Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Another hostage crisis in Iraq

It wasn’t long ago when Australians watched in horror as a fellow Australian was paraded on amateur video as a terrorist pawn. A shadowy Iraqi group known as the “Shura Council of the Mujahideen of Iraq” held Mr Wood directly hostage for 47 days, issuing threats and impossible deadlines and releasing videos of the captured Australian.

They also indirectly held Mr Wood’s family and the entire nation hostage. The Wood family were forced to employ measures which, at the time, they must have thought of as desperate.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on May 8 2005 that members of the Wood family travelled to the Imam Ali ben Abi Taleb Mosque to speak with Sydney’s Sheik Tajeddine el-Hilaly, whose various titles include “Mufti of Australia and New Zealand”.

Following the recording of a plea to the hostages in Arabic, Sheik Hilaly surprised media present by announcing he would personally fly to Iraq in an attempt to speak with the captors and secure Mr Wood’s release.

Sheik Hilaly was touched by the plight of Mr Wood, with whom the Sheik shared a common age and heart condition. The Sheik literally risked his life to travel to Iraq to seek the release of a fellow Australian.

Australians of Muslim background were sickened to see another innocent civilian suffering due to the acts of criminals committing crimes against humanity in the name of Islam. Despite his being subject to Muslim criticism due to irresponsible statements over the years, Sheik Hilaly won the hearts of Muslim and non-Muslim Australians through his mission.

Sheik Hilaly was provided with support and assistance by the Muslim peak body, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) who worked closely with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) and Iraqi officials.

Now across the Tasman, another family is forced to endure the same trauma. The kidnapping of New Zealand resident and Canadian citizen Harmeet Singh Sooden and other members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) has some parallels to the treatment of Australian civilian hostage Douglas Wood.

New Zealand Muslims, like their Australian counterparts, cannot and should not be held responsible for the actions of ideologically charged maniacs who attack the lives of innocent people and hold families and nations hostage. But in conjunction with their Australian counterparts, New Zealand’s Muslim leaders may be able to take certain active steps.

The peak New Zealand Muslim body, known as the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ), should work with AFIC and the Canadian Islamic Congress to secure the services of Sheik Hilaly or other suitable mediators in an effort to secure the release of Mr Sooden and other hostages.

Such efforts on behalf of the Australian and New Zealand Muslim communities are essential given the natural abhorrence Muslims have (or at least should have) toward terrorism. Moreover, the kidnap of members of the CPT movement does not in any way further the cause of Iraqi self determination.

The CPT movement were always known for their opposition to the invasion of Iraq by Coalition forces. Their work has not been confined to Iraq. The CPT have played a major role over the years in protecting and campaigning for the rights of Palestinian Muslims and Christians in the Occupied Territories, a cause close to the heart of Muslims in New Zealand and across the world.

Unlike other evangelical groups, CPT has shown enormous respect for the faiths and cultures of Muslim communities with whom they work. CPT works at a grassroots level, refusing to accept money from any government. Mr Sooden’s own devotion to the cause of justice was shown in his participation in numerous rallies in support of Palestinian rights in New Zealand.

In its press release dated December 5 2005 calling for the release of Mr Sooden and his colleagues, the Canadian Islamic Congress noted: “CPT members do not proselytize or ever attempt to "convert" those for whom they offer support. Rather, they are individually and collectively motivated by their faith to devote their lives to helping the oppressed, working for justice, and fighting against war by peacefully "getting in the way" of violence against the innocent.”

The press release goes onto acknowledge CPT members “took on their duties with one simple and courageous purpose: to bear witness to injustice and to sincerely work alongside the people of Iraq for justice and peace.”

New Zealand Muslim leaders, in conjunction with their Australian and Canadian counterparts, must take a leading role in assisting where possible to secure Mr Sooden’s release. They should use whatever influence and contacts they have in Iraq and the broader Arab and Muslim world to impress upon the hijackers that any harm done to CPT in effect harms work from which millions of Iraqis and other Arabs benefit. Not to mention the enormous grief such harm would bring to Mr Sooden’s family and millions of New Zealanders who stand with them.

A precedent has already been set by the Australian Muslim community in seeking the release of Australian hostage Douglas Wood. It is hoped FIANZ can follow the lead of AFIC and other Australian Muslim peak bodies and offer whatever assistance they can.

The author is a Sydney-based lawyer and columnist for

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

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