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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COMMENT: Catching Danny’s Fire at Parliament House

On the evening of Tuesday October 24 2006, I joined President of “Catch The Fire Ministries” and Assemblies of God Pastor Danny Nalliah in a Round Table Forum held at Parliament House on the topic of Terrorism and the Death of Democracy.

I was running late to the Forum, quite typical for people of Muslim background. American Muslim stand-up comic Preacher Moss referred to this phenomenon in his comedy act recorded on the Allah Made Me Funny DVD. He pretended he was a TV reporter covering a hurricane …

This is Bob Johnson from Action News. We’re down here in Orlando awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Abdel Malik. It was meant to be here 8 hours ago but you know how they are!

I spoke first. And at first, I admit I was a bit stunned to discover that my notes were not with me. I’d left them in the car!

Still, I did make some remarks of how I viewed key notions of “democracy” and “terrorism”. My basic thesis was that democracy was perhaps more threatened by our response to terrorism than by terrorism itself.

I took some detailed notes of what Danny Nalliah said. It perhaps wouldn’t be fair of me to rely purely on these notes, especially given that he himself was unable to keep to his prepared speech. I can’t say I blame him given the general and broad nature of the topic.

Some of Rev Nalliah’s comments did disturb me. I felt disturbed that Nalliah was pandering to a certain redneck sentiment which has become the new form of political correctness, especially since the Liberals have co-opted the rhetoric and sentiments of a certain former small businesswoman from Ipswich.

The main points of Nalliah’s speech might be summarised as follows:

1. The mindset of people living outside the West needs to be understood. Virtually all Asians are deeply religious and are quite open about their religious identity.

2. Most Easterners regard people with white skin as being Christian. They then attribute the excesses of Hollywood and other forms of Western decadence to Christianity.

3. Many Easterners who migrate to Australia are troubled when they meet Westerners who are openly atheist or without religion.

4. The extreme Left’s secular push into government and policy making has created an environment of decadence which terrorist groups use to argue that the West is evil.

5. The Christian Right needs to emerge and capture the political and social agenda of Australia. It needs to take Australia back to its Judeo-Christian heritage and foundations.

6. Immigrants need to be educated about the realities of Australian life. Immigrants need to stop playing the victim. They should stop becoming ghettoised. Multiculturalism must be opposed completely. We can have a multi-ethnic Australia but not a multicultural Australia.

7. If we have different cultures being imposed on Australia, we will end up with a civil war.

8. Under Sharia law, it is a punishable offence to criticise the government.

9. Western governments and communities should stop apologising.

10. Muslims need to stop saying one thing in public to the TV cameras and another in the privacy of their homes.

11. Most Muslims may not be terrorists but most terrorists are Muslims.

After listening to Nalliah’s speech (which went around 20 minutes overtime), I was wondering if he had forgotten what the topic was. Certainly many people from his ministry (who seemed to dominate the audience) cared little for the topic. Most asked questions about particular verses from the Koran or sayings of the Prophet which allegedly point to varying forms of violence.

One Bangladeshi chap stood up and claimed he had studied Islam upto Masters level and was an ex-Muslim. I asked him where he studied Islam. He replied in his village madressa (religious primary school). I’d never known any village madressa (or indeed any primary school) to hand out Masters degrees. He later admitted that the madressa he studied in was from the Ahl-i-Hadis sect, which makes up hardly 2% of the total Muslim population of Bangladesh.

An assortment of Middle Eastern Christians stood up and embarrassed themselves by screaming incoherent noises (I felt like Sheik Hilaly and his bodyguards had just converted to Christianity!) about Christians being oppressed by pro-Western governments. Perhaps they expected me to defend governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Yeah, right.

In fact, one Lebanese chap who claimed to have converted from Islam to Christianity (in his case, no doubt a happy-clappy variety) went onto declare that Lebanon is an Islamic state. I doubt most Lebanese would agree with him.

One audience member asked me what I thought of alleged Muslim intolerance to other faiths. I told him that intolerance to any faith was intolerable. I then called upon Mr Nalliah to retract the statement he made in his Ministry newsletter which called upon his members to pray for God to tear down Hindu, Buddhist and Masonic temples.

On numerous occasions Mr Nalliah mentioned his Tamil Sri Lankan background. He said that Tamils were fighting for their rights in Sri Lanka. It is quite possible that Tamils were and are experiencing discrimination from the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. But what struck me was that not once did he condemn the Tamil Tigers, despite it being pointed out that they were the most prolific group of suicide bombers in the world.

One lady commented on how Mr Nalliah spent his speech talking about acts of terror by Muslims against Christians. She asked why he did not mention Bosnia or Chechnia as examples of Christian violence and terror against Muslims. Nalliah replied by mentioning that he was told by Serbian soldiers he had visited that Bosnian Muslims were in fact ex-Kosovar Albanians who were allowed to move into Bosnia by Serb authorities.

All in all, it was lots of fun to sit back and watch the event descend into a circus of Christian Right fanaticism and intolerance. I hope Rev Nalliah is provided with more opportunities to speak on these issues. I also hope he brings his rent-a-crowd with him. Certainly it makes for excellent entertainment.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

RELIGION/COMMENT: Religious festivals back-to-back

This year, 2 major festivals of 2 major world religions will coincide.

Over the weekend, Hindus will commemorate the Festival of Lights, otherwise known as Divali (or Dipavali in southern India) commemorating the reunion of Lord Rama with his bride Sita (known in Indonesia as “Cinta”).

The story of Rama and Sita is found in the ancient Hindu epic called the Ramayana. In India, the birthplace of Rama (the north Indian city of Ayodhya) has become a warzone, Hindu militants destroying a medieval mosque in 1992 leading to religious riots in which tens of thousands have been killed across northern India.

Meanwhile, Indonesian Muslim actors regularly perform the Ramayana ballet to largely Muslim audiences. In January, I was fortunate enough to see a traditional Ramayana ballet performed in Yogyakarta. 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. Indonesian Muslims take their Hindu heritage seriously.

Speaking of Muslims, this morning most Muslims across Australia conclude their fasting month of Ramadan with prayers and a feast. The festival (called Eid by Arabs, Bayram by Turks and Hari Raya by Malays and Indonesians) is traditionally a time for visiting families as well as praying for the souls of departed loved ones.

Not all Muslims will be celebrating the end of the fasting month tomorrow. I realise some people out there believe imams and other Muslims are part of a huge conspiracy to destroy Western civilisation, plotting and planning our downfall through violence and terror.

The reality is that imams cannot even agree on how to determine the precise dates of major festivals! In November, three Muslim comics from North America will be performing their Allah Made Me Funny comedy show in Sydney and Melbourne. One of their number, Chicago lawyer Azhar Usman, tells of one of his colleagues telling him: “Listen, Azhar, I have absolutely no interest in organised religion.”

Azhar’s response? “Well, then, become a Muslim. We are the most disorganised religion on earth!”

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

COMMENT: Sunni & Shia - Can you tell the difference?

ASIO’s latest Annual Report to Parliament suggests sectarian violence in Iraq could spill over between Middle Eastern Sunni and Shia communities in Australia. It claims tensions are high in Auburn, a suburb having the highest Muslim concentration in Sydney.

I lived in Auburn for a number of years, and also practised law in the suburb and its surrounds. In 2001, I was a candidate for federal election in the area. I don’t have access to ASIO intelligence, but I wonder whether the subtle nuances affecting relations within and between Muslim sects can be reflected in a summarised Report.

The Sunni-Shia divide goes beyond people of the Middle Eastern appearance. Auburn also has substantial Shia communities of South Asian and Afghan origins. Sunni-Shia violence has been endemic in Pakistan for much longer than in Iraq. A few days after the Mumbai train bombings, Pakistan’s most senior Shia religious scholar Allamah Hassan Turabi was killed in a suicide bomb attack in Karachi.

Afghan Shias of the Hazara tribe faced persecution from the staunchly anti-Shia Taliban. Many still face persecution for tribal reasons from the Northern Alliance government, a loose coalition of former Mujahideen fighters dominated by members of the Tajik (ironically mainly Shia) and Uzbek tribes.

Muslims in Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and other countries with substantial Shia communities frequently marry across sects. One of my campaign workers was an Afghan Hazara Shia who was a refugee in Pakistan for a decade before coming to Australia. He was married to a Pakistani Muslim from a Sunni family. He used to perform his prayers regularly at an Auburn mosque jointly managed by Sunni and Shia Afghans.

Perhaps more troublesome than tensions between Sunnis and Shias are tensions within the two congregations. Politics in Iraq is not just based on sect, but is also affected by nationality, tribe and ethnicity.

For instance, within Iraqi Sunni communities we find tensions between different ethnic groups – Turkmens, Arabs and Kurds. Iraq’s Shia Muslims are also not a political monolith, with numerous parties competing for support from Iraq’s largest religious congregation.

That some local security agencies lack sophisticated understanding of the nuances of Sunni-Shia relations shouldn’t surprise anyone. National Security Editor of Congressional Quarterly Jeff Stein recently wrote in the New York Times that he frequently gets blank stares when asking security officials if they can identify Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

POLITICS/COMMENT: Yet another far-Right stack undermines Debnam's leadership of NSW Liberals

The hard-Right currently ruling the roost in the Liberal Party may know how to win internal ballots. But the real test is whether they can help Peter Debnam become Premier. My guess is they simply won’t.

Debnam knows Hawkesbury MP Steve Pringle was spot-on when he spoke of his conversations with preselectors installed by the hard-Right. Pringle told one paper:
I rang a large number of preselectors and they had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. They had no idea about the preselection, no idea about the Liberal Party.
Four Corners viewers will recall the delightful Betty Habkouk’s conversation with Janine Cohen:
JANINE COHEN: Does anyone know what branch stacking is?

BETTY HABKOUK: I beg your pardon.

JANINE COHEN: Branch stacking. Never heard of it?


JANINE COHEN: Branch stacking is when people are encouraged to join the party but they never go to meetings.

BETTY HABKOUK: Oh, that sounds like us. We do that. We joined, but we don't go.
The hard-Right have saturated branches with people with no interest in campaigning. During their long reign over the NSW Liberals, the Group also engaged in branch stacking. The difference was that Group stackers generally had some interest in politics and were happy stuffing letterboxes and handing out on polling day.

The Group were a formidable campaigning machine who helped any candidate regardless of factional affiliation. I witnessed the Young Liberal “flying squad” providing essential support in numerous campaigns – from Ross Cameron in Parramatta to Jackie Kelly in Lindsay (including her often nail-biting 1996 by-election). When editing the Young Right’s pro-Action magazine, I said and wrote nasty things over the years about the Group. That didn’t stop Senator Marise Payne’s office joining Tony Abbott’s Warringah Federal conference offering much needed assistance during my 2001 campaign in the Federal seat of Reid.

The current Young Libs are largely disinterested in campaigning. The old "flying squad" has been all but dismantled. The Communications Director spends much of his time defending Opus Dei and attacking non-Christian religions on the ozlibs e-mail group.

It’s one thing to be conservative. It’s another to be loopy. When factional hacks can only offer Peter Debnam with stackers ignorant and/or disinterested in politics, he can look forward to plenty more repeats of Pittwater.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

Finally Imams develop coherent response to Papal remarks

It seems that the usually irrelevant Muslim intellectual force we know of as world imams may have finally gotten together to issue an intelligent response to the Pope’s recent speech about faith and reason. And as always, it’s English-speaking Western imams (mostly converts) who are leading the intellectual charge.

The Jordan-based Islamica magazine, produced by the followers of mainstream American Imam Nuh Ha Mim Keller, has published an open letter to the Pope signed by 38 leading religious scholars.

Keller is a staunch critic of Muslim terrorist groups, and is part of a network of scholars seeking to revive ‘traditional Islam’ (TI) along with scholars from across the Western world. TI represents mainstream Sunni consensus and sharply differentiates itself from modernist political forms of ‘Salafi’ (sometimes called ‘Wahhabi’) Islam such as that advocated by the likes of Benbrika.

Among the other signatories are Cambridge academic Tim Winter (also known as Imam Abdal-Hakim Murad), Imam Zaid Shakir and the popular Imam Hamza Yusuf Hanson. All are prominent TI practitioners.

Signatories include leading theologians of prominent European Muslim communities – Bosnia, Croatia, Russia, Kosovo and Slovenia. They represent all 8 schools of Islamic thought and jurisprudence, and include one female scholar. The letter appears to be the initiative of Imams Hanson (USA) and Winter (UK).

Imam Winter has toured Australia once. He has openly criticised migrant-dominated institutions for creating unnecessary problems for converts. He has criticised British Muslim migrants for living in ethnic ghettoes, and has been a staunch critic of suicide bombing.

TI practitioners encourage their followers to adopt the best aspects of Western cultures. The student of one American Sufi scholar, Chicago lawyer Azhar Usman, is visiting Australia and New Zealand in November as part of a comedy trio calling themselves the Allah Made Me Funny! show. Usman also writes the “Oxymoronic” column for Islamica magazine poking fun at Muslim responses to criticism.

TI is fast replacing migrant imams as sources of spiritual guidance for young Aussie Muslims. TI lectures can be found on the iPods of Western Muslims from Christchurch to Adelaide to Chicago to London. If TI represents Islam’s future, we really don’t have much to worry about. Though al-Qaida and JI should start panicking.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

SPORT: More Pakistan cricketing controversy

As if it wasn’t bad enough being accused of cheating by umpires. As if it couldn’t get worse with the team forfeiting a match after being in a winning position. Now two top clergy of Pakistan’s real religion have been caught taking steroids.

Pakistani cricket is going from bad to worse. At the same time, it is making history. Yesterday two of its leading fast bowlers (including the world’s fastest bowler Shoaib Akhtar) have been implicated in what surely must be cricket’s worst drugs scandal. Both Akhtar and his fellow pace bowler Mohammad Asif have been sent home from the Champions Trophy in India after testing positive to anabolic steroids.

The entire nation of Pakistan has ground to a virtual halt. The fact that these two key players were caught in India, an old rival in both cricket and politics, makes matters even worse. But Shaib Akhtar’s doctor has defended the pace bowler, claiming that Akhtar may have taken the drugs accidentally. Yep, it’s easy getting steroids confused for tandoori chicken.

Pakistani newspapers are naturally giving the issue plenty of courage. Pakistani cricketing officials have only recently introduced an anti-doping policy, and for two prominent players to be caught so soon surely must raise questions on how many top Pakistani fast bowlers could have been caught before the policy came into place.

This is only the 3rd time players have been caught using steroids. The previous two players included Shane Warne and West Australian bowler Duncan Spencer. The difference in this case is that Aussies don’t follow cricket with the fanaticism of Pakistanis.

Cricketers are almost worshipped in the Indian sub-Continent. And that higher they get, the harder they fall. Pakistanis are known to be particularly vicious with losing captains and players out of form.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Thoughts on New Zealand Anti-Terror Strategies

A tiny minority of young Australian-born Muslims are increasingly being seen as a security threat.

Australian police recently arrested three young Muslim men, joining 15 or so co-religionists, the bulk of them born and brought up in Australia.

The most recent annual report by the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) identifies a strategic change in the approach of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, a change which happened in 2002.

Dr Paul Buchanan's response on these pages supports the assessment of Australian security expert Clive Williams of the Australian National University. Williams argues that Australian involvement in Iraq and other overseas conflicts has put Australia on the terrorists' radar.

But in fighting terrorism, authorities must understand that Islamic teachings aren't the problem, nor are most Muslims.

Even critics will agree with the SIS's assessment that extremist groups have focused on recruiting "individuals inspired rather than directed who were citizens or permanent residents of the countries in question, and who were not previously regarded as of major security concern".

New Zealand's media have shown sensitivity to the religious sentiments of minorities, and Muslim communities need to take some responsibility. One cannot expect any religious denomination to act as an intelligence or law enforcement agency, but community leaders can limit the attraction of extremism by helping young Muslims get maximum exposure to the broad spectrum of Islamic theology and culture.

Sadly, some migrant Muslim communities treat Islam as a cultural relic. The needs of young people and converts are ignored, giving extremists more recruitment opportunities.

UK Muslim institutions are dominated by first-generation, largely sub-Continental migrants employing non-English speaking imams more interested in sectarian and cultural feuds of little relevance to British Muslims.

Those believed to be responsible for the London attacks were young emotional and ideological refugees from Muslim mosques and institutions uninterested in assisting young people caught swinging between spiritual and cultural poles.

The migration experience is traumatic. Sadly, the greater trauma of children growing up between multiple cultural and religious values and expectations is often ignored.

Many young Muslims feel alien, whether at home or outside, unsure of their identity and more prone to depression and anxiety than their peers who don't experience such cultural confusion. Those at the helm of Muslim institutions must understand that any failure to assist young Muslims manage identity-related crises could pose a security threat for the broader community.

Australia's leading Muslim organisations have not provided a good example. The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils has no youth representatives on its board and is composed almost exclusively of middle-aged men born outside Australia. Its adviser on youth affairs is an imam in his 60s with no English.

Subsequent generations of Australian Muslims find mainstream mosques irrelevant and instead are attracted to youth centres managed by more radical imams who speak fluent English and who gained their ideas studying in Saudi Arabia.

New Zealand's Muslim community doesn't have some of the negative features found in Australia. However, mosque management committees are often controlled by first-generation migrants, with no strategy for inter-generational transfer.

Muslim institutions must ensure Islam doesn't become a piece of cultural baggage left at the airport. If young people and converts are not catered for, most will eventually leave Islam altogether. But some may fall under the spell of extremist theology.

* Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer who has acted for Muslim bodies and independent schools. First published in the New Zealand Herald on 13 April 2006.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Thursday, October 05, 2006

CRIKEY: Petro's spot-on when it comes to citizenship

Whatever you think of Petro Georgiou’s form of wet liberalism, his logic on citizenship issues is faultless. There is bugger-all evidence of chronic integration problems with migrants of any background. Indeed, the apparent problems cited are the same which have been levelled at virtually all migrants at some time or other.

Here's how Petro put it ...

By any standard, we are an exemplar of unity and respect for our multicultural diversity. We have brought together peoples of diverse nations, religions and cultures. Migrants have worked hard and committed themselves to this country. Through their efforts and initiative they have profoundly enriched the nation.

Until a few weeks ago, this was an article of faith on the part of every politician. Now we are told we need to make significant policy changes to address weaknesses in our citizenship laws.

What are the societal malfunctions that justify these changes?

I have looked closely at the Federal Government's discussion paper Australian Citizenship: much more than just a ceremony, and I can find no detailed, robust analysis of a problem, and no evidence of how the new measures would resolve a problem that has not been demonstrated.
Today, those accused of failing to integrate are Muslim Australians. The PM has made various confused and confusing references to Muslim integration. At one stage, he argued that Muslims were a new group, separate from post-war European and more recent Asian arrivals.

This, of course, is nonsense. A few nights back, I met a Bosnian developer who is heavily involved in the management of 2 Canberra mosques. He arrived in Australia during the mid-1960’s. One of Howard’s most senior immigration bureaucrats is the son of an Indian Muslim historian who had been teaching at ANU since at least the late 1950’s.

One Bosnian Imam I know based in Sydney is married to a lady I used to attend Muslim youth camps with back in the mid-1980’s. Her ultra-conservative father arrived in Australia in the same wave as other Croatian migrants.

It seems strange that a Prime Minister so concerned about accuracy in history teaching should make such fundamental errors about Australia’s first century.

At other times, Howard has suggested that the lack of integration only exists in (at most) 1% of Muslim migrants. Muslims make of 2% of the total population, numbering around 350,000. The number of problem Muslims numbers around 3,500.

In the world of fiction that is talkback radio and tabloid blogging (something I too can be accused of engaging in), some 3,500 non-integrating Muslims are a national security risk. Alternately, they tend to gang-rape Aussie girls or bash up surf lifesavers. Yet there are at least 20,000 members of the Exclusive Brethren whose leaders have been accused of being party to a host of illegal activities including: Centrelink fraud, breaching Family Court orders, engaging in schemes designed to avoid paying tax etc.

The PM’s formula on integration is based on poor information and a fundamental misunderstanding of the true relationship between culture, integration and national security. As Peter Costello rightly observed in his Sydney Institute address on citizenship, it isn’t people having the wrong culture that is the problem. Rather, it’s kids living

... in a twilight zone where the values of their parents old country have been lost but the values of the new country not fully embraced.
With all this nonsensical attempt by the Howard governments to regulate culture and legislate integration, it won’t just be Muslims finding themselves in a twilight zone.

(First published in Crikey! on 5 October 2006.)

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

TERRORISM/COMMENT: Keelty exonerated …

In March 2004, Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty came under fire from Government ministers for daring to claim Australia’s role in Iraq would increase the terrorist threat to Australia.

At the time, Keelty was muzzled in no uncertain terms by the PM’s Office. His comments were effectively disowned by the Foreign Minister, the Attorney General and the Chief of Australia’s Defence Forces.

Soon the Director-General of ASIO, Dennis Richardson felt the political pressure and announced that Spain’s support for the Iraq war wasn’t related to bombings in Madrid. The soon-to-be-elected Spanish government did not agree, and almost immediately withdrew all its troops from Iraq.

Now a newly released US national intelligence estimates report confirms Mr Keelty’s assessment. American intelligence officials have effectively confirmed Keelty’s warnings, and our politicians continue to expose us to increased risks of terrorist attack.

The government’s response has been to rabbit on about values and non-integrated Muslims allegedly posing a security threat. Yet now, with AWB documents showing executives and managers joking about Saddam’s genocide against Kurds (and ministers who knew or should have known this to be the case), Australia will definitely be within the radar of Kurdish and other groups.

Keelty was right all along. But don’t expect Howard and Downer to admit it.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf