Thursday, December 28, 2006

HUMOUR: New Auslandia? Too right ...

I know we Aussies have always regarded our cousins across the Tasman as ever-so-polite. We've always presumed that behind all that haka bravado lies a nation of SNAKs (Sensitive New Age Kiwis) renowned for being so laidback they're horizontal.

And now a bi-partisan Australian Parliamentary Committee has recommended that Australia and New Zealand consider merging into one country. Seriously.

Now before you throw off your SNAK veneer and exclaim in unison three words beginning with the letters w, t and f respectively, consider this.

A merger might be just what us wild West Islanders need. Things haven't been going well for us in recent times. I'm sure newly elected Federal Labor leader Kevin Rudd wouldn't knock back some of Helen Clark's political luck.

Maybe Aunty Hilun could take over and lead the ALP to victory against the hitherto invincible Howard.

I doubt whether a Kiwistani agricultural board would have been caught out paying secret bribes to Saddam Hussein.

And the way things are going, Aussie tourism advertisements have been consigned to the deepest depths of bloody hell.

Let's be honest. There are plenty of examples of Australia and New Zealand having close cultural ties. Fair-dinkum, true-blue Aussie musicians like the Finn brothers and Russell Crowe love touring Kiwistan at every available opportunity. Rumours surfacing in pubs across Bondi have it that they may have even purchased property there.

We Aussies could also do with Kiwis running our beaches. I doubt there'd be race riots at Cronulla if the place was inundated with SNAKs sharing fush'n'chups with the locals. Certainly we'd have fewer shark fatalities if we had Kiwis patrolling our coasts.

Aussie sport isn't the best either, notwithstanding the Ashes. The last time I appeared on TVNZ I made sure I wore my Wallabies jersey. But I'll be the first to admit our rugby players aren't all that crash-hot with traditional war dances or tackling All Blacks.

On the positive side, there is plenty the Kiwis could learn from us.

There's no doubt our journalists compensate for our rugby players in the tackling department. One of Rupert Murdoch's scribes decided to practise his tackling skills at the otherwise sleepy annual Walkley awards.

And mentioning Murdoch brings me to another reason why you Kiwistanis should favourably consider an Australian merger proposal: imagine having virtually each and every newspaper editorial and columnist calling for Helen Clark to send Kiwi troops to Iraq (or whichever hot spot the Americans target next for "regime change").

The LACA parliamentary committee wants the Australian Parliament to invite the New Zealand Parliament to establish a committee to work towards harmonisation of our legal systems.

It then makes this incisive observation:

The merger of Australia and New Zealand or the progression to a unitary system of government in Australia, however desirable, might not be easy to achieve.

You don't say? But the report gets better.

Australia and New Zealand should also consider introducing a common currency.

I think this makes perfect cents.

Every time I cross the Tasman, the shrapnel situation confuses the hell out of me. Why? Because for some weird reason, our $2 coin is smaller than our $1 coin, but with the Kiwis it's the other way around.

Clearly, our countries have so much in common already - sharing a currency is but a small step.

And so I urge my fellow Aussies to support this grand crosstasman merger project. Let's extend the Sydney Harbour Bridge eastward. Let's build a light rail to Auckland.

Let us join with you, our Kiwistani cousins, to create the world's first South Pacific superpower.

And if you are still reluctant, let me remind you of the words of your former tribal chief Robert "Piggy" Muldoon and increase the collective IQs of both our nations.

* Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer. A version of this article was first published in New Matilda. The version reproduced on this blog first appeared in the New Zealand Herald on 19 December 2006.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

OPINION: Christmas and Eid thoughts among the cane toads

A DECADE of primary and secondary education at an evangelical Anglican school was enough to get me addicted to church music. Each Christmas, I try to join friends at Midnight Mass at Sydney's St Mary's Cathedral. It is an extraordinary experience, with both organs playing simultaneously as the choir roams among the congregation in procession singing carols.

This year, I'm joining my partner and her family for Christmas on the Sunshine Coast. It will be my first Christmas in the land of the cane toad. It will also roughly coincide with Eid al-Adha, the most important feast of the Muslim calendar coinciding with the annual pilgrimage known as the Haj.

This year hasn't exactly been a bumper year for relations between the nominally Christian and Muslim sections of the planet. Muslims accuse Christians of taking hypocritical stands in the Middle East, and Christians accuse Muslims of behaving like drama queens in response to a dozen Danish cartoons and one papal speech.

Yet a recent report by a United Nations-sponsored High-Level Group of the Alliance of Civilisations has found that the apparently deplorable state of relations between Christians and Muslims has more to do with politics than theology.

And even the most cursory analysis of the message of Christmas and Eid will reinforce this simple point.

According to Islamic tradition, Abraham had two wives. He first married Sarah, who offered her Egyptian servant named Hajira (Hagar) to Abraham (Islamic tradition says Hagar was from royal stock and became Abraham's second wife). They had a son named Ismail (Ishmael). Eventually Sarah did have a son, despite her advanced years. The Koran describes this as a miraculous process, evidence of God's power to bend His own laws of nature to achieve His purpose.

Abraham's second son was Ishaq (Isaac). Sarah isn't exactly fond of Hagar. Poor Abraham feels Sarah's wrath and takes Hagar and the baby Ishmael in a remote desert wilderness named Bakkah.

Like all mothers, Hagar's primary concern is the survival of her toddler. But where will she find water in this wilderness?

That search for water is what provides the Muslim pilgrimage rituals with much of their meaning. Hagar heads for a hill, finds nothing and so heads in the opposite direction to another hill. She again finds nothing. In desperation, she runs back and forth seven times before setting eyes on her young boy kicking the dirt to uncover a rich spring.

Quickly she builds a makeshift well. Within a short period, the well attracts the attention of other travellers.

Hagar watches her son become a grown man, and receives a visit from Abraham again. The Koran says God orders Abraham and Ishmael to build a temple a simple cubic structure known as the Kaaba. The temple was a symbol of God's throne on Earth, with humans circling it in the manner angels were believed to circle the actual throne in the heavens.

The valley of Bakkah eventually became known as Mecca . The Kaaba (an Arabic word which means cube) is traditionally draped in a black embroidered cloth. The well kicked to the surface by the infant Ishmael is known as the well of Zam Zam.

Muslims on the pilgrimage also run seven times between the two hills, as well as circling the Kaaba and drinking from the well of Zam Zam. Hagar and Mary were both Middle Eastern women.

The Koran also mentions the Christmas story in some detail in a chapter named in honour of Mary. The chapter begins with John the Baptist (named Yahiya in classical Arabic), born to Zachariah, with both father and son revered as Prophets.

Mary is introduced as a chaste woman withdrawing from her family "to a place in the East", locking herself away from the rest of society. A man mysteriously appears in her private chamber. The following dialogue ensues:

MARY: I seek refuge from thee to God Most Gracious: come not near if thou dost fear God.

MAN: Nay, I am only a messenger from the Lord, to announce to thee the gift of a holy son.

MARY: How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?

MAN: So it will be: Thy Lord saith: 'that is easy for Me: and We wish to appoint him as a sign unto men and as a Mercy from Us'. It is a matter so decreed.

The man was in fact an angel. Christ was conceived miraculously. Following birth, Mary took her son back to her family. Her father was a respected rabbi and Mary was always known for her modesty and chastity. Further Mary had made a vow not to speak to any man for a fixed period of time.

When she was first publicly accused of sexual impropriety, she pointed to the baby Jesus. The Koran thus describes the first miracle of Christ his speaking from the cradle in defence of his mother. His exact words were:

I am indeed a servant of God: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet. And he hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me prayer and charity as long as I live. He hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable. So peace is on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised up to life again!

I'm not sure if Joseph or the Three Wise Men appear in the Koranic account. But a number of Jesus' miracles are mentioned. These include healing lepers and restoring life to the dead. Also mentioned is Christ's ascension. The sayings of Prophet Muhammad mention Christ's return to earth to establish the kingdom of God toward the end of time.

Both Mary and Hagar were women ostracised by and from family and community. Both were humiliated by social mores that were essentially inimical to the far greater purpose their creator had chosen for them to play. In the end, God provided the means for each of these women to overcome family and social stigma Hagar through her son's miraculous discovery of a well and Mary through her son's miraculous defence from the cradle.

Both Christmas and Eid stories show how God doesn't judge his creatures by the standards they use to judge each other. Even if these same standards are applied in the name of divine religion.

Genuinely religious people, on the other hand, recognise that their creator's mercy is for every person. God sees the hearts of all, whether they be accepted or rejected by the society of men.

Muslims and Christians have a joint responsibility to ensure this message of hope and mercy is not lost. The message should remind us of our shared Abrahamic spiritual roots. Indeed, the things that unite us are far greater in number and importance than those which divide us.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and columnist for This article was first published in the Canberra Times on 23 December 2006.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Celebrate all that unites not divides

IN THE aftermath of the trouble on Sydney's beaches, there has been a lot of talk about riots, race and religion. And with Christmas coming up, I have a confession to make.

I will be joining readers in celebrating Christmas.

So what? You may ask. But in my case, the difference is that I come from a Muslim cultural and religious background. And some people tell me that my culture doesn't allow me to celebrate the birth of Christ.

As usual, I will spend Christmas day having lunch with my best mate. We both attended Sydney's only Anglican Cathedral School.

Some years ago, I introduced him to a Japanese friend of mine. They instantly clicked. I was best man at their wedding. It was a truly Australian event -- an Anglican boy marrying a Buddhist girl with a Muslim best man, all taking place at St Andrew's Cathedral.

At 14, I was given my first translation of the Koran in English. It was a very old translation first published in Lahore in the 1930s. The translator was an Indian named Abdullah Yusuf Ali who rose to the highest posts in the Indian Civil Service that formed the administrative bedrock of the British Raj. His is perhaps the most popular and widely used translation.

It was at school that I discovered the story of the Koranic Jesus. The story can be found in a chapter of the Koran named Maryam (which is Arabic for Mary).

It begins with the usual supplication that commences all but one chapter of the Koran: In the name of God, Most Gracious and Most Merciful. This supplication is used not only when starting a reading of the Koran, but precedes virtually all the daily actions of a Muslim, both mundane and devotional.

The chapter then goes into how John the Baptist appeared on the scene. John (named Yahiya in classical Arabic) was born to Zachariah, and father and son are revered as prophets.

Once John has been mentioned, Mary is introduced. She is described as withdrawing from her family to a place in the East, locking herself away from the rest of society. A man mysteriously appears in her private chamber. The following dialogue ensues:

MARY: I seek refuge from thee to God Most Gracious: come not near if thou dost fear God.

MAN: Nay, I am only a messenger from the Lord, to announce to thee the gift of a holy son.

MARY: How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?

MAN: So it will be: Thy Lord sayeth: that is easy for Me: and We wish to appoint him as a sign unto men and as a Mercy from Us. It is a matter so decreed.

The man was an angel. Christ was conceived miraculously. Following birth, Mary took her son back to her family. Her father was a respected rabbi and Mary was always known for her modesty and chastity. Further Mary had made a vow not to speak to any man for a fixed period of time. When she was first publicly accused of sexual impropriety, she pointed to the baby Jesus.

The Koran thus describes the first miracle of Christ his speaking from the cradle in defence of his mother. His exact words were:

I am indeed a servant of God: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet. And he hath made me blessed wheresoever I be and hath enjoined on me prayer and charity as long as I live. He hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable. So peace is on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised up to life again!

I'm not sure if Joseph or the Three Wise Men appear in the Koranic account. But a number of Jesus miracles are mentioned. These include healing lepers and restoring life to the dead. Christ's ascension is also mentioned. The sayings of Prophet Mohammed mention Christ's return to Earth to establish the kingdom of God toward the end of time.

Given the status of Mary and Christ, it is not surprising that in the place where it all happened, the Palestinian town of Beit Lahm (Bethlehem), Muslims and Christians both celebrate Christmas. In many Muslim countries, Christmas is a public holiday.
And when Christian leaders remind us that Jesus is the reason for the season, our Muslim brethren should find nothing objectionable.

Christmas should remind us that, despite minor cultural and theological differences, the things that unite us are greater in number and more important than those which divide us.

First published in the Daily Telegraph on 22 December 2005.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Monday, December 11, 2006

Kiwistan - politically left and geographically right

The Weekend Australian Financial Review (December 2-3, 2006) includes an interesting analysis by Brian Toohey on the fall of former New Zealand Opposition Leader Don Brash.

Toohey provides a glimpse of some of the e-mails, strategy papers and copies of speeches (apparently written by a newspaper columnist) that were part of a secret strategy to ensure Brash didn’t look too “hard right” to Kiwi voters.

This included ensuring no publicity was given to a meeting between Brash and US official Richard Armitage in June 2004 lest Kiwi media dog Brash about his support for the disastrous 2003 US invasion of Iraq by the Coalition of the Killing.

Toohey makes frequent mention of left activist Nicky Hager’s book The Hollow Men. Brash sought a court injunction to stop publication of the book, which he claimed revealed details of confidential consultations with constituents.

Toohey also mentions Brash’s period at the Reserve Bank, which included the disastrous use of relying on the monetary conditions index (MCI) which led to Kiwistani interest rates going through the roof during the Asian financial crisis.

Perhaps most disastrous was revelations that Brash hid his knowledge that members of the fundamentalist Exclusive Brethren Church had spent more than $1 million on political advertising directly favouring the Nationals.

In Australia, the ALP was (under Kim Beazley) trying to out-Howard John Howard by pushing itself to the Right on so many issues. Yet in New Zealand, an openly conservative party was too scared to appear to right wing for fear of offending middle-of-the-road voters. Geographically, we may be to the left of the Kiwis, but certainly not politically.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Friday, December 08, 2006

Howard’s Head in the Sand Over Iraq?

Messrs Howard and Downer will deny until they’re black and blue in the face that oil had anything to do with the invasion of Iraq. Just before the invasion, they parroted the lies of influential members of the American establishment – both those in the Bush administration and some in News Limited – that the war was being fought to make us safe from terrorism.

Later, when it turned out Iraq had no WMD’s and the Iraqi Ba’ath Party had no links to Islamist terror groups, other excuses were put. We were told democracy and peace would be restored to Iraq. We were told that human rights of Kurds and other groups were at stake.

Iraq remains a quagmire, heading for what seems inevitable sectarian and ethnic civil war. Groups like al-Qaida continue to murder and maim innocent Iraqi civilians in a manner they could never have dreamed of when Saddam Hussein was in power. We are part of the mess.

It says a lot about John Howard that he wasn’t prepared to come clean with the Australian people about taking them to a Middle Eastern war. Yet a member of his government was prepared to tell his buddies in the Australian Wheat Board as far back as February 2002, well before the first Bali bombing that Howard reminded us constantly of when arguing his case for war.

Mr Howard says that the Australian official who told AWB of the government’s intentions of joining the American war in Iraq was expressing a personal opinion. If that is the case, how is it that an Australian diplomat knows more about American intentions in relation to Iraq than the PM himself? Maybe Howard isn’t surely he must be wondering how much intelligence and how many security decisions the Bush administration shares with him.

On a Saturday night some weeks back, American comic Azhar Usman posed this question to his Sydney audience: “Why did they call the invasion Operation Iraqi Freedom? They should have called it Operation Iraqi Liberation. That would have made more sense. O.I.L.”

And at a conference on The Journalist and Islam co-organised by Macquarie University and UTS, The Australian’s opinion editor Tom Switzer acknowledged that his newspaper made a huge blunder in supporting the war in Iraq.

Journalists and editors like Switzer are honest enough to acknowledge the war was (in his words) a “complete disaster”. So has the Iraq Study Group appointed by President Bush.

Yet John Howard and his ministers have their heads plonked firmly in the sands of Iraq. Howard is the only world leader left who unconditionally supports indefinitely staying in Iraq. Hardly a statesmanlike position to be in.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Keith Ellison and the Koran controversy

Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison made history as the first Muslim to be elected to Congress. And already, neo-Cons like Dick Prager (who happens to be Jewish) lament Ellison “will not take his oath of office on the Bible, but on the bible of Islam, the Koran.” Apparently this act “undermines American civilization”.

(In fact, the actual swearing-in ceremony is done by all congressmen together and doesn’t involve any scriptures!)

Another Philadelphia-based neo-Con shock jock
posed this question to Ellison during an interview on CNN on November 14: “Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies”.

One neo-Con blogger asks: “Does Keith Ellison, recently elected to Congress from Minnesota , think he's Allah's son? If so, his allegiance should be sworn in a nation where Muslim is the founding principle.” I never knew Muslim could be a founding principle.

Ellison’s critics forget that the US Constitution is essentially a multicultural and multiconfesional document. Don’t expect multiculturalism-haters like Janet Albrechtsen to be taking up US citizenship in a hurry, regardless of what her Uncle Rupert does!

Ellison won’t be the first Muslim democratic representative to take an oath on the Islamic scripture. In 2002, Labour MP Dr Ashraf Choudhary was sworn into the New Zealand Parliament on the Koran. He was criticised at the time by the current Kiwi Foreign Minister Winston Peters who claimed this represented a breach of proper Parliamentary procedure.

In the home of Westminster Democracy, Parliamentary rules specifically provide for the Oath of Allegiance to involve a Jewish MP holding the Old Testament or a Muslim MP holding the Koran. Baron Ahmed of Rotherham took his oath in the House of Lords whilst holding a Koran.

Returning to Congressman Keith Ellison, Minnesota TV host Don Shelby cited two websites linked to al-Qaida which described Ellison as “one of them, a one way ticket to hell”. With enemies like that ...

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Self-styled Australian paper lynches Pakistani advocate?

How sweet it is to be loved by you.
(James Taylor)

Well, it certainly is sweet to have one’s name mentioned in the editorial of Australia’s only national broadsheet. Even if it be in vain!

The Australian editorial for 7 December 2006 covered Kevin Rudd and his impact upon the ALP. It then went onto speak of the importance of not “covering up Islamic outrages”. I’m not exactly sure how any outrage can be deemed “Islamic” or indeed supported by any other faith. But the editorial made clear that certain behaviour by Muslims was just unacceptable and should be exposed.

In particular, the editorial spoke of the outrageous behaviour of former students from a Melbourne independent Muslim school who were found to have behaved in a despicable manner toward the Bible. The Oz’s Cameron Stewart had reported the story in a most balanced manner, and he certainly cannot be held responsible for the hysterical headlines or front page prominence given to his reasonable analyses.

The editorial went onto speak about its reporting of the Hilaly rape/adultery/catfood comments.

But the reporting on Sheik Hilali also flushed out a number of people who were horrified by The Australian's coverage, and who wished the whole story would go away. Chief among them was self-styled Muslim advocate Irfan Yusuf, a young lawyer of Pakistani extraction, who accused this newspaper of committing an “editorial lynching” of the sheik in its news and opinion pages.
(emphasis mine)

I’m not sure who actually wrote this editorial. I’m not sure if this person knows me or is familiar with my readings. More importantly, I’m not sure if the author has any literacy skills at all, given what I am about to "reveal" about myself.

The writer accuses me of being a “self-styled Muslim advocate”. What does this mean? Well, it could mean a number of things:

• that I describe myself as an advocate of Muslim people and/or issues and/or groups.
• that I describe myself as an advocate and lawyer when I really am not.

If the second interpretation is intended, the author should seriously consider obtaining urgent legal advice. To suggest that I am falsely holding myself out as a legal practitioner is extremely defamatory. The fact is that I am a legal practitioner and hold a NSW practising certificate. I am also a member of the NSW Law Society.

I am perfectly within my rights to commence proceedings immediately against the editor, deputy editor and opinion editor and proprietor of The Oz. Further, because the defamation occurred online, I am within my rights to commence these proceedings in any jurisdiction. I’m not sure what assets Messrs Mitchell, Switzer et al have, but I would suggest they carefully consider their legal position.

If the editorial writer suggests that I have ever claimed to speak on behalf of all Muslims, they are again speaking lies. At various times, I have made the following claims in my writings:

• Sydney lawyer.
• Columnist for
• Occasional lecturer in politics and international relations at Macquarie University.
• Former president of the Islamic Youth Association of NSW (IYA).
• Industrial and workplace relations lawyer.
• Human rights lawyer.
• Lawyer who has acted for Muslim peak bodies and independent schools.
• Freelance writer.
• Blogger.
• Columnist whose writings have appeared in various newspapers in Australia and New Zealand.
• Commentator.

In none of these descriptions do I claim any current leadership capacity. I was president of the IYA in 1990-91, hardly a current position.

The editorial then refers to me as being "of Pakistani extraction". Now it is true that I was born in Karachi. It’s also true that I stayed there for some 6 weeks until my parents boarded with me onto a cruise liner headed for Sydney harbour.

It’s also true that my mother grew up in Aligarh, a university town in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. I’m not sure exactly how far Aligarh is from the Pakistan border, but I’m sure it isn’t exactly walking distance.

So my mother is Indian. My father was born in Delhi and stayed there until he was 7 years old. I left my birthplace at age 6 weeks. I’ve never held any passport other than an Australian passport. Yet I am described as being “of Pakistani extraction”.

And even if I was of Pakistani extraction, what does this prove? How is my alleged ethnicity relevant to the issue of an Egyptian-Australian Sheik’s comments? Are Pakistanis ineligible to discuss public issues? Does being Pakistani reduce one’s credibility?

The editorial also claims that I wanted the media to brush the story under the carpet, that I wanted it to go away. Really? How, then, does the editor explain the fact that criticisms and analysis of the Hilaly comments were published under my name in the following publications …

• The Daily Telegraph (not once but twice!).
• The Canberra Times.
• The New Zealand Herald.
• The Wellington Dominion-Post.
• The Christchurch Press.

In the Daily Telegraph, I openly states that Sheik Hilaly is wrong and that his comments were grossly offensive. In a later piece, I wrote that Hilaly is irrelevant. The Daily Telegraph’s offices are in the same building as those of The Oz. They belong to the same media organisation.

Further, anyone who googles my name will find the first item popping up is a list of articles I have published on the Online Opinion website. The first of these articles is a critique of Sheik Hilaly.

Far from wanting the Hilaly comments to be swept under the carpet, I have actively participated in the condemnation of Hilaly. I’ve spoken on the issue on Radio National breakfast and two regional ABC breakfast radio shows.

What I did criticise The Oz for was the enormous amount of space given to the story (on one day, some 8 pages). I made these criticisms at the White Ribbon Day launch. Indeed, my criticisms of Hilaly are part of my work as a White Ribbon Day ambassador, campaigning to eliminate all forms of violence against women.

The point I made at the WRD launch was that, in focussing on the words of one religious leader and on the excesses (actual and apparent) of one religious group, we are effectively ignoring the perpetrators of other cultural groups. We are therefore avoiding the victims. I further argued that the real scandal isn’t so much Hilaly’s comments as the fact that, according to recent research carried out by Dr Michael Flood and others, Hilaly’s expressed attitudes are commonly held by men and women in mainstream Australia.

In what sense do these comments exhibit an insistence that the issue be swept under the carpet?

Further, anyone familiar with my writing will know that most of what I write involves criticising Muslims for various things. I’ve criticised Muslims (individually and collectively) in the following contexts:

• Comments of Sheik Feiz about rape.
• Comments of Abdurraheem Greene on women.
• Distribution of anti-Semitic texts at Muslim camps organised by AFIC.
• Dominance of Muslim organisations by first generation migrants with irrelevant cultural attitudes.
• Imams who cannot speak English.
• Muslim bookshops promoting hate literature.
• Muslim responses to the Danish cartoons.
• Muslim responses to the Pope’s recent speech.
• Critique of terrorist groups in the Middle East, Indonesia and Afghanistan.
• Critique of Mumbai terror attacks.
• Calling upon London Muslims to condemn the London bombings.
• Criticising Muslim attitudes to mental illness.

In what sense do these criticisms exhibit an unwillingness to see such issues discussed openly in media circles?

Perhaps what the editor is really concerned about is an exchange between opinion editor Tom Switzer and I on the pages of Crikey. Yet in what way is a healthy exchange of views problematic? Why should the editorial team at The Oz respond in such an immature and childish manner when criticised? If they can’t stand the heat, what are they doing in the public discourse kitchen?

In any event, I’d like to thank The Oz for mentioning me in their editorial. Having The Oz criticise me adds so much to my credibility in the sane media. Further, it puts The Oz in the same league as the Muslim Village forum participants who criticise me for attacking Hilaly.

So there you have it. I am attacked by ghetto Muslims for attacking Hilaly. And then I am attacked by ghetto neo-Cons for trying to brush the issue under the carpet. Both sets of critics display a hysterical and narrow-minded attitude toward the issues at hand.

In conclusion, might I make a simple suggestion to the editors of The Oz. Ahmed Kilani, a good buddy of mine and one of the owners of the Muslim Village forums is looking for moderators/editors to man the forums. Perhaps The Oz editorial authors could offer their services. I’m sure they’ll be in good company.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Why Tony Abbott has plenty to fear from Kevin Rudd

In Today’s Herald, Health Minister Tony Abbott questions Kevin Rudd’s long term leadership ability. He cites indigenous leader Noel Pearson and Age journalist Jason Koutsoukis to paint a picture of an arrogant and short-tempered egomaniac.

That may well be the case. But even Abbott must fear Rudd’s push to take Australian Christian politics back to the centre.

Back in mid-2001, I attended a political fundraiser for the then Federal MP for Parramatta Ross Cameron. Abbott was chief guest. Kerry Chikarovski was NSW Liberal opposition leader and was looking very shaky. I asked Abbott on that a question about what leadership qualities she should look for in herself and in possible preselection candidates. Abbott’s response went something like this:

"What the NSW Liberal Party needs to produce at this time isn’t ideological simpletons or factional warriors. What we need are people with genuine beliefs, big ideas and a fresh approach to selling them to the electorate."

Using Abbott’s own criteria, there’s a lot to be said for Rudd’s ability to lead on major policy issues. In his recent writings on religion and social democracy, Rudd shows ably that being a Christian doesn’t necessarily involve being socially conservative.

Today’s NSW Liberal Christian conservatives and their branch-stacking buddies aren’t always known for their big ideas. Rudd has already indicated he will target Christian conservatives within Coalition parties, especially those who use Christian rhetoric to pursue the most un-Christian and divisive politics in areas such as workplace relations.

Rudd’s more flexible use of Christian ideals (including family values) may well represent a useful method of co-opting Howard’s conservative rhetoric and using it against him. It could be a case of Rudd out-Howarding Howard in the opposite direction to what we were accustomed to with Kim Beazley in cultural, citizenship and security debates.

Rudd’s impeccable Christian credentials will assist him in sounding like more than just a cynical opposition leader coopting government rhetoric for political purposes. If Rudd is able to return genuine Christian compassion to politics, he will be doing Australians of all faiths and no faith in particular a huge service.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Albrechtsen goes Hard on Multiculturalism

Janet Albrechtsen may claim to be a conservative, but her latest column shows she’s anything but. How so?

Back in the early 1990’s, a conservative Macquarie University law professor told me of his dismay at the left-wing method of “critical legal studies”. What’s the point of criticising the legal status quo of law before understanding it?

Real conservatives try to understand the status quo. Where the status quo seems to work (even if imperfectly, which is always the case), they don’t seek radical change.

Albrechtsen doesn’t appear to have understood the reality of Australia’s multicultural status quo. She claims our current policy is "hard multiculturalism" – where people are separated according to culture and where minorities cannot be criticised.

Albrechtsen’s idea of criticising minorities was seen in her 1 November column where she joined Peter Costello in claiming all 360,000 Muslims were responsible for the speech given by Sheik Hilaly to 500 people inside a mosque with a capacity of 5,000 people.

"Criticism from some Muslims came only after The Australian reported the speech". True, Janet, but how else are Aussie Mossies meant to learn of the speech? Do we subscribe to the al-Qaida Islamic extremism podcast? And with hardly 20% of Muslims native Arabic-speakers, how are English-speakers like me to know each time a thick-Sheik blames women’s dress for rape?

What is her evidence that “the hard version endures”? Albrechtsen points to a Victorian ethnic lobby’s response to a discussion paper, and to Fraser’s claim that a Muslim election is coming up.

Perhaps Albrechtsen’s problem with multiculturalism is its allegedly removing her freedom to question the bona fides of 360,000 Aussies from over 60 different nationalities who tick “Muslim” on their census forms.

Albrechtsen ignores successive reports on Australian multiculturalism, all of which point to the need for a commitment to shared values and shared institutions.

I can’t see any evidence of hard multiculturalism in Australia (apart from ravings of Cronulla rioters and assorted clerics). Instead, I see people comfortably living side-by-side. There is a place in the sun for governments who legislate and enforce culture. But it’s not called Australia. It’s called North Korea.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Getting Brashed Off by the Brethren?

Peter Debnam isn’t the only conservative opposition leader unable to poke a major hole into an exposed Labor government. New Zealand National Party leader Don Brash resigned last week after a troubled leadership dogged by allegations of links to the shadowy Exclusive Brethren sect. The Nats select their new leadership team on Monday.

The Brethren allegations have become particularly damaging in the context of the imminent release of a new book by Kiwi leftist author Nicky Hager entitled The Hollow Men – A Study in the Politics of Deception.

Hager alleges that Don Brash came to the leadership on the back of support from allegedly shadowy right wing individuals and groups outside the formal National party structures. These include former NZ Finance Minister Roger Douglas and members of the allegedly liberal ACT Party.

More explosively, the Nats had knowledge of Brethren political activity since May 2005, longer than they had publicly claimed. Hager’s information is taken from 6 disgruntled Nats, and includes the text of allegedly secret e-mail correspondence between Brash and constituents.

The impending publication of the secret e-mails led the book to become the subject of an interim injunction application in the NZ High Court by Mr Brash who claimed to be acting to protect the privacy of constituents. The NZ Herald and 2 TV stations then approached the High Court seeking the lifting of the injunction which they claim breaches Section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights (yes, like virtually all English-speaking Western democracies, they have one of those!) which affirms and protects freedom of expression. Brash eventually applied himself to have the injunction lifted.

Last week, Brash and his colleagues used Parliamentary privilege to attack Hager as “a media whore”. Their attacks did little more than provide Hager’s claims with plenty of publicity. The book hits NZ bookshops today and will no doubt fill many a Kiwi Christmas stocking!

First published in the Crikey! Daily alert on 24 November 2006.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

The Pope visits Turkey

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Turkey yesterday, no doubt hoping to mend some of the unnecessary wounds arising from his recent speech (or perhaps more from the over reaction of some Muslims).

He has already met with the closest thing Turkey has to a Pope – the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Department, Dr Ali Bardakoglu. The Pope will also take a stroll through the Ayasofia Museum in Istanbul, a Greek Orthodox Cathedral which Catholic crusaders sacked some centuries ago. The Ottomans converted it into a mosque, and Turkey’s secular authorities transformed it into a museum in 1936. Any form of worship (including Islamic) is strictly forbidden. I have Muslim friends who’ve been kicked out for trying to perform the Muslim ritual prayer.

The Pope’s visit is being treated seriously by Turkey’s liberal-Islamist government. PM Recep Erdogan personally met the Pope at the airport. The Turks are keen to show their European credentials as a stepping stone to eventual EU membership. No Turkish government has been as keen to join the EU. And no Catholic Cardinal has been so opposed to the idea of a European Turkey.

Apparently the expressed views of former Cardinal Ratzinger on Turksy’s EU membership have now changed. Previously, the Cardinal held the view that Europe was inherently Christian and had no room for a Muslim-majority state. Now the Vatican’s chief spokesman says the liberal Muslim country does belong in Europe.

The Pope’s visit almost coincides with the release of a report earlier this month by a UN-sponsored High Level Group to establish an Alliance of Civilisations between the West and the Muslim world. Turkey’s PM co-chairs the group with Spanish PM Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. The Report says that politics, not religion, is the biggest stumbling block in the way to an alliance between the two civilisations. The continued occupation of Iraq and the failure to deal with the Israel/Palestine question are fuelling resentment toward the West.

These aren’t issues a Pontiff can adequately deal with. They require political action. To his credit, John Howard showed leadership in Hanoi when he told President Bush at the recent APEC summit that more needed to be done about establishing a Palestinian state.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Saturday, November 25, 2006

HALAL MEAT!!!!!!!!!!

Now that I have your attention, I must tell you about a superb show that is on this Saturday night (as in tonight).

Two world-class North American comics are performing in Sydney at the Capitol Theatre in Campbell Street (near Central Station). Their show is called Allah Made Me Funny.

The show has already toured in New Zealand, Melbourne and Brisbane. The comedy kicks off at around 7pm. Tickets are still available online at Ticketek or Ticket Master.

For more details, you can read this review from New Matilda or you can check out the website.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Friday, November 17, 2006

Victorian Libs get sucked in by Danny's fire

Last month, I reported Tamil-Australian Assemblies of God Pastor and former Family First Senate Candidate Danny Nalliah telling an audience in the NSW Parliament that the Christian Right needed to take control of Australian politics.

Now The Oz reports that Nalliah is trying to start his political crusade by doing a secret anti-abortion deal with the Victorian Liberals. The story's headline describes Nalliah's ministry as “fanatics” and “a powerful Christian fundamentalist group ... advocat[ing] the destruction of mosques, casinos and bottle shops”.

Nalliah’s speech (as well as mine and questions) was recorded by one of his disciples here and initially distributed by an allied extremist group from Victoria calling itself Salt Shakers. The entire forum can be downloaded here.

A visit to the Salt Shakers website shows the group complaining about Victoria hosting a major multi-faith event in 2009 and claiming HIV is a gay disease. The organisation’s slogan is “Christian ethics in action”.

Nalliah’s organisation, Catch The Fire Ministries, already contains a Press Release in which Nalliah describes himself as a “Polemical Christian Leader. He refers to the need to “protect our Judeo-Christian Heritage in Victoria and wider Australia ”, and acknowledges that the Coalition and even Family First aren’t exactly God’s children.

“I am not stating that the Liberals, Nationals, Family First and CDP are perfect in practice, but we have to cast our vote to the party which is able to give us the best possible outcome to protect our Freedoms, Rights, and Christian Moral Values in our rapidly deteriorating pluralistic society where right is considered wrong and wrong is labeled right.”

Nalliah is no friend of pluralism of any kind. Nor is he a friend of any political force he deems to belong to the left. “Truly, the right of politics - Liberals, Nationals, Family First and CDP - are more willing to hear the Christian voice than the left -Labor, Greens, Democrats.”

Download and listen to the entire recording of the Fellowship of the Round Table Forum where Danny and I spoke. Witness Nalliah’s refusal to unconditionally condemn all acts of suicide terrorism and other violence perpetrated against civilians by the Tamil Tigers.

If Libs want to do deals by catching Nalliah's fire, they're bound to get their hands burnt.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Quick Thoughts on the High Court, Work Choices and Federalism

Justice Callinan’s minority judgment in the recent High Court decision on the constitutionality of Work Choices legislation is proof (if any is needed) that it isn’t just “Howard-haters” and unionists who oppose Work Choices. If anything, it seems that when it comes to states’ rights, unions and State ALP governments are the last true conservatives left in Australia .

Certainly when I studied constitutional law in 1990 (I was taught by the not-exactly-conservative Andrew Fraser at Macquarie University Law School), it was conservative columnists, politicians and jurists who argued that Labor governments backed by ALP-appointed High Court judges were conspiring to transfer more State legislative powers to the Commonwealth.

Conservative jurists argued that our constitution was designed to provide the Commonwealth with only limited legislative powers as largely set out in Section 51 of the Constitution. They argued that activist judges were engaging in creative jurisprudence, ignoring the wording of the Constitution and the intent of its drafters.

Among politicians opposing creeping centralisation of legislative power was then Opposition spokesman on industrial relations John Howard. Today, Mr Howard is using the same powers and benefiting from the same allegedly creative jurisprudence to push through Work Choices.

It’s ironic that we see Quadrant editor Paddy McGuiness and ALP pre-selection aspirant George Williams on the same side defending conservative constitutional jurisprudence. But even George Williams is forced to concede that the Court’s decision is not surprising, given the “long line of decisions” since the 1920 Engineers’ case.

Similar arguments were raised last year by Professor Greg Craven. Craven described Work Choices as merely one element in ...

the greatest attack on federalism as a concept since World War II.

He also made reference to opposition to the laws by the Western Australian Liberal opposition.

Craven reminds us of the historical reality:

Labor always historically has tended to oppose federalism and conservatives have tended to support it. We now see a fundamental shift in Australian constitutional politics – a conservative government prepared to attack federalism.

Sir Robert Menzies will be turning in his grave!

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Monday, November 13, 2006

Channel 9 Sunday program exposes some Mufti-day realities

Channel 9’s Sunday program featured a forum on Muslim responses to the Hilaly affair.

Ellen Fanning brought together Muslims and non-Muslims to address the unfortunately worded topic of “Good Muslim/bad Aussie?”. The video is available on the website. The forum continues next week.

The forum proved what a disorganised rabble Lebanese Muslim leadership is. People were shouting over each other, at each other and at others.

Even ABC Religion Report presenter Stephen Crittenden struggled to get a word in above all the shouting. Crittenden is hardly an enemy of Muslims, and ABC’s religion programs aren’t exactly Islamophobic.

The shouting panellists would have been well-advised to listen to Crittenden’s simple message – that Muslim Aussies need to reassure non-Muslim Aussies that Islam isn’t a threat to Australia. The hecklers probably managed to achieve the opposite.

When Muslim Reference Group member Iktimal Hage-Ali expressed her disgust at Sheik Hilaly’s speech, someone up the back screamed out: “Excuse me, do you speak Arabic? How good is your Arabic?”

The heckler turned out to be a seasoned Sun-Herald scribe. You’d expect a journalist to know better than embarrass herself and her newspaper on national television.

In the wider scheme of things, her point really was beside the point. There’s no argument about the translation of Hilaly’s speech. And why can’t he speak in English when he claims to lead a faith-community 70% of whom are native English-speakers?

To put it another way, if Perth’s Catholic Archbishop can talk about the evils of mini-skirts in English, why can’t the nation’s most senior Imam?

The panel showed deep rifts between Sheik Hilaly’s followers and members of the pro-Syrian Lebanese al-Ahbash cult. One cult spokesman advised how he’d obtained a ruling from the cult’s Yemeni branch stating Hilaly meant to offend women in his speech. Apparently mind-reading is common in Yemen.

The forum expose that the debate over Hilaly’s position as “Mufti” is in reality a Lebanese turf war of little relevance to most Muslims. There is no empirical evidence Hilaly is recognised by the majority of Australia’s Muslims as mufti. And after watching his supporters (and his Lebanese opponents) make fools of themselves on national TV, most Muslims will wish mufti-day came to an end ASAP!

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Saturday, November 11, 2006

CRIKEY: Dialogue with The Oz's opinion editor

In the past few days, I have been engaged with an interesting dialogue with Tom Switzer, the editor of the Opinion Page of The Australian newspaper. This dialogue has been conducted on the pages of the daily alerts of popular webzine Crikey! and is reproduced in full (with all relevant hyperlinks) below ...


Crikey 7 November 2006

Irfan Yusuf writes ...

Sheik Hilaly has called upon his fellow imams and other community members to find a better imam. On Sunday, I think I met one. The problem is he doesn’t live in Australia .

Sheik Hilaly claims to lead 360,000 Muslims. But the head of the Turkish presidency of Religious Affairs, Dr Ali Bardakoglu, presides over 180,000 imams in Turkey . He has worked as a judge, a lawyer, an academic and an imam. He’s the closest thing Europe has to an Islamic pope.

On Sunday, Dr Bardakoglu officially opened Sydney’s newest mosque at Bonnyrigg. One of the first things he observed was his appreciation at the large number of Muslim women in the audience, not to mention the fact that the MC at the function was a Muslim woman.

I think it is absolutely necessary that mosques involve women at all levels and in all their activities. And religious leaders must never say things to offend women members of their congregations.
Was this comment a coincidence? A committee member of the Bonnyrigg Mosque told me that Dr Bardakoglu had been fully briefed about the Hilaly situation. Many Turkish Muslims I spoke to after the formalities were concluded (including those visiting from Melbourne and other interstate locations) expressed their disgust at Sheik Hilaly’s comments as well as his contradictory posturing.

Yet there are still a number of Muslims backing him. Waleed Aly writes that even Hilaly critics are upset at the barrage of media attention, not to mention infantile remarks by Sheik Peter bin Costello and Mufti Janet bint Albrechtsen, both of whom have held 360,000 Muslims jointly responsible for the failure of 500 Muslims taking their time responding to the Sheik’s comments.
The Oz’s editorial lynching of Sheik Hilaly is actually diminishing the chances of his removal. Today’s quotes Mick Keelty suggesting:

... the value of reporting on the words of Sheik Hilali and others of his ilk is that they prompt moderate, middle-class Muslims to stand up and reject such retrograde views.
Yet The Oz allows few of such Muslims on their op-ed page or in letters to the editor. Instead, it allows room for Albrechtsen and writers whose sole qualification is having sat in a Melbourne taxi driven by someone claiming to be a ‘moderate Muslim’.

Crikey 8 November 2006

Opinion Page Editor Tom Switzer writes ...

The Australian's anti-Muslim operation is at it again, this time committing a "media lynching" of Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali -- or so Crikey and others in the past week would have us believe. We suspect, however, that this tempest will founder on the good sense of the Australian people who deserve to be informed about the outrageous statements of the nation's leading Muslim cleric.

According to our critics, The Australian's decision to publish an English translation of Sheik Hilali's speech -- comparing immodestly dressed women to meat left out for cats, and blaming them for sexual assaults -- was wrong because it reinforced the world's current anxieties and fears.

Never mind that our story goes to the heart of one of the world's most intractable problems: the clash between conservative Islam and Western modernity, and specifically the concept of women's liberation and free relations between the sexes. Surely this is an issue worth reporting and debating in some detail.

Irfan Yusuf, writing in Crikey yesterday, says "The Oz allows few [moderate, middle-class Muslims] on their op-ed page" on this issue. Yet in the immediate aftermath of the publication of our exclusive story, we commissioned and published several "moderate, middle-class Muslims" to write the lead opinion-page articles: Abdullah Saaed, director of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Islam at the University of Melbourne; Tanveer Ahmed, who is writing a book about Islam in Australia; Shakira Hussein, who is writing a PhD thesis on the Islamic treatment of women at the Australian National University.

All are moderates from within Australia's Muslim community who have publicly criticised the mufti's comments. (Incidentally, even of our usual critics Peter Manning, author of Us and Them: A Journalist's Investigation of Media, Muslims and the Middle East, has defended The Australian's decision to cover the Sheik's comments, arguing that the quicker the Muslim community forgets its ethnic differences and works out a "genuinely indigenous Islam that is Australian", the better.)

Add to this the fact that we have published a variety of moderate Muslim voices over the years about the clash between conservative Islam and Western modernity -- from the Islamic Council of Victoria's Waleed Ali to widely acclaimed international author Irshad Manji -- and it is clear that The Australian has a much better track record on this issue than any other newspaper in the nation. For this, we are accused of "racism and religious bigotry". Go figure.


Crikey 9 November 2006

Irfan Yusuf writes ...

Yesterday, the opinion editor of The Oz Tom Switzer told us the world is divided along neat ideological lines between two allegedly monolithic entities of "conservative Islam" and "Western modernity". Hence dangerously sexist attitudes of an irrelevant imam become part of this apocalyptic ideological struggle.

Switzer was present at the CIS Big Ideas Forum when the venerable Owen Harries gently castigated Mark Steyn for claiming a monolithic West existed. Harries correctly noted the intense rivalry and resentment underscoring relations between the EU and the United States .

Harries isn’t the first Western thinker to point out the diversity within Muslim cultures and Islamist political movements. Indeed, many (if not most) scholars of modern Islamist movements argue that the ideological basis of groups like al-Qaida is inherently modernist and heavily influenced by Western political thinking. Further, many neo-classical Muslim theologians state that much Islamist political thinking represents religious heresy.

Switzer’s arguably narrow ideological approach means his ability to recognise emerging Muslim voices is open to question, especially where such voices don’t make a neat fit into his misunderstanding of the enormous variations in both Western and Muslim cultures.

That isn’t to say that Australian contributors (Muslim or otherwise) to The Oz on such issues have been useless. Apart from Irshad Manji (rejected by even the most ‘progressive’ Muslim writers), The Oz’s commissioned contributors listed by Switzer have made important contributions. Arguably this has been in spite of and not because of Switzer’s simplistic assumptions about the West and the rest.

Still, Switzer at least is trying to understanding the issue. That’s more than can be said for FoxNews.

And it isn’t upto Switzer or anyone else at The Oz or any other newspaper to deal with Hilaly. Primary responsibility rests with Muslim leaders themselves.

And given Hilaly’s views on sexual violence are held by so many in mainstream Australia, it’s high time we as a broader Australian community focussed on the need to eliminate violence against women. That means focussing on unfortunate attitudes held by all prominent people. It also means focussing on all perpetrators. Turning this into a sectarian wedge issue by focussing on one set of perpetrators effectively involves ignoring a much larger set of victims.

UPDATE I: It seems Switzer has made another error. Shakira Hussein has confirmed to me that she is not writing a thesis on "Islam's treatment of women". Rather, her topic is encounters between women from Western and Muslim backgrounds.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

On the passing of Bulent Ecevit

Could the death on Sunday of Turkey ’s former left-leaning PM Bulent Ecevit mean the end of aggressive Kemalist secularism?

Like many countries in Europe, Turkey has experienced a significant shift to the right. The current Prime Minister, Recep Teyyip Erdogan, is regarded as a social conservative. Conservative leaders in nominally Christian countries (including Australia ) look to their religious heritage. Similarly Turkey ’ current PM looks to Turkey ’s Islamic heritage for legitimacy.

Yet Turkey ’s current government is by no means seeking to reintroduce the Caliphate or any other form of theocracy. The ruling AK Party is more like the Muslim equivalent of the German Christian Democrats.

At the same time, the AK Party is the most pro-EU government in Turkey ’s history. In this sense, they are following the precedent of Ecevit who won European Union candidacy for Turkey in 1999.

Ironically, Ecevit spent much of the 1970’s trying to keep Turkey away from the West and the EU. Though known as a leftist, he exercised a certain degree of pragmatism when it came to free market reform. At the same time, Ecevit stood for a balanced foreign policy, supporting Israel yet criticising it for committing what he described as “genocide” in its 2002 attacks on Palestinian refugee camps.

Ecevit’s most controversial decision was to send Turkish troops into northern Cyprus in 1974, apparently to protect Cypriot Turks from what was viewed in Turkey as a genocide carried out by Cypriot Greek national chauvinist forces.

Ironically, the present conservative Muslim government has steered Cypriot Turks toward supporting reunification of Cyprus . 65% of Turks voted in favour of reunification, while over 75% of Greeks opposed it in the 2004 referendum. This didn’t stop Cyprus from being ‘rewarded’ with EU membership in May 2004.

Perhaps the most significant comment Ecevit made was when he changed his mind about EU membership for Turkey : “It is now understood,” he said, “that there can be no Europe without Turkey and no Turkey without Europe .”

Whether ruled by Kemalist secularists, aggressive nationalists or mild Islamists, Turkey is clearly headed west. For that, Turks have their veteran politician Bulent Ecevit to thank.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Sunday, November 05, 2006

OPINION: Good & Bad News re Hilaly

I have some good news and some bad news in relation to Sheik Hilaly.

The bad news is that, thanks to an aggressive media and political campaign, Hilaly will probably survive as Senior Imam of the mosque in Lakemba managed by the Lebanese Moslems Association (LMA).

The good news isn't really news at all. Hilaly's status in the wider Muslim community is the same as it was when he first arrived in Australia . For most Muslims, Hilaly barely registers on their spiritual radar.

3 out of 4 Muslims don't speak Arabic. The vast majority of Muslims communicate in English. When I want to communicate with Muslims in Sydney , I don't go to the Arabic press or speak on Arabic radio. I write for this newspaper. More Muslims in Sydney read this newspaper than any foreign language paper.

Sheik Hilaly just isn't capable of writing in this newspaper without an interpreter. He isn't capable of communicating with most Muslims without an interpreter. Sydney has over 150 mosques and well over 200 imams. Quite a few (though sadly not most) imams speak English. The rest are largely irrelevant outside their small congregations.

Most Muslims, like most Christians, hardly go to the mosque more than once or twice a year. Some go every Friday for the congregational prayer. The LMA mosque where Hilaly preaches can hardly fit 5,000 people. Auburn Gallipoli Mosque fits around 6,000 people.

This Sunday, Sydney 's newest mosque in Bonnyrigg will be officially opened. Citizenship Minister Andrew Robb will be there for the event. So will be the most influential imam in Australia .

Am I talking about Hilaly? Nope. Australia 's most influential imam is a man who presides over the vast majority of imams in Australia . Most mosques are managed by Turks. Most Turkish mosques employ Turkish imams. Virtually all Turkish imams are trained in Turkey under the Presidency of Religious Affairs, a body run by the Turkish government.

So when the head of the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs, Dr Ali Bardakoglu, visits Australia over the next week or so, it should be an event the media will notice. It certainly is being noticed at most Australian mosques.

I rarely if attend Friday congregational prayers at the LMA mosque in Lakemba. The sermon is always in Arabic. Very rarely is any translation done. I learn nothing at the sermon. Frequently, sermons are known to take upto 2 hours. I have work to do. Lakemba is too far for me to travel to. I'd rather pray where the sermon is in English and I can budget for time on a busy Friday afternoon.

Hilaly may proclaim himself to be the Mufti. But to most Australian Muslims, he is at best irrelevant and at worst a complete embarrassment. Non-Lebanese Sydney Muslims and Muslims from other cities and states regard Hilaly as a Lebanese problem. Disputes between Hilaly and his opponents in the Lebanese community are seen as a Lebanese turf war.

So when Australian-Lebanese GP Dr Jamal Rifi predicted Hilaly's refusal to resign would lead to rioting in the streets, the e-mail lists were hot. No, not hot with plans for which streets to burn and which windows to smash. Instead, Muslims were cracking jokes about how the only riot would probably be one in Dr Rifi's backyard!

Thankfully, Hilaly called off any protest or rally. He went on SBS Arabic Radio and on the Voice of Islam (VOI) Radio to speak. VOI has only one English-language program which runs for half an hour. The rest is in Arabic. Sheik Hilaly's call wouldn't have been understood by most Muslims, and few would have been interested in attending a rally in which virtually all speeches would be in Arabic.

Perhaps it is a good thing Hilaly refuses to learn English. If his views on Jews and women and cats were anything to go by, he deserves the status of irrelevance he has with Australia 's overwhelmingly non-Arabic-speaking Muslim communities.

An edited version of this article was first published in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday 4 November 2006.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

OPINION: Mufti of New Zealand?

Women who refuse to cover up to the level expected by Islamic teachings are comparable to meat. Men are comparable to cats that enjoy eating meat left out in the street. Women who appear in public dressed a certain way bring rape (or at least fornication) upon themselves.

You'd think these attitudes belong in the 19th century. Sadly, a Muslim prayer leader has been caught out delivering this message to some 500 Muslims at a Sydney mosque. The comments, made some weeks back during the sacred fasting month of Ramadan, are creating headlines across the world.

So why should any of this concern New Zealand readers? The prayer leader concerned, Sheik Tajeddine Hilaly, has been given the title of "Mufti of Australia, New Zealand & the South Pacific". And he has held this title for over a decade.

That means this latest case of "foot-in-mouth" disease from the Sheik may well reflect upon Muslims in New Zealand , many (if not most) of whom have probably never heard of him.

Across Australia, the Sheik's comments have been greeted with disgust and uproar by both Muslims and non-Muslims. The Chairman of the Islamic Council of Queensland has described the remarks as indefensible and that Sheik Hilaly should be “put in his place”. Waleed Aly from the Islamic Council of Victoria says the comments were “particularly inflammatory and really caused a lot of pain to a lot of people”.

Politicians have also stepped in, with Prime Minister John Howard calling upon Muslims to act decisively or risk harming relations between Muslims and the rest of Australia. The PM told ABC TV:

What I am saying to the Islamic community is this - that if they do not resolve this matter it could do lasting damage to the perceptions of that community within the broader Australian community, and that would be a tragedy.

That's all fine. But Australian Muslim leadership organisations are divided and seem powerless to act. The implications of their inaction could well be felt by Muslim communities across the Tasman and the Pacific.

New Zealand and South Pacific Muslims had little say in the appointment of Sheik Hilaly as their Mufti. The appointment was made during the late-1980's. At the time, Sheik Hilaly's immigration status was not finalised. He faced deportation after being caught out making grossly anti-Semitic remarks during a speech to students at the University of Sydney .

Paul Keating, Acting Prime Minister at the time, was keen to grant the Sheik permanent residency and so gain support from the Sheik's congregation who lived largely in Keating's electorate. Such a decision could only be made if Hilaly was given a special title. The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) decided to create the position of "Mufti" and appointed Hilaly to fill the post.

The term Mufti is frequently translated as spiritual leader or archbishop. Yet Islam knows no priesthood, and the Mufti is usually little more than a legal expert able to give authoritative but not binding opinions on the application of Islamic religious law to novel situations.

The appointment of Hilaly as Mufti was done without any meaningful consultation with Muslims on either side of the Tasman. No record seems to exist of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) or any peak Muslim body in the South Pacific endorsing the appointment.

Making matters worse, Hilaly is senior imam at a mosque managed by the Lebanese Moslems Association, a body which only allows males eligible for Lebanese citizenship to be members. So the Mufti of our region is imam at a mosque whose membership structure institutionalises racism and sexism.

Sheik Hilaly's recent remarks are the most recent instalment in a chequered career of offensive remarks. Some months back, just prior to the Lebanon conflict, Hilaly questioned the numbers of European Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Given that Australia 's Jewish communities have the largest concentration of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel , the remarks were particularly offensive.

Sadly, Sheik Hilaly's gaffes do remove focus from some of the good work he has done over the years. Ironically, Hilaly is among the more progressive imams when it comes to women's issues. As a founding member of the United Muslim Women's Association, Hilaly was instrumental in the establishment of Australia 's first Muslim women's refuge. He was also recognised by the Australian government as playing an instrumental role in the freeing of Australian hostage Douglas Wood from his Iraqi captors.

Even in relation to his recent comments, many Muslims felt Sheik Hilaly may have been misquoted by hostile elements in the Murdoch Press. Rupert Murdoch was quoted some months back as suggesting Muslim migrants had dual loyalties, and the flagship Murdoch broadsheet The Australian has allowed openly racist and xenophobic commentary about Muslims to be printed in its op-ed pages.

But on this occasion, the newspaper did its homework and released the recording of the Sheik's speech to other competing media outlets, all of whom came up with substantially the same translation.

Even worse is that Hilaly's words reflect attitudes not limited to some Muslims. AAP reported on October 27 a study showing two fifths of Australians surveyed believed men who rape do so as they are unable to control their urges. The Violence Against Women Community Attitudes Project survey also found one in four people believe domestic violence is OK as long as perpetrators genuinely regret it afterwards.

If the Hilaly incident illustrates anything, it is that society's attitudes toward violence against women need a major re-think on both sides of the Tasman.

An edited version of this article is to appear on 31 October 2006 in the Dominion-Post published in Wellington New Zealand.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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Monday, October 30, 2006

And now for something unrelated to Hilaly ...

PRIME Minister John Howard and his ministerial minstrels want Muslims to learn some genuine Australian values. In doing so, they have been misleading by example.

Different ministers provide differing lists of Australian values. Howard speaks of equality for women, an Australian value so treasured that, in the past seven years, reported incidents of domestic violence in Howard's home state of NSW have increased by about 50 per cent. He then condemned certain isolationist practices of Muslims before defending a fringe Christian sect with even more isolationist practices. Perhaps he was trying to encourage Muslims to run covert political campaigns against his enemies.

Former education minister Dr Brendan Nelson warned Muslim independent schools to clear off if they refused to emulate an English illegal immigrant and his donkey.

Treasurer Peter Costello advised Muslims against implementing sharia, before listing a set of Australian values that would find pride of place in an elementary sharia textbook. He followed this up with a lecture calling on Muslims to embrace the separation of church and state, his message being delivered to a conference of a Christian lobby which wants religion to play a more active role in Australian statehood.

Health Minister Tony Abbott spoke in less patronising tones, perhaps a reflection of his own experience of being lampooned for holding unfashionable religious views. Abbott encouraged Muslims to engage in more self-critique.

One value all ministers would agree on is the need for Muslims to embrace democracy. This means encouraging fair elections and ensuring government is representative of the governed. Once again, Howard is misleading by example. He is so committed to Muslim democracy that he will be deciding which Muslims will form part of the new Muslim community leadership that makes up his Muslim Community Reference Group.

Howard will hand-pick which Muslims he consults on matters potentially affecting all 360,000 Muslims (not to mention more than 19 million other Australians). He won't leave the choice to Muslims themselves. He has not even invited nominations.

Howard's record in his first Reference Group provided interesting outcomes. At least 50 per cent of Muslims are female. At least 50 per cent of Muslims were born after 1969 (the year I was born). Turks represent the largest ethno-religious community. Yet Howard's first reference group had only a handful of women and hardly any young people. And no Australian Turks.

Instead, Howard chose to surround himself with a group dominated by middle-aged migrant men with poor English skills and unable to challenge him on policy. He could then drop a few bombshell comments and watch as his hand-picked Muslims would scurry around. He could then attribute their behaviour to the entire Muslim population, thereby creating a useful diversion from more pressing political issues plaguing his administration.

His methodology is simple. He picks which Muslims he will talk to. He will then make nonsensical or provocative statements knowing his hand-picked Muslims will overreact. He will then blame all Muslims and shrug his shoulders as his problems with industrial relations, Telstra, Medibank Private, right-wing branch- stacking and AWB leave the front pages.

It is likely the next group of men (and a few token women and youth) Howard chooses for his next Muslim reference group will also satisfy the caricatured Muslims he has found so politically useful. They will be people who do not reflect the composition of a largely young, educated and home- grown faith-community.

His next reference group will be unlikely to have prominent Muslim women. He is likely to overlook Muslim business people, doctors, accountants, lawyers, bankers, journalists, public servants, sportspeople, local councillors and academics. He is unlikely to choose Muslims who have significant contacts and networks in the broader community which they can use to challenge him and mobilise opposition to his domestic and foreign policies.

He is unlikely also to appoint people who can challenge him on a political and public policy level in public and with a certain degree of media savvy. He is unlikely to pick Muslims who do not meet a stereotype. He won't pick ones of perhaps a lesser degree of religiosity but greater expertise.

Such Muslims exist in substantial numbers. For his patronising agenda, these Muslims are a problem. But for Australia's social cohesion, they are an essential part of the solution.

I hope Howard proves me wrong. I hope he selects prominent Muslim business people and professionals, journalists and academics, sportspeople and public servants. I hope at least 50 per cent of his reference group are women, and that at least 50 per cent are aged under 40.

In short, I hope he selects Muslims who best reflect the reality of Muslim Australia, not just another group of middle-aged male sycophants who oscillate between blind acceptance and even blinder reaction.

The author is a Sydney lawyer who has acted for Muslim peak bodies and independent schools. First published in the Canberra Times under the headline "PM's points of reference don't reflect reality of Muslim Australia" on 10 October 2006.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

COMMENT: Muslim criticism of Hilaly continues

Reaction in Muslim circles to the media assault on the embattled Sheik Hilaly has been largely negative. Even in his own ethno-religious backyard of Arabic-speaking Muslims from South-Western Sydney, Hilaly is facing plenty of criticism.

Any claims to Sheik Hilaly being possibly misinterpreted and mistranslated have been swept away. Richard Kerbaj from The Oz can feel exonerated by the fact that other media outlets (including SBS) have come up with effectively the same messages in Hilaly’s speech.

Lebanese Moslems Association President and Auburn Councillor Tom Zreika summed up the mood of Muslims everywhere when he told Fran Kelly on Friday words to the effect of:

We’ve been doing so much work to try and build bridges and now this incident has thrown all that work down the drain.

He also confirmed the LMA would take no action. With respect, this is a cop-out. There is plenty the LMA can and should do. They can start by sacking him from his role as Senior Imam at the mosque they manage.

The sad reality is that the LMA likes to present itself as “the largest and most established Muslim organization in Australia ”. Yet the reality is that full membership of the LMA (and hence voting rights and ability to sit on the executive) is limited to male Muslims eligible for Lebanese passports.

So you have this absurd situation where the senior imam of a mosque which practises membership apartheid claims the mantle of leadership of a multiethnic religious congregation.

Friday’s Daily Telegraph shows three prominent Muslim women (including a colleague of Tom Zreika’s on Auburn Council) standing outside Auburn Gallipoli Mosque expressing their condemnation. Mosque Prez Ibrahim Din was also there (as was yours truly). Din made the position of his congregation (and no doubt of Turkish-speaking Muslims who manage more mosques than any other ethnic group) clear: “He is not my Mufti”.

Sadly, some Muslim spokespeople continue to life with their heads in the sand. Executive Director of the Forum on Australia’s Islamic Relations (FAIR) Kuranda Seyit issued a Press Release this morning calling for an end to the “media witch hunt”, claiming: “I have read his public statement and apology and I am satisfied that Sheikh Taj did not imply that women are the cause of rape.” Yet FAIR’s resident scholar, Na’eem Abdul Wali has contradicted Seyit.

Perhaps the most colourful comment comes from one Canberra Muslim who e-mailed this to me:
Hilaly with two similar sphincter muscles at either end and nothing but **** comes out at either end I don’t whether to laugh or cry at his outburst; who needs enemies when we have this loose cannon on board. He should be reprimanded by Muslims first then others.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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Thursday, October 26, 2006


We, the undersigned Australian Muslims, wish to declare the following:

a. The views expressed by Sheik Hilaly don't reflect the views of Australian Muslim, particularly those of our generation brought up in
Australia .

b. Any form of violence against women must be condemned. Sexual violence is never justifiable or justified under any religious code, and Islam is no exception to this.

c. We call upon Sheik Hilaly's employers (AFIC and the Lebanese Moslems Association) to immediately investigate the comments made by Sheik Hilaly, to determine the accuracy of the translation prepared by the journalist Richard Kerbaj and to take immediate action against the Sheik should the translation prove substantially accurate and should the Sheik have been found to have made these or similar such comments.

d. We call upon Muslim religious and organisational leaders to make clear their opposition to and abhorrence of all forms of violence against women.

e. Violence against women is not just a Muslim issue. It is an issue affecting all Australians. Sadly, the views apparently expressed by Sheik Hilaly are too prevalent in the broader community, including in conservative and other political parties. Politicians who want to use the unrepresentative remarks of one imam to score political points would be better advised to deal with sexist and misogynistic trends within their own organisations.

f. We call upon Sheik Hilaly to immediately retract the comments made in his address and apologise to his own congregation and to the broader community for his outrageous comments.

Dated: 26 October 2006

Ms Wajiha Ahmed
Commissioner, Community Relations Commission

Mr Saeed Khan
Councillor, Marrickville Council

Ms Semra Batik
Councillor, Auburn Council

Mr Irfan Yusuf
UNIFEM White Ribbon Day Ambassador
Mevlana Lawyers Society

Ms Alia Karaman

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

COMMENT: Balancing the burqa

Some readers will be aware of the mass-debate in Europe concerning the veil worn by some Muslim women. What few are aware of is that this issue has been debated by Muslims themselves over the centuries. Canadian TV viewers have already had a taste of this debate later today. No doubt Australian TV viewers will also be treated to similar debates.

Only a small minority of Muslim women actually wear what has become known as the burqa, a tent-like single piece of cloth that covers women from head to tail. This is traditionally worn in Afghanistan and some parts of the Indian sub-Continent.

The burqa should be distinguished from the niqab which consists of a cloth to cover the hair and a separate cloth to cover the face except eyes. Only a minority of Muslim religious scholars have regarded the niqab as religiously mandated. The niqab is worn by a minority of Muslim women. Its historical origins arise from it being a symbol of female aristocracy as well as by reports that the wives of the Prophet Muhammad used to speak with men (other than the Prophet and men they would not marry such as their male relatives) from behind a curtain.

A larger minority of women wear the hijab which is of varying sizes and fashions and which covers only a woman’s hair. The hijab is commonly worn by Muslim woman in different styles and colours across the world, and can be adapted for climate and uniform requirements. Victorian policewoman Maha Sukkar was the first to wear the hijab as part of her uniform. In fact, some Western writers have coined the term muhajababes to describe women in the Muslim world who wear the hijab as a fashion symbol.

Although there is no empirical evidence to back this up, anecdotal evidence suggests most Muslim women do not cover their heads with anything other than an umbrella to protect against rain. However, many are upset by the insistence on some (usually male) politicians telling them how to dress. They also feel resentful at attempts to marginalise the few Muslim women who choose to wear any one of three forms of Muslim head dress.

Personally, I prefer not to wear a veil of any form. Though my partner often says I should wear a face veil if I haven’t shaved for a few days …

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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