Monday, February 28, 2011

REFLECTION: Anne and Nada

This article was first published on the Webdiary on 21 November 2005.

On the evening of Thursday 17 November 2005, I saw one of the unsung heroines of Muslim Australia tell it as it was. The good folks at the Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre invited Nada Roude to be grilled by Anne Henderson.

The night was billed as one feisty woman having a conversation with another. In this case, Nada came out the feistier one.

Anne is one of the leading lights of the Sydney Institute, headed by her husband Dr Gerard Henderson. Anne is also an accomplished author and (believe it or not) is a strong advocate for the human rights of asylum seekers. She has an Irish Catholic heritage, and has written much on post-war immigrants and their experiences settling in Australia.

Nada was a founding member of the Muslim Women's Association, and also founded Sydney's first refuge catering for the needs of Muslim women in need of crisis accommodation. For many years, Nada worked for the Premier's Department and what was then the Ethnic Affairs Commission of NSW.

Today, amongst her other activities, Nada collects mail for the Islamic Council of NSW. Sadly, much of it is hate-mail. Nada chose not to elaborate too much on the contents of some of these letters, preferring to focus on her life and vision for a better of Australia.

Unlike the bulk of Lebanese Muslim migrants, whose arrival in Australia coincided with the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion (i.e. from mid-1970's to the mid-80's), Nada's family arrived in Australia in the early 1960's. When she arrived in Australia at age seven, Nada spoke no English but plenty of Arabic and French.

Nada commenced school in grade five. Back in those days, there were no ESL lessons in schools. Nada had to survive by relying on the extra care of her teacher, a New Zealander she remembers as Mrs Burns. Thenkfullay Nada doesn't speak Unglush un the minnar thus sintunse uz wruttin.

Nada did her serious adolescent growing during the 1970's, around the time I stull shuttung un my neppays (as Mrs Burns might have said). Those were the days when Muslim migrants didn't stand out like sore thumbs.

Back then, what counted most to Nada was surviving as the child of Lebanese migrants. She was somehow different, and spent much of her time trying to conform but also trying to educate her class fellows about her culture. She even admitted to starting a Lebanese dance group.

No, not belly dancing. Folk dancing.

In those days, Nada felt her ethnicity was the most important feature of her life as it was her greatest source of vulnerability. Those were the days when Lebanese were Lebanese, regardless of religion. Actually, in Australia, that has pretty much always been the case.

In Year 10, Nada was elected school captain. She didn't cover her head in those days, but she still stood out with her darker hair and skin colour. Nada's school principal wouldn't tolerate a Lebanese school captain, and Nada had to accept a less prominent role as vice captain. It was Nada's first experience of official discrimination.

In those days, the school authorities presumed that all Lebanese girls would just leave school and get married off to someone who wanted lots of kiddies. As such, Nada spent 6 months of her senior school, years involved in the pursuit of weaving. Her designs apparently continue to grace the wall of the office of the Director-General of the Department of Education. She ended up coming first in the state for Art.

Nada's family knew she was not going to be the orthodox Lebanese girl. She surprised Lebanese family friends by travelling overseas alone after finishing Year 12. She studied comparative religion in Malaysia, before moving to Singapore and eventually finding herself stuck at Beirut Airport with the late Al Grassby during the Israeli siege.

It was at this time that Nada decided that the only place she would ever call home was Sydney. I don't blame her. If I had to spend days being shelled by rockets and rained on with shrapnel whilst in the company of a man whose coloured ties shone more brightly than Israeli flares, I'd be calling Australia home as well.

When Nada returned from her overseas tour of universities and war zones, she made the decision to place a hijab on her head. This was also a revolutionary step, as few Muslim women identified themselves with the hijab. This didn't stop her from being a fiercely independent woman.

Nada told her story with such passion and gusto that Anne found it hard to get a word in. The only other question I remember Anne asking Nada was about her thoughts on how Muslims dealt with suspicion and hatred. It was here that Nada really showed why she made it to at least 2 episodes of Geoffrey Robertson's Hypothetical.

Nada made the important point that Muslims have always been part of the Australian landscape. Muslim involvement in Australia pre-dates the first European discoveries. Northern Australia appears in Arab maps dating back to the 11th century. Muslim fishermen regularly traded with indigenous peoples across Northern Australia. Around two-thirds of Australia's Muslim community were actually born in Australia.

Nada reminded her audience that Australia has forever been a land of migrants. She remembers the days when Indo-Chinese were treated with suspicion and hatred. She recognised that Australians as a nation are still learning to come to terms with differences in culture and language.

In the case of Muslims, the problem has become worse given that what makes some Muslims stand out from the crowd carries religious overtones. Aussies aren't exactly known for their religiosity or indeed their reverence toward the symbols of any religion.

Nada recalled a time when new Lebanese migrants would anglicise their names to fit in. Muhammad would become Michael, and Osama would become Allan. One Muslim stand-up comic from America, Azhar Usman, puts it like this:

I reckon somewhere out there, there's gotta be a guy named Haris Patel who says to his friends at work: 'If you can't say Haris Patel, just call me Harry Potter!'

But as multiculturalism really began to bloom during the Fraser, Hawke and Keating years, many Lebanese Muslims de-anglicised their names. Women starting wearing pieces of cloth on their heads, and open expression of religious symbols became the norm.

Muslim Aussies, especially recently arrived migrants, felt comfortable and accepted. I recall during the 2001 Auburn by-election, even the NSW Liberal Party started taking Muslim voters seriously. Though they wouldn't let an Aussie Mossie be their endorsed candidate. Such is life.

But then something happened. Two jets crashed into the Twin Towers, and one hit the Pentagon. People of Muslim and Sikh backgrounds were immediately implicated. Within a few days, Sydney's Daily Telegraph showed on its cover the headline "First Arrest!". Some bloke with a turban was being held by FBI agents and taken into custody.

I looked at the cover. I looked at the turban. The poor dude was a Sikh. The first person to be murdered in retaliation for September 11 was also a Sikh. In those days, it was bad enough just to be deemed Muslim.

Nada's work as a Muslim activist since September 11 has, in her own words, been just "putting out one fire after another". She says many young Aussie-born Muslims are returning to their parents' and ancestors' faith as an act of defiance. Many of these people feel their heritage is being unfairly targeted, and in a true Aussie fashion are seeking to protect the underdog.

Since September 11, more Muslims are feeling the heat. Comments made by certain politicians and media personalities are not helping in this regard. Nada resents the fact that only thick-Sheiks are being made accountable for their hate-speech but not certain tabloid columnists or Liberal backbenchers.

Nada's biggest hope is the grassroots Aussies who know Muslims through work or as good neighbours. She recalls how touched she was when her neighbour brought her a bunch of flowers and said: "I don't care what other people say. I know you had nothing to do with September 11."

Nada's prescription for the illness of social paranoia is normal human interaction. She wants people to relate to each other as human beings with human frailties, not as Muslims or Christians or Callithumpians. She made the point that all faith communities have shared problems and experiences. If people saw each other as fellow human beings and emphasised their commonalities, we would all realise that our differences are in fact a good excuse to break the ice and get to know one another.

Nada ended her speech by saying how much she wanted to have lunch with Alan Jones. Anne Henderson said she would try and arrange it. I wouldn't mind attending either. I'd love to see Nada gently de-constructing Alan's rhetoric and teaching him a thing or two about what it means to be Australian.

Words © 2005-11 Irfan Yusuf

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Monday, February 21, 2011

COMMENT: Senator Mitch Fifield on sharia

This car was convicted of adultery.

The Sunday Telegraph cited Liberal Victorian senator Mitch Fifield as follows:

Australians revel in diversity and embrace different cultures but they expect people who come to Australia to sign up to mainstream values. You have to muck in with the rest of the community and not develop a sort of separate society.

Indeed. I recall Captain Arthur Phillip adopting the values of indigenous spirituality and learning to speak local languages.

We need to heed the lessons of the UK where you have whole suburbs which are basically separate entities to the rest of the community.

A bit like Chinatown in Sydney. A huge tourist attraction.

There are some interpretations of Islam which aren't healthy and aren't compatible with Australian values, such as sharia law.

The values of sharia are totally alien to Australian values? Let's consider them for a short while. I'll quote myself on this one.

Costello says most migrants become Australian citizens because they want to embrace the things this country stands for. He lists six core Australian values, including economic opportunity, security, democracy and personal freedom.

In 2002, a visiting Indonesian academic lawyer delivered a series of lectures under the auspices of the Centre for Independent Studies. Professor Mohammad Fajrul Falaakh is a vice-dean of the Gadjah Mada University, among the top 100 universities in the world. Falaakh is also a senior figure in the Council of Theologians, or Nahdatul Ulama, the world's largest Islamic organisation.

In the annual CIS Acton Lecture, on the topic of sharia and pluralism in Indonesia, Falaakh listed five basic values of sharia, agreed on by sharia scholars from all schools of Islamic law. If one compares the five principles of sharia to the six values espoused by Costello, one finds they are virtually identical.

... sharia is not the name of a draconian system of legal punishments. It is not a synonym for amputations and beheadings. Rather, sharia is a legal tradition, a set of legal principles based on certain values. And those values are identical to those expressed in the Old and New Testaments.

Further, legal scholars in the East and West agree that the traditions of sharia, English common law (from which our legal systems are derived) and European civil law have borrowed from, and influenced, each other.

Some commentators present sharia as a system of medieval criminal punishments. But for Australian Muslims, sharia represents little more than ethics (honesty, enterprise) and liturgy (how to perform prayers, weddings, funerals).

Fifield is showing the same ignorance of sharia as Peter Costello did back in 2006.

Words © 2011 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

VIDEO: Confronting stereotypes ... er ... sorta

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COMMENT: A note from 2005 about a national Muslim youth summit ...

This was first published on the Aussie Mossie blog on 29 November 2005. It concerned a youthh summit organised by the former conservative government of John Howard as part of its response to the fear of home-grown terrorism following the July 2005 London bombings.

Flippant Thoughts on this Friday's Youth Summit

This Friday, young Muslims from across Australia will be gathering in Sydney for the inaugural National Muslim Youth Summit. They will discuss a range of issues affecting young Aussie Muslims. These issues include drug & alcohol addiction, family crises, the Anti-Terrorism Bill and Muslim coverage in the media.

You’d think such a summit would be organised by a peak Muslim body such as the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. Think again. This talkfest is being financed by the Department of Immigration Multicultural & Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA). It is being organised by a non-Muslim NGO called the Australian Multicultural Foundation.

Around two-thirds of Australian Muslims are aged under 40 and were born in Australia. Many Muslim communities – Turks, Bosnians, Albanians, Afghans and Lebanese – are into their 3rd and 4th generation. They have high levels of education and employment and integrate well in mainstream Australian society.

Yet the very fact that AFIC and other Muslim bodies have never organised a Muslim youth summit is indicative of how out-of-touch these migrant-dominated peak bodies are. It also explains why they find it so hard to send the right signals to the broader community understandably seeking some kind of reassurance that the London bombings will not be replicated in Australia.

When asked if any single event changed his perceptions toward national security, Prime Minister John Howard spoke of the London terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005. What made the London attacks so different was that the alleged perpetrators were not foreign terrorists but local boys. The phrase “home grown terror” became part of our vocabulary.

And it wasn’t just in Australia that the shockwaves were felt. Across the Tasman, at least 4 mosques were vandalised in different parts of New Zealand.

Within hours, a small group of grassroots Muslim organisations led by the Islamic Council of Victoria condemned the attacks unconditionally. These organisations had one thing in common – they were managed by Australian-born Muslims who knew how to engage with the Australian mainstream and could address the legitimate concerns Australians of all faiths and no faith in particular held on national security issues.

However, other Muslim peak bodies were much slower in their condemnation. It took the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils around 3 weeks to issue an open letter signed by its president and its mufti (chief imam) to various Muslim groups and associations. The letter made mention not just of the terror attacks but also of the alleged grievances of those carrying out many attacks. A similar letter and with similar timing was issued by the Islamic Council of NSW.

The conditional nature of the condemnations and their delayed release led to suggestions that Australian Muslims would only condemn terrorism when embarrassed into doing so, and only on a conditional basis. The suggestions were, of course, unfair but understandable. What Muslim bodies did not realise was that their management of Muslim affairs was now regarded as a national security issue.

The most recent raids and arrests conducted by ASIO and police raised even more questions about Muslim community management. The majority of those arrested were young men born and brought up in Australia. A number of these men were known to attend youth groups managed by imams and volunteers deemed to be more “radical”.

This naturally led many commentators to ask certain questions. What attracts many local Muslim youth to attend such classes and become part of such groups? Why aren’t mainstream mosques attracting more young people? What facilities and programs are being run by mainstream imams? Are mainstream imams equipped to provide programs to younger home-grown Muslims?

One troubling aspect of Muslim community leadership is that it has not yet figured out exactly who or what it represents. Both AFIC and its New Zealand equivalent (the Federation of Islamic Associations of NZ or FIANZ) are umbrella bodies representing mainly societies responsible for the management of mosques.

At least in Australia, the majority of mosques are divided along ethnic and linguistic lines, and leadership is dominated firmly by first generation middle-aged migrant men with an interest in maintaining the ethnic divisions. The leadership tends to regard mosques and religious activities as cultural artefacts which run parallel to their cultural perception of Islam.

The mosque associations tend to employ imams who fulfil a cultural role. As such, the imams of different mosques will perform different cultural roles depending on the dominant cultural group of the association. Most Friday sermons and other lectures are given in Arabic and another language (usually not English).

Indeed, most sermons being given this Friday will also tend to be in a language most young Muslims will not understand. The inability of mainstream Muslim institutions will be just one of the topics to be addressed this Friday at the National Muslim Youth Summit in Sydney.

Delegates will be divided into 6 subgroups and will brainstorm a number of the issues selected. The summit is perhaps the first time young people across the ethnic and linguistic spectrum of Muslim Australia will be able to discuss and pass on their concerns to the Australian Government.

One would have expected the topics discussed at the summit would form part and parcel of the deliberations and decision making of these bodies. The inability of peak Muslim bodies to involve and engage the youthful Muslim majority will ensure these institutions will become irrelevant in the Australian Muslim landscape. The fact that a government agency and a non-Muslim NGO are taking this initiative is yet another indication of how hopelessly out-of-touch the migrant and middle aged male dominated Muslim leadership is with the community it claims to represent.

Words © 2005-11 Irfan Yusuf

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COMMENT: A useful note with a pompous headline ...

... and with a few bits worth reading. I'm not sure what I was thinking when I wrote the headline. It was first published on the Aussie Mossie blog on 23 November 2005.

A Message To Imams Across Australia, New Zealand & The World

25 November 2005 falls on a Friday, the day regarded as sacred to Muslims. On this day, Muslims gather at the mosque to pray in congregation. Part of that process includes the delivery of a sermon or “khutbah”.

The Prophet Muhammad has provided guidelines for the delivery of sermons. One od these guidelines is that the khatib (the one who delivers the sermon) is to deal with current issues facing the Muslim community.

Although I am no scholar, I have a humble suggestion for our imams and khatibs for a topic which affects all Muslims, especially Muslim men. I also have a humble request for our imams and khatibs to wear a certain item with their clothing.

The United Nations has designated 25 November to be the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. As part of this day, men wear white ribbons on their chests as a symbol that they will not commit, condone or tolerate any forms of violence against women carried out by other men.

I urge our imams and khatibs to wear a white ribbon on that day, and to encourage the male members of their congregation to also wear the white ribbon.

Islam gave dignity to women. It gave women rights and liberties. But some men, Muslim and non-Muslim, choose to take those rights away. Moreover, some men choose to act violently toward women.

Our greatest exemplar in conduct was the Prophet Muhammad. There is no instance of him ever behaving violently toward a woman. He never engaged in physical or sexual violence toward any women, be they his wives, his daughters or women outside his family.

The Prophet Muhammad brought a scripture which states that husbands and wives are like “garments unto each other”. Which man would rip up or punch or kick his garments?

The Prophet is reported to have said: “The best of you is he who is best to his wife. And I am the best amongst you because of my behaviour with my wife.”

The measure of a man is how he treats his wife. Yet we all know that Muslim men do exist who beat and act violently toward their wives. Often such violence is carried out in the presence of children, or at least comes to the knowledge of the children.

When violence against women is perpetrated in the home, it isn’t just the women victims who suffer. The children are traumatised, and this can last even after they reach maturity. Other men who care for the woman victim – fathers, brothers etc – also suffer.

Indeed, even the perpetrator of the violence suffers. He loses respect of his children. He is increasingly unable to control the anger or other causes of the violence. Most importantly, he eventually loses the woman who could have offered him unconditional love.

Society as a whole loses. And we are losing. Our women are suffering physical and sexual violence at the hands of their husbands and other men. We know it is happening. But many of us come from cultures where domestic violence is hidden.

In Australia and other Western countries, there are laws which forbid domestic violence and which provide women with remedies against the perpetrators. Similar laws exist in Muslim countries.

Yet it troubles me that when I visit a court located in an area of Sydney with a substantial Muslim community, I see names like “Ali” and “Muhammad” and “Umar” and “Abdullah” figuring prominently on the court list as perpetrators of violence toward their female partners.

It also troubles me that I see so many women with names like “Aisha” and “Khadija” and “Yasmin” and “Fatima” as victims.

Women make up at least 50% of the Muslim population, and at least 50% of the human race. Violence against women is condemned across all faiths and schools of thought. So why is it on the increase?

This is not just an issue for Muslims. It is eating at the soul of mankind. We know that God is “ar-Rahman” (absolutely gracious) and “ar-Rahim” (absolutely merciful). We know that these two primary attributes of God come from the root word “Rahm” which means “the womb”.

God uses the example of the female womb to describe His own absolutely mercy. Yet instead of respecting the wombs that carried us, we see women being subject to the worst forms of physical, mental, sexual and emotional violence in our communities. We even see fathers and brothers perpetrating violence for the sake of protecting family honour.

Yet the most honourable and best of men is the one who is best to his wife. This is the standard set for us by our Prophet. It is the standard we have failed.
The Prophet said: “Help your brother, both when he is oppressed and when he oppresses.” Those hearing asked: “How do we help someone when he oppresses?” The Prophet responded: “By stopping him from his oppression.”

Muslim men need to stop their Muslim brothers who deem it acceptable to oppress their wives and other women. The violence against women will only stop when men take a stand. If Muslim men sit by and not stop the evil from occurring, we might as well be lending a hand to the violence.

I humbly call upon all imams and khatibs to deliver this message to the men in their congregations on 25 November 2005.
Words © 2005-11 Irfan Yusuf

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COMMENT: The integration mass debate

Here we go again. The integration mass debate has been started by politicians too gutless and/or stupid to deal with harder questions of economics. Pointing fingers at others without realising three fingers are pointing back at them.

Once again the pseudo-intellectual monoculturalists are coming out of the closet, dusting off the attitudes that have been used for over two centuries in Australia. One of my recent favourites has been a line from an editorial published by that American-owned newspaper the calls itself The Australian.

How wonderful it would be if the next generation of [Muslim] Lebanese-Australian kids held as their models the successful chief executives and footballers from their communities, rather than drug barons and night club owners.

What can I say? Or rather, where do I start? My responses aren't exactly the most intellectual-sounding, but then neither is what I'm responding to. So here goes:

[01] Is Professor Marie Bashir Dutch? Is Steve Bracks German?

[02] What proportion of drug barons in Australia are Lebanese?

[03] What proportion of night club owners in Australia are Lebanese?

[04] Let's look at CEO's. What proportion of Australian Catholics look upto Rupert Murdoch as their model? And for what? How many Catholics living in the ACT would manage companies that avoid taxation? Or that engages in illegal phone tapping? Is success in Australian patriotism measured by how readily one gives up one's Australian passport to become an American?

[05] What kind of footballer is successful? One who successfully dodges allegations of gang rape or group sex or bestiality? How many females does one have to sexually assult before becoming a successful footballer?

[06] Did Hazem ElMasri recently retire from a successful career in chess or lawn bowls?

Okay, that's enough. Now let's enjoy Amr Zaid's bass guitar.

Words © 2011 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, February 06, 2011

COMMENT: Reading Quilliam ...

Over the next few weeks, I've set aside time to read the various papers produced by the Quilliam Foundation, a thinktank which was co-founded by Mohammed Mahbub ("Ed") Husain and Maajid Nawaaz. These two gentleman claim to have been senior members of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the UK.

Ed Husain authored a book called The Islamist. I use the word "authored" in its broadest possible sense. A reliable source close to his publishers has advised that in fact a ghost writer wrote most of the book. It isn't clear whether the ghost writer merely provided words or also contributed ideas. The ghost writer did seem to do a good job, and I gave the book a relatively positive review when it was first published in Australia.

The book was written before QF was founded and before it became the darling of cultural warriors and UK politicians hell-bent on marginalising certain minorities. QF has been criticised by many in the UK "islamic industry", and I am not so naive as to accept everything self-appointed leaders have to say on these matters. So I've decided to research the matter in detail for myself.

UPDATE: It also turns out Husain is a Senior Fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. You can watch a video of him talking about Egypt here.

Words © 2011 Irfan Yusuf

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