Friday, December 25, 2009

REFLECTION: Christmas in Bethlehem ...


They've bought some Bethlehem to Chauvel Street and Cutler Parade this year. Each year, these two streets in the Sydney suburb of North Ryde come alive with a gorgeous multicoloured light display showing lots of Santa and reindeers and snowmen and even the odd scene of Bethlehem.

It takes me back to my school nativity plays at Ryde East Public School, when Mary and Joseph were played by blonde-headed white kids while not-so-white kids like me played the three wise men from the east.

Our Christmas is the stuff of fairytales. If you don't believe me, try answering the following multiple-choice questions:

Where is Bethlehem?

A. The North Pole
B. In my neighbour's front yard
C. Rome
D. The West Bank/Palestine

What language do they speak in Bethlehem?

A. English
B. French
C. Latin
D. Arabic

What nationality do the people of Bethlehem belong to?

A. Egyptian
B. Palestinian
C. Spanish
D. Roman

What word do Bethlehem locals use for God when they pray?

A. God
B. Jehovah
C. Allah
D. Yahweh

My 11-year-old nephew only got one of these questions right. He tells me he's probably representative of most kids in his class.

Of course, some bigots never tire of reminding us Australia is a Christian nation. They use this as a means to insist that people who look almost as Middle Eastern as Jesus and Mary are not welcome here. They're scared their neighbourhood might resemble Bethlehem too much.

Still, we are not the only people to impose our cultural fetishes on the real nativity scene. In 1998, I visited Brazil. In the world's largest Catholic country, I saw icons of Jesus and Mary everywhere. There was one not-so-subtle difference between these and the icons I see in Australia. For millions of Brazilian Catholics, the Blessed Virgin with child both had black skin.

But if you want to really inject some Jesus and Mary and even the odd wise man into Christmas, nothing beats paying a visit to Beyt Lahm (literally House of Meat, as Bethlehem locals refer to their city in Arabic). While you're there, you can pay a visit to Santa also. The real Santa Claus was a 5th century Byzantine bishop who lived in the neighbouring hillside village of Beyt Jala.

I've never been to Beyt Lahm or Beyt Jala, but I've read a fair few accounts by people who have visited the place. I’ve even met some people from the city.

In June 2007, a group of prominent Bethlehem civic leaders visited Australia to sign a sister-city agreement with the city of Marrickville. Among them were the Mayor Dr Victor Batarseh and the then-parish priest Father Amjad Sabbara.

Father Amjad told me a little about the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where it is believed Christ was born. I asked Father Amjad the word or name his congregation used when addressing their prayers. The good priest told me that when praying to God in their native Arabic,

... we address God as Allah. For us, of course, Allah is Father, Son and Holy Ghost.


Father Amjad also told me he would be leaving Bethlehem soon to take up a position at a church in Nazareth. No prizes for guessing what name they use to address God there.

Believe it or not, Christianity (like its sister faiths Judaism and Islam) is a religion born in the Middle East. The descendants of the neighbourhood where Christ was born are Palestinians. Anti-Palestinian racists have tried to paint Palestinians as nasty blood-thirsty terrorists.

In 1989, still in 2nd year uni, I saw a Palestinian student at Orientation Week harassed for displaying a symbol of terrorism (the chequered kefiyyeh head dress). At the time, I presumed his opponents from the Union of Jewish Students had a point.

The 1993 Oslo Accords changed all that. It suddenly became respectable to wear a kefiyyeh and support Palestine. The two-state solution which had been maligned for all those years became political orthodoxy.



Bethlehem was one of the many West Bank towns conquered by Israel following the Six Day War in 1967. The Church of the Nativity was the subject of a 39-day siege in the spring of 2002. During that same year, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) had occupied the city four times, the longest stay being three months.

Imagine bringing up your kids in Bethlehem. Australian writer Randa Abdel Fattah’s most recent novel Where The Streets Had A Name tells the story of a Palestinian teenage girl from Bethlehem whose journeys to her grandmother's ancestral home in Jerusalem on one of the rare days when the IDF hadn't enforced a curfew. The trip was hardly ten kilometres, but the girl and her friend must navigate numerous checkpoints, a permit system and the wall that divides the West Bank from itself and from Israel.

The wall also divides Bethlehem from itself and from the rest of the West Bank. This has had disastrous results for the Bethlehem economy. In his book Us And Them veteran journalist Peter Manning describes his own visit to Bethlehem a few years back. Locals told Manning that the reduced tourism is caused by Israeli tourist operators scaring away Christian tourists by telling them that Bethlehem is too dangerous. One site that especially troubled Manning was to see children begging in the streets, something he had not seen anywhere else in the Middle East.

Although we normally associate Beyt Lahm with peace on earth and goodwill to all men, not much goodwill gets shown at the Israeli checkpoints, border crossings etc. In the nearby Christian village of Beyt Jala, Jewish settlements are being built on stolen land. Then again, suicide bombers don't show much goodwill either.

This Christmas, while you're munching on turkey and opening presents, spare a thought and perhaps even a prayer for the people of Bethlehem.



Words © 2008-09 Irfan Yusuf

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

OPINION: Santa Claus is an Australian politician ...


With Christmas coming up, and before the tabloids start printing stories about nasty non-Christians conspiring against nativity scenes in shopping centres, I thought I'd write something about Santa Claus.

Now before you all start exclaiming three words beginning with the letters 'W', 'T' and 'F', read this. As Conservative American humorist PJ O'Rouke puts it in the Preface to his 1991 classic Parliament of Whores - A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government:

Conservatism favours the restraint of government. A little government and a little luck are necessary in life, but only a fool trusts either of them.

He then goes onto explain how conservatism is a political philosophy ...

... that relies upon personal responsibility and promotes private liberty ...

... as opposed to its opposite which focuses more on feeding cake to the peasants. And those familiar with last-minute Christmas shopping will certainly relate to O'Rourke when he writes:

Everyone with any sense and experience in life would rather take his fellows one by one than in a crowd. Crowds are noisy, unreasonable and impatient. They can trample you easier than a single person can. And a crowd will never buy you lunch.

Now here's where Santa Claus comes in. O'Rourke writes that he has ...

... only one firm belief about the American political system... God is a Republican and Santa Claus is a Democrat.

Naturally, if O'Rourke was familiar with Australian politics, he would declare that God is a Coalition supporter while Santa Claus wears a Kevin-07 t-shirt. After all, the ALP is all about the welfare state. They fit O'Rourke's description of Santa Claus:

He gives everyone everything they want without a thought of a quid pro quo... Santa Claus is preferable to God in every way but one: There is no such thing as Santa Claus.


Or rather, Santa Claus seems to have abandoned the ALP. With all this me-tooing and fro-ing, it's nice to hear Kevin Rudd prepared to remind himself of the need not to spend too much of our money. Because let's face it - if Kevin Rudd had spent one cent beyond the $47.4 billion he has committed in election promises since the Federal Budget, many of us could be forgiven for believing that he wasn't exactly the most fiscally conservative chap this side of the North Pole.

Liberals (or should that read Conservatives?), on the other hand, are supposed to be about keeping government's grubby hands out of our pockets and our lives.

At least that's the theory. In a desperate attempt to get re-elected, John Howard has thrown conservative political theory (read consensus) off the sleigh for Rudolph to munch on.

According to the Australian Financial Review's spendometer, Mr Howard has committed around $62.6 billion since the last budget. Some $9.3 billion of this was spent just in his campaign launch speech. As Laura Tingle notes in the Fin Review on 15 November, that's $667 million per minute.

Now feel free to shout from the rooftops those three words beginning with 'W', 'T' and 'F' respectively.

Now apparently Santa Claus rewards good kiddies that go to school. But Santa Howard goes further, rewarding their parents as well. Around $6.4 billion in tax breaks is being awarded to parents for school expenses including private school fees and uniform.

So if you are one of Howard's battlers sending your child to one of those Struggle Street schools (such as Kings, Sydney Grammar or Wesley College), you can rely on Santa Howard to come to the rescue. And anyone who doesn't like it, even if they be private school principals, can go join Julia Gillard at the Socialist Forum Alumni Collective.

(Where they might also bump into Peter Costello!)

To make matters worse, it seems the Coalition has a habit of dishing out the dough in an effort to win the most marginal seats in regional and rural areas. The ALP refuses to scrap the regional grants program. I wonder why.

Of course, the ALP are being totally responsible also. Santa Rudd only spent $135 million a minute in his election launch speech.

So there you have it, folks. With all this upper-middle class welfare being thrown around by both major parties in the current campaign, many wealthier voters must feel like it's Christmas already!

This article was first published in The Drum Unleashed on 16 November 2007.



Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

CRIKEY: What would L Ron Hubbard do? Roll up for religion at $195 a pop ...



Ah, religion — such a wonderful force for good in an otherwise uncharitable world. So many great deeds of generosity and self-sacrifice are committed each day in the name of it.

Over the weekend, I saw many such deeds on display at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, held at the Melbourne Convention Centre. My desired destination was the exhibition hall to purchase some incense or perhaps even a copy of my book on sale (at the Readings booth).

But as I approached the gates of the heavenly pavilion, some rather unheavenly-looking angels stopped and insisted I could not enter without registering for the entire Parliament.

I sidled up to the registration desk to inquire on how I could enter paradise and share in the joy, peace, love and crystals on offer. A helpful avatar seated behind the registration desk recited the following mantra:

For two sessions, it’s $100. For three sessions, it’s $150. Otherwise it’s $195 for the day.



Meanwhile, a member of the organising committee (let’s call him Dr God) approached me looking rather pleased to see me and even more pleased with himself. When I asked Dr God how much manna from Canberra the event had received, he quoted a figure of $4.5 million.

(A spokesman for the Parliament has confirmed to Crikey that these funds were sourced from the City of Melbourne, the Victorian government and the Commonwealth.)

A few minutes later, I saw a poor young earthling trying to register. He wasn’t as well-dressed as many of the international guests representing various faiths (and the way some dressed, various galaxies). Indeed, the peasant was probably dressed more like one of Jesus’ disciples or like one of the poor people Buddha first came across after he slipped out of his royal dad’s palace.

This sincere seeker of truth pleaded with the staff member to allow him in. The man was unemployed and hence unable to afford the 30-plus pieces of silver required to enjoy the company of his teacher/guru/imam/whatever. I felt like taking out my chequebook and paying for his spot, but I’d left the wretched thing back at the guesthouse.

I’m not sure what happened to the man. Perhaps he had gotten on a camel and entered the eye of a more affordable needle.

Personally I wasn’t much bothered by the price. $195 a day is quite reasonable compared to the $500 I’m used to paying just to attend an all-day professional education seminar. But this Parliament of the Gods was no professional development for lawyers.

And so it seems the money changers have turned the tables on the Messiah and taken over the temple. A poor man cannot be allowed to sit through one session and an overweight solicitor cannot even buy a copy of his own book without sacrificing much to enter so sacred an event. But it doesn’t end there. Most speakers had to pay just to appear. One volunteer who did not wish to be named told Crikey that even volunteers were charged $140 a day.

What would Jesus have said of this? Then again, what would Buddha have said? Or Muhammad? Or Krishna? Or Guru Nanak? Or L Ron Hubbard?

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf



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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

MUSIC/VIDEO: Rose Tattoo sing of freedom

An awesome song by Aussie band Rose Tattoo about how news can generate passion and idealism in those who care about their world and feel empathy for their fellow human beings, including those humans demonised as troublemakers and terrorists.



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Sunday, November 29, 2009

POLITICS: How much brain power does one need to vote for Fred Nile?

Why is Fred Nile's self-styled Christian Democratic Party running 9 candidates for the Lower House seat of Bradfield? Maybe because the average human brain has 9 times the amount of power as the average CDP brain.

Certainly whoever came up with the following questionnaire didn't have much grey matter to play with.



The most important political (as opposed to theological) issue for the CDP is affirming that Jesus Christ is the son of God. The New Testament may call upon us to render to Caeser what is owed to Caeser, but Fred wants us to render all to his CDP's theocratic dogma.

Then there is Fred Nile's reference to "brave Israel". We need to back it even if it means "blockading Iran". And what dorm should this blockade take? Perhaps the kind of blockade which the people of Bethlehem currently enjoy?

But the most hilarious is Fred's call for free "4G" mobile calls and free data. Fred's really up with the technology. No doubt Fred will soon change his mind when he finds out just how much more widespread porn will become.

Still, all this does raise an interesting question for neurological research - just how little of one's brain is required to vote for any one of the nine CDP candidates in the Bradfield ballot?



Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

VIDEO: Where are the Muslim and Sikh attackers of abortion clinics?

It's just stupid logic. Where are the Southern Baptists flying planes into buildings? True, but then where are Muslims (or Sikhs often stupidly mistaken by bigots to be Muslims) attacking abortion doctors and clinic in the name of Jesus? You can go on and on about this nonsense, but what would it achieve? Would it make any of us feel safer? And actually be safer?

Social cohesion is an essential prerequisite for national security. Fruitloops who can only see the world in an "us" and "them" manner and who engage in infantile group-hate-speech, are themselves a threat to national security.



And here is a graphic taken from a post on a blog hosted by a mainstream newspaper, London's Daily Telegraph.



Which just goes to show that you don't have to be on the fringe to be a fruitloop.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

VIDEO: Was Fort Hood a terrorist attack?



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VIDEO: Bush appointee makes Blair & Bolt look like stupid racists ...

Not all American conservatives are boofheads. Just look at this Bush appointee who appears on the Rachel Maddow show ...



Notice what this Bush political appointee has to say about wingnut conservatives. That's right. A Bush appointee. Even Bush would not be stupid enough to appoint wingnuts, who must seek employment instead as bloggers and opinion editors in American-owned tabloids.

And so we have a guy appointed by former US President George W Bush telling us that the likes of Blair and Bolt are supporting an agenda that is racist and could damage the morale of American troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

CRIKEY: Why question defence force loyalty because of religion?


A spokesman for the Defence forces last Friday reiterated this truism:

Eligible people may join the ADF irrespective of their ethnicity, race or religion.

Alan Howe, executive editor of the Herald & Weekly Times, described this remark almost dismissively as
... the strictly politically correct line.

Howe’s column, also published in the Brisbane Courier Mail, began with these words:
There are 2006 Muslims in the Australian Defence Force.

He describes suggestions that none have been investigated after the Fort Hood massacre as
... a bold call.


He claims allied Christian soldiers had no hesitation in killing German (presumably Christian) soldiers and civilians during the Second World War, despite the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers being the battle cry. He ends with this:
If the god in any soldier’s life looms larger than his or her responsibility to Australia, we have a problem.


Meanwhile, one of Howe’s more hysterical colleagues, a certain Andrew Bolt, starts his column by what he sees as the first fact a “real journalist” would tell you to explain why the Fort Hood killer did what he did:
The Fort Hood killer, army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan, was a Muslim. He shouted ‘God is great’ in Arabic as he opened fire.


So why question the loyalties of Australian servicemen and women who happen to tick a particular box for religion on their census forms? Is Howe trying to do a Nile?

Perhaps the answer to my question can be found in a fatwa issued by Sheik Rupert bin Murdoch in 2006:
You have to be careful about Muslims, who have a very strong, in many ways a fine, but very strong, religion, which supersedes any sense of nationalism wherever they go.


But how will we tell exactly who is a Muslim? By the colour of their skin? Will a white Bosnian with a Muslim mum and Orthodox dad count as Muslims? Or a white man married to a Muslim woman? Will we know Muslims by what language they speak at home? Most Arabic speakers in Australia are Christian. Again, a fatwa from Ayatollah Murdoch provides guidance: Muslims are the ones with genetic defects from marrying their cousins.

And the best refutation for this bigotry and stupidity comes from Feroze Khan, the father of fallen US soldier Kareem R Khan, who told a journalist:
My son’s Muslim faith did not make him not want to go. It never stopped him … He
looked at it that he’s American and he has a job to do.


Our troops have a job to do. We should allow them to do it and not waste their or our own time with moronic speculations based on isolated incidents.

First published in Crikey on 12 November 2009.



Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

COMMENT: A miracle from Greg ...


People who don't believe in miracles should consider this.

Greg Sheridan has just had a column published in The Australian which:

a. acknowledges that Donald Rumsfeld did something wrong; and

b. does not cite some conversation Sheridan claims to have had with some world leader or unnamed overseas and allegedly influential source.

He's returning to earth! It's a miracle!!



Tuesday, October 27, 2009

FILM: Amreeka

STOP PRESS!!: THIS MOVIE IS SCREENING FRIDAY 30 OCTOBER 2009 AT THE PALESTINIAN FILM FESTIVAL IN SYDNEY. FOR OTHER SESSIONS IN MELBOURNE AND ADELAIDE, VISIT THE PFF WEBSITE HERE.

This film looks like a real gem. Hopefully it will be coming to cinemas down under also.



And here are some interviews with Cherien Dabis, the director of the film. Also included are profiles of some of the cast.









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Monday, October 26, 2009

CRIKEY: The difference between a terrorist and a terrorist ...




What’s the difference between a terrorist and a terrorist? And when is a terrorist deemed a genuine refugee who doesn’t pose any threat to Australia?

Victor Rajakulendran, secretary of the Australian Federation of Tamil Associations, provides some clues. He acknowledges that there are members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam aboard the Australian Customs vessel Oceanic Viking, landing in Indonesia with its cargo of 78 asylum seekers.

Rajakulendan was quoted in The Australian as saying:

The ex-combatants are in danger in Sri Lanka so they will have to flee somewhere. They have to be rehabilitated. They are not going to be fighters here. They were fighting for a cause, even if some of the tactics are unacceptable, they were fighting for a cause. They are not going to fight for a cause here. They are not like Islamic terrorists.

Did you spot the difference? You can be an ex-combatant who may be fighting for a legitimate cause. You may have used tactics that could be described as unacceptable. For instance, you may have been part of an organisation that has undertaken more suicide terrorist attacks than any organisation on the planet. You may have been part of an organisation that taught groups such as Hamas and Taliban how to use the suicide vest. Your victims may have included a large number of heads of state, politicians, etc.

But as long as you are not an Islamic terrorist, you pose absolutely no risk to the country. You may have fought for an organisation that taught Islamic terrorists just about everything they needed to know about how effective suicide terrorism is. But so long as you aren’t deemed to belong to the wrong religion, you’re fine in Dr Rajakulendran’s books.

Indeed, Rajakulendran doesn’t regard the LTTE as a terrorist organisation at all. Instead, he describes it as being “involved in a bloody armed struggle for more than two decades to liberate the Tamil-speaking people living in the north-east of the island from the oppressive Sri Lankan Singhalese-dominated governments”.

Crikey spoke to Rajakulendran this morning. He confirmed he didn’t regard the LTTE as terrorists and claimed most Tamils agreed with him. He said he didn’t believe senior LTTE leaders would be on the boat but rather youths. He also said that the LTTE were different to “Islamic terrorists” because the LTTE had established a state and showed the ability to govern in the interests of Tamils.

I put to him that some “Islamic terrorists” (e.g. Hamas, Hezbollah and Taliban) made similar claims. He said that these groups were in this respect similar to the LTTE though some had “gone too far” and “lost their way”. I asked what he proposed should happen to young Afghan asylum seekers who were found to be Taliban fighters at some stage.
It depends. If the local Afghan community can work with the government to rehabilitate these people, why not let them in?

It’s true that many former LTTE fighters may not have been terrorists. They may have been forcibly recruited or press-ganged into military service. The Taliban did the same thing in Afghanistan and continues to do it on both sides of what has become known as the “AfPak” border. Even armies carrying the legitimacy of a democratic state can force young men to fight. Sometimes these men are forced to use terror against persons they are told are terrorists. That’s the nature of war.

Anyone who can flee from this kind of madness and has the guts to jump on a boat and risk their lives crossing the ocean deserves to go through the usual refugee application processes. Whether they’re Tamil or Islamic or Callithumpian is irrelevant. But if they pose a threat to Australian citizens, they’re best not settled here. Again, whether they’re Tamil or Islamic or Callithumpian should be irrelevant.

Dr Rajakulendran admitted that his selectivity in ethnically and religiously identifying terrorists may offend some. Sadly, at a time when all asylum seekers need a fair hearing, his comments make him sound like Andrew Bolt, but without bringing Bolt’s ilk on side and perhaps providing them with additional ammunition.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf



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