Wednesday, September 27, 2006

PM’s Brethren hypocrisy?

John Howard has taken the extraordinary step of defending members and teachings of the Exclusive Brethren. His comments came following a Four Corners episode on the Brethren.

In supporting the activities of the Brethren, Mr Howard risks being seen as also supporting alleged activities of members of the sect.

These include: social security fraud, assisting members with breaching Family Court orders, not to mention taxation and stamp duty fraud.

Howard has frequently spoken about the alleged inability of Muslim groups to integrate and adopt Australian values. He is now supporting the right of a fringe Christian sect to deliberately not integrate into the broader Australian community.

Would Mr Howard defend a fringe Muslim group which engaged in similar activities? And why has Mr Howard taken a view different to that of the NZ National party leader Dr Brash?

Howard’s inconsistency could well be viewed as hypocrisy.Or is his stand related to the fact that sect leader runs a business in West Ryde, in the PM's electorate?

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Munira Mirza’s visit to Australia

The Centre for Independent Studies, a non-partisan conservative/liberal/libertarian think tank, is inviting Munira Mirza to speak on the topic of “The Politics of Difference – Multiculturalism & The Rise of Islamism” on 11 October 2006. I’m not sure whether the CIS chose the topic or whether it was chosen by Mirza herself.

Mirza is an associate fellow for the UK conservative think tank “Policy Exchange”. The think tank will be hosting a number of events at the Conservative Party’s conference in October.

Here’s how Policy Exchange describes Mirza:

Munira Mirza writes and broadcasts on issues related to multiculturalism, cultural identity and urban regeneration. She is an arts consultant for the London East Research Institute and is currently working on her PhD at the University of Kent … She edited the Policy Exchange report Culture Vultures in February 2006. Munira is also part of the Manifesto Club, which will launch in November 2006.


Mirza has an impressive background in English literature and the Arts. Her views on cultural policy are well worth reading, especially her chapter in the Culture Vultures report entitled “The arts as painkiller”.

The CIS’s invitation of Mirza sounds like a positive development. Up until now, most speakers they've invited to talk about political Islam have hardly been experts in the field. Indeed, most have been neo-conservative cultural warriors like Mark Steyn and Daniel Pipes. These speakers have tended to use the CIS podium to sprout conspiracy theories about Muslim minorities as opposed to getting to the heart of the problem.

Still, the CIS has also invited some excellent speakers like Muhammad Fajrul Falaakh, a senior lawyer from Indonesia's prestigious Gadjah Mada University and a leading figure in Nahdhatul Ulama, the world's largest Islamic organisation.

Hopefully Mirza will be able to avoid the sentiments so typical of monocultural revolutionaries like Steyn. Still, it is questionable how much the UK Muslim experience can be transferred to Australia, which has a much more multicultural and less socially and economically disadvantaged Muslim community than the UK Muslim community.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

COMMENT: The Brethren & The PM’s Favourite Muslim

No doubt many will have watched the Four Corners program exposing the internal workings of The Exclusive Brethren sect. This sect receives favourable treatment from the Howard government in a number of areas including workplace relations. Further, some 30 Brethren schools are funded by the Howard government.

Some 12 months ago, then education minister and self-proclaimed “never-voted-Liberal-in-my-life” faction member Dr Brendan Nelson called upon Islamic schools to adopt values or “clear off”.

It is now clear what Dr Nelson meant by Australian values. He wasn’t just referring to the example of an Englishman who breached immigration laws. He also included ensuring that children from your sect are barred from watching TV, attending university, using computers and e-mail, using mobile phones and eating lunch with children from other denominations.

If Muslims follow this sort of isolationist theology, they will be rewarded. And the proof is the open support the Federal Government is giving to the fringe Lebanese al-Ahbash sect and its representative Mustapha Kara-Ali.

The al-Ahbash sect hold views about non-Ahbash people similar to views held by the Brethren. I have experienced this myself, with prominent al-Ahbash leaders castigating me for involvement in the Liberal Party, for cooperating with Buddhist groups and for being involved in interfaith dialogue.

I can now reveal that prominent leaders of the al-Ahbash sect sought my assistance to lobby politicians to close down an Egyptian Coptic newspaper. They included a broadcaster on the al-Ahbash radio station who has interviewed at least 2 Federal Ministers.

I can also reveal that the al-Ahbash sect engage in similar forms of excommunication and division of families. I know of at least 3 cases where siblings joining the sect have been ordered to cut themselves off from other siblings and family members.

The attitudes of al-Ahbash sect leaders toward non-Muslims are most troubling. One woman I spoke to tonight told me she was advised by an al-Ahbash leader to remove Christian relatives from her house as they were “kuffar” (plural of “kafir” or “infidel”) and therefore should not be granted hospitality. Other persons have also approached me with similar stories.

Once again, I call upon Mustapha Kara-Ali to publicly declare the extent of his involvement in the al-Ahbash sect. I also ask Minister Robb whether he approves of the isolationist theology of the sect and whether he believes its teachings will further the process of integration he claims to support.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Is Andrew Robb sponsoring fringe isolationist Islam?

Rupert Murdoch’s flagship broadsheet The Australian has spent much of its time reporting on Muslim issues in recent times. Most of that reporting has been written by Richard Kerbaj, a young Australian reporter of Lebanese Druze extraction.

Kerbaj has in recent times obtained much of his information from a member of the Prime Minister’s hand-picked Muslim Community Reference Group named Mustapha Kara-Ali. Kerbaj’s information on radical (and not-so-radical) sheiks has also come from Kara-Ali.

Despite his denials, Kara-Ali is closely associated with the shadowy al-Ahbash sect, a fringe group found only amongst Lebanese and Syrian Sunni Muslims. The sect is very close to Syria’s Ba’athist government. Two members of the sect have been implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri.

For over a year now, the Federal Government has made clear its preference for the sect, known for their extreme opposition to anything linked to Sheik Tajeddine Hilali. There is no love lost between Hilali and the sect, and both compete for mastery over the Lebanese and broader Arabic-speaking Muslim sector.

Which effectively makes them completely irrelevant to the majority of Australian Muslims who share little or no affinity to that sector. When the al-Ahbash set up a national umbrella body, they named it after the Sunni Muslim body in Lebanon “Darul Fatwa” (literally “office of religious legal rulings”). Virtually all programs broadcast on their Sydney-based community radio station are broadcast in Arabic.

Compare this to the Ramadan radio program of the Canberra Islamic Centre, 100% of which are in English.

Kara-Ali claims he has no links to the shadowy sect. He has, however, admitted to me that he spent years of his high schooling in Lebanon where he spent much time sitting at the feet of the al-Ahbash sect’s spiritual leader Sheik Abdullah Hareri al-Habashi. Kara-Ali regards himself as a disciple of al-Habashi but claims he is not involved in the sect’s Australian front organisations including the Islamic Charitable Projects Association.

My own personal dealings with the sect are dealt with elsewhere. Readers will see that the sect is known for its narrow interpretations of Islamic texts which reinforce the isolationist tendencies of many Lebanese Muslim migrants.

Kara-Ali has been invited on numerous occasions to state categorically that he is not linked to the shadowy sect. He has refused to do so, and has even been caught out defending both himself and the sect on e-mail groups using false names.

Kara-Ali is not known to have links with any established Muslim youth groups such as Young Muslims of Australia or Awareness Education Australia. He has never served on the executive of any Muslim student body, nor has he attended any “Train-the-Trainers” sessions in which young Muslims are taught on how to explain their faith and culture to the broader community.

The Oz columnist Matt Price has written extensively about Kara-Ali’s BIRR project, a copy of which I received from Kara-Ali some months back. The project aims to equip young Muslims to learn their faith without adopting more extreme trends.

The theology of BIRR seems to be based on the isolationist teachings of the al-Ahbash sect. Naturally, one cannot expect Price to be aware of all the sectarian nuances unique to Lebanese Islam.

Kara-Ali’s message of rejecting victimhood is praised by both Price and Citizenship Minister Andrew Robb, both of whom seem to think any questioning of the paradigm of “violent Islam” is “backing off to square leg” (to use cricketing parlance).

When identical arguments are used by other Muslim leaders such as Waleed Aly (who regularly writes for The Oz) and by independent Muslims (such as a certain former Liberal Party federal election candidate who needn’t be named), not much is said.

(In the case of the latter, it is probably because he has also spent much of his time criticising the government for its hypocrisy in not dealing with religious extremists within the Liberal Party organisation and for failing to select Muslim Reference Group members that truly reflect the realities of Muslim Australia.)

The Federal Government has now virtually adopted Kara-Ali as their official moderate Muslim (or, as the Daily Telegraph puts it, “Australia’s Muslim Most-Likely”). They have pumped hundreds of thousands of taxpayer funds into his program. It is unclear as to who will receive and manage the funds.

Personally, I have no problem with Kara-Ali’s activities. However, I do have grave concerns if the funds will be managed by a front organisation for the al-Ahbash sect. I realise that the Federal Government enjoys the patronage of fringe sects (such as the Exclusive Brethren) and provides them with substantial benefits. However, despite its common features with the EB, al-Ahbash are far more sinister an influence.

Kara-Ali should openly come out and declare that he will not involve any materials, infrastructure and organisations falling under the al-Ahbash sect. If he refuses to do this, he will find few young Muslims will support his programs.

Al-Ahbash have alienated a huge chunk of the Muslim communities. They have declared numerous popular religious figures to be kafir (apostates) including prominent Sufis such as the Kurdish scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi who is respected by all Turkish Muslim congregations. They also prohibit their members from advocating for non-Muslim religious groups.

The Federal Government is again playing with fire. If the whole exercise blows up in their face, they will have no one to blame except themselves. If it turns out that taxpayer funds are being used to fund the activities of an isolationist ethnic Muslim sect, Andrew Robb will soon find plenty of not-so-halal egg on his face.

And so will Matt Price and other writers from The Oz supporting such programs.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Monday, September 18, 2006

COMMENT: On Culture & Security

Andrew Robb had some home-truths to tell imams on Saturday at the launch of the National Conference of Islamic Leaders. Much of what he said was elementary and unobjectionable. Imams need to learn English. As people representing mainstream Islam, they should provide pastoral care to young people and converts who might be led astray by extremist websites. They should continue to condemn extremism and do it in the English language and in a coordinated fashion. They should recognise that much media reporting isn't discrimination and does reflect community sentiment.

Sadly, many of his comments as well as the tone of his speech reflected a near absence of understanding about the roles imams play in mosques.

Mainstream Islam recognises no priestly hierarchy. Anyone can lead a service, though most mosques have a resident religious scholar known as an ‘imam’.

Robb commences his address by declaring local mosque imams to be ...
... the spiritual leaders of Australian Muslims.

Yeah, right.

The average Australian Muslim would be lucky to attend the mosque twice a year for the two feast days (each known as Eid, Hari Raya or Bayram, depending on where your family comes from). Even ones who go to their local mosque regularly will be unlikely to understand the sermon anyway. Aussie mosques are generally run along ethnic lines, leading to differences between ethnic groups on the role of mosque imams. But they are almost never regarded as spiritual leaders.

Robb then ignores the opinion of both his Attorney General and the Federal Police Commissioner (not to mention the best available evidence of suicide bomber profiling by Professor Robert Pape) by repeating the mantra that terrorism is basically an Islamic phenomenon.

And, because it is your faith that is being invoked as justification for these evil acts, it is your problem.

Actually, it isn’t just Islam being used to justify terrorism. It is generally a cocktail of wider factors including foreign occupation, Marxism (in Nepal and Sri Lanka) and other forms of nationalist and religious separatism (e.g. PKK). Yet we don’t see Robb lecturing Tamils or Kurds in the same condescending tone.

Later in his speech, Robb backtracks by suggesting:

Terrorism is not part of orthodox Islam, and it’s an obscenity for terrorists to invoke Islam as a justification for their evil acts.

There is much you can and must do to condemn their words, their actions and their blasphemy.


Er, what else can they do that they haven't already done, Mr Robb? They have already issued and signed a joint letter condemning terrorism after the London bombing.

Robb also talks about a so-called “victim mentality” being adopted by Muslims when they criticise patronising and ignorant statements made by Howard, his minstrel ministers and certain media outlets. What victim mentality? Muslims don’t see themselves as victims. They just want to be treated the same as anyone else.

Yes, there are dim witted Muslims overseas who will start a riot because of some cartoons or some veiled reference to violence by the Pope. But where do we see such activities in Australia? Which Aussie Mossies here boycotted Danish goods or burned Danish flags?

Aussie Muslims criticise their “own” all the time. Waleed Aly’s recent columns in The Oz and The Age are cases in point. Here’s how Aly describes the Muslim circus:


The first round of nonsense, sadly, came from Muslim spokespeople, some of whom responded with knee-jerk anger of the most senseless variety. Ameer Ali, who heads the Government's Muslim Community Reference Group, couldn't decide what he thought. Initially he slammed the Prime Minister, saying his inflammatory comments could incite another Cronulla. Then, speaking of inflammatory divisiveness, he told The West Australian that the "hard core" of Muslims who "are not prepared to accept" Australian values "have to adapt, otherwise they must pack up and go home". Next to these, Howard's comments seem ecumenical.


He continues …

Again, a parade of Muslim spokespeople expressed progressively increasing outrage. Unfortunately, they were likelier to complain about Islam bashing than addressing Costello's central allegation. This only made them look suspicious and gave the story life …

The Muslim pawns invariably take the bait. Seeing an opportunity to vent their frustrations publicly, they ensure these debates find resonance well beyond their worth.

Aly ends his piece by describing Muslim leaders’ responses as “a spectacular flurry, a circus of stupidity”. Doesn’t sound like victim mentality to me.

Robb does what other Howard minister (with the exception of Tony Abbott) seem to be doing. He tells Muslims who and what they are and then demands they take responsibility for things beyond their control.

Yes imams do play a role, but it isn’t for imams to guarantee Australia is free from terrorism. Ultimately it is the government’s responsibility. People like Robb and Howard and Costello and Abbott and Ruddock and others are responsible for this. All of us, Muslims and Jews and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists and Calithumpians and non-believers, pay our hard-earned money to them in the form of taxes and duties. We elect them to implement sensible policies for our protection.

So while Robb raises the bar higher than even a super-duper imam could achieve, the Australian Financial Review reported last week that the government cannot even get its act together to ensure businesses are provided with effective terrorism protection insurance. And that security on our ports has been compromised by organised crime and narcotics.

Andrew Robb has to understand that no amount of fridge magnets or monocultural rhetoric will protect Australia if his government refuses to deal with the real factors affecting our security.

I agree that imams should speak English. I agree that Muslims should continue condemning terror. I agree that migrants should try and integrate. But in all seriousness, how does chattering on and on about these things make us feel and be more secure?

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

OPINION: Tony Abbott's respectful message to Muslims

The old man lay on his death bed in Melbourne. Decades of political and ideological struggle were reaching an end. At his side during these last moments were his family and close disciples.

And few could claim to be a closer disciple of the late Bob Santamaria than Tony Abbott. Few ministers are maligned for their religious faith as the Federal Health Minister. Mr Abbott knows what it is like to hold unfashionable views.

If the religious and political culture of conservative Catholics is unpopular in most sectors of the media, the religious and political cultures of virtually all expressions of Islam are regarded in the current climate as sinister and dangerous.

Conservative Christians, including Catholics, have been at the forefront of demonising Muslims. Columnists like Mark Steyn use satire to hide their deepest hatred for all people and things Muslim. Polemical pseudo-intellectual websites like JihadWatch.com, maintained by conservative Catholic Robert Spencer, are relied upon even by men of the intellectual stature of Cardinal Pell.

In such an environment, one could imagine anti-Muslim hostility to be a comfortable fall-back position for an ambitious parliamentarian. One would expect that with influential persons like Rupert Murdoch openly questioning the loyalties of Western Muslims, and with his views being often parroted by his flagship tabloid columnists and string-puppet reporters, a man viewed as a possible future Prime Minister would be happy to move up the ladder by stepping on a tiny marginalised group of 300,000 people.

To his credit, Tony Abbott has resisted the temptation. He has consistently defended multiculturalism when the PM and his Treasurer have questioned its utility. Abbott has even delivered a speech defending it as an essentially conservative value to a hostile group of Young Liberals and allowed his views to be published in otherwise hostile publications such as Quadrant.

Indeed, Abbott has prepared to criticise even members of his own conservative wing in the NSW Liberal Party. Last year he criticised calls by colleagues to ban the wearing of the hijab in state schools, despite such policies being adopted and supported even by Liberals in Abbott’s own electorate.

Muslim Australians seem to have few friends in the present Federal Government (or indeed in the Opposition). Tony Abbott has defended Muslims at times when it was simply not in his interest to do so. Hence, when he speaks about Muslims in a sympathetic and non-hostile manner using measured and sensitive words, the least Muslims should do is consider his argument.

In an address to a religiously mixed crowd under the auspices of the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta on Friday 15 September 2006, Mr Abbott made some pertinent observations. Unlike his colleagues, Abbott did not pretend he was an expert on Islam or talk at Muslims in an insulting and patronising manner.

Mr Abbott made clear his observations were made “as an outsider”. He expressed his empathy with Muslim males lectured by pundits to show respect to women in a dominant culture objectifying women in media and popular culture. He also understood why many Muslims would be cynical of a civilisation which preaches peace but which massacres civilians even in just wars.

Abbott reminded his audience that ethnic and religious tension wasn’t new to Australia. He reminded us of the prejudice faced by Catholics and of their struggles in such incidents as the battle of Vinegar Hill.

Abbott seemed to scold his Liberal colleagues by observing that the cause of communal reconciliation and harmony was harmed by sermonising and sanctimony. At the same time, he reminded his audience that friends should be able to express their feelings frankly.

It was here that Mr Abbott began his tentative personal observations. He said that whilst there was no shortage of Western critics of Western culture, Muslim critics of Islamic cultures seemed few and far between. He felt that Islamic societies seemed to lack a defined pluralism, and that the demarcation between what belonged to Caesar and what belonged to God was not clear. Further, his impression was that Muslims found it hard to tell the difference between sins and crimes.

Abbott observed that Westerners would find Islamic cultures easier to appreciate if those speaking for Islam were visibly more keen to condemn terrorism and less keen to debate Western transgressions, especially considering most terrorist victims are Muslims. Further, Western Muslims able to observe both forms of culture could play a special role of helping both the West and Muslim nations understand each other.

Elements of Abbott’s speech are, in my opinion, plainly wrong. Perhaps he needs to read further on the matter and talk to Muslim Australians, including Muslims inside the Liberal Party. But Abbott was humble and honest enough to admit that he was speaking from hurriedly drawn-up notes and as an outsider.

Muslims honest with themselves will recognise the Health Minister is not alone in holding such views. They should also recognise that he is exercising not mere diplomacy or politics but genuine respect.

Perhaps the most important advice Abbott had for his audience was that religious people shouldn’t be afraid to allow their faith to be hung up for scrutiny. “Something which is from God will prevail. All else will pass”. This simple truth is shared by both Christians and Muslims.

Abbott showed the tolerance and respect for Islam that is to be expected of a genuine Christian. Hopefully genuine Muslims will consider carefully his sincere words of advice.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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OPINION: On Pompous Popes & Futile Protests

Recently an Australian Catholic Cardinal expressed the view that the Koran preaches violence. His view was based on a partial reading of an English translation of the Koran coloured by the views of an Israeli polemicist known for her extreme hatred of Muslims. When pressed, the Cardinal admitted he could not even remember which translation of the Koran he had relied upon.

How do I know this? Because I spoke to him myself. I approached him at a gathering and asked him politely about his views. I used a reasonable line of questioning, and was able to illustrate to those listening that the Cardinal’s views were based on his own ignorance combined with reliance on limited and hostile sources.

Of course, I could have taken the absurd and pointless route again being taken by Muslim crowds in some parts of the world. I could always gather a mob together and march in the streets, wasting my time and everyone else’s and achieving nothing except a sore throat and awful media coverage.

I would like to think that Muslim mobs had learnt from the PR disaster that accompanied protests against the Danish cartoons. On that occasion, corrupt and unelected Muslim leaders manipulated state-owned media and government-employed religious leaders to incite their masses into frenzies of violent futility.

As I type these lines, thousands of Muslims in the Darfur region of Sudan face certain death, whether by disease or starvation or bullets. Lebanese Muslims are struggling to rebuild their homes and their lives.

Muslims in Gaza are facing economic and social collapse. Muslims in Afghanistan face civil war as the Western-backed government struggles to defeat a Taliban militia we were led to believe was defeated years back.

Muslims in Pakistan are still suffering from the effects of the earthquake. Muslims across Asia continue to rebuild after the devastating tsunami. Muslims in Kashmir find themselves caught between fanatical militants and merciless Indian troops.

With all these difficulties facing Muslims, of what significance are a few throw-away lines from an ageing Pontiff? And why allow the sheer absurdity of his words be overshadowed by the greater absurdity of violent and hysterical response?

Muslims are beginning to behave in the same manner as European Catholics have until recently. At the height of their power, Muslims were quite happy to allow non-Muslims to criticise their faith.

Spain was home to a physician and religious scholar named Sheik Musa bin Maymoun. Sheik Musa spoke and wrote in Arabic. One of his many treatises was a work entitled (in English) “Guide to the Perplexed”. In this book, Sheik Musa sought to compare the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Sheik Musa’s conclusion was clear. Judaism was superior to its sister Abrahamic faiths, Islam and Christianity.

The Muslim response? Muslims who disagreed with Sheik Musa’s views did so by writing reasoned responses. Spanish Muslims still consulted Sheik Musa’s expertise in medicine. Sheik Musa himself wasn’t attacked, and copies of his book were not burnt until Catholic armies took back Muslim Spain. Burning books and effigies was too uncivilised for those polished and proud Muslims.

Sheik Musa was in fact the great Andalusian rabbi Maimonides. His critique of Islam, together with his skills as a physician, led the Kurdish general Saladin to appoint him as chief medical officer to the army that eventually conquered Jerusalem from the Frankish crusader kings. Maimonides went onto become one of Saladin’s closest and most trusted advisers.

(And in case you are wondering what Maimonides looked like, check out the statue of the dude in the turban and robes on the top right-hand side of this blog.)

Islam was robust and strong enough in those times to withstand Maimonides’ criticism. Muslims were sensible and educated and civilised and confident enough to be able to accept criticism. They could debate their critics on an intellectual level without having to resort to violence or being highly strung and reactionary to even the mildest rebuke.

In an environment as free as Australia, a humble layman like myself can expose the relative ignorance of a Cardinal. I can do this using intellect and logic, far more powerful tools than behaving defensively or threatening violence.

Muslims offended by the Pope’s comments about Islam and history are better off addressing these arguments than condemning the Pope. If Muslims become defensive or even hint at violence, they will merely be personifying (and thus confirming) of the Pope’s claims.

Muslims should challenge the Pope to name even one soldier or military commander who took Islam to Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country. He should be asked to show where a Muslim ruler has murdered 6 million Jews or where Muslims have conducted a Spanish-style Inquisition. He might also advise of which Japanese city Muslims dropped an atomic bomb onto.

The fact is that both Muslims and Christians have had blood on their hands at various points in their history. People have murdered, raped, terrorised, looted and burnt in the names of both Christ and Allah. We are all living in glass houses, and none of us is sinless enough to be able to cast the first stone.

It’s only to be expected that the leader of a missionary faith will criticise other missionary faiths. Just as we expect Don Brash to criticise Helen Clark or Kim Beazley to criticise John Howard or Hillary Clinton to criticise George W Bush. Thankfully, clerics tend to be more polite than politicians most of the time. But criticism (including self-critique) is part of the Abrahamic tradition.

Further, there are enough Christians (including Catholics) of goodwill who will be happy to criticise the Pontiff’s comments. Already, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt has issued a strong response.

My advice to any Muslim genuinely perturbed by the Pope’s comments is simply this - if you can’t stand the missionary heat, you should think about getting out of Abraham’s spiritual kitchen. If you are unhappy with the reason and restraint your religious heritage insists upon, you should find yourself another religion.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Exclusive Meteorites in Kiwistan?

It seems Allah/God/G-d/Yahweh isn’t happy with the Kiwis. Yesterday a large object from outer space swept across South Island, reaching top speeds of around 40,000 km per hour. The meteor apparently entered the earth’s atmosphere, making a loud booming noise and causing the ground to shake. The meteor disintegrated before falling into a field.

Pity the poor sheep.

Fairfax ’s Christchurch-based paper The Press described it as Boom time in the sky. The Auckland-based New Zealand Herald described it as the “Daddy of all booms”.

So why are the gods throwing meteors at the Kiwis? Perhaps the prayers of members of the Exclusive Brethren sect have come true. Yesterday’s NZ Herald reported Kiwi PM Helen Clark’s attempts to limit secret political donations. She admits her Bill is aimed directly at secret donations and independent campaigns supporting the National party.

Apparently, the Brethren have told Kiwistan’s electoral commission that they wish to spend a whopping $1.2 million to support the National Party. Presently, Kiwis are allowed to make anonymous donations without political parties having to declare the source or donations of upto $NZ10,000. Clarke wants to reduce this threshold to donations above a mere $NZ250.

Of course, the Exclusive Brethren donors didn’t donate on behalf of their church but did so as private individuals.

Nats have dismissed any suggestion of collusion with the sect. They haven’t ruled out supporting the Bill but say they want to see the detailed Bill first.

However, one question remains unanswered. Was it really a comet that hit South Island ? Or was it Pluto exacting revenge over a long distance? I doubt even the sheep will be able to answer that question.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Where the bloody hell are our values?

As if the Australian Tourism Industry isn’t having a hard enough time. First they spent $180 million getting Cronulla beach-babe confused foreign tourists with her question: “Where the bloody hell are you?”

At the time, Tourism Australia’s head Scott Morrison claimed it was a “uniquely Australian invention” while Tourism Minister Fran Bailey referred to the offending word as “the great Australian adjective”.

Now Federal Labor leader Kim Beazley wants to out-do them all. He wants tourists to answer questions like “What the bloody hell are you doing here?” and “Why don’t you bloody-well sign here and agree to our bloody values?”

It’s hard not to be cynical about the ALP’s latest attempt to look more like John Howard than John Howard. Certainly Federal Labor MP’s aren’t impressed, especially the ones in marginal seats with substantial migrant populations.

But even discarding the politics, you’d have to agree that the whole idea of getting holiday-makers to sign a statement agreeing to Aussie values is a little silly. Perhaps the only values these people are interested in is discounts at Duty-Free stores and souvenir shops.

Certainly Aussie tourists haven’t shown much concern for values such as democracy, respect for women and mateship even when inside Australia. Some of Diane Brimble’s fellow passengers on that cruise could learn a thing or two about respect for women.

Recently I visited Indonesia and Malaysia as part of delegations on DFAT-sponsored exchange programs. At Indonesia, I obtained my visa at the airport. I filled out a form and signed on the dotted line where I promised to follow the laws of Indonesia. I then gave them my visa card.

When I was leaving Indonesia, I almost got mugged by some dude at Jakarta’s international airport. One of my delegation colleagues was Australia’s first female police officer to wear the hijab (a traditional Muslim headscarf). As the dude started to hassle me, I managed to text my colleague.

I’ve never seen a woman (with or without a headscarf) run so fast. It was like watching a re-run of an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man (without the slow motion). The thief saw her and ran away even faster.

Yep, Australian values in action. That Indonesian thief knew what would happen to him if he didn’t respect this all-Aussie woman!

That was Indonesia. The Malaysians didn’t even insist on a visa. And the High Commission staff assured me I’d found lots of values at the Masjid India market in KL.

Seriously, this entire episode shows just how futile the debate over values is. When John Howard preaches the values of gender equity, he should perhaps turn his attention to his own backyard. Confused? Read on.

I grew up in John Howard’s federal seat of Bennelong. One of the state seats inside his electorate is Epping. Members of John Howard conservative wing of the NSW Liberal Party (of which I was a member for some 10 years) are currently showing their support for gender equity by refusing to preselect a woman who has spent the last decade fighting to remove structural inequalities for Australian women.

And what kind of candidates do these conservative Liberals prefer? Their preference is for candidates who want to limit the availability of abortions to women.

When I first joined the Liberal Party in 1993, I signed a form that listed a range of Liberal values. Among these was “The Rule of Law”. By the time I started stacking branches for Mr Howard’s faction, the membership form had changed. It was just a minor change. Just one word.

It no longer referred to “The Rule of Law” but rather “The Role of Law”. So Liberals in John Howard’s home state believe that the law has a role but it doesn’t necessarily rule. That might explain the logic behind the government’s recent assaults on civil liberties.

I’ve always understood generosity to be an Australian value. Especially generosity within the understanding of what Mr Howard refers to as our Judeo-Christian traditions. But try telling that to mainstream churches and welfare groups struggling to keep up with demand for their services as a result of the new “welfare to work” laws.

So there you have it. One side of the House wants 1% of non-compliant Muslims to abide by Aussie values. The other wants tourists to sign off on Australian values. Both of them are happy to pass legislation that compromises not just our values but centuries of legal and political democratic consensus.

And the way our politicians are harping on about the issue, perhaps the people who really should sign off on Australian values are our politicians.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Friday, September 08, 2006

HUMOUR/COMMENT: Poor Andrew gets bolted

On Monday September 4 I joined Andrew Bolt for an on-air debate on Channel 9’s Today Show. I was in the Canberra WIN-9 studio while Bolt was presumably in the Melbourne studio.

During our on-air 'debate', Andrew had just been caught out as a possible supporter of radical clerics who oppose stem cell research and want to limit the availability of abortion to women who need it.

He then was forced to effectively contradict the Prime Minister's ringing endorsement of Muslims as 99% integrated.

The Channel 9 Today Show interview of Monday September 4 finished at around 7:20am.

He must have returned to his office desperately trying to google me searching for something.

And this is all he could find.

Contradiction? Not really. My criticism of John Howard is still valid. John Howard hand-picked a Reference Group stacked out with middle-aged migrant Muslim leaders. I didn't. Neither did the 99% he now praises.

As for Costello, notwithstanding his ignorance on what sharia actually means, he's made some insightful comments on the experience of kids in the "twilight zone" and on how converts can be sucked into radical nonsense due to lack of pastoral care by religious leaders.

Now poor Andrew Bolt faces the prospect of having 70% of his column content being rendered irrelevant by the effective combined messages of our pollies. I summarised those messages in my New Matilda column of 6 September as follows:
Ninety-nine per cent of Muslims are perfectly integrated, speak English, adopt Australian values, and treat women as badly as the rest of us do. Converts need pastoral support to understand Islam isn’t violent or terroristic.
Poor Andrew.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

Thursday, September 07, 2006

REFLECTION: Thoughts on Terror

Within days of September 11 2001, pictures of the suspects wearing turbans and sporting beards were released. The cover of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph showed a man wearing blue turban and black beard taken into custody. The headline read “FIRST ARREST”. Within days, a bearded turbaned petrol station attendant was shot dead in a reprisal attack.

What did all these turbaned and bearded men have in common? They were all male. They all had beards. And they were all Sikhs.

Whether we like it or not, most Westerners have little knowledge of this unusual group known as they and them. Who are they? How do we recognise them? How do we find them? Do they live among us? Why do they hate us?

We (as in all of us)have spent so much time and energy focussing on asking questions about they and them. In doing so, we have almost forgotten who we and us really are. At times, we’ve even sought to fight them by mutating us to look and act in a manner similar to them.

But when we scratch a little beneath the surface, we soon realise that the distinction between us and them isn’t as big as we think. In many cases, we are they are mirror images. If only we bothered looking in the mirror!

So who are they? Different labels are used. In the most recent edition of the (sadly now fringe) conservative Quadrant magazine, John Stone speaks of

... the Islamic cancer in our body politic.
He says that the real problem:

... lies in the essence of Islam itself ...
... and believes that:

Islamic and Western cultures are today, within any single polity, incompatible.
Such simplistic and absolutist rhetoric about they and them mirrors the simplistic logic of those responsible for a large portion of terrorist attacks across the globe. One only needs to read the speeches and writings of bin Ladin and Zawahiri to see the same nonsensical assumptions made about the West.

But middle-aged migrant Muslim leaders also don’t help when they react to every criticism of Islam. They have to accept that people have the right to criticise Islam.

I was brought up in Australia. I don’t regard Western civilisation as a cultural and political monolith. Anti-American and anti-Western feeling holds little attraction. I understand there’s more to America than Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush, and more to Australia than John Stone.

In January, I visited Indonesia as part of a delegation of young Australians organised by the Australia Indonesia Institute. The visit opened my eyes to the enormous diversity within our allegedly monolithic and nominally Islamic neighbour.

In India, Muslims and Hindus clash over the birthplace of the Hindu hero Lord Rama in the North Indian town of Ayodhya. In the Javanese cultural heartland of Jogjakarta, I saw the Indonesian Muslims performing the Hindu Ramayana ballet in the auditorium of a Hindu temple to a largely Muslim audience.

In Jakarta, I learned of a thriving jazz scene. I met Muslim women who sit on a government panel of religious scholars and issue fatwa's (religious rulings) supporting birth control and fighting corruption. I saw women walking the streets in Western clothes, including tight hipster jeans, without being harassed.

Indonesia has so much variety of culture and language. It is a thriving democracy in which freedom of the press runs riot. Newspapers compete to expose financial scandals among politicians.

During a normal day in Jakarta, travelling from one part of the city to another can mean being stuck in a 2 hour traffic jam. The final day of my visit involved a long drive to the airport. This time, the 2-hour drive only took 15 minutes. The streets were empty. It was Chinese New Year.

Of course, Indonesia isn’t exactly a haven of racial ad religious harmony. But we aren’t exactly a haven for drunken rioters and drug smugglers either. Still, the issues we were most asked about were the Cronulla riots and drug smuggling.

For some reason, many Indonesians we met spoke on the presumption that Australians were a bunch of drunken stoned Muslim-hating drug smugglers. Their impressions of Australia were gained from their own media. They never expected to meet us - a delegation of Aussie Muslim lawyers, engineers, researchers and even a hijab-wearing policewoman!

Perhaps the most interesting experience was visiting a Protestant university in Yogyakarta. We spoke with a group of Indonesian Christians who expressed their concerns about living as a religious minority. We discovered the concerns of Indonesian Christians were largely the same as those of Australian Muslims.

Terrorism is about fear and hatred, which is in turn built on ignorance. You hate those you are afraid of. Your fear is built on ignorance that makes you presume others are different to you. The best way to overcome fear is to understand others and enable them to understand you. When this happens, the gulf between us and them reduces.

You can’t fight terror with terror. Hating all Westerners is as crazy as hating all Jews or all Muslims (Western or otherwise). Neither group are murderous monoliths.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

Sunday, September 03, 2006

OPINION: Howard’s Muslim double speak


Singling out one migrant group is divisive and dangerous, writes IRFAN YUSUF.

There are a small number of migrants resisting integration, They don’t accept Australian values, refuse to treat women as equals and refuse to even try to learn English.

They come from every ethnic, linguistic and religious group. I know elderly Indian Sikhs who find speaking English impossible, despite their best efforts. I know Lebanese Catholics who would disown their daughters if they married outside the faith.

So why does John Howard only mention that segment of this small group forming part of what he simplistically describes as the Islamic population? And what happens when we apply his tests of integration to the realities of Muslim Australia?

This weekend, Muslim women from across the country will be gathering in Canberra for a national women’s conference, to be launched by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward. Sheik Omran isn’t on the invitation list.

Howard might seek a briefing from Goward about how these women are unlikely to be treated as equals.

He might learn something of their oppressive environments forcing them to work in such demeaning fields as academia, legal practice, primary and secondary education, writing, publishing, social work, film production, mothering and law enforcement.

He might also be told of the patronising, sexist and unAustralian topics being covered - independent school education, film, legal rights, law enforcement, mentoring young women and women in business.

Since these women refuse to integrate, the entire proceedings will be in English, a language they all speak as their first language.

Howard may not be aware that such women are the rule, not the exception, in Muslim communities. Much the same situation exists among Muslim men.

John Howard has said some embarrassing and nonsensical things over the years.

However, his recent statements singling out Muslim Aussies are only matched in near-complete ignorance to his 1988 comments on Asian immigration. On all such occasions, Howard’s comments have had little basis in fact.

The Howard government funded a 2004 study of Australian Muslims put together by a team of researchers under Professor Abdullah Saeed of the University of Melbourne.

The study found that the largest ethnic group of Australian Muslims (by place of birth) were Aussie-born Muslims. This group is three times the number of Muslims born in Lebanon.

Howard’s use of the term Islamic population is ample illustration of his relative ignorance of the thousands of Muslim citizens living in his own electorate, let alone the hundreds of thousands living across the country.

To speak of the Islamic community or the Islamic population is as meaningless as speaking about the Christian community.

What kind of Christians? Christadelphians? Low-church Anglicans? Roman Catholics? Jehovahs’ Witnesses?

Perhaps Howard isn’t aware that migrants tend to have many layers of identity, of which religion is only one. Usually the most important aspect of a migrant’s identity is the one where they feel most vulnerable.

My parents arrived in Canberra in 1965. My mother’s first friend here was a Hindi-speaking Jewish woman. Why? Because language was the primary source of my mother’s identity. It was also the area where she felt most vulnerable.

I grew up surrounded by family friends whose parents spoke the language of Bollywood movies – Indian Hindus, Sikhs, Goan Catholics, Fiji-Indian Ahmadis and even a Pakistani Anglican priest.

We used to buy our Indian spices from an Indian Jewish family at Bondi beach. We shared a common language and culture despite our religious differences.

My parents befriended the family of a (now deceased) saintly Indian Muslim historian who taught at the Australian National University.

One of his sons is now one of the most senior Commonwealth public servants, and has been involved in the administration some of Mr Howard’s most popular yet draconian policies.

What possible gains in national security or integration are achieved by singling out one group from a broad church of insufficiently integrated Australians?

And why identify this group according to one aspect of their identity? Why make ethno-religious heritage a vulnerable point?

The monolithic Islamic community doesn’t exist. There are people from various ethnic and linguistic backgrounds who just happen to also be Muslim.

By singling out non-integrated Muslims, Mr Howard is alienating the overwhelming majority who are well-integrated.

Indeed, Mr Howard is helping to manufacture an artificial Muslim community, consisting of even the most nominal Muslims who are fed up with seeing their ancestral heritage picked on.

When even conservative-voting lawyers like myself begin to feel alienated and marginalised by allegedly conservative political rhetoric, the only beneficiary in the long run are extremists.

Islamist extremists from groups like al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah predict Western Muslims will be treated like second class citizens in Western countries (if they aren’t already).

Pseudo-conservative and pseudo-liberal politicians playing racial and religious wedge politics at the expense of nominal Muslims are turning such claims into self-fulfilling prophecies.

The Howard government claims to concern itself with national security. John Howard frequently says that Islamist terrorists fight us because of our way of life. Yet John Howard and some of his ministers are undermining that way of life by assisting terrorists in having a larger pool of marginalised Muslims to recruit from.

*Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and was endorsed Liberal candidate for the western Sydney seat of Reid in the 2001 federal election. This article first appeared in the Canberra Times on Saturday September 2 2006.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf