Saturday, September 23, 2006

Is Andrew Robb sponsoring fringe isolationist Islam?

Rupert Murdoch’s flagship broadsheet The Australian has spent much of its time reporting on Muslim issues in recent times. Most of that reporting has been written by Richard Kerbaj, a young Australian reporter of Lebanese Druze extraction.

Kerbaj has in recent times obtained much of his information from a member of the Prime Minister’s hand-picked Muslim Community Reference Group named Mustapha Kara-Ali. Kerbaj’s information on radical (and not-so-radical) sheiks has also come from Kara-Ali.

Despite his denials, Kara-Ali is closely associated with the shadowy al-Ahbash sect, a fringe group found only amongst Lebanese and Syrian Sunni Muslims. The sect is very close to Syria’s Ba’athist government. Two members of the sect have been implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri.

For over a year now, the Federal Government has made clear its preference for the sect, known for their extreme opposition to anything linked to Sheik Tajeddine Hilali. There is no love lost between Hilali and the sect, and both compete for mastery over the Lebanese and broader Arabic-speaking Muslim sector.

Which effectively makes them completely irrelevant to the majority of Australian Muslims who share little or no affinity to that sector. When the al-Ahbash set up a national umbrella body, they named it after the Sunni Muslim body in Lebanon “Darul Fatwa” (literally “office of religious legal rulings”). Virtually all programs broadcast on their Sydney-based community radio station are broadcast in Arabic.

Compare this to the Ramadan radio program of the Canberra Islamic Centre, 100% of which are in English.

Kara-Ali claims he has no links to the shadowy sect. He has, however, admitted to me that he spent years of his high schooling in Lebanon where he spent much time sitting at the feet of the al-Ahbash sect’s spiritual leader Sheik Abdullah Hareri al-Habashi. Kara-Ali regards himself as a disciple of al-Habashi but claims he is not involved in the sect’s Australian front organisations including the Islamic Charitable Projects Association.

My own personal dealings with the sect are dealt with elsewhere. Readers will see that the sect is known for its narrow interpretations of Islamic texts which reinforce the isolationist tendencies of many Lebanese Muslim migrants.

Kara-Ali has been invited on numerous occasions to state categorically that he is not linked to the shadowy sect. He has refused to do so, and has even been caught out defending both himself and the sect on e-mail groups using false names.

Kara-Ali is not known to have links with any established Muslim youth groups such as Young Muslims of Australia or Awareness Education Australia. He has never served on the executive of any Muslim student body, nor has he attended any “Train-the-Trainers” sessions in which young Muslims are taught on how to explain their faith and culture to the broader community.

The Oz columnist Matt Price has written extensively about Kara-Ali’s BIRR project, a copy of which I received from Kara-Ali some months back. The project aims to equip young Muslims to learn their faith without adopting more extreme trends.

The theology of BIRR seems to be based on the isolationist teachings of the al-Ahbash sect. Naturally, one cannot expect Price to be aware of all the sectarian nuances unique to Lebanese Islam.

Kara-Ali’s message of rejecting victimhood is praised by both Price and Citizenship Minister Andrew Robb, both of whom seem to think any questioning of the paradigm of “violent Islam” is “backing off to square leg” (to use cricketing parlance).

When identical arguments are used by other Muslim leaders such as Waleed Aly (who regularly writes for The Oz) and by independent Muslims (such as a certain former Liberal Party federal election candidate who needn’t be named), not much is said.

(In the case of the latter, it is probably because he has also spent much of his time criticising the government for its hypocrisy in not dealing with religious extremists within the Liberal Party organisation and for failing to select Muslim Reference Group members that truly reflect the realities of Muslim Australia.)

The Federal Government has now virtually adopted Kara-Ali as their official moderate Muslim (or, as the Daily Telegraph puts it, “Australia’s Muslim Most-Likely”). They have pumped hundreds of thousands of taxpayer funds into his program. It is unclear as to who will receive and manage the funds.

Personally, I have no problem with Kara-Ali’s activities. However, I do have grave concerns if the funds will be managed by a front organisation for the al-Ahbash sect. I realise that the Federal Government enjoys the patronage of fringe sects (such as the Exclusive Brethren) and provides them with substantial benefits. However, despite its common features with the EB, al-Ahbash are far more sinister an influence.

Kara-Ali should openly come out and declare that he will not involve any materials, infrastructure and organisations falling under the al-Ahbash sect. If he refuses to do this, he will find few young Muslims will support his programs.

Al-Ahbash have alienated a huge chunk of the Muslim communities. They have declared numerous popular religious figures to be kafir (apostates) including prominent Sufis such as the Kurdish scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi who is respected by all Turkish Muslim congregations. They also prohibit their members from advocating for non-Muslim religious groups.

The Federal Government is again playing with fire. If the whole exercise blows up in their face, they will have no one to blame except themselves. If it turns out that taxpayer funds are being used to fund the activities of an isolationist ethnic Muslim sect, Andrew Robb will soon find plenty of not-so-halal egg on his face.

And so will Matt Price and other writers from The Oz supporting such programs.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006