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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