Friday, February 23, 2007

Why Israeli is wrong

The controversy surrounding Professor Israeli continues. Part of it is driven by the fact that the man seems incapable of giving a consistent account, preferring to provide a different argument depending on who his audience is.

Israeli’s words have sparked a furious debate within the Jewish community, as evidenced by the last two editions of the Australian Jewish News. Certainly much of this debate arises due to intra-communal leadership debates, and I’d rather not discuss these. I think it’s only fair to allow Jewish communities to sort these matters out internally just as they have allowed Muslims to sort out the Hilaly issue internally.

AJN copped plenty of flack for running the story, accused of misquoting Israeli. They have now released the transcript of his interview concerning Muslim migration. The most favourable reading of this transcript shows that Israeli is not just targeting certain kinds of Muslims. Rather, he is targeting all Muslims.

It is easy to turn around and say Israeli is being racist and xenophobic or to argue he is using the language used by Nazis against Jews during the 1930’s and ‘40’s. This is all true, but its constant repetition achieves nothing.

Politically correct use of the “R” word won’t work. Instead, we need to address the root of the arguments of Israeli and prove why these are weak. I wish I could do this in one installment but time won’t permit this. It is an ongoing exercise that requires the efforts of many people across a range of disciplines.

Waleed Aly addressed part of Israeli’s argument in his elegant rebuttal in the Melbourne Age. Just to recap, here is what Aly said about Rwanda …

RWANDAN Muslims were once held in low esteem. They were traders in a land where farmers held prestige. Moreover they were socially and politically negligible, constituting roughly 5 per cent of the population, and largely confined to the unspectacular neighbourhood of Kigali. Then came the genocide of 1994 in which tribal violence between Hutus and Tutsis claimed 800,000 lives.

Churches became slaughterhouses. Some brave priests and nuns lost their lives trying to resist the genocide. Many others were complicit. Hutu Catholic pastors offered refuge to Tutsis, only to surrender them to Hutu death squads who massacred them in the pews, and even at the altar.

Meanwhile, Kigali was a sanctuary. Muslims, both Hutu and Tutsi, resolved that they would stand against the genocide. When Hutu militias surrounded the neighbourhood, Hutu Muslims refused to co-operate. They hid Tutsis — Muslim and Christian — in their homes and in their mosques. Now, Islam in Rwanda is booming. Masses of Christians, incapable of returning to the churches in which their families were slaughtered, sickened at the thought of praying next to those who massacred them and listening to priests who sanctioned it, have converted to Islam. Today, Muslims constitute around 15 per cent of the population.

As Aly shows, Islam manifests itself in different ways in different parts of the world. There is no doubt that there have been places where Islam was spread at the point of the sword. But has that been the experience in Australia or in our region?

Forced conversion into or away from Islam is unheard of in Australia. Certainly Muslims aren’t known to engage in the kinds of activities attributed to some (allegedly) Christian sects such as the Exclusive Brethren. Indeed, the only case I am aware of reported as an “honour killing” could well turn out to be anything but that.

Israeli illustrated his argument in an interesting and revealing interview with Stephen Crittenden on Radio National’s The Religion Report.

(The nature of the questions fed to Israeli by Crittenden during the interview actually also says a lot about Crittenden’s own prejudices. But I’ll leave that for another day.)

One claim Israeli makes is about his own expertise. In addressing this, I don’t wish to make personal attacks or cast aspersions on Israeli. I will, however, address his claims to specialist expertise on the subject of European Islam.

Look, I did some work on Islamic fundamentalism in general, particularly in the Middle East, and lately I just completed a book on Islam in Europe. I call it, 'The third Islamic Invasion of Europe,' taking into account the two previous invasions in the 8th century to Spain and Portugal, and southern France, and the 15th, 16th century by the Ottoman Empire from the East. And now the third invasion is taking place via this penetration of massive immigration of Muslims from all over the world.

Israeli’s research work on Islam has focused on Chinese Muslims. His PhD was in fact on the subject of Muslims in mainland China. The thesis was also published as a book by Curzon Press in 1980. It is interesting that, although he claims expertise on this topic, he has never actually traveled to China.

Further, Israeli has no recent peer-reviewed academic articles on Muslims in Europe. The bulk of his articles published in academic journals have been on Muslims in China or Muslims in the Middle East, the latter largely in the context of Arab-Israeli relations.

Israeli has one article published in the journal Current History in April 1980 entitled Muslim minorities under non-Muslim rule. I have tried to access the article online but it is no longer available. From the title of the paper, it is hard to know if it provides a historical or contemporary review on the subject or whether it concerns Europe or Asia.

Israeli also published an article entitled From Bosnia to Kosovo: the Reislamisation of the Balkans. However, this was published by a far-Right Israeli think tank, not a peer-reviewed academic journal.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007