John Howard wants to consult Muslim leaders about national security issues. He believes that involving Muslim communities is a major plank of any strategy to fight terrorism.
But what if Muslim organisational leaders do not reflect the complexity and diverse opinion of their communities? Who should the PM talk to?
The challenge facing our democratically elected governments at state and federal level is finding out exactly what Muslim opinion is. Muslims are just as diverse and complex as Christians and Jews.
Simplistic analyses based upon labels such as “extremist” and “radical” and “moderate” will not assist Mr Howard’s task. Earlier in the week, Mr Howard sent a message to an allegedly moderate Muslim group based in Bankstown. The group, calling themselves “Darul Fatwa Islamic High Council”, had organised a seminar against terrorism.
This group seems to have moderate rhetoric on the surface. Yet if the PM were to speak with experts on Lebanese affairs, he would also discover that this group also has close ties to the Syrian Ba’ath Party. Further, they hold some unfortunate views on relations with other religions.
In 1999, the Bankstown City Council was causing problems for leaders of a Vietnamese Buddhist congregation seeking to make extensions to their temple. Many local Muslims sympathised with the congregation, recognising problems Muslims had with Councils on mosque applications.
At the time, I was a volunteer broadcaster with a Muslim community station, and was a co-presenter of a morning talkback program cheekily entitled “Morning Glory”. The program generated support for the temple application, and sought comments and explanations from Councillors on why the application was being refused.
Our stance in supporting our Buddhist neighbours earned the wrath of the Islamic Charitable Projects Association (ICPA) executive who form the backbone of the Darul Fatwa body. ICPA leaders had me in their office for some 3 hours castigating me over supporting “kuffar” (unbelievers). I was told that Muslims should not be encouraging idolatry, that Muslims should not be friendly with non-Muslims and that a Muslim radio program had sinned in galvanising support for another religion. I was advised that Islam came to destroy idols, not promote idol worship.
Some years later, the same arguments were used by the Taliban to destroy the ancient Buddha statues at the ancient town of Bhamyan.
Muslim community organisations have some strange affiliations with overseas groups. They are dominated with first-generation migrants, many having sectarian and/or political axes to grind.
Mr Howard should not presume that Muslim organisational leadership will provide him with all the answers. He should also ignore sincere calls by Dr Ameer Ali, President of one of Muslim Australia’s two competing peak bodies, to involve high profile extremists.
Groups led by the likes of Sydney’s Wassim Dureihi and Melbourne’s Abu Bakr are lucky of they have more than 200 people between the two of them. Involving them in the process lends them legitimacy and makes mainstream Muslim Australians nervous.
Muslims have been part of mainstream Australian life since the first Indian and Afghan cameleers arrived in Australia in the mid-19th century. Today, Muslims are found in local councils, state parliaments, political parties and at the highest levels of government, business and professions.
It would make little sense for Mr Howard to consult with a radical Melbourne cleric yet ignore prominent Australians like “Crazy” John Ilhan and Hazem el-Masri. Their success in business and sport has inspired Australians across the spiritual spectrum. They are also probably more influential than organisational leadership.
Perhaps a more effective way forward is for Mr Howard to ask Federal Senators and State Parliaments to compose a list of prominent Muslim Australians active in mainstream Australian life. They might be identified because of their role in business, professions, academia, the media, sport and the arts.
Further, they should cut across gender, ethnic and sectarian lines. There is no point consulting Muslims if Muslim women are ignored. Shutting out at least 51% of the Muslim population makes no sense. And ignoring Muslims born and/or brought up in Australia will also make no sense.
Muslim leadership does not reflect this diversity. Muslim organisations are typically dominated by middle aged migrant men. Young people are sidelined and pushed toward radicals. And these young people have nowhere outside Australia to go should they be ordered to “go back” to where they came from.
Mr Howard must allow the goals of national security to dictate his choice of which Muslims to invite to formally meet with him. He should not just presume that unrepresentative Muslim organisations can reflect the diversity of mainstream Muslim opinion. National security is more important than placating organisational ego.
© Irfan Yusuf 2005