Sunday, November 27, 2005

The New Right Young Libs and Pittwater

The NSW Liberal Party has lost its 3rd safest seat. In a whopping 25% swing, independent mayor Alex McTaggart has become the first independent state member for the seat of Pittwater. He is the second independent to take a seat in what should be the Liberal heartland of the affluent northern beaches.

Who is to blame? No doubt many Liberals will blame former member and Opposition Leader John Brogden for failing to endorse preselected candidate Paul Nicolaou. But given the size of the swing, one wonders whether any endorsement from Mr Brogden would have made any difference.

Others will blame current Opposition Leader and Member for Vaucluse Peter Debnam. However, it is hard to know what else Mr Debnam could have done to avoid defeat. He found a candidate in Paul Nicolaoui who kept all factions happy and was a likeable and inoffensive character.

In reality, the fault lies with those forces responsible for Brogden’s demise in the first place. The New Right of the party must take the blame, just as the Hard Left had to take the blame for Kerry Chikarovski’s electoral loss at the State Election in 1999.

For years, the small “l” liberal faction known as “the Group” had a policy of “winner takes all” in its approach to the party organisation. It often seemed like the Liberal Left were more focussed on attacking internal party enemies than defeating the ALP.

Eventually, as the Group made more and more internal party enemies, its own MP’s were losing their seats. Former Member for Miranda, Ron Phillips, was titular head of the Group. His factional leadership enabled him to win many internal party battles. He even orchestrated the toppling of his local Federal MP, the popular Member for Cook Stephen Mutch.

Mr Phillips’ focus on internal battles meant that when it came time to do battle with the real enemy – the ALP machine – he was too exhausted to fight. Few wept over his electoral demise, with plenty of non-Group Liberals dancing on his political grave.

The mistakes formerly made by Phillips & Co are now being repeated by the new powerbrokers in the Party, virtually all of whom come from the hard right. Led and organised out of the offices of a Big “C” Conservative Upper House Member, this faction has taken the same “winner takes all” approach to its factional battles.

This in itself should not surprise anyone within the Party. What will surprise outsiders is the fact that so many persons in the New Right are former members of the Group.

The New Right’s major source of strength is the NSW Young Liberal Movement. This was also the main power base of the Group during its days in power. Many of those same young Groupers are current factional warriors in the New Right, holding positions on the NSW Young Liberal executive and the State Executive of the Party.

Many accuse current national Young Liberal President Alex Hawke of belonging to the New Right. That maybe the case today. But Mr Hawke’s first political act of treachery was when he was more closely aligned to the Group. On that occasion, he organised a takeover of his own Young Liberal branch in Parramatta to unseat his branch president.

Hawke now has strong personal reasons for undermining Brogden. He has attacked the moderate Liberal social agenda, in return for which Mr Brogden accused him of behaving like someone auditioning for the role of party clown.

The Young Liberals have traditionally operated a “flying squad” of young activists to assist in elections and by-elections. Yet in the last State Election, the flying squads were nowhere to be seen. It was common knowledge that the New Right Young Liberals did not want a “lefty” to be the next State Premier.

The New Right party heavies did have access to a more local candidate in the internal Liberal pre-selection process. Rob Stokes is an environmental lawyer close to John Brogden and with strong ties to the local area. But instead of choosing the logical choice, the Hard-Right put factional possibilities before electoral reality.

Ironically, despite the strong religious overtones of the Hard-Right, the Christian Democrats refused to share preferences with the Liberals.

The extreme factionalism within the Young Liberals has infected the Party and has made it near-impossible for the Party to maintain a hold on many of its own seats, let alone win seats from the ALP and independents. With the retirement of Bob Carr and with the mistakes of his government costing more than a block of flats in Lane Cove, the Liberals should have been able to capitalise on ALP mistakes.

Of course, the campaign was sullied by other mistakes and problems. Parachuting an outsider into an electorate with this village mentality proved disastrous. For all his virtues and hard work, Paul Nicolaou was the wrong candidate. The Liberal Party had access to a local candidate in lawyer Rob Stokes.

Indeed, as newly elected independent candidate and Pittwater Mayor Alex McTaggart admitted to journalists, he probably would not have bothered running if the Liberal Party had preselected Mr Stokes.

Hawke and his boss have become the new NSW Liberal powerbroker. But his takeover as Young Liberal president came at a price. Before Hawke could battle the Liberal Left, he had to purge the non-Group faction of its small-“c” conservatives.

Hawke’s role in that purge forms an important background to the current political dramas within the Party. He moved swiftly to drive a number of former small “c” conservatives out of the Party. Among these were at least 4 former federal liberal candidates, an editor of a conservative youth magazine, a number of local councillors and Liberal Student activists. And his own former branch president who first recruited him to the party.

The small “c” conservatives had the advantage of years of grassroots experience campaigning across metropolitan Sydney. They also tended to be far more amenable to pragmatism and compromise than the New Right.

Most importantly, the small “c” conservatives were not so obsessed with the typical ideological flaws of the New Right – support from extreme fringe groups, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and opposition to anything resembling multiculturalism. The small “c” conservatives were the sensitive and sensible face of the conservative wing of the Party. The absence of the small “c” conservatives has therefore made the ideological gulf between the factions.

The ALP has been able to organise its factions and manage its internal bickering. Unless the NSW Liberals can do the same, they can look forward to many more terms in opposition and losing many more of its safe seats to independents.

(The author is a Sydney lawyer and former Liberal Candidate for the seat of Reid in the 2001 Federal Election. He is a former member of the NSW Young Liberals and of the NSW State Council, sitting on over 5 pre-selections including the Pittwater pre-selection in 1998.)

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Go back to where you never came from!

The decisions of Australia’s Immigration Ministers and their Department have traditionally been the basis for a commanding electoral lead. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, around 100 asylum seekers drowned off the coast of Australia.

The government at that stage claimed that the people on board the boat may have been terrorists, and that some parents had thrown their children off the boat in an effort to gain sympathy. What became known as the “children overboard affair” saw the Howard government attain a commanding victory at the November 2001 Federal election.

Today, immigration policy has become the source of many an embarrassment for the Howard government. The tough policies toward asylum seekers and other non-citizens, once an electoral strength, are becoming an electoral liability as Australians are growing tired of compassion fatigue.

Recently, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone was forced to apologise for her Department wrongfully deporting Australian citizen Vivian Alvarez Solon to the Philippines. Ms Solon has commenced legal action against the government to compensate her for her damages and losses.

Ms Solon was severely injured in a road accident some four years ago. She was wrongfully identified as an illegal immigrant and deported. She spent her entire time in a homeless refuge outside Manilla, unable to communicate with those around her.

The most recent source of embarrassment is the government’s use of its powers to deport non-citizens sentenced to serve significant jail terms for certain crimes. The publicly-owned Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC TV) revealed on 23 November that a 38 year old Australian permanent resident had been deported to Serbia where he was living in near-destitution.

Robert Jovicic was deported to Serbia in June 2004 on character grounds. He spent time in jail for a string of robberies which were used to support his heroin habit. Mr Jovicic arrived in Australia at age 2. He was born in France to Serbian-born parents.

Currently, Mr Jovicic lives on the streets, spending much of his time outside the front door of the Australian embassy in Belgrade. He speaks virtually no Serbian.

The Commonwealth Migration Act enables the Minister to cancel the visa and order the deportation of a non-citizen permanent resident found guilty of crimes serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence of a certain minimum length. The law has operated to ensure the deportation of a number of permanent residents who cannot remember seeing the country they were born in and are being deported to.

In 2003, I visited the Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney. A young man of Turkish background in his 20’s was awaiting deportation to Ankara. He was born in Turkey but arrived in Australia when he was around 5 years old. Most of his family members were citizens, but for some reason he neglected to apply for citizenship or a passport.

Many deportees cannot speak the language or understand the culture of the countries they are being deported to. In the case of Mr Jovicic, the law is operating in a horrendous fashion. The Melbourne Age reported Mr Jovicic telling ABC reporters:

“If I don't lay out front of the embassy and try and get back home, I'll die. I'll die here just on medical grounds alone within a short time.”

Mr Jovicic’s sister Susanna, who also lives in Australia, summed up the family’s frustrations as follows: “You can't just throw someone who's been here all their lives and calls this place his home, and just dump them somewhere else. I mean, he wasn't even born there.”

What makes Mr Jovicic’s situation even more precarious is that the Serbian government does not recognise him as a citizen. He is therefore unable to obtain employment or welfare. Mr Jovicic is stateless and destitute.

There are hundreds of people living on the streets of Sydney. Many are drug-users, and quite a few suffer from psychiatric conditions such as severe untreated schizophrenia. Often such people find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

A high proportion of Australia’s prison community suffer from psychiatric illnesses independent of or induced by drug use. Where such persons are permanent residents, they are vulnerable upon being convicted for an offence for deportation at the discretion of the Immigration Minister.

For such unfortunate deportees, it is a case of the punishment being often unjustly disproportionate to the crime committed. To use common Aussie parlance, it is a case of the Minister telling the convicted permanent resident: “Go back to where you never came from!”

Many permanent residents have good reason to not take up citizenship. Indeed, as the cases of Ms Solon and Guantanamo detainee David Hicks show, even Australian citizenship is no necessary guarantee of government action to protect the interests of the individual.

The Howard government will continue to suffer embarrassment and reduced electoral appeal if it is unable to control bureaucratic and ministerial bungling in immigration matters. The use of tough immigration and citizenship policies as a tool to play wedge politics, often with clear racial and ethno-religious overtones, is no longer proving popular. Unless the government lifts its game, the voters may tell the Howard government to go back to where they came from – the opposition benches.

The author is a Sydney-based lawyer and occasional lecturer at the Department of Politics of Sydney’s Macquarie University.

A version of this article appeared in the Canberra Times on Monday November 28 2005.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Dressing-Down of Michelle Leslie

Australian model Michelle Leslie returns to Australia over the next few days. Whilst in an Indonesian prison, this swimsuit and underwear model decided to don a head scarf. At one stage, she even wore a "burqah" covering her entire face.

Some Australian media had a field day with her alleged "conversion on the road to Bali prison". When friends of her revealed that Michelle had embraced Islam at least 2 years ago, the media cynicism on her conversion largely subsided.

But as Michelle's plane prepares to land on the Sydney Airport tarmac, she greets another frenzy. Ms Leslie has been told by the president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) to cease her modelling career.

Dr Ameer Ali, AFIC President and economics lecturer, was quoted in Sydney's Daily Telegraph as saying:

"If she is a Muslim I don't think she should go back to her job as an underwear model because Islam is about modesty. Taking off her clothes and being half-naked on the catwalk will raise a lot of eyebrows in the community. She can't have it both ways. Either practice Islam and do something decent or don't practice it at all."

This "all or nothing" mentality has become all too prevalent amongst the first generation migrants who dominate leadership roles within Muslim peak bodies and organisations. New converts or young Muslims returning to their faith are expected to immediately conform to a set of standards.

But this attitude doesn't account for human realities. We all have to start somewhere. And if some of us end up choosing to regard ourselves as Muslim, this does not necessarily translate into a complete change of career or lifestyle choice.

Ms Leslie has a number of modelling contracts awaiting her return to Australia. Although the writer is no theologian, it is an Islamic theological given that her taking up modelling will not in itself take her outside the fold of Islam. The President of AFIC will know this. Or at least he should.

Further, Dr Ali needs to sort out whether he wishes to speak for (his version of) Islamic orthodoxy or Aussie Muslim reality. Perhaps he should take a walk down Auburn Road in Auburn in the geographical heart of Sydney and see what modern Aussie Muslim women choose to wear. He will see it isn’t all that different to what Ms Leslie chose to wear upon her release.

One's being Muslim is a product of one's faith. And belief is a matter of the heart. Only Michelle Leslie and her Creator know what is in Michelle Leslie's heart. Further, it is not for the Presidents of peak Muslim bodies to be telling Muslim women who they should choose to dress.

Just as it is not the business of politicians to be regulating Muslim dress. Dr Ali's comments mirror those of conservative Liberal Party backbenchers who want to see the traditional Muslim hijab banned from state schools.

Muslim women living on either side of the Tasman have the same opportunities as any other women to participate in mainstream society. Whether converts or women brought up in the West, these women should be allowed to make their own choices without men and their often irrelevant cultural standards seeking to become involved.

Dr Ali’s comments are yet another example of migrant Muslim leaders finding it impossible to bridge the cultural gap that often divides them from mainstream society. Whether converts or reverts, many non-cultural Muslims face difficult decisions and choices beyond the almost impossible task of adopting a new faith.

Ms Leslie has taken an enormous step. She has changed her faith, and it will take her some time for to change her lifestyle. Human beings are not robots or computers that can be programmed into a new set of habits and behaviour.

For many young Muslims growing up in culturally Muslim families, the choice is even more difficult. They are forced to swing life's pendulum in at least three directions between parental expectations, orthodox religion and the western culture they grew up in.

For these new Muslims, both young and converts, conventional mosques and imams are locked in a cultural world totally alien to Aussie or Kiwi conditions.

I have a Kiwi Muslim friend who sometimes works behind a bar and who would definitely give Ms Leslie a run for her money in the good looks department. I first met her for the first time when she was serving beer to my Young Liberal mates, and when we hang out she enjoys drinking white wine or champagne mixed with orange juice. Both are habits not exactly regarded as saintly by mainstream Islam.

But woe-be-tied anyone who says something nasty about her father's religion. My friend may not be the most observant Muslim on the planet, but in terms of passion for her faith I have known few people better and stronger. I reckon she could teach Dr Ali a thing or two about the real spirit of Islam.

Most important than her job and her drinking habits is the goodness of her heart and her wisdom. Despite leading a difficult life, she is one of the most compassionate people I have met. She is extraordinarily sensitive to other people's feelings. I have never heard her speak ill of anyone. And when she rebukes her lawyer-friend Irfan on his over-eating habits, she does it ever-so mildly.

My friend is the living embodiment of what American sufi Hamza Yusuf Hanson once remarked: "A religious person is someone who doesn't want to go to hell. A spiritual person is someone who has been to hell and never wants to go back!"

Islam teaches that what matters more than appearances is a good heart and noble intentions. Some claim that Muslims believe all martyrs go to heaven into the arms of 72 virgins. But the Prophet Muhammad taught that a martyr who dies with the intention of being glorified will in fact be sent to hell. He made the same remark concerning with the cleric and the philanthropist who do good deeds just to be seen.

The same Prophet also spoke of a sex worker who finished her shift and went to the well to drink some water. She saw a dog dying of thirst and gave the dog water first. For that good deed and for the purity of her intention, God made this woman destined for heaven.

I will never forget seeing American sufi Nuh Ha Mim Keller cite this incident during a discourse at the Imam Ali Mosque at Lakemba in May 2003. He added: “I pray God could make me like this woman”. Imagine that. A teacher of the sacred Islamic Sufi spiritual disciplines praying to be like a sex worker.

Like all mainstream faiths, Islam teaches that what counts at the end of the day is the goodness of your heart. Whether you're a neuroscientist, a barmaid, a swimsuit model or a sex worker, what counts isn't what people think of you. What counts is the goodness of your heart.

The author is a Sydney lawyer. iyusuf@sydneylawyers.com.au.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the New Zealand Herald on 22 November 2005 and in New Matilda on Wednesday 23 November 2005.)

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Some Blokey Terror Suspect

At 5am this morning, I received a call from a morning news program on one of the commercial channels. I was told some things that I cannot quite remember, and then offered a car or some cab charges so I could come to their studio and be interviewed.

I couldn’t quite remember what I had been told or which TV station it was. My brain was filled with antibiotics thanks to an infected index finger.

Readers, try not to laugh or make jokes about where that finger had been. I’ve been hearing it for the last fortnight!.

Then again, I’ve been hearing many things which are quite funny but no laughing matter. I’ve been hearing comparisons between my generation of Aussie Mossies (Australian Muslims) and the rioters in Paris. I’ve been hearing a government minister tell me I need to learn more about an English illegal immigrant and his donkey.

I’ve even been hearing (and reading in Hansard) about a backbencher describing me as a “bomb thrower”. I’m surprised my former Liberal Party factional ally Mrs Bishop didn’t refer me to ASIO herself. Perhaps she realised I was throwing bombs on her behalf against the Liberal left.

But returning to the TV show. The person phoned me and said that they would be filming close to my house. They would be in Lakemba.

I remember the person mentioning something about raids on Muslims. “As you are aware, a whole bunch of Muslims have been raided, and we are covering the story this morning.”

Me? Aware? And me? Living in or near Lakemba?

For some reason, people assume that I know about terrorist acts and anti-terrorist raids. How would I know? Is there a magical grape-vine that runs from Uncle Usama’s cave in northern Pakistan all the way to Ryde? Do I subscribe to a telepathic podcast that tips me off about the next ASIO raid?

And yes, my name does sound a little exotic. No one could ever pronounce my name correctly. Is it “Ear Phone”? Or “Ephraim”? Or “I-Frame”?

(One of my female friends told me her niece started reading text messages I would send to her. When I asked how her niece knew who it was, she said: “I have your name down on my phone as just “If”. Don’t ask me how it’s meant to be said!” And she herself as a surname that leaves stretchmarks on my tongue!)

This morning, I read about a “prominent Islamic cleric” being among those arrested. Some dude from Melbourne called Abu Bakr.

What made Abu Bakr so prominent was that he appeared on the ABC’s 7:30 Report. But the way some of our newspapers and journos are these days, anyone with half a brain and who looks like something out of “Team America” can become a “prominent Islamic cleric”.

Then again, some journos are just so lazy, they will believe anything they hear from someone whose name begins with “Abu”. I should dress up in long robes and call myself Sheik Abu Jahash el-Sumbluq. I’ll set up my base in a place with lots of radical youth (Byron Bay, perhaps?). Then I’ll start talking about 72 virgins (no, definitely not Byron Bay!).

Within days, terror experts with bad English accents from Sri Lanka will be calling for the government to crack down on my “Sumbluqi” terror cell. The names “Abu Jahash” and “Sumbluq” will become synonymous with nasty beards and accents thick enough to make a convenience store worker sound like Wilson Tuckey.

I reckon it will take 5 months before someone realises that “Abu Jahash” simply means “father of donkey” (perhaps Simpson?). And that el-Sumbluq is simply “Some Bloke” pronounced in an Arabic accent.

Couldn’t the journos have figured it out straight away? What about the ASIO agents and police? They’ll probably only begin to suspect when I introduce my chief courtesan from my Byron harem. Her name? Ms Umm Kalb el-Sumsheila!

But returning to Abu Bakr. I thought he was already jailed by the Indonesians? How come he didn’t appear on the latest episode of Usama’s heavenly-jihad podcast? It just shows how prominent the guy is.

So allow me to state a few things for the record about me and all the other Aussie Mossies who make up more than 50% of Australia’s Muslim population. Firstly, we do not subscribe to any terror podcast.

Secondly, we don’t receive instructions from Usama about how to earn 72 heavenly virgins by blowing ourselves up.

Thirdly, many of us don’t live anywhere near Lakemba.

Finally, on a personal note, please stop trying to pronounce my first name! If you can’t say “Irfan”, just call me Sheik Abu-Bakr Usama Ayatollah-Cola el-Sumbluqwholikessumsheila! That should be easier for the flying-carpet-chasing journos.

(An article of similarly scurrilous content appeared here.)

iyusuf@sydneylawyers.com.au

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

Friday, November 04, 2005

COMMENT: Muslim apathy makes passing terror laws that much easier ...

If you believe what you read in many newspapers, Australian Muslims are up in arms about the new anti-terror laws. Yet solid evidence on the ground is thin. Further, the leaders of most peak Muslim bodies have been silent on the laws in recent weeks.

Around a week ago, I received an e-mail from a non-Muslim Australian of libertarian tendencies. He was complaining about the complete apathy of Muslim leaders and the general Muslim community on the proposed terror laws.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. On the evening of 4 November 2005, SBS World News reported the views of 2 young Australian Muslims.

Kurandar Seyit, Executive Director of the Forum of Australia’s Islamic Relations (FAIR), told the SBS reporter that he has received calls from numerous individuals expressing fears of participation in protest marches.

Dr Waleed Kadous of the Australian Muslim Civil Rights & Advocacy Network (AMCRAN) also spoke of fears amongst people he had spoke to.

Both Messrs Seyit and Kadous have been active in the debate on the proposed terror laws. They have been joined by Waleed Aly and other executive members of the Islamic Council of Victoria.

However, apart from these voices, there have been few articulate noises made by prominent Muslim leaders on the terror laws.

Dr Ameer Ali, president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) and Chair of the Government’s Muslim Community Reference Group, has been unable to provide any real leadership on the issue. After initially agreeing to “sell” the proposed laws to his community (before even a sentence of the Bill had been drafted), Dr Ali was pressured to back peddle.

New South Wales has three organisations claiming status as peak representative bodies. The original Islamic Council of New South Wales has been unable to even set up a proper media response unit. Its website is proof of the Prime Minister’s criticism that Muslim leaders were not quick enough to condemn the London terror attacks.

The Supreme Islamic Council of New South Wales (often jokingly referred to by Muslim New South Welshmen as “the Pizza Council”) has also been virtually silent on the matter. As for the AFIC-endorsed Muslim Council of NSW, their e-mail address is invalid and their telephone number rings out without anyone answering.

AFIC recently published an edition of its “Australian Muslim News” after some 3 years hiatus. The entire edition was devoted to the devotional aspects of Ramadan. It was as if the pangs of hunger were more important than the loss of civil liberties.

The imams have also displayed little leadership. Imam Hilali, appointed by AFIC as the Mufti of Australia without being provided resources or a job description, made some incoherent noises. First he offered to go to gaol if he was proven wrong about there being no home-grown terror threat. This routine was followed up with his call for a fringe sect known as “al-Ahbash” to be investigated for links to the assassination of the former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri.

As for the other imams, one cannot expect much from them. Most imams cannot speak English, and have little knowledge or even interest in public affairs.

Recently a group of Muslim lawyers called a meeting to discuss the new laws and prepare a campaign. Some four persons turned up.

Compare this to the hundreds that filled the Sydney Town Hall some weeks back for the launch of the New Matilda campaign for a Human Rights Bill. Compare this also to the articulate voices being heard from former Prime Ministers, Civil Rights activists and writers of letters to the editor.

In the ACT, Chief Minister Jon Stanhope released the first Draft Anti-Terrorism Bill after discussions with the articulate and well-connected Canberra Muslim community. In NSW, the Premier is also the Member for Lakemba, a veritable Muslim heartland. Yet one wonders whether any of the dozen or so Muslim groups in Lakemba pressured Mr Iemma concerning his stance on the proposed Bill.

Sydney has more mosques and Muslims than any city in Australia. Yet Sydney Muslims have shown an amazing degree of apathy concerning the passing of laws that, according to the President of the Police Federation of Australia, can only be enforced using ethno-religious profiling.

Some will suggest that it has only been Muslim leaders who have been silent. Yet I have seen little evidence of ordinary Muslims assisting those few Muslim groups like AMCRAN and FAIR whose resources are already over-stretched.

The apathy of Muslim leaders reflects the apathy of ordinary Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad said: “You get the leaders you deserve from amongst yourselves”. It appears his prophecy has come true yet again. Unless concerned Muslims take control of their peak bodies, apathy will prevail. But where are the concerned Muslims?

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Delhi Bombings - Terrorising Tolerance

The latest terrorist attack on Delhi represents yet another assault on innocent civilians. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by an extremist group claiming to act in the name of Islam.

The “Islami Inqilabi Mahaz” (Islamic Revolutionary Group) is a relatively unknown group. AFP reports Indian police stating they have known of the group’s existence since 1996. The group claims to have carried out the attacks in support of Kashmiri independence. But after the devastating earthquakes in Kashmir, one wonders whether politics is really on the minds of the millions struggling to survive winter.

It is feared this latest attack will spark a wave of communal rioting and violence that will claim yet more lives. The violence is even more tragic occurring in a city which has always prided itself on religious tolerance and harmony.

India is no stranger to communal violence. In 2002, the state of Gujarat was the scene of fierce rioting which saw the deaths of some 15,000 innocent civilians, most of them Muslims. The complicity of the Gujarat Chief Minister and government officials was widely reported by human rights organisations, with rioters carrying official printouts of government records showing which homes and shops were owned by Muslims.

The Gujarat attacks came in the immediate aftermath of an attack on Hindu pilgrims aboard a train. The attack was believed to have been carried out by Muslim militants. It is feared that similar scenes could be repeated in Delhi.

The attack on Delhi could hardly be described as a legitimate act of Islamic devotion, coming as it does during the last days of the sacred month of Ramadan. This year, the religious festivals of Divali (or “Deepavali” to South Indian Hindus) and Eid al-Fitr occur within days of each other.

Divali is a time when Hindus celebrate the victory of Lord Rama over the Demons responsible for the kidnap of his wife Sita. That victory represents the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Eid (also known as “Beyram” and “Hari Raya”) is a festival during which Muslims celebrate the completion of the fasting month of Ramadan.

For Indian communities across the world, both festivals are celebrated by members of all faiths. Celebration of each other’s religious festivals is one means by which Indians maintain their communal harmony.

For me, the violence is particularly tragic. Delhi is my ancestral home, the city both my parents were born in. My ancestors were Mughal Turks, who established perhaps the wealthiest empire of its time. Delhi is a city of many ethnic and religious groups, but it carries special significance to the descendants of the Mughals.

Few cities in Asia have carried as much fascination to Western writers and travellers as Delhi. Scottish writer and journalist William Dalrymple devoted an entire book (entitled City of Djinns) to the history and politics of Delhi.

Dalrymple’s basic thesis was that there has always been something about Delhi which has conspired against all forces seeking to impose intolerance upon its people. The spirit of this city is perhaps best personified by the tomb of Delhi’s patron saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya. Despite the Muslim religion of the tomb’s occupant, the tomb continues to draw crowds of people from all religious backgrounds.

Delhi is one of the heartlands of Sufi Islam. The city is dotted with tombs and hospices where Sufis practise a form of Islam seeking to inculcate the love of God through service to God’s creation. Sufi hospices attract the poor, the distressed and those attracted by the rhythms of the Indian Sufi music known as the “qawwali”.

But most important, Delhi is the political heartland of India, the capital of one of the world’s fastest growing economies and a country of strategic importance to the West. At the last federal elections, Indian voters turned their backs on the divisive government led by the Hindu-chauvinist BJP. Indians had had enough of sectarian wedge politics, and sought a more secular open government.

The terrorist attacks perhaps represent an attempt to undermine the new government, which has been in power for hardly 18 months. The present Congress Party government is far more favourably inclined toward a peaceful resolution to the Kashmir issue. When in government, the Congress Party has also protected the interests of religious minorities more effectively than other parties. The current Indian Prime Minister is himself from a religious minority.

The terrorists could not have struck at a worse time. They have spilt blood during the holy seasons of Hindu and Muslim Indians, and their actions may raise communal tensions which could spill into violence. Once again, the terrorists have proven their complete moral bankruptcy. Sadly, innocent civilians must pay the price.

The author is a Sydney lawyer and occasional lecturer at the School of Politics at Macquarie University. iyusuf@sydneylawyers.com.au

© Irfan Yusud 2005