Tuesday, September 06, 2005

POLITICS/COMMENT: Not the Best Party?

Kurt Kennedy is an Australian from Canberra who has recently made headlines as founder of the first proposed Islam-based political party. He is seeking registration with the Australian Electoral Commission of the clumsily-named “Best Party of Allah”.

He claims to be secretary and president of this party, and was a candidate in the 2004 elections for the ACT Legislative Assembly. Kennedy is reportedly an Australian of Vietnamese origin. He is initially having the party registered in the ACT only, but will be seeking national registration.

So who is Mr Kennedy? Where is he from? What standing does he have in the ACT Muslim community?

Mr Kennedy’s website for his 1994 campaign in the Mononglo electorate states that he is a lawyer and composer. On 11 September 2004, he issued a press release which gives more details about his background. It describes Kennedy as arriving in Australia from Vietnam in 1979 at age 7. He is currently 33 years old, and is completing a postgraduate degree in law. He is married with 2 children.

Mr Kennedy claims that his party represents “believers in Allah”. Yet many Muslim leaders have neve head of him. Former Islamic Council of Victoria chairman Yasser Soliman sent out an e-mail to various groups seeking information about Mr Kennedy.

The party apparently has around 100 members. There are 400,000 Muslims in Australia. There are over 400 mosques across the country, with most mosques having their own governing body. Mr Kennedy is not known to have been a member of any mosque society, nor does he list membership of a mosque society in his promotional materials.

In the ACT, the Canberra Islamic Centre has an excellent relationship with members of the ACT Legislative Assembly across the political spectrum. ALP and Liberal MLA’s regularly attend CIC functions and events.

Mr Kennedy seems to be outside the mainstream Canberra Muslim square. Having lived in Canberra for some 6 months, and being a life member of the CIC myself, I cannot say I have ever met Kurt.

Further, I spoke with Mr Kennedy on 6 September 2005 in my capacity as a columnist for the Adelaide-based Australian Islamic Review. From my discussions with him (which lasted around 10 minutes over the phone), it seems that Kurt does not have much idea about the relationship between Islam and government or Islam and politics.

Worse still, Mr Kennedy has not had any formal exposure to Qur’anic and other theological sciences. He acknowledges that he does not have any substantial knowledge of classical Arabic, nor does he have any formal exposure to classical works of Qur’anic exegesis. At best, his understanding of Qur’anic concepts is shallow and rudimentary.

Mr Kennedy believes (and in my view, correctly) that much of the Qur’anic law is already contained in the statute books and the common law of Australia. His view is confirmed by scholars such as Professor John Makdisi, Dean and Professor of Law at the Loyola University in New Orleans. In a 1999 article published in the North Carolina Law Review, Professor Makdisi writes about what he calls “The Islamic Origins of the Common Law”.

Some years back, a NSW Supreme Court Judge also wrote about the influence of Islamic law on the development of alternative dispute resolution procedures in modern commercial law.

In 2003, a representative of the Indonesian Muslim organisation Nahdhlatul Ulama told an audience at a lecture organised by the Centre for Independent Studies that Indonesian Muslims tend to associate sharia law with non-interest banking. Sharia-based financial products now represent a major activity of institutions such as HSBC.

Prominent industrial barristers such as Peter Costello would be well-advised to read the works of these scholars before speaking on matters pertaining to sharia law and its role in Australia.

Muslims have been at the heart of mainstream Australian life for over 150 years. Today, major financial institutions, university faculties and commercial law firms are being headed by Australians of Muslim background. Within the Liberal Party, Muslims play an active role. Liberal Party members of Muslim background are currently sitting local government councillors in Auburn and Canterbury City Council.

Yet recent examples of irresponsible political rhetoric have made many Muslim Australians feel unnecessarily marginalised. In particular, comments made by my former colleagues in the conservative wing of the NSW Liberal Party have been most unhelpful.

Perhaps Mr Kennedy is one of these marginalised Muslims. His party website does refer to recent comments by Parliamentarians in relation to hijab and other issues. Comments made recently by Ms Sophie Panopoulos in response to the formation of Mr Kennedy’s party do little to reverse that process of marginalisation.

However, formation of a party specifically targeting Muslims will simply provide more fuel to the fires of Islamophobia which Messrs Panopoulos, Bishop & Co are seeking to light and burn. In this respect, Mr Kennedy could not have found a worse time to form his Best Party of Allah.

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf