Thursday, August 11, 2005

Terrorist? No. Chauvinist Fringe-Dwellor? Possibly.

Abdur Raheem Green has been banned from entering Australia. He is addressing groups in New Zealand as part of the “Islamic Awareness Week” organised by the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ).

Green is a London Muslim preacher. He has no formal theological qualifications, and is not regarded as a Muslim scholar. He is, however, a charismatic figure and frequently engages in debates with representatives of other faiths.

I first saw Green address a crowd of some 300 Muslim students in Sydney in the late 1990’s. He was giving a speech on responsibilities of Muslims toward missionary work.

I recall him speaking to the audience about how calling people to Islam is not calling them toward a particular group or legal tradition or sufi order. I was not troubled by this.

What did trouble me, however, was what he said outside the hall. Green was poking fun at an international Indian-based sufi group known as the “Tabligh Jemaat” (literally translated as “Missionary Group”). The TJ are popular among sub-Continental and Fiji-Indian Sunni Muslims, and focus their attention on the “greater jihad” of cleansing and purifying the heart.

I distinctly recall Green lambasting the TJ for spending their time eating curry and speaking in Urdu. His comments had clear racial overtones. I challenged him over what he said. It was then I discovered who Green really was and what he represented.

Green is part of a minority so small, it could not even be regarded as a sect. He belongs to the “Salafi” sect, an offshoot of a small fringe sect known as the “Wahhabis”. The Salafi strain includes elements from the benign to the outright dangerous. Usama bin Ladin belongs to the Salafi strain. But so do most Saudi religious authorities.

The various Salafi strains have a number of common features. Salafis take an anthropomorphic view of many of God’s attributes. For instance, when the Quran speaks of God’s hands, most Muslims take this metaphorically. But Salafis insist God literally has two hands. They regard anyone who rejects this view as “kafir” (infidel).

As a result, Salafis regard most Sunni Muslims as kafir. But it isn’t just Sunnis that Salafis reject. Salafis reject Shia Muslims as kafir. And their worst venom is reserved for Sufi Muslims (both Sunni and Shia).

The Sufi tradition is the spiritual tradition of mainstream Islam. Sufis such as Rumi have inspired millions, including prominent spiritual figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Deepak Chopra.

Sufi traders from the Prophet’s descendants (known as the “Bani Alawi” clan) in Yemen took Islam to places today known as Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Today, descendants of these tribes can still be found, and common surnames (or Malay abbreviations) suggest their ancestry.

But Salafis regard many Sufi teachings as outside Islam. One of Green’s fellow Salafi preachers, an African-American named Dawud Adib, once told an audience at Melbourne University that a prominent Sufi text written by Imam Ghazali (known in Europe as “Algazel”) was worth less than a mosquito wing.

Because the Salafis reject mainstream Islam, they are regarded as on the very edge of the Muslim fringe. Which makes it most unusual that someone from the strain could be invited by a mainstream Muslim peak body.

On his previous visits to Australia, Green has not only been promoting his fringe Salafi strain of Islam. He has also been preaching a most destructive view of education. Green told shocked female audiences that it was “haram” (forbidden under religious law) for women to attend mainstream universities.

Women make up over 50% of the Muslim communities in Australia and New Zealand. Muslim women are amongst the most educated and talented members of the community.

In Australia, the first textbook on Islamic law to be published by a mainstream Australian legal publisher was authored by Jamila Hussain, an anglo-Australian Muslim female law lecturer. One of the most popular books on Australian Muslim history, Caravanserais, was penned by Haneefa Dean.

In recent times, three Muslim women have published books on their experiences growing up in Australia. Lawyer Randa Abdel-Fattah has written “Does my head look big in this”. And two journalists, Taghred Chandab and Nadia Jamal, have teamed up to write “The Glory Garage – Growing up Lebanese Muslim in Australia”.

Around 12 months ago, I befriended a girl working behind a bar in Sydney. She noticed I was not buying alcoholic drinks for my friends. She asked if I was Muslim, before telling me that her late father (whom she never met) was Muslim. I asked her what she does when she wasn’t behind the bar. “I’m a neuroscientist”, she responded. I was most impressed.

These Muslim women are more representative of mainstream Muslim opinion in Australian and New Zealand than Abdur Raheem Green. Had they followed his prescription and decided not to pursue tertiary studies, they would never have written books or published scientific papers.

Mr Green has been invited to New Zealand as part of Islamic Awareness Week. He claims to have moderated his views. But if his past comments are anything to go by, one wonders what sort of Islam he will make New Zealanders aware of.

(The author is a Sydney industrial lawyer.

© Irfan Yusuf