Friday, March 31, 2006

Musings on Citizenship & Conservatism

On Wednesday 21 June 2006, I have to give a presentation on the issue of citizenship to an audience of people probably far more learned than myself. The presentation has been organised by the NSW Chapter of the Independent Scholars Association of Australia. The event will be held at the Dixson Room at State Library commencing at 5:30pm.

I am part of a panel that includes legal prominent academic Associate Professor Helen Irving (who is without a doubt more learned than myself), and will be moderated by Councillor Ho of the Sydney City Council.

I'm not sure why they picked me to speak on this topic. I don't have a huge amount of experience in legal practice issues related to citizenship. I don't practise in immigration law or in citizenship law. I cannot claim any huge expertise on the subject. Plus, the only citizenship I know is the only one I have ever had - Aussie citizenship.

But I guess I have followed recent debates on citizenship and its relationship with national security and Australian values. And I have had some experience in conservative politics.

Anyway, this entry is not about me. It's about citizenship. So let's get on with it!

I wanted to share a few thoughts about how I perceive citizenship (see! there I go again! Always "I" and "me" and "myself"!!), with a view to generating some discussion here on how we understand citizenship in Australia and the Western world.

Recently, in a desperate attempt to get some attention and perhaps generate a diversion from embarrassing revelations about to emerge from the Cole Commission into kickbacks, Treasurer Peter Costello gave a speech about citizenship to the Sydney Institute.

Mr Costello issued a fatwa against what he described (from memory) as “misguided mushy multiculturalism”. He suggested that citizenship pledges needed to be made tougher, with new migrants pledging allegiance to Australian values.

It seems that citizenship is fast becoming an ideological phenomenon. You can only be a citizen if you sign up to certain values and ideas. This is a truly disturbing trend.

If citizenship means signing up to anything beyond ultimate loyalty to the country and obeying the law, I think we risk losing our liberal democratic identity. If we start placing ideological conditions on citizenship, we are potentially giving up our freedom of conscience and other fundamental freedoms we hold so dear.

When you make citizenship conditional upon holding certain views, you are on the slippery slope to McCarthyism. If you enable citizenship to be taken away from people who, at some stage of their lives, decide they find perhaps one Australian “value” a little unpalatable, you are opening the door to witch hunts.

Perhaps it is my strong liberal and libertarian streak that leads me to sound potentially hysterical about this topic. Perhaps it is because I am an old style conservative (as opposed to an ex-socialist neo-Con) who believes that governments should keep their grubby hands off civil society except to the extent of providing a framework for the rule of law.

The other problem I have is the inconsistency with which Australian values are defined. We keep getting told that we are a Judeo-Christian nation. When I was at St Andrews, I was taught that a fundamental Christian value is to compensate for wrongs and to apologise for hurt feelings. It is also a fundamental Christian value to show respect to elders.

European settlement is just over 200 years old. Aboriginal settlement is our cultural elder, being well over 20,000 years old. What respect have we cultural youngsters shown to our elders?

And how have we compensated for all the ills our society has meted out to its indigenous populations? What sort of a Christian nation are we when we refuse to apologise?

Actually, apologising is a genuinely Islamic value also. So on behalf of my Muslim self, I think it is important that we acknowledge and respect the cultures and beliefs of those whose lands we have taken and which we refuse to apologise or compensate for.

If we talk about Australian values without mentioning indigenous Australia, we are wasting our time. Any alleged conservative who refuses to show requisite respect to Indigenous Australia ceases to be a conservative in my books.

Some dimwitted conservative politicians accuse Muslims of imposing their culture on the rest of us. Of course, we all know about how Governor Macquarie so peacefully ordered his troops to convince indigenous Australians to embrace his values or face a bayonet. Talk about peaceful imposition.

Yes, I am writing somewhat passionately about this. Few things make me more sick than hypocrisy and double standards. Especially when they come from politicians who claim to be conservative liberals.

Which brings me to my final point. If there is any genuinely conservative politician in the front bench, it isn’t John Howard. It definitely isn’t Costello or Nelson. The only genuine conservatives I can see on the front bench are Tony Abbott and Alexander Downer. Why?

Because you won’t find these guys calling for a (mono-)cultural revolution. You won’t find Downer or Abbott pontificating on the need to dismantle our pluralist status quo. Nor, for that matter, will you find most of the small “l” liberals like Joe Hockey or Phil Ruddock.

Anyway, that is my splurge for the day.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Monday, March 27, 2006

OPINION: Afghan Courts Make a Mockery of Sharia

Guess what! Some Muslims are in the news again. And as always, they are doing exactly the opposite of what their faith and values intended.

And if you thought a minority of hysterical Muslims were slow (6 months) in responding to the Danish cartoons, try this for size. The Afghan authorities and judiciary took a whole 16 years to work out one of their own had changed religions.

The good news is that the Muslim government involved is, at least for now, from the good side. And thankfully, they seem to be doing something to stop the clear abuse of sharia law.

Freedom & democracy from Guantanamo to Kabul

Hardly a few weeks after the Danish cartoon saga, the pro-American government of Hamid Karzai has been caught out trying to revive the old Taliban legacy. And boy, don’t the war-on-terror brigade have egg on their faces.

Even poor Australian Prime Minister John Howard has admitted he isn’t very happy with the decision by the Afghan judiciary, whose judges are handpicked by Mr Karzai and his Ministers, to place a man on trial for the nasty deadly crime of … wait for it … converting to Christianity!

Australia’s troop presence in Afghanistan has recently been beefed up. Young Australian men and women are risking their lives to ensure that a pro-democracy and pro-freedom government can remain in power for long enough to potentially send a Christian to the gallows. Or was that the firing squad? Who knows?

Mr Howard says that when he first read about the Afghan Christian’s plight, he “felt sick – literally”.

But then, the Aussie PM shouldn’t complain. Poor Abdul Rahman has at least been told what he is charged with. Unlike so many of the Afghan and other Guantanamo Bay inmates who have been in custody for over 4 years now without charge.

Australia has one remaining Guantanamo prisoner. David Hicks faces what his US Military lawyer appropriately describes as a “kangaroo court”. Yet the Australian government refuses to lift a finger to assist one of their own citizens. With British PM Tony Blair visiting Australia, perhaps Mr Howard could learn some lessons from Mr Blair about how a country following the Westminster tradition of Parliamentary democracy should stand up for its citizens.

Misusing sharia to deny custody to a father

Still, this article is not about David Hicks or Guantanamo. Nor is it about the Abu Ghraib prisoners. This is about the Afghan government which practises the same excesses to those who claim that dropping depleted uranium on entire towns and cities is the best way to spread freedom and democracy.

And worse still, it is about people imposing barbaric punishments in the name of enforcing Islamic law.

Now before we start with the legal analysis, let’s try and master the facts. With all the hysteria of much western reporting, it is hard to know exactly what poor Abdul Rahman’s background is.
Abdul Rahman is a 41 year old Afghan father who has lived overseas for some 15 years. He returns to Afghanistan for a custody battle with his wife who lives in Afghanistan. A relative with a personal vendetta claims the father has converted to Christianity and dobs him into the authorities.

It’s amazing what people are prepared to do to pursue personal vendettas. Even if it is true that the father had converted to Christianity, what does this have to do with the price of Persian rugs in the Kabul bazaar?

The children have apparently lived in an Afghan Muslim environment all their lives. How they survived Russian intervention followed by civil war followed by Taliban rule followed US-led bombings followed the present chaos is anyone’s guess.

What are the merits of Rahman’s custody battle? Who knows. Certainly under the family law of most Western countries, he would have little chance of gaining custody. Under Australia’s Family Law Act, a court would be most reluctant to change the status quo of the children’s living arrangements without good reason.

And under Australia’s mandatory detention laws, the fact that the children are escaping a regime which kills them for belonging to the wrong tribe and/or sect isn’t enough to stop them from being thrown into a detention centre in the middle of the desert. At least that was the case until recently.

Indeed, one Kashmiri convert to Christianity was kept in Australian detention longer than any Muslim detainee and suffered severe trauma as a result. Peter Qasim’s conversion and fears for his safety didn’t stop the Howard government from keeping this hapless fellow behind bars.

To hudood or not to hudood

Even more hypocritical and scandalous than the Australian government’s alleged commitment to freedom for Christian converts is the Afghan judiciary’s commitment to sharia.

According to trial judge Ansarullah Mawlafizada:

The Prophet Muhammad has said several times that those who convert from Islam should be killed if they refuse to come back.
It seems the learned judge has not read the verse of the Qur’an immediately following the Ayat al-Kursi (“Verse of the Throne”). In verse 256 of Surah al-Baqarah, the One who created Sayyidina Muhammad and honoured him with the Seal of Prophethood declares:
Let there be no compulsion in religion.

There isn’t a huge amount of consensus among classical and modern sharia scholars on what acts constitute apostasy or what its punishment should be. Indeed, even scholars who agree that an apostate should be put to death place stringent conditions on this punishment.

According to Shaykh Nuh Keller’s translation of Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Masri’s classic work of Shafi law entitled Umdat as-Salik (“Reliance of the Traveller”), a condition for implementing the death penalty is that the caliph or his representative must ask the apostate to repent and return to Islam (see para o8.7 of the Revised Edition).

Further, only the caliph or his representative can carry out the punishment. Unless I am mistaken, I do not believe Hamid Karzai is regarded as the Caliph of Afghanistan. Chapter III of the Afghan Constitution sets out the powers and duties of the President, described there as the Head of State. Chapter IV sets out provisions relating to the Government. Nowhere do the words “caliph” or “caliphate” appear.

Further, Abdul Rahman is said to have converted to Christianity whilst living in the United States. Whether this gives the Afghan courts jurisdiction over his “offence” is unclear.

Various scholarly views of apostasy

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. Its largest Islamic organisation (which is also the world’s largest) is the Nahdlatul Ulama (Council of Scholars). One of the most senior sharia scholars and lawyers in the NU is Professor Mohammad Fajrul Falaakh.

Professor Falaakh is Vice Dean for Academic Affairs at the prestigious Gadjah Mada University Law School in Yogyakarta where he teaches both undergraduate and graduate studies in government and public law. He is also a member of the National Law Commission of the Republic of Indonesia (2000-03), and Deputy Chairman of the Central Executive Board of NU. Apart from extensive studies in Indonesia and the UK, Professor Falaakh has also worked within the traditional pesentran system of religious training.

In 2002, Professor Falaakh visited Australia and New Zealand at the invitation of the Centre for Independent Studies. On 11 December 2002, he delivered the Acton lecture on Religion & Liberty at the Great Hall of the Parliament of New Zealand.

(An edited version of the text of Professor Falaakh’s talk can be found by accessing the website of the Centre for Independent Studies, going to the search feature and typing in the word “Islam”. Professor Falaakh’s speech is the first item in the list.)

In his speech, Falaakh lists the five basic principles of sharia. The first item in this list is “the protection of religious freedom, or the protection of religion and the way religion is observed”. Falaakh says that this freedom must be preserved even where sharia is “interpreted … more strictly”.

The third item in the list is "hifzh al-aql, meaning mine-that is, freedom of thought, freedom of conscience.” Here, Falaakh addresses the issue of apostasy directly, especially as applied in a pluralistic society. He continues …


What if, according to my own understanding, I exercise my freedom of thought and choose another religion, denouncing the one that I had professed before and embracing the new one? What about the regulation or provision that many Muslims believe in that those who renounce Islam will be punished by death?

… The traditional, conventional understanding of apostasy in Islam says that once you enter into Islam there is no way that you can leave, otherwise you will put yourself to death. If that is really the case, why does the sharia claim early on that there is to be protection of religion?

… There was a time when some parts of the Muslim community back in the 7th century were reported to have had renounced Islam and they were chased and punished by death … at the same time, they also waged war, turning against the community they had previously belonged to. So was that a very obvious case of apostasy or a case of rebelling against a political entity that you used to agree with-in other words, violating a political pact you created together with other people? So perhaps it was not really religious at all. It was simply a political affair.
Falaakh is not alone in the view that the original capital punishment for sharia was more related to the crime of treason. Professor Abdullah Saeed of the University of Melbourne, a graduate of the International Islamic University of Madeenah Munawwarra, recently co-authored a book on the subject together with Hassan Saeed, Attorney General for the Maldives.

Entitled Freedom of Religion, Apostasy & Islam, the authors argue that the early development of the law of apostasy was largely a religio-political tool. Further, there is a diversity of opinion among early Muslims on the punishment. There are substantial ambiguities about what constitutes apostasy, and the textual evidence doesn’t always assist in resolving these.

The authors conclude that those arguing in favour of the death penalty neglect a vast amount of clear texts in the Qur’an which favour freedom of religion in constructing the law of apostasy.

Indeed, even if the criminal law of sharia regards apostasy as a serious enough act to warrant being classed as hudood (subject to capital punishment), can such punishment be implemented in an environment where government, judiciary and police are corrupt? Is the case of Abdul Rahman not one in which Professor Tariq Ramadan’s call for a moratorium on hudood punishments should apply?

Conclusion

Given the stated commitment of Afghanistan Constitution to international law as enshrined in the Principles of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, perhaps the most appropriate Muslim response to the arrest and trial of Abdul Rahman is that of a spokesman for the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils.

When asked about Abdul Rahman, AFIC spokesman and lawyer Haset Sali responded:

Such barbaric action by anyone seeking to quote Islam as supporting their criminal action needs to be dealt with as a crime against humanity.
One hopes other Muslim leaders take a similar position to what is clearly a travesty of sharia and of justice. If Muslim minorities do not stand up for the rights of non-Muslims in Muslim-majority states, their occasional claims to being oppressed minorities themselves will not be taken seriously.

Or as the Prophet Muhammad (peace & blessings of God be upon him) said:

The one who oppresses the non-Muslim citizen will have me testifying against him on the Day of Judgment.


(The author is a lawyer and writer based in Sydney, Australia. He is also an occasional lecturer at the School of Politics at Sydney’s Macquarie University. This article first appeared on the AltMuslim website.)

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Blog Hui Report - Part I

Some 50 delegates from across the world attended the Blog Hui 2006, the Inaugural International Conference of bloggers in Wellington NZ over the weekend.

Was this a gathering of just a bunch of tech-heads? Were they nerds with the social skills of a giraffe?

Not really. I couldn’t see any giraffes among the crowd, and not any tall-poppy-wannabes either. Actually, what I saw were people from a range of backgrounds in education, health sciences, IT, journalism, foreign affairs (e-spooks?) and even an author and illustrator of children’s books.

All had found and used blogs to create powerful instruments for developing a new form of civil society. Blogs are becoming the source of institutional building in the most Hayekian liberal sense – spontaneously emerging communities of practise and interest sprouting forth from the populace with little or no government control or intervention.

Yesterday morning, I received a call from a journalist at Triple-J (Australia’s youth radio network) who wanted to know whether anything was being discussed about blogs and young people. That was before I actually arrived at the conference.

What I found was an entire conference geared toward people of all ages – the young and the young-at-heart. Blogs have become like personal toys to their authors. They represent a space where an author’s eternal sense of youth can be transmitted across the cyber universe for all to see.

Blogs enable a person to put their own fresh spin on just about any topic. Most people at the conference were over 40. Yet their enthusiasm for their work was almost child-like.

It all sounds quite silly, doesn’t it? But I will try to explain what all this means over the next few days and weeks as I re-visit some of the themes from the conference.

Anyway, here are a collection of thoughts I put together and submitted to a NZ newspaper.

*****
What the Blog?

This weekend, Wellington hosts an important international summit with important implications for our region and the world at large.

Huh? Will Bono be speaking at yet another Anti-Poverty Summit? Is US Secretary of State Condi Rice, perhaps the first female to have even a faint chance of being elected President, flying in to seek advice on the matter from Helen Clark? Have Melbournites given up on the Games and seeking them to be moved across the Tasman?

Nope. More important than all of that. This weekend, myself and hundreds of other delegates from across the globe will be converging on Wellington to discuss a four-letter word.

No, this isn’t a French linguistics conference. This Friday marks the commencement of Blog Hui 2006, New Zealand’s inaugural international conference for bloggers.

For the technologically challenged readers, allow me to offer some genuine clarification. Put simply and clearly, a blogger is basically someone who blogs away on a blog.

Blogs represent a new force in the growth of the internet. The term “blog” is believed to be short for “weblog”, a word which first made its debut on the cyber stage some 12 years ago. It is used to describe an online template that enables you to develop and update your own website. The art of writing and updating your website is known as “blogging”. Generally items on your blog will appear in a reverse chronological order.

How do I know all this? Because some 4 years ago, I stumbled upon a website of a smart Aussie from Melbourne named Amir Butler. Amir is an Aussie Muslim activist of British and Caribbean heritage who uses his blog to comment on media matters. I was quite impressed with the website and assumed he was only able to perform web miracles after spending hours engaged in coding and programming.

Then I read this unusual square which said “Powered by Blogger”. I decided to click the icon, follow the directions on the blogger website. Within 5 minutes, I had created my own website! I decided to name it “Planet Irf”.

Today I have 5 full-time and 1 seasonal blog. I initially thought blogs were just a simple way to comment on what the mainstream media are writing and broadcasting. I soon discovered blogs can have multiple uses.

In fact, one of the themes of this inaugural conference is the enormous number of blog applications. Jonathan Ah Kit of the Victoria University of Wellington will be speaking about how blogging can revolutionise the process of learning and teaching in tertiary institutions. Similar themes are explored by West Australian Kate Rodgers.

Social architect and Melbournite James Farmer will be avoiding the Commonwealth Games traffic by addressing the conference on how a single blog website can be used by many different people within an organisation. And I think he should know. After all, he is single-handedly responsible for enabling the construction of over 2,600 education-based blogs, over 500 learner blogs for school students and over 130 uniblogs for college and university students.

A host of local and international speakers will address a broad range of other issues. And in case you thought blogging was just for tech-heads and grunge-listening nerds, you might want to check out the photos and profiles of the conference organisers. One is a professional aquaculturalist, while the other three are education designers.

It is estimated that around 800 blogs are created each day. Already, cyberspace is crowded with millions of blogs.

Some of the most popular blog templates are creations of a small company based in San Francisco named Pyra Labs. The company was founded in the midst of the tech-boom in August 1999. In the words of its founders, the company committed itself to “helping people have their own voice on the web and organizing the world's information from the personal perspective”.

In February 2003, the company hit the jackpot when it was acquired by internet giant Google. At that stage, it had 1.1 million registered users. From there, blogging became a serious business.

Blogs have affected all areas of media and public life. In the last US elections, blogging was used extensively by all sides. Indeed, political blogs are amongst the most common blog form.

Then there are sketchblogs which contain less words and more images. They are used by artists to post sketches and other forms of visual art. Educational blogs are becoming more common amongst students and teachers, ensuring in many cases that courses less intimidating and assessment involve less paperwork.

You can even get a moblog, which enables you to post content from your mobile phone! Yet for many, blogging is little more than an online alternative to writing a diary.

Blogs represent the latest push into online publishing. And as always, Kiwis are at the cutting edge of the latest developments in cyberspace. Blogging is well and truly here to stay. If you don’t like it, you might as well blog off.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Thursday, March 16, 2006

What the blog!

Well this weekend I’m off to visit a country I affectionately refer to as “Kiwistan”. And the purpose of my trip?

Is it to pay homage to a Labor Party leader with perhaps more balls than our Opposition Leader? Is it to walk around niteclubs wearing an All-Blacks jersey in the hope of picking up Kiwi chix who might confuse me for a NZ rugby player? Or perhaps a relatively more handsome Indian cricketer?

Nope. I’m attending to speak at an International Conference. It will be the first time I travel to attend any conference in my life. Well, apart from that end-of-exam gig put on by the Paramadina University in Jakarta for all the students.

And what a superb gig that was! I’ve never seen so many exceptionally attractive Muslim females in my life. And given the exchange rate differential between Australia and Indonesia, I might have been able to afford marrying and supporting 4 of them!

As for the Blog Hui 2006 conference in Wellington, I probably won’t meet as many nice-looking Muslim sisters. In fact, I have no idea what to expect.

It baffles me as to why they asked me to speak. All the other speakers seem like such complete blog-legends. I am little more than an accidental blogger.

Which is actually the title of my talk – The Accidental Blogger. And what on earth will I rabbit on about for 20 minutes before facing 10 minutes of gruelling questions from blog enthusiasts from across the world? Here’s a summary …

This presentation will examine how blogging can be used as a tool for media and community activism. It examines a number of examples where blogging has been used as a training ground for converting activists into writers with a view to enabling changes in social attitudes toward unpopular and unconventional groups and ideas.

Unpopular and unconventional groups and ideas? You’d think I was running a blog for the NSW Young Liberals!

Actually, I will probably spend a large amount of time crapping on about the New Media and how blogging forms an essential part of this forum for cyber mass debate. I say probably because I still haven’t written the damned paper!

I’d be happy to hear suggestions from people on what I should be writing. Try not to include too many expletives.

Seeya in Wellington!!

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Saturday, March 11, 2006

OPINION: Ocker campaign crass

The latest marketing campaign to get tourists to visit Australia has left IRFAN YUSUF cold.

Last Christmas, I accompanied my Californian relatives on a drive around the North Island.
My uncle was impressed that Auckland's Khyber Pass was somewhat less volatile than the Pakistani equivalent.

I was unimpressed at Kiwistani New Year's Eve ads. Who was on the New Year's menu? None other than Aussie rock legend Jimmy Barnes.

Why would this icon of Aussie working-class blokes waste his time playing across the Tasman? Surely he would rather spend New Year's Eve hanging out with all the other successful Aussies such as Russell Crowe, Jenny Morris and the Finn brothers in Byron Bay or some other Aussie artistic mecca?

As soon as I got back to Sydney, I rang my friend Sue. Now, Sue lives in Melbourne with her funky Egyptian partner, Wal. She's a music freak and also has the benefit of some Kiwi heritage.
I expressed my complete disgust that an Aussie musical icon would usher in the new year by gittung pust across the Tizmun.
Irf, you dimwit Aussie. Jimmy Barnes is probably a Kiwi Scot! When are you going to learn that all decent Aussie talent comes from New Zealand? And stop talking in that stupid, pretend- Kiwi accent!
I later sought expert advice from Professor Google, and discovered that I was right all along. Still, it's a fact that talented Australia always seems to have Kiwi roots. I still can't believe Kate Ceberano is half-Hawaiian and not half- Maori.

Some readers may be wondering why better-heeled overseas visitors than normal are flying into Auckland or Wellington. Is it the Lord of the Rings factor? Or are the Yanks hoping to be told off by Winston Peters in person in the absence of meeting King Kong?

Actually, the real reason is probably because Australia's tourism promotional people haven't been able to recruit any Kiwi talent. Let's face it, which smart Kiwi would come up with an ad showing some girl in a bikini beseeching the world with: "So where the bloody hell arya?"

As I write these lines, I can see my copy of a travel magazine put together by The Australian Financial Review in association with The New York Times. The glossy 46-page read, called Life & Leisure – The Sophisticated Traveller, is now in its eighth edition.

Inside are advertisements for watches made in Geneva, expensive resorts and hotels with a nightly room charge equivalent to 10 times the average yearly salary of someone in Bangladesh.
Featured destinations include Kyoto ("tradition and good taste"), Hollywood ("romance and glamour") and Brazil ("Baroque churches a bejewelled past").

So the sophisticated Australian planning his or her next holiday has exotic and sophisticated destinations promoted in language fit for the gods.

Meanwhile, the best that Australia's government-funded tourism spin-doctors can come up with is a bikini-clad model or some crocodile hunter from the last century holding a snag and seeking response to the query of "Where the bloody hell arya?"

And if you think that's bad enough, the ads show ordinary Aussies (presumably without a trace of Kiwi blood) reciting parts of a nonsensical mantra which put together declares: "We've poured you a beer, we've shampooed the camel, we've got the 'roos off the green, we've got the sharks out of the pool and we've saved you a spot on the beach."

The controversial campaign was launched in New Zealand late last month. Tourism Australia managing director Scott Morrison says the campaign will be distributed over the next few months in the United States, Britain, Germany, South Korea and China.

Morrison claims the campaign "draws on the high level of goodwill toward Australia and Australians".

Aussies can only hope and pray too much of this goodwill isn't used up once the phrase "bloody hell" is translated into Mandarin, Japanese, German and Korean.

Morrison, a former campaign director for the ruling Liberal Party of Australia, defends the choice of not-so- heavenly words. "This is not a cultural essay but a carefully crafted and well- researched campaign designed to encourage international travellers to get Australia off their wish list and into their travel itinerary."

Writing in The Australian Financial Review on March 4, American-born humourist Peter Reuhl puts it like this: "To an American ear, it's just another country's trailer park-trash language."

I admit I am no advertising guru. I'm also not a huge fan of rap music (even if performed by obviously more talented Kiwis). But I reckon even Eminem or Snoop Dog could have come up with more effective (though perhaps more offensive) words of enticement.

So where the bloody hell are all those potential tourists considering a holiday to Australia? After watching this crassly Ocker campaign, my guess is many will be saying to themselves: "I'd rather spend my holiday in bloody Christchurch!"

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer. First published in the Christchurch Press on Friday 10 March 2006

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Flat Tax Fruitcakes?

Most lazy web-nerd news consumers like myself are happy to rely on the crumbs thrown their way by numerous news websites providing a wealth of info you can access without paying dough.

But in recent times, I’ve managed to find some spare change to throw in the direction of the dude down at the corner store. Each day, a spare $2.50 goes into his cash till. I then get top stuff my brain with the latest sharpened news from the Australian Financial Review.

I could, of course, drive 15 minutes up to the Macquarie University news agency and grab the AFR for $1.25. I get the discount for being a life member of the Macquarie University Union (now known as “Students At Macquarie” or SAM). But who wants to spend all that time and petrol? At my most reasonable hourly rate, 30 minutes means around $100.

I’ll try to share some of the pleasures of the Fin Review with readers. Today, Fleur Anderson enlightens us on the re-emergence of a new flat-tax society consisting of present and past allegedly conservative MP’s.

This self-styled Modest Members Society is proving to be a thorn in the side of Mr Costello’s non-Sharia tax reform agenda. The society at present numbers around 40. It is said to arise out of a previous group formed during the Fraser government to support free trade and remove tariff protection.

The society is now championing plans to implement what is effectively a modified flat personal tax system. One plan being mooted is that of Dick Tanner, a film producer and Liberal Party man. He wants to see the $6,000 tax free threshold removed, and have a 15% personal income tax from incomes of $0 to $60,000. Anyone above $60,000 would be subject to a 30% tax rate.

This and other proposals were apparently mooted at a breakfast held last Wednesday 1 March at Parliament House. The Society’s founding members are listed as Wilson Tuckey from WA and Senator Grant Chapman from South Australia. It includes junior ministers and some newer faces including the talented NSW Senator and former Government lawyer Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.

Senator Wells wants to reduce complexity of the tax system. Her views were echoed in an opinion piece from Professors John Head and Rick Krever of Monash University, also appearing in AFR on the same day.

The learned authors noted that income tax law is hundreds of times thicker than it was when first adopted in 1915. They argued that: “The result is a law that achieves neither the equity nor efficiency goals of a well-designed tax and imposes significant and unnecessary compliance costs on taxpayers.”

The PM and Mr Costello aren’t prepared at this stage to hear a bar of such politically incorrect views on tax. They say Australians want tax cuts, not fundamental tax reform. As far as they’re concerned, flat tax is even harder to sell than Industrial Relations reform.

Except, of course, when it comes to the way GST moneys are distributed amongst the states. Battling the Premiers and Chief Ministers always makes good television.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Monday, March 06, 2006

OPINION: Guantanamo a blot on US image

In January, I toured three Indonesian cities as part of a delegation sponsored by the Australia Indonesia Institute. I visited the American Corner at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University.

The Corner is a public relations initiative of the US Embassy in Jakarta, consisting of a largish classroom containing a range of books, magazines and other materials about American life and culture in both English and Indonesian.

A particular focus is placed on the status of America's large Muslim minority. Copies of the glossy American Muslim magazines and books authored by Arab and Muslim Americans were prominently displayed. The Corner sought to provide students with a view of American interactions with Muslims that contradict popular Indonesian perceptions.

Not that Indonesian media are exceptionally anti-American, nor blindly towing the line of the pro-US Indonesian Government.

But Indonesians we spoke to from all walks of life were united in their condemnation of one American policy: the continued detainment, often without charge, of some 500 terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

Despite attempts at opening communication channels across Indonesia, the White House's refusal to come clean on the extent of torture and mistreatment of Guantanamo prisoners is winning few friends even among otherwise friendlier Muslim communities.

The latest 54-page UN report on conditions at the Guantanamo facility will not help America's cause in the region. The report, prepared by five investigators from the UN Human Rights Commission, calls for its closure without delay.

As expected, the White House rejects the report's findings. It questions the veracity of the report's claims, arguing that investigators did not accept an invitation to visit the facility. But given the US' refusal to allow them unfettered access to inmates, it is little surprise UN investigators were not part of a highly censored and sanitised inspection.

Allegations of torturing prisoners corroborate statements already given by British former detainees and by released Australian detainee Mamdouh Habib. It is possible Mr Habib's allegations will be tested by a court should he bring proceedings against the Australian Government.

It isn't just former detainees with complaints. The recently released book of former Guantanamo chaplain James Yee, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire, was nowhere to be seen at the American Corner.

Yee's dealings with detainees and guards led him to believe that a large proportion of prisoners had little if any relation to terrorism. As soon as he made noises to this effect, Yee found himself the subject of officially spread innuendo and eventually trumped-up charges of spying.

He was also accused of adultery and downloading pornography on to military computers.

Following eight months of high profile detention and investigation that destroyed Yee's career and marriage, all charges against him were dropped without explanation.

Yee was imprisoned at the order of Major General Geoffrey Miller, who later became embroiled in the first prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq.

Reviewing Yee's book, Norman Abjorensen wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that it is difficult to read Yee's account without a rising sense of anger and injustice. The book, Abjorensen continues, brings into sharp focus the inhumane monstrosity that is Guantanamo Bay.

In Australia, at least one South Australian family hopes the UN report will focus attention on one of their own. David Hicks has been imprisoned at the facility since 2002.

Last November, former Veterans Affairs Minister Danna Vale called for Mr Hicks to be released and if necessary tried in Australia.

Mr Howard refused her request, reaffirming his commitment to the Guantanamo Military Commission process. The Prime Minister claimed he'd received advice that even if Mr Hicks was returned to Australia, he could not be charged under Australian law.

He was reported as saying: "We do not intend to pass retrospective criminal laws. That would represent a very significant regressive move, and it would violate the basis of our criminal justice system."

Within weeks, his Government passed some of the most draconian anti-terror laws containing more retrospective elements than one could poke a stick at.

Canberra's lacklustre concern for the welfare of an Australian citizen is in sharp contrast to the stringent lobbying efforts of the UK and other Western countries with nationals detained at the facility.

It also sharply contrasts with the Government's robust involvement in the welfare of convicted Australian drug smugglers facing death row. It is a disgrace that the Hicks family could end up receiving more support from the United Nations than from their own Government.

Even lawyers appointed by the US military to represent the detainees have stated the Guantanamo military commissions are mere kangaroo courts. Their ultimate result will be a continuing injustice. And as the UN report illustrates, unless the facility is closed altogether, justice will ultimately be denied.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer. First published in the New Zealand Herald on Thursday 23 February 2006.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf


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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

OPINION: Costello's views of sharia code don't coincide with the reality


IN A SPEECH to the Sydney Institute last week, Peter Costello says that people coming to Australia should evidence commitment to Australia and certain undefined but apparently understood Australian values. Mr Howard agrees. So do I.

Costello also says anyone who believes that sharia can co-exist with Australian law should leave Australia. Howard says Costello's comments are fundamentally accurate.

In fact, both Costello's comments and Howard's endorsement illustrate their fundamental ignorance on Muslim religious cultures. That ignorance is echoed in the broader community. However, migrant Muslim leaders have responded immaturely. They have relied more on media spin than on a careful consideration of the speech itself.

I myself was initially almost swept away by the tsunami of spin. Then I thought I should at least make an effort to read the speech. On the Saturday afternoon following the speech, I had to address a forum on the topic of Unity in Diversity organised by a Canberra group called Forum Australia. Joining with me were a number of community leaders, including Liberal MLA Steve Pratt.

Pratt is no dummy when it comes to sharia. He has spent years working in Muslim-majority countries as an aid worker. Pratt and I agreed that when it came to sharia, Costello was shooting from the hip. Costello probably has little knowledge of what sharia is or how Muslims understand and implement it.

Aussie Muslims view sharia as another word for liturgy, the outward manifestation of worship and ritual. Banning sharia effectively means banning Islam. Muslims also view sharia as the broad corpus of Muslim legal tradition evolved over 1400 years, a legal tradition in the same sense that we have the common law and European civil law traditions.

For Costello, sharia seems little more than a synonym for disloyalty, violence, amputation or stoning. Therefore Muslims compromise their Australianness by subscribing to a religion which has its own sacred legal tradition.

Both Howard and Costello have legal training. Both should understand there is more to any legal tradition than merely criminal punishment. Both are showing a surprising degree of ignorance about what sharia actually is.

Sharia has rules limiting its jurisdiction, with the ultimate sanction being conscience. Sharia itself says that its criminal sanctions and public law have no jurisdiction in Australia or any other western country. The most important principle of sharia affecting Australian Muslims is that they obey the law of the land.

Fundamental to Australian practise of sharia are certain broad ethical principles which most people practise without necessarily knowing these form part of sharia. The principles in no way conflict with the current state of Australia's evolving law and culture. What are these principles?

In December 2002, Professor Muhammad Fajrul Falaakh, VICE Dean of the prestigious Gadjah Mada University and one of Indonesia's top legal academics, gave lectures as a guest of the Centre for Independent Studies. His talks focused on the place of sharia in emerging pluralist liberal societies such as Indonesia. He described sharia ethics as guaranteeing five basic protections: protection of freedom of religious practice, of life, of freedom of thought and conscience, of property rights and of matrimonial and reproductive rights.

Perhaps Mr Costello could point out where any of these sharia principles conflict with Australian law, Australian values or Australian citizenship. Surely these principles would form the basis of any civilised society, Islamic or otherwise.

Professor Abdullah Saeed's 2004 study entitled "Muslims in Australia - Their Beliefs, Practices and Institutions", funded by the Howard Government and based on the 2001 Census, showed that Muslims represent less than 2 per cent of the population.

However, for reasons perhaps best known to Liberal Party pollsters, the PM and his Treasurer have spent much of the last week misrepresenting the fundamental religious teachings of this tiny portion of the Australian community. Mr Costello recently called for Muslims to pledge their allegiance to Australia and Australian values before criticising his comments. Will Mr Costello be asking the same of the Federal Opposition before each Question Time?

The challenge for Muslims now is to inform ordinary Australians on exactly why Howard and Costello's expressed views on basic Islamic teachings are wrong. The vast majority of Muslims aren't interested in imposing sharia law as more than just a set of personal religious values which in no way conflict with mainstream Australian values. People who dispute this simply have no idea of what sharia means to Aussie Muslims. The time has come for Muslims to educate them.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and endorsed Liberal candidate for the seat of Reid in the 2001 Federal Elections. This article was first published in the Canberra Times on 1 March 2006.


Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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