetings with various experts in the field.

Dr Yucel spoke of an African American of Muslim heritage who studied in a seminary and was sent by an American denomination to preach to Muslims in Africa and the Middle East. The missionary reports that he arrived in Damascus and saw Arabs performing devotions at a tomb. He was curious as to who was buried there.

The crowd told him about an Ethiopian slave named Bilal who was blessed with being the Muezzin of theProphet Muhammad's mosque in Madina. The missionary was impressed by the sight of fair-skinned Arabs showing reverence to an Ethiopian honoured by their Prophet.

The missionary returned to his teachers in the United States. He asked them why it was that in 1,900 years, the Catholic Church had not appointed a black man to be a saint.

I'm not sure if there ever has been a Catholic saint of colour. I do know that there have been Sufi saints of just about every colour and ethnicity. Saints like Uthman dan Fodio.

UPDATE I: One reader IE has corrected me and/or Dr Yucel. In fact there have been numerous African saints. Actually, numerous is an understatement.

UPDATE II: Another reader, SJW, points out:

One of our most famous and beloved saints, is Martin de Porres. And there are many other examples across all ethnicities including Chinese, and Native Americans. The word "Catholic" means "universal", the universality of the human race thro...ugh the love of God. There are some things that I am uncomfortable about at times in my faith but one thing I am truly proud of is that all through my Catholic education was a very strong message of social justice and anti-racism. So I don't quite understand the point you are trying to make.

Given the degree of interfaith activity that the Fethullahists do with the Australian Catholic University and other Catholic institutions, I wonder what point Dr Yucel was trying to make.

Words © 2010 Irfan Yusuf

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Friday, October 01, 2010

COMMENT: Commercial Sufism in Australia

I'm not the most observant Muslim on the planet. But I hold enormous respect for those who are observant Muslims. I honour men and women of knowledge who devote years of their lives to studying Arabic, Ottoman and other languages commonly used to transmit classical Islamic sciences. And I especially honour those who can stick to a Sufi path, something I have failed to do.

Sufism isn't just something you learn from books purcahsed at the Theosophical Bookshop. It is about experience. And it is something you cannot learn without a teacher.

Sufism is also the highest form of Islamic orthodoxy. You cannot have sufism without sharia. You cannot be a true sufi unless you follow the outer requirements of Islamic worship.

Advanced sufi texts are not something you can pick up and read. You need a teacher. It is spiritually dangerous to try and develop your spirituality by reading an ENglish translation of the work of someone like Imam Ghazali or Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani, regardless of how good the translation is.

So when I heard that Afroz Ali has decided to start teaching sections from Imam Ghazali's Ihya and charging $50 for the course, it really reminded me of some of the commercial sufis who charge money from unwary and well-meaning non-Muslims. It also reminded me of the commercial "pirs" in India who charge money for a wazifa and who even carry business cards advertising their rates.

The idea of charging money to teach people sciences of the heart is tragic. And so I need to ask questions, some of which many readers hear are probably sick of reading:

1. Will Afroz Ali be teaching the relevant sections of Ihya Uloom ad-Din ("Revival of the Religious Sciences) in Arabic? Or will he be using an English or Urdu translation?

2. Has Afroz Ali studied Ihya under a shaykh of tasawwuf? If so, who is this shaykh, what tariqa does he belong to and for how long has Afroz Ali studied under him?

3. Did this Shaykh give Afroz the relevant authorisation to teach such an advanced text as Ihya?

4. Is Afroz himself part of a tariqa (Sufi order)?

Apart from commercial charlatans, I have never heard of people charging money to teach tasawwuf.

Words © 2010 Irfan Yusuf

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