Sunday, May 15, 2005

Now Is Not The Time

Imagine it was your brother or son working as an engineer in Iraq and kidnapped by insurgents. Imagine if you were the one told by your elected officials that they will not negotiate with his captors.

Then imagine if you know that an Australian Muslim leader may be able to help. What will you do? Will you refuse to take a chance because of anti-Semitic remarks he made over a decade ago? Will you not approach him because of recent remarks he made in Lebanon during some Friday sermons?

Of course not. You would do anything to save your loved one.

The Howard government sent thousands of young Australian servicemen and women to Iraq. Many of these young Australians are still there, risking their lives to keep (or rather, create) the peace. Yet the Howard government has said that it will not negotiate with those holding an Australian citizen captive.

I am sure Ministers are wishing there was some way they could save Mr Wood without giving terrorists the legitimacy that they don't deserve. And revelations in the Sun-Herald on May 15 of a gentleman’s agreement between Mr Ruddock, Keysar Trad and Imam Hilaly are proof that the Government is doing what it can.

Yet two issues arising from this whole affair are of particular concern.

Firstly, the attitude of neo-Conservative pro-Government commentators is cause for concern. At least 3 major columnists have made vicious attacks on Imam Hilaly, raising decade-old allegations of anti-Semitic remarks. These commentators express their distaste with Imam Hilaly being used as a go-between and a negotiator. Some have virtually accused him of using the Wood family’s grief to gain publicity for himself.

I am not the world’s biggest fan of Imam Hilaly. I have criticised him publicly in various Muslim and wider community forums (online and otherwise). But on this occasion, I simply cannot find fault with what he is doing.

Hilaly is an old man with a serious heart condition. His personal life is not the best, and his office is in turmoil after his translator and adviser of many years was removed. Hilaly is caught in the cross-fire of 3 feuding Islamic councils vying for hegemony over the affairs of the Muslims of NSW.

Yet at the drop of a turban, the Imam has rushed to a war-zone, risking his life to save the life of a fellow-Australian. Whatever Hilaly may have said about Jews over 16 years ago, I am sure Australians of Jewish faith (and indeed of all other faiths and no faith) will be hoping and wishing that Imam Hilaly’s mission is successful.

Now is not the time for allegedly conservative columnists to attack the Shaykh. Let him do his job. Iraqis (including the terrorists) will not take the Shaykh’s mission seriously if they go to the web and read respected columnists in major Australian media outlets attacking the Shaykh. Criticising the Shaykh at this time, apart from causing enormous distress to the Wood family, may effectively undermine efforts to free Douglas Wood.

But apart from the irresponsible comments made by commentators (tabloid and otherwise), there is a matter of greater concern. It seems that our foreign affairs apparatchiks in Canberra may not have the extensive knowledge and contacts in the Arab world needed to deal with such situation should it arise in the future.

That a country with such a large, diverse and educated Arabic-speaking community does not have more such people in our intelligence and foreign affairs agencies is cause for concern. How can we fight ‘Islamist terror’ when we do not have the people who can speak the language and understand the culture of many terrorist groups?

One important lesson our government can learn is that it cannot afford to ignore the potential for Arab and Muslim Australians to contribute to our national security and our diplomatic efforts. Muslims are not just good for securing IOC delegates’ votes for the 2000 Sydney Games, or for opening up export markets in halal meat.

If major Australian financial institutions, telecommunications companies and large commercial law firms are happy to involve persons of Arab and/or Muslim backgrounds in sensitive leadership roles, why can’t our government, intelligence and diplomatic agencies?

I am not suggesting that our government agencies activeky discourage the involvement of persons of a particular background. Nor do they discriminate. And nor am i suggesting that private sector personalities positively discriminate. And I certainly am not suggesting that positive discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or religion is the solution.

What I am saying is that, in the current environment, even the most Aussie of Mossies are not exactly the social flavour of the month. Years of bad press, especially since September 11, are taking their toll. And as the Wood saga shows, it is not just Aussie Mossies who are suffering as a result.

But it works both ways. Muslim Australians need to come out of the closet. They cannot allow the Islamophobic tendencies of ignorant shock jocks and infantile columnists to dictate the extent of their contribution to this wonderful country we all call our home. It is their duty to God that they show their service to Australia with greater gusto.

Australians need and deserve to be reassured. Aussie Muslims need to find voices that communicate in a language all Australians can understand and appreciate. Even if some claiming greater loyalty to Australia oppose us.

© Irfan Yusuf, 2005