Monday, August 03, 2015

OPINION: Why should Muslims speak about terrorism?

It’s a common refrain. Muslims in Australia rarely have anything useful to say about terrorism. Each time the Federal Government decides it wants to add yet another layer to the already bulging layers of terrorism law, Muslims (with a few notable exceptions) seem almost disinterested or incapable of making a sensible contribution beyond boycotting meetings with the PM or complaining about racism. It’s as if they cannot address the changing law itself.
Then again, few other Australians, including our political leaders, have much sensible to say. Perhaps the only sensible thing our Prime Minister has said on the subject was soon after the Martin Place Siege in which three persons (including the gunman) lost their lives.
Andrew Lynch, Nicola McGarrity and George Williams, in their recently published Inside Australia’s Anti-Terrorism Laws and Trials, state that 
... we should be wary of letting those who wish us harm determine how we live as members of a free and democratic society. Abbott acknowledged the limits upon security in a liberal society when he said, in the aftermath of the Sydney siege, that even if Monis had been on agency watchlists and monitored 24 hours a day ‘it’s quite likely, certainly possible, that this incident could have taken place, because the level of control that would have been necessary to prevent people from going about their daily life, would be very, very high indeed..
This makes far more sense than hysterical references to the “Death Cult” or insulting remarks that Muslims need to say their faith is one of peace as if they really mean it. It also underscores just how important the efforts of ordinary Muslims are when they report suspicious persons and activities to their authorities, and when their testimony is crucial to the small number of successful terrorism convictions.
You can’t eliminate risk by throwing legislation at it. The law cannot solve everything. The above mentioned authors note: 
By the end of 2014, 64 separate pieces of anti-terrorism legislation had become law. 
These additional laws and the current raft of citizenship stripping laws would have been unlikely to stop Man Monis from murdering two innocent Australians.
The growing complexity of anti-terror law is such that the average Islamic society or council or federation committee would have little hope of understanding how it all fits together. We can’t expect religious bodies to have much useful to say on terrorism law reform. At best they can (and should) defer this to experts within their communities – lawyers, public policy experts and lobbyists.
And that assumes they all have the same approach to this issue. National security is tied up with other areas of government policy, including foreign policy. It is naïve to imagine that all Muslims in Australia have the same views on, say, the Syrian or Iraqi conflict. Opinions on the Syrian government have been divided within Lebanese Muslim circles since before the Lebanese civil war started in the 1970’s. For many in downtown Punchbowl and Preston, Hezbollah is the enemy when they were once heroes.
Sectarian divisions have turned political. How are these divisions to be managed? How much dialogue is there between Sunni and Shia? Has this translated into a common approach to addressing the issues raised by proposed laws?
Absolute unity isn’t what’s required. We don’t stop celebrating Eid just because we cannot agree on which day to celebrate it on. We shouldn’t have a base approach to civil liberties, democracy, citizenship, national security and foreign fighters just because some of us despise Assad more than others. Even if Muslim bodies don’t feel comfortable talking to the media or the politicians about terrorism, they can still talk to each other and to their members about the issue. And if they then decide to contact their local MP or even a Minister, they can at least honestly say that they have consulted with community members.
First published in the Australasian Muslim Times on 31 July 2015.

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BOOK: Hilarious book by an Iraqi-Iranian-Australian artist

What’s it like to live on the fringes of society, to be an outsider. First, second and third generation Muslim of migrant heritage often complain of being marginalised. But what would it be like to be a marginal person in more than one home country?
Osamah Sami’s family knows exactly what this is like. His late father, a religious scholar and leader to a Shia congregation in northern Melbourne, grew up in Iraq as a young man keen on reading foreign newspapers. Tortured by the regime of Saddam Hussein, he fled to Iran.
Osamah was born a foreigner. Despite belonging to the same religious denomination as the Iranians around him, Osamah was an Arab, not a Persian. His mother made him wear a long robe, not jeans like his Iranian friends.
But worse still, Osamah’s family were Iraqis living in Abadan, a border town. He and his neighbours lived under the shadow of Iraqi bombs, mortars, missiles and gas raining down on the city during the 1980’s war between Iran and Iraq. They also suffered from the constant suspicion and prejudice from those deemed more Iranian, more Shia and more Muslim than those who spoke Arabic. The language of the Prophet and the language of the enemy were one and the same.
Things weren’t made easier by the fact that Osamah’s father and uncles were fighting in the Iranian army, possibly against their former Iraqi relatives and neighbours. Amongst the drama and tragedy, the author manages to insert much laugh-out-loud humour.
Indeed, tragicomedy is an appropriate description of the book. Osamah’s childhood reflections of the hypocrisies of Iranian theocracy make an excellent antidote to those who would make us believe that the solution to our woes necessarily lay in the Islamic state. All the religious police in the world could not stop Muslims from identifying more by their tribe or sect. Kurds did not cease being Kurds. Iraqi Shia Muslims were still deemed Iraqis and potential enemies of the state. All this during the age of jihad against thee Great Satan and its cronies.
There were no long term prospects for Osamah’s family. The family moved from Abadan to the university city of Qom, where his father pursued studies to become a religious scholar. Later he was invited to Melbourne to officiate for religious ceremonies. Eventually, the family applied to migrate as refugees.
Much of the book is structured around a visit the adult Osamah made to Iran with his father. They arrived at the city of Mashhad in 2013, enjoyed a traditional falafel roll together and returned to their hotel. Osamah went for a walk while his father quietly moved onto the afterlife. Whilst dealing with his own grief, Osamah also had to deal with Iranian bureaucracy. “Policy is policy,” he would be told whilst forced to leave his Australian passport in the hands of anonymous officials in Mashhad before travelling some 900 km across a huge desert to Tehran.
Good Muslim Boy is a superbly hilarious read that will make you realise that even the most religious place can be filled with testosterone and even an imam’s son can get upto no good while maintaining his father’s affections. Terrific.
This review was first published in the Australasian Muslim Times on 31 July 2015.

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NOTES: On Tunisia, revolution, women and social sciences

What follows are notes taken during a workshop on women and Civil Society, Women and Democracy held on Tuesday 28 July 2015 at Deakin University. The event was hosted by the Deakin UNESCO Chair in partnership with the Council for Arab-Australian Relations of the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT).

There were four speakers in attendance:

Professor Raoudha Ben Othman, who teaches linguistics at the University of Tunis and has researched aspects of quality in higher education and published widely on it both academically and in local papers. After the Tunisian revolution, she has researched women and young people, conceptions of democracy and democratic transition.

Professor Najet Mchala, a Professor of English and critical theory at The Institut Superieur des Langues de Tunis, University of Carthage. She holds a PhD in Comparative Studies from La Sorbonne, Paris and is the head of the postgraduate program in Cross Cultural Studies. Her teaching and research interests include postmodernity and postcoloniality, Maghrebean Literature and Film.

Assistant Professor Lamia Benyoussef is based in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her research interests include post-coloniality, feminist theory and African literature with a specific emphasis on the Maghreb.

Ms Ines Amri is the Founder of Organisation Volonté et Citoyenneté. She is currently the Head of Research and Project Manager of "Nsina?" (Did We Forget?), a documentary funded by Columbia University and Bosch Foundation through which she seeks to create a platform of dialogue where dealing with the Past 55 years of oppression is at the core of the national debate and to launch a participatory action research project with the victims and their families in Tunisia.

The panel was chaired by Professor Fethi Mansouri of Deakin University.

I can't pretend that these notes represent everything that was said and/or with any great accuracy given that they were originally hand-written. Anyway, here goes.

[01] Epistemological tools involve the gathering, identification and use of evidence and argument for social scientists. How we use them and the outcomes we come up with can be affected by our own ideological leanings and other subjective factors.

[02] How do we understand revolutions and other forms of social change? What are the methodological aspects? How do we gather evidence? How do we assess it?

[03] One way is through using micro-narratives i.e. history from below. Gathering information and stories from voices that are otherwise suppressed.

[04] In many Muslim societies, there is the tension between being a citizen and a believer, largely due to the existence of transnational loyalties. Of course, this isn’t limited to people who identify as Muslims.

[05] Why must the honour of a community be grafted onto the female body in many Muslim cultures? Shouldn't men also take ownership of honour for themselves?

[06] How did Tunisia get to a stage where its you couldn't make meaning anywhere except in committing suicide? Why did that have to be Tunisia's revolutionary moment?

[07] Social scientists in Tunisia looked around themselves at social interactions to kane sense of the revolution. But they were seeking to understand a reality that, far from being static, was evolving and is still doing so.

[08] One speaker said she kept a diary very strictly. She found her diary entries to be very reflexive and descriptive. Still, it wasn't meant to be an academic treatise.

[09] Thanks to the relatively favourable and thorough attention the Revolution received in the English-language media, Tunisians strengthened their relationship with the language and its speakers. Many scholars continue to focus on communication in Arabic and French.

[10] The Tunisian media is more free than it has ever been since independence. The rhythm of news in Tunisia is very fast, and existing outlets have no indigenous model to follow.

[11] One important piece of work is gathering the testimonies of people who were imprisoned for many years for political "crimes".

[12] The elites in Tunisia frequently lived their lives as if they were separated from the suffering of other Tunisians. Some still like to enjoy artificial shields.

[13] Tunisian society is still characterised by strains of paranoia about outside powers and sinister forces inside.

[14] Plenty of psychological violence is caused by often well-meaning but stupid comments by outside observers who insist on seeing Tunisia as Muslim and only Muslim. Euro-centric paradigms abound even in the most allegedly respectable Western publications.

[15] Your opinion as a social scientist or as any observer is affected by your position (or positionality if you wish to sound impressive). This is your ppersnal location and includes race, gender, where you live etc.

[16] An old Tunisian proverb:
Don't spit on the past.
Don't cut yourself off radically from your roots. Tunisians are hopeful their revolution keeps to this precept.

[17] Islamists are regarded on the "Right" of the political spectrum. As in many Arab countries, the Islamists were used to counter the "Left" when the Bourghiba regime came under US influence.

[18] Women were at the forefront of Tunisian revolutionary demonstrations and marches. It was a common joke that the men used the women to shield them from the police.

[19] In a sense, Tunisia is both Islamist and secular. But its essence is democratic.

[20] Youth apathy is a global problem. In Tunisia, young people complain about politics and leaders but generally keep away from parties.

[21] The whole region is experiencing a reversal of the Arab Spring process. How Tunisia has survived its democratic experiment is almost a miracle. Lamia Benyoussef observed:
When I first went to the United States, I was shocked at how overtly religious the people were. When I grew up in Tunisia, we did study religion in school. But it was always personal.
Which may explain why American reporters are so obsessed with religious explanations for everything in the "Muslim world"!

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