Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Islam of burning books & condemning Buddhists

I’ve been going to the Commonwealth Street mosque in Surry Hills since I was a child. The mosque is managed by the Islamic Society of New South Wales, an organisation with which my family has had association since its inception in the early 1970’s.

In 1986, I joined the Surry Hills Mosque Library. A chap named Ronnie processed my membership, and I borrowed a number of books. The library was filled with English titles on a range of religious and other subjects, including magazines, HSC study guides and university textbooks.

Some years later, a new committee took over the mosque. It was a coalition of members of the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) and the al-Ahbash sect which operated under a front organisation calling itself the Islamic Charitable Projects Association (ICPA).

I recall meeting a red-headed gentleman at the mosque that year (I believe it was 1988 or 89). He was a leader of the al-Ahbash sect and was an executive member of the Islamic Society of NSW. I asked him about the library. I still clearly remember his answer.

“Brother, we burnt most of the books. They teach kufr (unbelief) and shirk (idolatry). We only want books with true Islamic teachings in them. We don’t want non-Muslim material.”

That was my first exposure to the ICPA and the al-Ahbash sect. I was used to some members of the TJ having an aversion to learning Islam by reading books alone without assistance from a qualified Islamic scholar (especially in the case of complex and advanced books on Islamic spirituality such as Imam Ghazali’s Ihya Uloom ad-Din translated as Revival of the Religious Sciences).

What disturbed me was the idea of burning books. Members of the Society had donated hundreds of books to the library, only to be summarily burnt without their knowledge or approval. I recall other library members also complaining about the destruction of library books, which formed part of mosque property.

This would not be the first time I experienced the extreme narrow-mindedness of the al-Ahbash sect leaders toward non-Muslim literature and ideas. In 1999, I was involved in a campaign to assist members of the Bankstown Vietnamese Buddhist community who were having difficulties having extensions to their temple approved by the Bankstown City Council.

My campaign included publicising the issue on the Morning Glory Show run by Ahmed Abdo and his colleagues at the Voice of Islam Radio in Sydney. During the show, numerous listeners rang up and expressed their support for members of the Buddhist community. Some Councillors also phoned in an vain attempt to justify their decision to oppose temple extensions.

The campaign brought Islamic and Buddhist communities closer together and was a huge win for good community relations. However, this did not stop members of the al-Ahbash sect from openly expressing their opposition to our campaign.

And the basis of their objection? One al-Ahbash leader said to me: “As Muslims, we must never support and encourage false religions”!

The Prime Minister has emphasised the importance of integration and Australian values. I would have thought that supporting freedom of religion for religious minorities was such a value. Yet sadly al-Ahbash interpret Islam in a manner which is extreme and completely opposed to Australian values. They burn books in a medieval manner. They also oppose Muslim involvement in efforts to assist other faith communities.

Indeed, not only did leaders of al-Ahbash condemn my involvement in the campaign to support Vietnamese Buddhists. I was also criticised by a member of the Prime Minister’s Muslim Reference Group associated with the sect. This same member was recently praised by Minister for Citizenship Andrew Robb for his commitment to integration.

I believe that groups which oppose friendly and supportive relations between Muslims and Buddhists represent a fringe element within the Muslim communities. The al-Ahbash sect has proven time and again that their agenda is built upon ensuring Muslims remain on the margins of mainstream society.

It therefore disturbs me that I receive news from a source that the Federal Government has made a grant of $200,000 to people linked to the sect. I am not sure if this money was awarded as part of its grant funds to combat extremism and promote harmony. However, I wonder whether the organisation has moved on from times when it engaged in medieval arts of book burning and modern prejudices against Buddhists.

I guess time will tell.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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