Friday, August 24, 2007

Some words of wisdom from an English journalist ...

Few journalists have travelled as far and wide through the troubled-zones of various Muslim-majority states as author and Chief Reporter for the Observer Jason Burke. In his 2006 book On The Road To Kandahar: Travels Through Conflict In The Islamic World, Burke writes of:

… a wave of appallingly misinformed statements on Islam or ‘the Islamic world’
in general. The huge variety of practice, belief and observation in
Muslim-dominated societies, so much of it fused with local cultures and
conditions, so textured and so complex … reduced in much of the debate … to a
single stereotype … based on the vision of the most conservative, the most
rigorous and the most belligerent interpretations for the faith. A single thread
of a huge and rich tapestry had been drawn out and declared representative of
the whole.

All major religions have resources within them
that can be exploited for different uses, belligerent or pacific, tolerant or
intolerant, yet it
[is] a minority strand within a minority strand, epitomized
by Osama bin Ladin and his fellow extremists, men who mined Islam for all that
was most inflexible, violent and bitter, that
[stand] for the faith …

If only more scribes thought and wrote like Burke!

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

COMMENT: On Wafa Sultan, Janet Albrechtsen & Rabbi Stephen Stein

In today's The Australian, and under the provocative headline "Breakout (sic.) of Islam's mental prison", Janet Albrechtsen writes in defence of Syrian-Alawite psychiatrist Dr Wafa Sultan. Albrechtsen cites "an American rabbi". Here's what she says ...

Can this be the woman recently described as an "international sensation"? The woman who drove an American rabbi to publicly accuse her of being "Islam's Ann Coulter"? ...

The American rabbi who walked out on Sultan at a conference complained that she failed to allude to a healthy, peaceful Islamic alternative.

But what did the Rabbi actually say? I reproduce in full the article of Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on 25 June 2006. Readers can decide for themselves whether Ms Albrechtsen has accurately reflected Rabbi Stein's views ...

Islam's Ann Coulter
The seductive and blinkered belligerence of Wafa Sultan.
By Stephen Julius Stein

STEPHEN JULIUS STEIN is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where he also directs inter-religious programming.June 25, 2006

RECENTLY I WAS one of about 100 L.A. Jews invited to attend a fundraiser for a Jewish organization that seeks to counteract anti-Israel disinformation and propaganda. The guest speaker was Wafa Sultan, the Syrian American woman who in February gave a now legendary interview on Al Jazeera television, during which she said that "the Muslims are the ones who began the clash of civilizations" and "I don't believe you can reform Islam."

The audience warmly greeted Sultan, a psychiatrist who immigrated to Southern California in 1989. One of Time magazine's 100 "pioneers and heroes," she said she was neither a Christian, Muslim nor Jew but a secular human being.

"I have 1.3 billion patients," she quipped early in her remarks, referring to the global Muslim population.

Sultan went on to condemn inhumane acts committed in God's name, to denounce Islamic martyrdom and to decry terror as a tool to subjugate communities. Those statements all made perfect sense.

Then this provocative voice said something odd: "Only Arab Muslims can read the Koran properly because you have to speak Arabic to know what it means — you cannot translate it."

Any translation is, by definition, interpretation, and Arabic is no more difficult to accurately translate than Hebrew. In fact, the Hebrew of the Bible poses many more formidable translation problems than Arabic. Are Christians and Jews who cannot read it ill-equipped to live by its meanings?

Another surprising remark soon followed: "All Muslim women — even American ones, though they won't admit it — are living in a state of domination."

Do they include my friend Nagwa Eletreby, a Boeing engineer and expert on cockpit controls, who did not seek her husband's permission to help me dress the Torah scroll?

Or how about my friend Azima Abdel-Aziz, a New York University graduate who traveled to Israel with 15 Jews and 14 other Muslims — and left her husband at home? There is no subjugation in the homes of these and other American Muslim women I know. They are equal, fully contributing members of their families.

The more Sultan talked, the more evident it became that progress in the Muslim world was not her interest. Even more troubling, it was not what the Jewish audience wanted to hear about. Applause, even cheers, interrupted her calumnies.

Judea Pearl, an attendee and father of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, was one of the few voices of restraint and nuance heard that afternoon. In response to Sultan's assertion that the Koran contains only verses of evil and domination, Pearl said he understood the book also included "verses of peace" that proponents of Islam uphold as the religion's true intent. The Koran's verses on war and brutality, Pearl contended, were "cultural baggage," as are similar verses in the Torah.

Unfortunately, his words were drowned out by the cheers for Sultan's full-court press against Islam and Muslims.

My disappointment in and disagreement with Sultan turned into dismay. She never alluded to any healthy, peaceful Islamic alternative. Why, for example, didn't this Southern California resident mention the groundbreaking efforts of the Islamic Center of Southern California, the leading exemplar of progressive Muslim American life in the United States? Why didn't she bring up the New Horizon School-Pasadena that the center started, the first Muslim American school honored by the U.S. Department of Education as a National Blue Ribbon School?

You might wonder why a rabbi is so uneasy about Sultan's assault on Muslims and Islam. Here's why: Contrary to practically every mosque in the U.S., the Islamic Center has a regulation in its charter barring funding from foreign countries. As a result, it is an American institution dedicated to propagating an American Muslim identity.

Maher and Hassan Hathout are the philosophical and spiritual pillars of the mosque. They also have been partners of Wilshire Boulevard Temple rabbis and others throughout L.A. for decades. The Hathouts' mosque has twice endorsed pilgrimages to Israel and the Palestinian territories, its members traveling with fellow L.A.-area Jews and Christians. It invites Jews to pray with them, to make music with them, to celebrate Ramadan with them. This is the mosque whose day school teaches students about Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah alongside lessons in Arabic and the Koran. Recently, the Islamic Center joined the food pantry collective of Hope-Net, helping feed the hungry and homeless.

Make no mistake: I am not an Islamic apologist. But Sultan's over-the-top, indefensible remarks at the fundraiser, along with her failure to mention the important, continuing efforts of the Islamic Center, insulted all Muslims and Jews in L.A. and throughout the nation who are trying to bridge the cultural gap between the two groups. And that's one reason why I eventually walked out of the event.
Here's another: As I experienced the fervor sparked by Sultan's anti-Muslim tirade and stoked by a roomful of apparently unsuspecting Jews, I thought: What if down the street there was a roomful of Muslims listening to a self-loathing Jew, cheering her on as she spoke of the evils inherent in the Torah, in which it is commanded that a child must be stoned to death if he insults his parents, in which Israelites are ordered by God to conquer cities and, in so doing, to kill all women and children — and this imagined Jew completely ignored all of what Judaism teaches afterward?

In a world far too often dominated by politicians imbued with religious fundamentalism of all flavors — Jewish, Christian, Muslim — we need the thoughtfulness, self-awareness and subtlety that comes from progressive religious expression. We have that in Judaism, in Christianity — and in Islam, right in our backyard. If only Sultan, applauded in many quarters yet miscast as a voice of reason and reform in Islam, were paying attention.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

OPINION: Historical grievances form barrier to peace

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the partition of the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan was created out of those regions of India (barring Kashmir) where Muslims formed the majority of the population, and was to be a homeland for Indian Muslims.

Exactly nine months after Pakistan was founded, European Zionists declared the independent state of Israel, the result of yet another partition.

Both Pakistani and Israeli writers have found comparisons between the political mythologies used to found these two nations. They argue Pakistan's founders campaigned only in terms of what could be described as Islamic Zionism, claiming Indian Muslims were a nation separate from the rest of India. Millions died in communal rioting leading up to the partition.

The political mythology of Pakistan runs deep in the psyche of most Pakistani migrants. To this day, relatives of my Pakistani-Australian father speak about the sacrifices of Pakistan's pioneers.

A particularly gruesome favourite is the image of the trains of death entering Lahore Railway Station, entire carriages turned collective coffins carrying victims of religiously inspired murder.

Ironically, today more Muslims live in India than Pakistan. Relatives and friends of my Indian-Australian mother frequently refer to this fact when arguing their case against Pakistan's creation at dinner parties.

Like Israel, Pakistan is now into its second and third generations of citizens. For these children and grandchildren of independence, the political mythology used to justify the creation and continued existence of their nation is no longer so sacred as to be beyond question.

I was born in Karachi but was carried on to a cruise liner by my parents when barely five weeks old. I grew up with stories about the struggle for Pakistan, about its great wars for survival and the determination of its larger neighbour to wipe it off the map.

Members of my extended family saw relatives butchered in communal riots while trying to cross the border.

I also grew up learning very little about the 1971 war which led to the creation of Bangladesh out of what used to be East Pakistan. My Bengali friends tell me stories of atrocities committed by the Pakistani Army, while my Pakistani uncles often speak of nasty East Pakistani terrorists.
Pakistani expatriate communities across the world, consisting largely of wealthy professionals and businessmen, will be holding Independence Day gatherings this month.

The discussion at South Asian gatherings tends to revolve around three topics: religion, politics and cricket. In relation to politics, a gathering of Indian and Pakistani Muslims almost always involves a heated discussion on whether Pakistan should have been created.

Indian Muslim expats question Pakistan's political mythologies, while Pakistani expats express outrage at Muslims expressing such virtual sacrilege. Strangely enough, such sacrilege manages to find its way into the public discourse inside Pakistan.

To some extent, I can understand the fuss being created in Jewish community circles by Jewish critics of the Jewish state. Israel has become central to Jewish identity, especially in Australia, which has the highest proportion of Holocaust survivors outside Israel.

For many such survivors, Israel represents a kind of emotional insurance policy. Yet, just as more Muslims live in India than Pakistan, more Jews live in New York than in all of Israel.
Further, the kinds of uncomfortable debates being carried on in Jewish diaspora communities are mirrored by debates occurring within Israel.

In the years leading up to 1947, many prominent Indian Muslims opposed partition. They argued Indian Muslims were not a separate nation needing a homeland separate from India, and believed the idea of Pakistan was an attempt to impose ethno-religious nationalism on the region.

No doubt similar arguments were used by Jewish opponents of Israel. Indeed Australia's first Australian-born Governor-General, Sir Isaac Isaacs, was opposed to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

He argued that such a state could not be created without displacement of hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples and would cause unnecessary tension between the Jewish and Islamic worlds.

In mentioning this, my purpose is not to re-visit the issue of Israel's right to exist. Muslims who insist Israel has no right to exist are deluding themselves. Such claims enter the realm of hypocrisy when expressed by Pakistani Muslims.

If real and lasting peace is to occur in the Middle East, both Jews and Muslims need to re-assess their respective political theologies.

As the civilian death tolls in Lebanon and Gaza continue to climb, Jewish leaders insistent on blaming anyone other than Israel increasingly resemble my irrational Pakistani uncles who refuse to acknowledge the excesses of the Pakistani Army in East Bengal.

When Jewish leaders and communities across the Western world refrain from defending the indefensible, sending Israeli leaders a clear message that their moral and financial support is not unconditional, real positive change could well result.

Muslim communities also must change their attitudes. Many Muslims use the Kurdish general Saladin as an exemplar of Palestinian struggle. Yet even Saladin recognised the Crusader kingdoms and sent emissaries and ambassadors to them.

Saladin's brilliance wasn't limited to military tactics. He was a master negotiator with moderate views who sought to avoid war at all costs.

Of all Muslim communities, Pakistanis should be at the forefront of encouraging dialogue with Israel and its diaspora supporters. Pakistanis understand the insecurities that lead a community to insist on separate nationhood based upon ethno-religious identity.

Support for Palestinian nationhood need not involve refusing to recognise the reality of Israel's existence or rejecting dialogue.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and writer. This article was first published in the New Zealand Herald on Thursday 16 August 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Carbon trading …

John Howard denies claims that he was always a climate change sceptic. Really?

It’s amazing what you read in old newspapers. I was about to throw out an old copy of the Weekend AFR from early June 2006 when I noticed a story by Lenore Taylor under the headline “Shift on carbon trading”.

It turns out that the Howard government had for years rejected a carbon emissions trading scheme. It was only after such a scheme was recommended by the PM’s nuclear energy inquiry recommended the government consider the idea that Environment Minister Ian Campbell “welcomed the idea”.

Here’s what Campbell said …

I absolutely believe that we have to design a carbon price signal for
Australia that does not create the perverse effect of driving greenhouse
emissions offshore, closely followed by jobs and investment.

What the …? Is the Minister saying greenhouse emissions are associated with jobs and investment?

It gets better …

Government policy is that it is too early to implement emissions trading because
it would harm Australia’s economic competitiveness, and Treasurer Peter Costello
dismissed the idea the inquiry could consider a carbon tax.

All this despite the fact that …

… business groups have recently called on the government to embrace a carbon
price signal by the end of the year.

Yep, Mr Howard has been asleep on climate change. And it seems his deputy has been sleeping with him.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

COMMENT: So interest rates are going up …

Everyone is up in arms over John Howard’s “recent” discovery that state budgets place upward pressure on interest rates. Apparently, critics argue, he’s never used this argument before.

Really? So how do they explain the comment of David Bassenese in the Weekend Australian Financial Review as far back as 9-12 June 2006?

Admittedly Bassenese wasn’t impressed even back then at the PM’s claim.

… Prime Minister John Howard has a lot of gall to blame state budget deficits
for putting upward pressure on interest rates … every economist in Australia
knows it is Howard’s own pro-cyclical consumption-boosting budget last month
that is perhaps the single greatest public-sector threat to interest rates this

Bassanese claims the Howard government knew full well that reduced public sector spending on its part could keep interest rates in check. If it really wanted to spend, it could have done so

... on improving work skills and state infrastructure, thereby alleviating more
supply bottlenecks.

But that kind of spending is hard to explain to the punters. It’s hard to win brownie points with voters by telling them you’re improving ports and highways.

Instead, the government deliberately chose to fatten household wallets, which
will fuel consumption and thwart efforts at better balanced economic growth … No
pressure on interest rates? Yeah right.

Mr Howard’s fiscal irresponsibility is nothing new. He will spend and spend for the short term to keep the smile on the punters’ faces. Then when interest rates go up, he will blame anyone and everyone except himself.

Will Kevin Rudd’s alternative government be any different? Who knows? They have to win the election first.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

CRIKEY: Studying the PM through the Crosby/Textor prism

The entrails of Crosby/Textor' s leaked polling advice to the PM have been picked over by the commentators and yesterday Piers Akerman seemed to suggest that John Howard should consider sacking his pollsters.

While we're viewing the PM's actions through the prism of the pollster's leaked advice, it's worth revisiting Nicky Hager’s book The Hollow Men: A study in the politics of deception, which contains a chapter detailing the methods used by Crosby/Textor in the UK and New Zealand.

The Hollow Men is the product of a series of leaked internal NZ National Party correspondence, e-mails obtained during the period of the leadership of Dr Don Brash. The book provides detailed material on the methods and messages C/T shared with the NZ Nats, methods which almost took them over the line in the September 2005 election.

The chapter entitled "The Manipulators" starts getting interesting when it talks about C/T focus groups in late 2004:

You might imagine that focus groups are designed to find out what groups of people think and want … the Crosby/Textor groups had a completely different purpose and revealed a deeper level of political manipulation.

Each [C/T] research report makes this difference clear at the start: ‘it should be kept in mind’, says the first page, that this qualitative research is designed to ‘uncover ideas and persuasive creative leads … It is not designed to quantitatively define the marketplace.’ The intention is to ‘uncover’ perceptions and feelings of which the people concerned may be consciously aware – or even just potential perceptions and feelings – and find ways to use these ‘persuasive creative leads’ to influence target groups of voters.
C/T then used ‘prompted concerns’ to help the Nats develop and frame policy:

In this way they strategise the possibility of moving voters from, for instance, thinking that tax cuts ‘miss the point’ to the ‘prompted perception’ that tax cuts are necessary in response to uncertainty about the growth of the economy. The [C/T] word for this is leveraging … Such perceptions may have little to do with how people feel and the leveraging messages may not even be true, but they
may still provide ‘strategic opportunities’ …
Then there's Crosby Textor's knack at identifying the prejudices of ‘soft’ voters:

… [C/T] also pointed to immigration and security as useful issues for National. The increase of migrants … was ‘perceived’ to have put significant pressures on the infrastructure … ‘evidenced through increased class sizes, lack of hospital beds and traffic congestion. They found the voters were ‘concerned that the current intake policy lets “just about anyone” come in without regard to the skills and education they can bring.
The KiwiNats were quite happy to use immigration as a wedge, especially if it meant stealing votes from anti-immigrant parties like New Zealand First:

Brash declared: ‘Nor, frankly, do we want immigrants who come with no intention of becoming New Zealanders or adopting New Zealand values. We do not want those who insist on their right to spit in the street; or demand the right to practise female circumcision; or believe that New Zealand would be a better place if gays and adulterers were stoned.'
Of course, Brash’s language was far more brutal than that of Howard or Costello. Yet the principle was the same.
… Brash was playing the politics that [C/T] have become famous for, presenting himself as reasonable and mainstream … while to stereotypes and prejudice. When Textor highlighted concerns about immigration policies that let ‘just anyone’ into New Zealand, he was signalling the ‘opportunity’ of appealing to racist feelings.

First published in the Crikey daily alert for 8 August 2007.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Imagine the media response if he was an imam ...


Can anyone imagine the media circus if it had been an imam using such language?

I can imagine John Howard and Kevin Rudd competing to condemn the man.

I can imagine Piers Akerman and his tabloid colleagues taking the high moral (and even "higher" racial) ground.

This dude's lucky he doesn't belong to the wrong religion.