Wednesday, March 01, 2006

OPINION: Costello's views of sharia code don't coincide with the reality

IN A SPEECH to the Sydney Institute last week, Peter Costello says that people coming to Australia should evidence commitment to Australia and certain undefined but apparently understood Australian values. Mr Howard agrees. So do I.

Costello also says anyone who believes that sharia can co-exist with Australian law should leave Australia. Howard says Costello's comments are fundamentally accurate.

In fact, both Costello's comments and Howard's endorsement illustrate their fundamental ignorance on Muslim religious cultures. That ignorance is echoed in the broader community. However, migrant Muslim leaders have responded immaturely. They have relied more on media spin than on a careful consideration of the speech itself.

I myself was initially almost swept away by the tsunami of spin. Then I thought I should at least make an effort to read the speech. On the Saturday afternoon following the speech, I had to address a forum on the topic of Unity in Diversity organised by a Canberra group called Forum Australia. Joining with me were a number of community leaders, including Liberal MLA Steve Pratt.

Pratt is no dummy when it comes to sharia. He has spent years working in Muslim-majority countries as an aid worker. Pratt and I agreed that when it came to sharia, Costello was shooting from the hip. Costello probably has little knowledge of what sharia is or how Muslims understand and implement it.

Aussie Muslims view sharia as another word for liturgy, the outward manifestation of worship and ritual. Banning sharia effectively means banning Islam. Muslims also view sharia as the broad corpus of Muslim legal tradition evolved over 1400 years, a legal tradition in the same sense that we have the common law and European civil law traditions.

For Costello, sharia seems little more than a synonym for disloyalty, violence, amputation or stoning. Therefore Muslims compromise their Australianness by subscribing to a religion which has its own sacred legal tradition.

Both Howard and Costello have legal training. Both should understand there is more to any legal tradition than merely criminal punishment. Both are showing a surprising degree of ignorance about what sharia actually is.

Sharia has rules limiting its jurisdiction, with the ultimate sanction being conscience. Sharia itself says that its criminal sanctions and public law have no jurisdiction in Australia or any other western country. The most important principle of sharia affecting Australian Muslims is that they obey the law of the land.

Fundamental to Australian practise of sharia are certain broad ethical principles which most people practise without necessarily knowing these form part of sharia. The principles in no way conflict with the current state of Australia's evolving law and culture. What are these principles?

In December 2002, Professor Muhammad Fajrul Falaakh, VICE Dean of the prestigious Gadjah Mada University and one of Indonesia's top legal academics, gave lectures as a guest of the Centre for Independent Studies. His talks focused on the place of sharia in emerging pluralist liberal societies such as Indonesia. He described sharia ethics as guaranteeing five basic protections: protection of freedom of religious practice, of life, of freedom of thought and conscience, of property rights and of matrimonial and reproductive rights.

Perhaps Mr Costello could point out where any of these sharia principles conflict with Australian law, Australian values or Australian citizenship. Surely these principles would form the basis of any civilised society, Islamic or otherwise.

Professor Abdullah Saeed's 2004 study entitled "Muslims in Australia - Their Beliefs, Practices and Institutions", funded by the Howard Government and based on the 2001 Census, showed that Muslims represent less than 2 per cent of the population.

However, for reasons perhaps best known to Liberal Party pollsters, the PM and his Treasurer have spent much of the last week misrepresenting the fundamental religious teachings of this tiny portion of the Australian community. Mr Costello recently called for Muslims to pledge their allegiance to Australia and Australian values before criticising his comments. Will Mr Costello be asking the same of the Federal Opposition before each Question Time?

The challenge for Muslims now is to inform ordinary Australians on exactly why Howard and Costello's expressed views on basic Islamic teachings are wrong. The vast majority of Muslims aren't interested in imposing sharia law as more than just a set of personal religious values which in no way conflict with mainstream Australian values. People who dispute this simply have no idea of what sharia means to Aussie Muslims. The time has come for Muslims to educate them.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and endorsed Liberal candidate for the seat of Reid in the 2001 Federal Elections. This article was first published in the Canberra Times on 1 March 2006.