Thursday, January 26, 2006

OPINION: Look past Bali bombers for true picture of Indonesia

I have just spent a couple of hours experiencing the lights and sounds and costumes of a ballet. But this was no Swan Lake. It was the performance of an ancient Hindu epic known as the Ramayana.

The costumes and masks of the cast were phenomenal, as were the accompanying orchestra and singers.

The ballet was performed in the shadow of one of the oldest Hindu temples on earth.

But what made the performance amazing was not the music, the instruments or costumes. It was that this ballet was being performed as a cultural performance in the world's largest Muslim country.

The Ramayana is performed regularly to Muslim audiences across this archipelago, 88 per cent of whose population regard themselves as Muslim.

When our delegation of young Australian Muslims arrived at the temple grounds, in the Indonesian university town of Yogyakarta, we were expecting to witness a distant relic of Indonesia's ancient pre-Islamic past.

Instead, we were greeted with the traditional Arabic greeting of "assalamu alaykum" (peace be with you).

It was unclear whether our hosts were Hindu or Muslim. But, without doubt, most of the actors were Muslim, as were most of the audience.

Many were young couples for whom a trip to a Hindu ballet was a culturally appropriate night out. Many were women wearing headscarves.

For Indonesian Muslims, Hindu and Buddhist influences are celebrated as part of their mainstream culture.

Islam arrived in Indonesia through traders and was spread peacefully by Chinese and Yemeni merchants.

It adapted to existing Hindu and Buddhist cultures and co-opted the symbols of these faiths.

In India, the birthplace of the Ramayana hero has become the scene of conflict.

Hindus claim the medieval Muslim king Babur built a mosque on the site, destroying an existing Hindu shrine.

The dispute over the mosque and its destruction by Hindu extremists in 1992 has led to religious riots in which tens of thousands have been killed across northern India.

But while the Ramayana hero is at the centre of conflict in India, Indonesian Muslim actors take part in a Ramayana ballet with a largely Muslim audience.

In Jakarta, our delegation visited Indonesia's largest mosque - the Masjid Istiqlal (Independence Mosque), which holds up to 50,000 people.

Before the traditional call to prayer, a drum is beaten, consistent with traditional Javanese Hindu culture. Women and men enter the mosque from the same entrance and pray in the same pavilion without any curtain.

It seems the largest Islamic country in the world is far more liberal in gender matters than other Muslim cultures in which women are often banned from the mosque or relegated to a separate area.

Across the road from the Independence Mosque is Jakarta's Catholic Cathedral. On Sundays, the cathedral's car park is quickly filled and the mosque authorities let Catholics park on the mosque premises.

In the post-Suharto era, the Chinese New Year has become a public holiday and is even being celebrated in some Indonesian mosques.

Perhaps Muslims in other parts of the world can learn from Indonesia's example.

Indonesia may be seen as a hotbed of extremism and anti-Western feeling. But whatever Indonesians may think of Western governments, their attitude toward all cultures and faiths appears far more open than many Western countries that claim to be multicultural.

The Ramayana Muslim artists are more representative of mainstream Indonesian Islam than the Bali bombers.

*Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer visiting Indonesia as part of a delegation of Young Australian Muslims. This article was first published in the New Zealand Herald on 26 January 2006.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

Sunday, January 15, 2006

POLITICS/COMMENT: Why Debnam's ethnic crime ploy makes little sense ...

On Thursday 12 January 2006, the Member for Vaucluse and NSW Opposition Leader Peter Debnam accused police of effectively behaving corruptly.

He said police had not been consistent in their patters of arrest during and following the Cronulla riots. He said they had not arrested a single person for the reprisal attacks, allegedly carried out by Middle Eastern youths from the Canterbury and Bankstown area, in the days following the Cronulla riots.

Mr Debnam suggested that various ALP MP’s, including the Premier himself, were telling police to go soft on Middle Eastern gangs. He even went so far as to state that the ALP was letting ethnic branch stacking of the late 1990’s to affect law enforcement.

Further, Mr Debnam suggested that certain ethnic communities pressured police and politicians to go soft on criminals. He said ...
The Labor Party seems to be indebted to certain ethnic groups ...
... without specifying which groups these were.

Basically, Mr Debnam was suggesting that police and politicians were allowing criminals to get away with all sorts of activities. He suggested some ethnic communities themselves were involved.

If Mr Debnam’s claims are correct, they should provide ICAC with enough work for it to take up another 5 floors of CBD office space. If Mr Debnam’s claims are untrue, he should do the decent thing and resign.

Debnam has decided to play ethno-religious wedge politics. He realises he has little chance of winning the next state election without some high-risk strategy that he hopes will yield high electoral return. Frankly, I think the whole thing will blow up in his face. For the sake of the people of NSW, I hope it does,

Before Mr Debnam starts playing the race card, he should consider having a few words with the former and current Federal Members for the Federal seat of Cook. This seat takes in Cronulla. He should take advantage of the combined wisdom of Bruce Baird and Stephen Mutch, both of whom have a string understanding of the area and are exceptionally astute in state and federal politics.

Bruce Baird’s assessment of the situation in Cronulla was one in which race was but one of a range of factors. ALP branch stacking is perhaps among the least relevant of these factors, presuming it appears at all on Mr Baird’s list.

Further, Mr Debnam’s comments show a complete ignorance of the various factions that make up the Lebanese communities. Lebanese Australians are not one monolithic community, and religion is not the only dividing line amongst this ethnic group. Further, most crime gangs include members from a range of ethnic and religious groups.

And why on earth would members of any ethnic community want thugs and gangs operating in their backyard? The prevalence of crime affects the quality of life of all people living in the Canterbury Bankstown region. The suggestion is almost as absurd as suggesting that the Vietnamese community benefits from criminal activities of criminals such as those involved in the murder of the former ALP State Member for Cabramatta.

When crime goes up in an area, property prices go down. I am no expert in real estate, but as far as I know, it’s impossible for any ethnic group to influence the property market so as to avoid such trends.

On Saturday January 14, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan attempted to show links between the ALP and even terror suspects, including the very non-Lebanese Willie Brigitte.

Sheehan and Debnam are trying to paint a picture of some deep dark Lebanese and/or Middle Eastern and/or Muslim conspiracy to protect criminal gangs. In doing so, they display both ignorance and hypocrisy.

Mr Debnam is quoted as saying he visited Auburn and saw a church burnt down. Which part of Auburn is he talking about? I lived in Auburn for a number of years and having even run as an endorsed Liberal candidate for a federal seat that takes in Auburn. I am in Auburn at least twice a week visiting friends and clients. I feel qualified to comment on the area.

As far as I know (and I have had this confirmed by locals), no church in Auburn was burnt down. Rather, a hall adjacent to a local church frequented by an Islander community was torched. Whether this attack was aimed at the adjacent church or the equally adjacent Islamic independent school is hard to say.

And it’s a bit rich for Debnam to talk about ethnic and religious branch stacking. Debnam knows the long history of links between the NSW Liberals and fringe ethno-religious groups. These groups include some of the most extreme elements in the Lebanese communities, both Christian and Muslim.

During my 10 years of involvement in Liberal branches in the seats of Canterbury, Bankstown, Auburn and East Hills, I was frequently approached by power brokers in the Right Wing of the NSW Liberal Party. At the time, some of these people were on State Executive. One is now in State Parliament. All form the backbone of Mr Debnam’s support base in the NSW Parliamentary Liberal Party.

I was often encouraged to use my personal contacts to recruit local Lebanese Muslims to branches, including those known to have been recruited to ALP branches during the preselection battle between Morris Iemma and Tony Stewart. Some of these people showed me their ALP membership cards. I mentioned this to the Right Wing power brokers. They said it didn’t matter so long as the State Director or the “Group” didn’t find out.

I was even told to use the line that we conservatives hated Jews, homosexuals and others. On one occasion, a right wing power broker (now a State MP) told me to use this reason to recruit members into the Auburn branch. He gave me this instruction following a meeting he arranged between myself and Auburn branch officials following my nomination to be the Liberal Candidate in the September 2001 Auburn by-election. The meeting took place at the Mado Turkish Restaurant in Auburn.

Thankfully, anti-Semitism was not the source of membership growth in our local branches. Rather, it was our consistent array of high profile guests such as the Mayor of Sarajevo and former Pakistan test cricket captain Imran Khan which led to most new members joining.

Of course, we all know about the ethno-religious wedge politics and stacking that Mr Debnam’s supporters tried to pull off at the Croatian Club in May 2004. That meeting was designed to revive the Bankstown Young Liberals.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on May 7 2004 of substantial violence at the meeting, resulting in police being called. Around 230 people attended the meeting, which erupted into an all-out brawl in which even a pregnant woman was attacked.

Eyewitnesses reported racial and religious taunts being made at certain persons applying to join the branch. One NSW Right supporter complained to the Herald that their factional opponents ...
... brought people along who have written articles against the government, a lot of people who are Muslims.
In the aftermath of the brawl, the Party’s head office promised a full investigation. The then State Director Scott Morrison told the Herald:
Anyone found to have engaged in misbehaviour through police inquiries can expect swift and sharp action from the party.
To this day, no such swift and sharp action has been taken.

The attempted reformation of the branch was undertaken at the request of then Young Liberal President Alex Hawke. It was widely seen as an attempt by the Religious Right to undermine the pre-selection chances of moderate Liberal Upper House member John Ryan. Ironically, Mr Ryan is himself a committed Christian.

The NSW Liberals seem prepared to do anything, including play racial and religious wedge politics. In doing so, they do themselves, their supporters and the people of NSW a grave disservice.

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

How cultural senility is ruining Australian conservative discourse

In 2003, I started a Masters of Laws program at the Australian National University (ANU). This meant returning to my family’s other ancestral city of Canberra (“other” as in apart from Delhi, India). I spent much of my time either in the ANU Law library or in a house I shared with a number of other post-graduate students in Melba.

Part of my time would also be spent walking around picturesque Lake Ginninderra or other parts of the Belconnen precinct. It was like being transported back in time to the East Ryde I grew up in the 1970’s – brick and fibro houses on quarter-acre blocks, Holden Kingswoods and small neighbourhood shops that would shot at 6pm on the dot.

And there were always the hotted-up cars. Boys will be boys. Although the Canberra boys were far more civilised than their ‘70’s East Ryde equivalents.

As a young boy riding my bike in East Ryde, I remember often having young boys with bad haircuts and hotted-up cars drive past me and scream abuse. And it wasn’t just me. Anyone who looked slightly different, whether presumed Chinese or Greek or Italian, would cop it.

In the playground at school, we were teased and even physically assaulted. My parents were often afraid to let me walk home after having witnessed a number of boys assault me. They were also afraid after one local boy from a Pakistani Christian family was repeatedly kicked, bashed and eventually stabbed by classmates on his way home. The boy died from his wounds.

Of course, we were taught never to regard all Anglo-Australians as being the same as these young people, even if their Anglo parents (and frequently even my Anglo teachers) did little to stop them. Indeed, I later discovered that other Anglo-Australians would also cop abuse. I could never understand why, given both groups had the same colour of skin, hair and eyes. Later I learnt the reason why some Aussies were also attacked – they were Catholics!

I always associated hotted-up cars with violent and racist youth. Now, some 30 years later, the hairstyles and clothes may have changed. Even the cars may have been slightly modernised. But not much else has changed. Be they retro Anglo-Aussie white Protestant chauvinists or “Lebs”, boys will be boys.

Some weeks back, whilst visiting a friend at Sydney’s only halal McDonalds in Punchbowl in the Arab heartland of south western Sydney, I noticed some young people with bad haircuts and even worse attitudes park their hotted-up car next to mine.

My friend is of Turkish background and was born in Australia. After we finished our meal and our discussion, my friend and I walked out to find these boys were using my car as a dinner table. When I asked them to remove their stuff, one remarked:

“Don’t f#ckin ask me to move my stuff, skippy!”

His other colleagues joined in the abuse. I noticed they were wearing necklaces with Arabic calligraphy of God’s name on their chests. One came upto me and said: “Don’t you mess with me or I’m gonna f#ckin kill you!”

On another occasion, I had stopped on a red light at the intersection of King Georges Road and Canterbury Road in Wiley Park. My car was in the right lane, and in front of me was a car with 3 young women seated. Next to them, turning right, was a car with young boys with baseball caps and bad haircuts. From their rear-view mirror was a red box carrying a Qur’an.

The attitude displayed by these boys was far from Qur’anic. They kept hissing and making sexual remarks toward the young women. Indeed, they were so engrossed in their abuse that they didn’t even notice the street light arrow for turning right had turned green. The girls drove on. I stopped my car for a brief moment and gave them a piece of my mind.

“Salam, boys. Is this how you’d like someone to speak to your mother or sister? Think about it. Your behaviour gives us Muslims all a bad name.”

The response from one of the boys was quite clear.

“F#ck off. You’re not even a Muslim. Those sluts were asking for it!”

I can tell storied like this until the cows come home. I can also pontificate about how some cultures are inferior to others. I can speculate about the influence of convict genes, or about how Protestants simply don’t know how to integrate with Catholics. I can use anecdotal evidence to condemn an entire culture.

Like some of the opinion writers from that often uninformed Australian newspaper, I could quote statistics on the numbers of Anglo kids during the 1970’s who refused to marry outside their culture. I could even remind you all about why a certain historian was right about why we shouldn’t allow “slaps” and “gooks” into the country.

But what would that achieve? Unless you are an amateur or have an axe to grind, you don’t build social policy on anecdotes. You use facts and research and derive rational conclusions.

To claim that there is something culturally wrong with all Australian Muslim men simply because of the sick comments of certain convicted gang- rapists just doesn’t compute. And if you do wish to make claims like this, at least take some time to read the sources of this culture.

It is inherently irrational to judge people according to their race or colour. It is even more lame to hate people for that reason. So why is it that so many allegedly conservative writers and politicians play the raced card?

I guess because some conservatives still haven’t realised that they are no longer at university. Yes, it was all fun and games at uni to pretend to be a fascist just to upset student activists from the Left. I did it myself in first year. I was part of a ticket for the student magazine called “NASA” which stood for “No Asshole Socialists Anymore!”. Our symbol was a rocket smashing through the hammer and the sickle. Our group photo consisted of a group of starving Africans lifted from the promotional material of an aid agency.

Yes, it was funny back then to oppose everything the Left stood for. Even when they were right (or should that be Right?). But some conservatives just never grow up.

Which explains why so many pseudo-conservative writers who only seem to appear in pages of that most tabloid of American broadsheets The Australian will attack any idea the Left supports. Why? On what basis? Purely because the Left are supporting it.

Soon we will be reading Keith Windschuttle or John Stone waxing lyrical about why conservatives should be opposing mathematics because the Left say it’s right. Or perhaps we’ll read Mark Steyn trumpeting about how murder should be decriminalised. When you combine ideological immaturity with bland senility, almost anything is possible.

The other day I had coffee with a reporter from The Australian. He told me about how he was now in charge of reporting on the broad Arab/Muslim sector (whatever the hell that means). He asked me why he is getting so much resistance from people in various communities in providing him with information.

I advised him to read the op-ed pages of his paper and figure it out for himself. Hey, I think it’s great that at least one broadsheet is prepared to print conservative stuff. But why print the most lunatic writers? Or are we playing a game of opposites with Fairfax and the ABC?

Still, not all conservatives are stupid. Just as not all Fairfax papers are printed by the devil. Michael Baume writes some absolute beauties for the Australian Financial Review. John Hewson isn’t bad either, though some may not regard him as a conservative.

So there is plenty of variety of opinions and thoughts and beliefs in various sectors of the Australian community. Generalisations are for dimwits. Serious analysis of people and events requires research and understanding. Throwing mud at an entire community requires a certain degree of basic stupidity. These days, it seems there’s more stupidity on the conservative side.

Perhaps what we really need is a government led by the Member for Warringah …

© Irfan Yusuf 2005