Monday, October 31, 2005

COMMENT: Iran's Infantile Attitude to Israel

Recent comments made by the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran have drawn international condemnation. President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s call for Israel to be “wiped off the map” included a condemnation of Muslim nations who choose to recognise Israel.

The Iranian leader’s claims have been made in the context of supporting the struggle for a Palestinian state and for the restoration of Palestinian rights. He described the Palestinian struggle as being part of an “historic war between the oppressor and the world of Islam”.

Mr Ahmedinejad’s calls represent a return to Iran’s old policy of drumming up popular hysteria with a view to exporting its “Revolutionary Islam” to different parts of the world. But how real are these sentiments on the ground? Is Israel the enemy of Islam itself? And what right does the Iranian president have to speak for Islam?

Iran is a majority Shia country. Shi’ism is one of 3 major sects of Islam. The other 2 sects are the mainstream Sunni and the more modern Wahhabi sect. Shia Muslims make up some 10% of the Muslim world. Shia majorities exist in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and some Gulf states. There are also substantial Shia majorities in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.

The Shia sect insists political leadership of the Muslim community must remain in the hands of the Prophet Muhammad’s household, including their descendants. Shia Muslims regard the first 12 male successors of the Prophet (also known as “the 12 imams”) as being infallible.

Sunni Muslims reject the infallibility of the 12 imams, but place enormous importance on all the Prophet’s descendants. Sunni Muslims do not insist that political leadership must remain in the hands of the imams or their descendants.

Wahhabi concepts of political leadership were previously tied to the Saudi Royal Family. With the split in Wahhabi ranks and the formation of Usama bin Ladin’s al-Qaida movement, many Wahhabis no longer regard the Saudi family as a legitimate source of international Muslim leadership.

Sunnis make up at least 85% of the Muslim world. Comments of the Iranian leader do not bind Sunni Muslims, and Mr Ahmedinejad’s standing as a Shia scholar is not strong enough for his views to bind Shia Muslims.

Yet apart from theological considerations, the Iranian leader’s comments on Israel do little to progress the Palestinian cause. Since the late Palestinian and Israeli leaders Arafat and Rabin shook hands on the White House law, Palestinian leadership has consistently rejected the idea that Palestinian statehood necessarily involves destruction of the Jewish state.

Further, Turkey’s more conservative Islamist government sees no reason to reverse its stance of continuing friendly relations with Israel. In recent times, Turkey’s Islamists have sponsored talks between the Foreign Ministers of Israel and Pakistan.

Many Muslim voices seeking the destruction of Israel use historical figures such as the Kurdish general Salahuddin Ayyubi (known in Europe as Saladdin) who defeated the Crusaders and liberated Jerusalem. Yet even Saladdin recognised the Crusader Kingdoms and sent emissaries and ambassadors to these kingdoms. Perhaps if Saladdin were alive today, he would have recognised Israel even if engaged in military conflict with the Jewish state.

The brilliance of Saladdin’s campaign against the Crusaders lay not just in his military tactics. Saladdin was a brilliant negotiator with moderate views who sought to avoid war at all costs. Further, Saladdin made regular overtures to his enemies, and insisted that his troops obey the rules of law as outlined in the customary international law of the region at that time.

Saladdin is not the most popular figure in Shia circles. Prior to attacking the crusader kingdoms, Saladdin single-handedly destroyed the Fatimid Empire in Egypt. The Fatimids were the most powerful Shia empire of the time, and were accused by Saladdin of providing assistance and intelligence to the Crusader kingdoms.

Saladdin did not see the task of liberating Jerusalem in purely Muslim terms. Further, it was not a battle against all Jews or all Christians. Indeed, Saladdin appointed the prominent Spanish Jewish physician and rabbinical scholar Shaykh Musa bin Maymun al-Qurtubi (Moses Maimonides) as the chief medical officer of his army.

Saladdin’s good sense and moderation yielded results. He was able to liberate Jerusalem within his lifetime, and showed magnanimity to his defeated opponents. Both Christian and Muslim historians record that when the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem, they entered the main Mosque and Synagogue with civilian blood upto their knees. When Saladdin achieved victory, there were few civilian casualties.

The Iranian President’s comments are more reminiscent of Crusader barbarism and ignorance than the moderation and tolerance of the great Saladdin. If Muslim nations follow the Iranian formula in their dealings with Israel, they will go down the same path of destruction as the medieval Frankish hordes that invaded the Holy Land.

(The author is a Sydney-based lawyer and occasional lecturer in the School of Politics at Macquarie University.)

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Howard Government Backs Terrorist Group?

As if things weren’t bad enough for John Howard’s bid to push through his version of national security. With many Premiers and Chief Ministers in open revolt, even Treasurer Peter Costello is questioning the constitutional validity of his laws.

But with the release of the UN Report on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the Government can brace itself for further embarrassment.The Howard Government has been linked to the “Habashi” sect, a controversial movement linked to the Syrian government and whose Public Relations Head is now being prosecuted for the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The group, with active branches in Australia and the United States, has set up an alternate peak Islamic body known as “Darul Fatwa Islamic High Council of Australia”. The group also runs an FM Station after being awarded a license by former Communications Minister Richard Alston.

The Habashi sect have been active supporters of the Syrian government, which is believed to be arming pro-Saddam militias in Iraq. A number of these militias have kidnapped foreign workers. One such group was responsible for the kidnapping of Australian Douglas Wood.

Three brothers, all members of the “Habashi” sect, have been mentioned in a United Nations report into the assassination of Mr Hariri.

The “Habashi” sect has had a controversial presence in Australia. Recently, they established an alternate peak body, many of whose constituent organisations had only been registered a few weeks before the body’s foundation.

The group recently organised a seminar at the Bankstown Town Hall purporting to be against terrorism. Mr Alan Cadman, a Federal MP close to Mr Howard, spoke at the seminar and read a congratulatory message from the Prime Minister.

A member of the Government’s “Muslim Community Reference Group”, Mr Mustapha Kara-Ali, is also known to be an active member of the “Habashi” sect. Mr Kara-Ali did not attend the PM’s summit with Muslim leaders, but was believed to have been hand-picked by Citizenship Minister John Cobb.

The Government’s support for a movement implicated in the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister will send shockwaves through the local Lebanese community. Hariri was a cult political figure in Lebanon whose popularity cut across all sectarian and ethno-religious divides. His assassination led to massive rallies which eventually forced the Syrian occupation forces to withdraw from Lebanon.

On the eve of the debate in Federal Parliament over controversial anti-terror laws, the Government’s links with members of a pro-Ba’athist fringe religious cult again raises important questions about the Government’s approach to dealing with Australian Muslim.

It seems the government is intent on associating with groups and leaders with proven links to foreign governments intent on influencing local Islamic activities. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on September 10 2005 of Mr Ruddock accepting an invitation to lunch at the home of a man widely regarded as the Saudi government’s paymaster for Islamic activities in Australia.

Australian Muslims have been at the heart of mainstream Australia for over 150 years. The Turkish Muslim communities have been established in Australia since the 1950’s, and Turkish Australians have more mosques than any other Muslim ethno-religious community. Not a single Turk sits on the Reference Group, and no Turks were invited to the PM’s summit.

The Howard Government’s policy of dealing with self-appointed leaders and fringe groups with strong links to despotic overseas governments will prove embarrassing to the Government as it attempts to prove its credentials on being tough on terrorism.

Instead, the Government should be promoting and assisting the efforts of mainstream Australian Muslims with stronger roots to Australia. Muslims are no longer a migrant phenomenon, and those with stronger links to overseas interests and governments should be marginalised and not promoted.

Australian Muslims have produced the likes of John Ilhan (of Crazy John’s Telecommunications) and Ahmed Fahour (Chief Executive of the National Australia Bank). Aussie-born Muslim are partners of major commercial law firms, heads of university faculties and hold responsible positions in government departments and agencies.

These people represent the real face of Australian Islam. They have few, if any, links to overseas governments, and have a greater stake in Australia’s security. Many of the current people being consulted and listened to by the Government are people with close links to foreign governments and whose understanding of Islam is conditioned by overseas non-English speaking clerics and leaders.

Aussie Muslims have to form a key plank in our fight against terrorism. They are not hard to find, so long as you know where to look. You won’t find the genuine Aussie Mossies belonging to fringe religious sects or grovelling to Kings and Emirs. Such Muslims are on the fringe of Australian Islam, even if they appoint themselves leaders of bodies with bombastic names.

But by promoting and giving credibility to such foreign interests, the Government is making this mainstream faith-community feel marginalised. Which, incidentally, is exactly what the so-called “Islamist” terrorists want.

(The author is a Sydney lawyer and an occasional lecturer in the School of Politics at Macquarie University.)

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

Friday, October 21, 2005

Muslim Minorities & Conservative Politics In Australia

In recent times, conservative political leaders have challenged Muslim Australians to “assimilate”, to “confirm” and to abide by “our values”. The rhetoric has been adopted by backbenchers such as Sophie Panopoulos, who has called for headscarves to be banned. It has also been used by Education Minister Dr Nelson in his call for Muslim independent schools to confirm to “Australian values”.

Conservative commentators have also not been far behind. Janet Albrechtsen stunned Muslim readers of the Australian newspaper when she claimed that migrant Muslim cultures teach Muslim men to sexually assault white-skinned women. Former National party Senator John Stone also wrote in the same newspaper that Muslim migration represented a “problem” and that Islam was a culture which could not find a place in Australia.

Such simplistic formulae are indicative of an intellectual laziness on the part of many conservatives. Muslims have lived in Australia for over 150 years. They have migrated from over 60 countries, and do not represent a uniform cultural phenomenon. Like all migrants, religion is just one layer of Muslim experience.

My family’s experience in this regard is quite typical. My parents were born in Delhi. The major source of their identity was language, it being the area in which they felt most vulnerable. As such, my mother’s first friend in Australia was an Anglo-Indian Jewish woman from Canberra who spoke fluent Hindi.

Growing up in East Ryde, most of my family close friends were people who spoke Hindi or had some form of Indian-ness. As such, most of my childhood friends were Hindus, Sikhs, Goan Catholics and Pakistani Anglicans. Muslims were the exception rather than the rule (unless they spoke Hindi or Urdu).

It was only when I was 10 that I realised Divali was not a strictly Muslim celebration. At 16, I came across a strange phenomenon – Muslims with blonde hair, blue eyes and white skin. Yes, you could be Muslim and European at the same time.

Conservatives who try to place all Muslim migrants into the same box are making the same mistake as Usama bin Ladin does with the “West”. Bin Ladin and other extremists present Western cultures as one huge monolith, declaring war on each part. The “us” and “them” mentality of al-Qaida is being replicated in the Parliamentary Liberal Party in the form of politicians creating an artificial “them” out of a faith community that has been at the heart of Australian life for over a century.

Conservative leaders and commentators should cease their intellectual laziness and search out the facts about Muslim Australia. They might start with a report published in 2004 by Professor Abdullah Saeed of the University of Melbourne.

In his report, Saeed gives a snapshot of the Muslim community based on figures from the 2001 Census. He shows that the largest ethnic group among Muslim Australians (in terms of place of birth) are those born in Australia. The next largest are those born in Lebanon. The ratio of the former group to the latter is over 3:1. The vast majority of Muslim migrants (some 79%) have taken up citizenship

Of course, it is easy to point the finger merely at conservative politicians, shock jocks and columnists. Muslims themselves also need to take some responsibility for the Talibanisation of discourse about Islam in Australia.

For a community with such strong roots in this country, Muslim leadership organisations seem to be dominated by first generation migrant interests. When the only voices speaking for Muslim Australia are middle-aged men with little English or thick accents, is it any wonder that so many Australians view Muslims as being foreign?

Muslim organisations also need to decide whether they represent Islamic orthodoxy or Muslim reality. The fact is that the vast majority of Muslims are relatively non-observant. The crowds that attend the Imam Ali Mosque in Lakemba for the Eid or Hari Raya celebration at the end of Ramadan are some 8 times those that attend the mosque on a Friday.

Like most faith communities, the majority of Muslims fit in quite well. Like most Australians, they do not make open declarations about their faith at every opportunity. Former ALP candidate Ed Husic is not the only Australian Muslim to have anglicised his name. Few would realise that large corporations such as the National Australia Bank and Crazy Johns Telecommunications have Muslims in senior management roles. Fewer would probably care.

However, if mainstream “Aussie Mossies” continue in their reluctance to identify themselves as Muslims, and if they continue to allow first generation migrants with poor English skills to speak for them, Muslims will continue to be marginalised.

The majority of Muslim Australians do engage with Australians of other faiths and no faith in particular. What they need to do is ensure that a distinctly Australian expression of Islamic theology and values emerge. This can only happen when Imams become more than just men who lead prayers and teach young kids how to read the scriptures in Arabic.

In the United States, the most popular Imams are home-grown. Institutions such as the Zaytuna Institute are providing a vision of Islam relevant to 21st century America. The director of the Institute, Hamza Yusuf Hanson, is as comfortable talking to President Bush at the White House as he is to students at the Institute.

Sadly, most Australian Imams cannot speak adequate English. Worse still, few understand our culture, politics and society. They are also under-resourced and poorly paid. Often they are accountable to mosque management committees, most of whom also have an overseas mentality. Given that peak representative Muslim bodies come from the ranks of such people, it is no wonder that these bodies simply are unable to articulate the interests and aspirations of the people they claim to represent.

Mainstream Muslims need to take control of their institutions, failing which they will provide much ammunition for conservative simpletons intent of marginalising Muslims for the sake of undefined Australian values.

(The author is a Sydney lawyer and occasional lecturer in the School of Politics & International Relations at Macquarie University. He was Liberal Candidate for the seat of Reid in the 2001 Federal Election. This is an edited version of an address to the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Sydney on 20 August 2005.)

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Right Said Ed - Part 1

It is Thursday morning, 20 October 2005 in Sydney, Australia. The time is exactly 12:52 am. I am up panicking about a talk I have to give later today to the Australian Institute of International Affairs. The topic of my talk is “Muslim Minorities & Conservative Politics in the United States and Australia”.

Thankfully, on the previous night, I attended a similar talk by another Aussie Muslim political apparatchik. Ed Husic addressed the Sydney Institute, a privately funded thinktank whose Executive Director is Dr Gerard Henderson. Gerard reckons he is conservative, though in recent times he has written in support of some of the most draconian anti-terror (or rather, anti-liberty) laws to be proposed in any western country.

Ed addressed a packed house on the topic of “Can a Muslim be elected to Parliament in the age of terror?”. His audience included people of all faiths and no faith in particular. An edited version of his talk has been published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Ed started by giving the parameters of his discussion. He told us he was not here to talk about or defend Islam or Muslims. Nor was he going to unload sour graps about how he lost what used to be a formerly safe Labor Party seat. Ed was in no mood to play victim.

Ed reminded us that hardly 1.5% of the Australian population identify themselves on census forms as Muslim. That proportion remained much lower until the 1970’s when the first mass-migration occurred from Muslim-majority countries. Prior to that, Muslims were small in number but enormous in contribution.

Australian Muslims, Ed told us, migrated from over 60 different countries. Most Muslim migrants took up Australian citizenship – well over 70%. This was much higher compared to other large ethno-religious migrant groups.

Ed told us a little about his Bosnian heritage. His parents migrated from the former Yugoslavia. Ed grew up mixing with people of all nationalities – Serbs, Croats, Indo-Chinese, Anglo-Australians and South Asians to name a few. Ed’s father worked as a welder. In his spare time, Ed’s father entertained a steady stream of friends while Ed’s mum prepared Bosnian coffee strong enough to keep guests awake for at least a week.

Ed’s Bosnian Muslim name is “Edhem”. In Arabic, this is the name for the first man and prophet, Adam. Names are an ever-present reminder of one’s heritage, and like many of his “ethnic” friends Ed anglicised his name.

Ed was the Labor Party candidate for the seat of Greenway located in Western Sydney. His opponent was Liberal Party candidate Louis Markus. Ms Markus worked as a social worker for the local Pentecostal Hillsong Church. She used her extensive contacts in this growing church to the fullest effect in her campaign.

Ed had some idea that certain elements in the press and the Liberal Party were keen to use his ancestral religious identity as an issue. Some 2 weeks out of the campaign, notorious columnist Paul Sheehan (ironically also from the Sydney Morning Herald) made a huge issue of Ed’s refusal to speak about his religion.

Refusal? Why should Ed bring religion into a campaign for a secular party in a secular election for a secular government for a secular liberal democracy? Should it really matter what Ed’s parents regarded themselves as?

Further, in the former Yugoslavia, to be a Muslim was an ethnic matter, just as being Serbian and Croatian were ethnic matters. If you weren’t a Serb or a Croat or a Slovenian or a Montenegrin, you must be a Muslim. This despite the fact that there were no shortage of Montenegrins or Croats or Serbs or Slovenians of Muslim faith.

Ed is hardly an exceptionally observant Muslim. He doesn’t carry a beard on his face. Long flowing robes and turbans aren’t his style. If you saw Ed in the streets with his suit and tie and expensive well-polished shoes, you would probably think he was like any other white Aussie.

Ed rarely mixed with Muslims, including Bosnians. He rarely attended Muslim functions with his parents. Ed was just your typical Aussie boy. That someone with such a low-key luke-warm Muslim identity could be the target of a media campaign to “expose” his religion makes one wonder whether Muslim Australians will ever be welcomed as equal participants in the democratic traditions of their home countries.

Ed always saw himself as an Aussie until the morning after he lost the election. On that occasion, his father came to him and apologised.

“I am sorry that we gave you a background to be ashamed of,” were the words Ed’s father used more or less. But Ed would hear nothing of it. By now, Ed was proud, perhaps a little defiant, about his background.

Ed was defiant, but he refused to be radicalised. Ed knew that most Australians were decent people who were still coming to terms with their fears of terrorism and their ignorance of Islamic people and values. It seems Muslims were largely to blame for this state of affairs, especially Muslim migrants treating Australia as a fat cow they could milk to their heart’s content.

And we have been milking the cow. Sadly, some Muslim migrants have made little contribution toward fattening the cow. And one day, when the milk runs out, the cow could well turn into a bull that will devour us all.

As it is now 1:24am and I am extremely tired, I will wait until a later date to tell you some of Ed’s golden pieces of advice for Muslim Aussies.

The author is a Sydney-based industrial relations lawyer who was himself a candidate for the Liberal Party in the November 2001 Federal Elections.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

OPINION: Just Shoot Me?

I’m an Australian. I grew up in the heart of the Prime Minister’s electorate. I attended an Anglican school. I practice law and do some freelance writing. I speak with a broad Australian accent. English is my first language. The only passport I ever held was an Australian one. My favourite item of clothing is my Wallabies jersey.

I also happen to have a Muslim background. I have a Turkish and Arabic name. And after reading the provisions of the draft Anti-Terrorism Bill 2005, I am terrified.

It took over 100 years to develop industrial relations into its current form in Australia. Now, the Commonwealth is spending millions educating us about our Work Choices. Most ALP premiers are up in arms at the loss of State jurisdictions in sensitive areas such as unfair dismissal.

Industrial reform interests me because it is the area in which I practice the most. The rights and freedoms of Australian employers and employees is an important issue. We need to have public debate on workplace reform.

Our civil liberties date back to ancient Greece. It took centuries of civilisation and philosophical effort to develop our liberal democracy. It took hundreds of wars costing millions of lives to protect liberties we all take for granted.

But for some reason, the Prime Minister and most State and Territory leaders are resisting debate on laws which represent perhaps the biggest assault of basic Australian civil liberties since Federation.

To make matters worse, few governments were happy to have the draft laws released to those whose liberties will be most affected – ordinary Australians. Were it not for the brave actions of ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, Australians would have had no hope of having some idea of the extent to which liberties were endangered.

Mr Howard says the laws are based on agreement reached between Commonwealth, State and Territory leaders. He says there is little point having a discussion.

Effectively he is expecting Australians to accept the idea that police should have power to kill anyone they suspect of being a terrorist. The “shoot to kill” power was nowhere mentioned in the PM’s proposals released on 8 September 2005. Nor was there any mention at the Council of Australian Governments meeting on 27 September 2005 of police being allowed to kill terror suspects.

So who will be shot? What sort of persons could be killed as potential terrorists?

Under United States law, there is a list of organisations deemed to be terrorist organisations. Membership of and support for such organisations is an offence. The organisations include the usual suspects such as the Abu Nidal Organisation. They also include the Israeli Kahane Chai movement, certain Northern Ireland militias and the Tamil Tigers.

In Australia, only groups linked to Islam or Muslims are deemed terrorist groups. Already, the president of a national union representing police officers across the country has stated that the proposed laws can only be implemented using ethno-religious and racial profiling.

Now let’s be honest with ourselves. If a terrorist act occurred in Sydney or Melbourne, which ethno-religious group would be the first suspected of involvement? Vietnamese Buddhists? South African Jews? Kiwi back packers?

Would police officers be scouting yoga classes at Byron Bay for terror suspects? Will shock jocks be calling upon the governments to crack down on Steiner Schools? Will Liberal backbenchers be complaining about Hindus not abiding by Australian values? Will there be talk of detaining Callithumpians in special camps for their own protection?

The reality is that people with strange names and/or slightly darker skin colour will be the first suspected. That means men with beards and women with veils. And that means many Muslim Australians will be targeted. But not just them.

Some months back, I employed a clerk to work in my law firm. She has an Anglo-Australian father and a South Indian mother. She considers herself a Catholic and was born in Australia. Yet following the London bombing, she could feel people were watching her more closely on trains and buses.

I have another friend who never met her Muslim father. I met her some 18 months ago when she was working behind a bar serving beer and wine. She has a typical Arabic name.

Within days of the September 11 attacks in New York, FBI agents arrested their first suspect. He had dark brown skin and wore a turban. Some days later, another man sporting a beard and turban was shot dead by a crazed killer seeking revenge. Both men were Sikhs.

Mr Ruddock insists that racial profiling will not be used in the implementation and enforcement of the new laws. But Mr Ruddock has not addressed the compelling argument made by the president of the national police union. State and Federal police will be implementing the laws on the ground.

If a terror suspect decides to run, police officers don’t have time to go before a magistrate or wait for specific orders. They just shoot. Just as they did in London. And when they realise the person they just killed was an Indigenous Australian or a French Jew or a Brazilian backpacker, it will be too late.

Monday, October 03, 2005

COMMENT: Indonesian Islam Under Attack

Next January, I will be joining a delegation of young Australians on a leadership exchange program to Indonesia. The program is funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) and organised by the University of Melbourne.

I am told by the organisers that a previous delegation’s visit had to be postponed due to the Australian embassy’s bombing. That terrorist attack left a number of Indonesians dead and wounded in downtown Jakarta.

This visit could be delayed by an outbreak of bird flu. Or perhaps by more terrorist bombings. I could look at it all from the perspective of a selfish Aussie looking forward to a working holiday. But I will try for a moment to interpret current events in Bali from an Indonesian perspective.

Bali is a symbol of what Indonesia is really about, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. More Muslims live in Indonesia than in any other country. And the majority of Bali’s population are Hindu.

Indonesian culture is a mixture of a number of Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist influences. It is not uncommon to see Indonesian Muslims enjoying a performance of the Ramayana epic during the Hindu season of Deepavali. Just as many Indonesians enjoy celebrating Christmas as much as Eid al-Fitri.

Indonesian Muslims, Hindus and Christians could teach some of Australia’s allegedly conservative Christians a thing or two about tolerance. Don’t expect to hear hate-filled sermons in Indonesian mosques. Don’t expect to read hate-filled columns in Indonesian newspapers (even the ones written in Bahasa). It seems Rupert Murdoch hasn’t made any inroads into Indonesian media yet.

In 2002, I was fortunate enough to hear a prominent Indonesian lawyer from the largest Islamic organisation on the planet address the Centre for Independent Studies on the subject of Sharia law. The mainly Anglo-Australian audience was shocked to hear Mohammad Fajrul Falaakh tell them that Muslims in Indonesia associate Sharia with Islamic banking and financial products.

Yet anyone with knowledge of Indonesian history and culture will not be surprised by this claim. Indonesia has traditionally been a mercantile society. Hundreds of cultures are practised and hundreds of dialects are spoken in this huge archipelago.

When Yemeni merchants arrived in the region, they found Indonesian islanders at war with each other. Most battles were over trade disputes, the Indonesians having no shared numeracy system or alphabet. The Yemenis introduced the Arabic alphabet and commercial dispute resolution mechanisms based on Islamic sharia law.

Sharia provided solutions to Indonesians in their trade. Hence, entire tribes adopted Islam without the unarmed Yemeni traders needing a single soldier. Yet today, terrorists are trying to redefine how Indonesians view sharia. The terrorist vision of Islam is winning no friends in the world’s largest Islamic community.

The latest bombing has taken place in the final week of the sacred Islamic month of sha’ban. Orthodox Sunni Indonesians see this month as a time to prepare for the beginning of the sacred month of Ramadan, which commences on Wednesday or Thursday.

Traditionally, the shedding of blood during Ramadan and its two preceding months is strictly forbidden. The terrorists have flouted this taboo which finds its source in the Qur’an itself, the scriptures regarded by millions of Indonesians as the literal word of God.

Indonesian Islam is a mercantile culture with strong Hindu roots. The attack on Java is an attack on the Indonesian economy. Yet another Indonesian island will be spending this Ramadan mourning the death of its loved ones.

The wealth brought by Bali to the rest of the country directly benefited families across the nation. It also assisted the continuing indigenous Indonesian aid effort to rehabilitate Aceh following last year’s Boxing Day tsunami.

But apart from all this, perhaps the most hurtful feature of the bombings is that Indonesian Islam will be misrepresented and attacked. Fresh calls will be made to close down the network of pesentran and pondok religious schools. Indonesian Muslims living abroad will be victimised and treated as suspects.

The religious tradition of an entire nation will be the subject of slanderous attacks from so-called experts. On the world stage, Indonesia’s reputation will be sullied.

I can only imagine this to be what Indonesians are feeling right now. This largest of Islamic nations has made enormous strides toward democracy and freedom, despite pressures of ethnic violence, natural disasters and economic instability. Now terrorists are seeking to hijack the very spiritual values that keep the lives of millions of ordinary Indonesians focussed.

Indonesian Islam has its roots in Yemeni sufi orthodoxy brought to its islands by unarmed traders who were often direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. No army brought Islam to Indonesia. Yet the weapons and bombs of terrorists are now seeking to hijack the values of this peaceful tolerate society. Non-Indonesian Muslims should be at the forefront of condemning this violence that threatens to destabilise the world’s largest Muslim country.

Words © Irfan Yusuf 2005

Sunday, October 02, 2005

SECURITY: Some thoughts on the latest Bali bombing

TERRORISTS have struck again in Bali.

Tourists - Australians, Japanese, Germans - are among the dead and wounded. Even a 16-year-old Australian killed. Why?

This was peak tourist season in Indonesia. Tourists bring money. They spend it on the local economy. Indonesians benefit.

Indonesians are employed. Indonesians are fed and clothed. Food is placed on the sofra (traditional cloth spread on the ground and used as a dinner table) of many an Indonesian household. And Indonesians are the biggest losers from terrorism.

Next January, I hope to be travelling with a delegation visiting Indonesia. Each year, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade sends select younger Australian community leaders (I say ``younger'' because I feel quite old) to visit Indonesia and have a two-week taste of our neighbour.

Naturally, one of the places we will visit is Bali. And for obvious reasons - Bali is a place where so many of our countrymen and women lost their lives to the scourge of terror.

Different reasons are given for the Bali terrorist attacks.

Prime Minister John Howard describes it as an attack on democratic Indonesia, an attempt to destabilise the country and punish it for adopting a more democratic model.

South Australian magistrate Brian Deegan, who lost his 22-year-old son Josh in the 2002 Bali bombing, says it was an attack on our foreign policy.

I have my own theory. And try not to be too surprised when you read it. And it does involve a short history lesson.

I believe the Bali bombing was an attack on Indonesian Islam.

Some 700 years ago, Yemeni traders brought Islam to this part of the world.

They settled in the region that roughly coincides with Malaysia, Singapore and northwestern Indonesia. These were the centres of South-East Asian trade.

The various indigenous tribes of merchants in the region had no system of accounting or serious writing. Small disputes over trade would flare into tribal battles.

The Yemenis saw this and introduced a system of numbers and accounting which we still use today. The Yemenis also introduced a system of resolving commercial disputes based on sharia law.

In Indonesia, when people think of sharia, they don't think of chopping hands and stoning adulterers.

They think of banking and finance and trade law. They think of what the Yemenis brought them.

Most Yemeni traders came from a tribe known as the ``Bani Alawi''.

They were direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed. In the towns and villages around Penang and Aceh, you will find more direct descendants of the Prophet than even in Saudi Arabia.

And the People of the House (as Muslims refer to the Prophet's descendants) are known for certain qualities. They are scholarly. They are soft-hearted and compassionate. They are calm. They are spiritual. They inspire love, not hatred.

The Yemeni traders were sufis who brought a kind of Islam that focuses on spiritual purification and social reform.

Sufis work with people of all faiths in an effort to bring peace and prosperity to the world.
In New York, a sufi imam named Feisal Abdul Rauf regularly hosts dinners with Jewish and Christian New Yorkers.

In India, the poor and depressed of all faiths and no faith in particular find refuge at the tombs of sufi saints.

Sufism is grassroots popular religion in just about every Islamic country, including Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet it is in Indonesia and Malaysia that this peaceful sufic vision of Islam has found its home. And it is no wonder that the majority of the victims in the Bali bombing were Indonesians themselves - Hindus and Muslims.

The terrorists' version of Islam has no room for sufis. The terrorist religion is about war, not peace. It is about hatred, not love. Sufis teach that you bring people closer to you and your faith through love and service to others.

Terrorists teach that you convert people by killing them, by bringing tears to the eyes of their families and loved ones, by driving fear into their communities.

Terrorists bring out the worst in themselves and others. They are a scourge on humanity.
Those who take innocent lives must be brought to justice. Those who destroy communities and economies and nations must be stopped. Sufi Islam brought peace to this region of the world.

Today, the terrorist ideology masquerading as Islam is bringing war and violence and tears to the region. Those who care about Islam should be at the forefront of fighting terror.

This article was first published in the Courier-Mail on Tuesday 4 October 2005.