Tuesday, June 25, 2013

POLITICS: Australian politics needs to be dragged from the gutter

There was a time when Aussies wondered about the political immaturity of our relatives across the ditch. Your obsession with the sex lives of your politicians was making you, our soft, cuddly Kiwi cousins, more resemble scratching koalas wounding the fur on each other's faces.

It got to a point when, in September 2006, your then-Prime Minister Helen Clark was point-blank asked by a reporter whether her husband was having an affair. Her response seemed to end the matter.

"I've been married for 25 years. I have a happy marriage. I've always had better things to do with my hard-earned money than waste it pursuing smut-mongers."

Ho ho ho, we laughed like a bunch of bloated sun-drenched Santas. Things in Australia could never get so bad.

Fast-forward almost seven years and it is time for you, my Kiwistani brethren, to have a laugh. I wish I could say the last laugh, but it probably won't be, given how damned sexist we ditch-dwellers are.

Ever since Julia Gillard kicked her predecessor Kevin Rudd in the proverbials and took over the top job, all kinds of things have been said about her anatomy, her sexuality and that of her partner of many years.

Where do we start? Perhaps with Ms Gillard's refusal to become Mrs Tim Mathieson and make babies. As far back as May 2007, Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan issued this fatwa: "I mean, anyone who chooses to remain deliberately barren - they've got no idea what life's about." This was followed up by Liberal Senator George Brandis who declared: "She has chosen not to be a parent; she is very much a one-dimensional person."

But obsession with Ms Gillard's private parts goes further. At a recent Liberal Party fundraiser, the menu included the following items that were thankfully not served: "Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail - Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & A Big Red Box." And in the last few days, Liberal MP Don Randall tried to inject some industrial policy into the mix by claiming: "The problem is that the mining industry is being pussy-whipped by Julia Gillard."

I'm not sure what happened to that journalist who asked Helen Clark about her husband's sexuality. But Howard Sattler, Fairfax Radio shock jock from Perth, didn't last long after a lengthy exchange with the Prime Minister during a recent interview. Apparently before the interview, Sattler had cleared with the PM and her staff that it would be a frank exchange that would include aspects of her personal life. Ms Gillard agreed.

What she wasn't expecting (and no doubt what Sattler's listeners also weren't expecting) was to answer suggestions that her partner Tim Mathieson was gay because he had worked as a hairdresser. The shock jock's spirited on-air defence of his line of questioning consisted of: "But you hear it. He must be gay ... You've heard it. It's not me saying it, it's what people say."

This happened this month. This week, the publicly funded youth station Triple J was also caught out when one of its regular commentators suggested that the PM showed way too much up top in Parliament.

And no, columnist Grace Collier wasn't suggesting that Ms Gillard don a burqa.

"I don't think it's appropriate for a Prime Minister to be showing her cleavage in Parliament. It's not something I want to see. In my opinion as an industrial relations consultant, it is inappropriate to be in Parliament, it is disrespectful to yourself and to the Australian community and to the Parliament to present yourself in a manner that is unprofessional."

In response (and perhaps as a slap in the chest to South Asian men like myself), feminist Eva Cox declared: "Men don't have breasts to show."

Opposition leader Tony Abbott, on the other hand, is quite happy to show his breasts and much more on the beach in his role as a surf lifesaver. As an avid bike rider, Mr Abbott's bike shorts are also quite revealing to anyone who cares to look.

With an election due in September, Australian voters can only hope that there is much less talk about sexuality and nether-regions and more about policy.

Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer, author and former Liberal Party candidate. This column was first published in the NZ Herald on Tuesday 25 June 2013.

Monday, June 17, 2013

MEDIA: Movement at the station as shock jock pushes boundaries

Rumours, jokes and innuendo are no grounds for radio DJ's ro question anyone's sexuality, IRFAN YUSUF SAYS.

Here’s a short course on court procedure. A lawyer stands at the bar table of the ACT Magistrate’s Court to cross examine the accused.

"Mr Mathieson, I understand you are a homosexual, is that correct?"

The accused is perturbed.

"I’m not sure why you ask that, but no I am not."

The Magistrate also expresses her surprise.

“Mr Yusuf, what is the relevance of this line of questioning? Mr Mathieson is merely appealing a traffic fine.” The lawyer continues in a loud bombastic voice.
"I put it to you, Mr Mathieson, that you must be a homosexual. You are, after all, a qualified hairdresser, are you not?"

Would the magistrate bring a stop to such irrelevant questioning? And how would the lawyer’s colleagues and others present in the court room respond? And if the lawyer were referred to the Law Society’s disciplinary panel, what possible explanation could he have for inserting questions of sexuality in a case about someone parking a car for 31 minutes in a 30 minute zone while going to get a haircut?

It all sounds like a draft skit rejected by the writers of Monty Python. We don't tolerate this kind of pseudo-comedic "logic" in the real world of workplaces, courtrooms, offices, universities, hospitals etc. So why do we have to put up with it being repeatedly played out on the airwaves?

Only the most crude and infantile listeners would have been amused by Perth shock jock Howard Sattler’s recent line of questioning to the Prime Minister about the sexuality of her partner of 7 years. And his “logic” in pursuing this line of questioning? Apparently there were plenty of “myths, rumours, snide jokes and innuendo". Yes, there were plenty of jokes and innuendo in the four part ABC series At Home With Julia which starred Phil Lloyd (aka Miles Barlow) as the PM’s partner. 
In one memorable scene of the show, the PM and her prince were seen recuperating after a horizontal folk dance under the Australian flag on the floor of her Parliament House office. And the recurring theme of the show is of Mr Mathieson constantly trying to find excuses to ask his princess to become his bride. 
Marriage equality isn’t on the cards, so there’s certainly nothing camp about a marriage proposal.

(Perhaps the show’s writers should have included the character of a Perth shock jock continuing to insist: “But you're in a heterosexual relationship? That's all I'm asking.”)

And Kate Legge’s profile in The Weekend Australian on 9 March 2013 didn’t exactly paint the stereotypical picture of a fan of The Village People. Our First Bloke, the man Prince Charles refers to as “Denis” (after the late husband of the late Mrs Thatcher), is about as cricket crazy as John Howard.

Legge writes: “His registry since 2009 reads like a sports junkie's almanac. He's present at almost every major event on the Australian calendar: Formula 1 Grand Prix; Derby Day; Oaks Day; Twenty20 games; Test Matches; the Australian Open; State of Origin; the Bradman Oration; Sports Australia Hall of Fame dinner; final series for AFL and NRL”. Not the sort of bloke we’d have called a poofta in the playground in the 1980’s.

But this isn’t enough for Sattler, who continues: “But you hear it. He must be gay … You've heard it. It's not me saying it, it's what people…”

On this basis I wonder if Mr Sattler would ask one of his colleagues, say Sydney’s Alan Jones, if he was gay? Would Jones tolerate it? Should he?

And now the Americans, the British and even our Kiwi cousins are having a laugh at our expense. Sattler’s remarks have made international headlines. Britain's Daily Mail, The Guardian and The Huffington Post are all having a good laugh at our expense. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, how often do we chuckle at the Americans when we read some of their allegedly respected commentators spreading rumours that President Obama might be a Muslim named “Barry” who doesn’t have an American birth certificate? (True, such lunacy doesn’t stop these commentators being invited to the podiums of our most prominent think tanks). The more highbrow among us love citing the likes of shock jock Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.
Other shock jocks have attacked Sattler’s offensive questioning. But that hasn’t stopped them from from showing little respect for common standards of decency in the past. Derryn Hinch and Ray Hadley are hardly names synonymous with quality journalism.

I'm all for free speech. But people like Sattler gone free speech a bad name. That might explain why his employers have acted before their own names are dragged through the mud. But advertisers also need to be vigilant also. And consumers and pressure groups need to withdraw support for advertisers who continue to fund public offence.

The fact is that the internet age is fast making the era of shock jockery redundant. In Canberra, 2CC can only dream of having the ratings of ABC Local Radio 666. In regional areas, the government broadcaster is king. Surely radio listeners deserve better than hearing smut and innuendo passed on as journalism.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and author. This was first published in the Canberra Times on Saturday 15 June 2013.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

OPINION: Pakistan could tear itself apart

Despite the death of Osama bin Laden, Pakistan is in danger of tearing itself apart in a war on sectarian terror.

Pakistan is ripping itself apart, one minority at a time. With Osama bin Laden dead and beneath the ocean, many regard terrorism as no longer a serious international concern for Pakistan.

Whatever problems the country has are only issues for countries such as Australia and New Zealand when more asylum seekers from that part of the world head to our shores in leaky boats.

Pakistan is in the grip of a war on terror. However, it is a war that few of us in the West are taking any notice of. Perhaps it is because the victims are not white-skinned Judeo-Christian Westerners. The victims are largely Shia Muslims. The perpetrators are largely fanatics of the Sunni variety, some funded by private donors and perhaps governments in the Gulf region and Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan's minorities have always had it tough. The Pakistani flag consists of the traditional Muslim crescent and star with the green background. It also has a white strip adjacent to the flagpole. The white represents non-Muslim minorities - Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Parsees and other faith and ethno-religious communities.

The flag recognises that minorities play a key role in a state that was founded on the basis of a kind of religious nationalism (an Islamic Zionism, if you will), a homeland for Indian Muslims. It was always taken for granted that Shia Muslims were part of the green-crescent striped majority. After all, the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was of Shia Muslim heritage.

In recent times, attacks on Shia Muslims have become widespread and endemic. The perpetrators are followers of the late Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, a religious scholar from Punjab who belonged to the Deobandi school, one of two competing schools of the Sunni sect in the Indian subcontinent.

During the 1970s Jhangvi, not dissimilar to most Pakistani imams, focused on religious education and preaching. Although a member of a theocratic political party organised by other Deobandi scholars, Jhangvi was more interested in preaching.

Things changed in 1979 with the emergence of Ayatollah Khomeini's Shia-based Islamic revolution in next-door Iran. The revolution posed a direct threat to the Arab states, including Saudi Arabia which regarded itself as naturally holding religious leadership and prestige as home to the two holiest sites of Islam. Saudi Arabia's interests were allied to those of the United States, which continues to fear Iran's expansionist revolution.

The Saudis funded a number of sectarian anti-Shia groups in various Muslim countries as well as minority Muslim communities.

Among these were a group founded in 1982 by Maulana Jhanvi called Anjuman Sipa-i-Sahaba Pakistan (ASSP), literally "Movement for Defending the Prophet's Companions". Many Sunni Muslims accuse Shia Muslims of defaming the companions of Muhammad, including a number of his wives. Sunni theology is built upon reports of Muhammad's sayings and actions as reported by the companions. Hence, attacks on the honour of these companions is regarded as an attack on Islam itself.

The ASSP message was simple - Shias must be declared a non-Muslim minority in the same manner as Christians, Hindus and other faith groups.

Attacks on Shias are frequently placed with attacks on the Iranian regime. In one recording handed to me during a trip to Pakistan in 1994, I heard Maulana Jhangvi declare "Khomeini peh laanat beshumar. Shia-on pe laanat beshumar" (Abundant curses be declared on Khomeini and upon all Shias).

If such sectarian preaching were limited to curses and distribution of cassette tapes, it may not be cause for concern. After all, Shia Muslims make up around one fifth of Pakistan's population. They occupy positions of influence across politics, popular culture, academia, media and other sectors of Pakistani life. Among them are current president Asif Ali Zardari and his deceased wife Benazir Bhutto.

But among them are the less visible and more vulnerable Hazara ethnic group, located mainly in the Western province of Baluchistan which borders Iran. Attacks on Hazara, virtually all of whom are Shia Muslims, have stepped up in the last year or so.

In one incident, some 100 Hazaras were murdered in Quetta. The plight of the Hazara has been largely ignored even by Shia Muslims from other ethnic groups. Sunni extremists frequently complain about Shia dominance in Pakistani media. But as Pakistani journalist Kiran Nazish wrote in Forbes magazine in January, "the media, particularly television media in Pakistan, had been ignoring the issue" while smaller-scale loss of life, cricket scores and Bollywood starlets are readily reported.

It was only when Hazaras took the extreme step of refusing to bury the victims, preferring to sit with the bodies in sub-zero temperatures, that Pakistanis took notice.

Ironically, these same coffins were draped with the Pakistani flag. Though it remains to be seen which side of the flag the Hazara will be deemed to be part of - the green and white majority or the white strip that is being bloodied and driven off the flag.

In recent days, other Shia communities have been attacked. Over 50 were killed in the most recent attack on Abbas Town, a Shia enclave in the southern port city of Karachi. Shia Muslims in Lahore have begun receiving death threats.

Unless the situation is brought under control, Pakistan could become a huge version of Northern Ireland. Imagine the refugee crisis when 20 per cent of Pakistan's 180 million people effectively become refugees.
Irfan Yusuf was born in Pakistan and is author of Once Were Radicals: My Years As a Teenage Islamo-fascist. This article was first published in the NZ Herald on Monday 11 March 2013.

TURKEY: Handling of protests may make or break legacy

Thousands of protesters march through the streets of major cities of a European nation. They complain about the apparently autocratic style of their democratically elected leader who ignores their concerns. Police have used fairly brutal force to quell protests, including tear gas, water cannon and rubber-coated bullets.

Had this been Spain or Greece, it would almost certainly have been related to EU-imposed austerity measures. Europe's economic woes have provided plenty of fodder for protest. Spanish workers have been laid off by the thousands, and its unemployment is at record levels. A neo-Nazi party is attracting tens of thousands of disgruntled Greeks. In Cyprus (at least the non-Turkish part), people have had substantial portions of their savings shaved from bank accounts.
But in Turkey, scene of the mass protests that started in late May, protesters have few such fundamental worries. Instead, their worries began with the survival of Gezi Park in Istanbul, to be levelled in favour of a residential and shopping development.

Such environmental and heritage concerns are important. But one has to wonder what those in more economically depressed European nations must be thinking. "Oh, if only we had the luxury of protesting against the destruction of a park," and, "if only we had a few housing and shopping centre developments in our town".

And the majority of Turks who did not hit the streets of Istanbul, Ankara and other cities must be wondering why Western media have made such a fuss about what the ruling party (which gained over 50 per cent of the vote in the last elections) claims is a tiny handful of radicals. It doesn't help the protesters' cause domestically that they don't present as a united group, some having concerns limited to environmentalism and others seeking nothing short of regime change.

No doubt, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hasn't handled the crisis terribly well. Even people in his party, such as his President Abdullah Gul, have openly stated that a softer touch would have been preferable. "If they have objections, we need to hear them, enter into a dialogue. It is our duty to lend them an ear." The protests could have been limited to Istanbul instead of turning into a national phenomenon.

But some would have you believe that Turkey's current government wants to see the country become a full-fledged sharia state, with former criminals walking armless and perhaps even headless through the streets. A recent issue of the Economist showed a cartoon of Erdogan dressed in the outfit of an Ottoman Sultan, as if he was ready to lead a jihad and conquer Constantinople all over again.

Writing for CNN, Fadi Hakura complains of "the Government's recent enactment of tight restrictions on the sale and promotion of alcohol". He claims that "many secular Turks complain that the Islamist-rooted Government is intolerant of criticism and the diversity of lifestyles."

Such sentiments would seem laughable to other secular Turks who don't see secularism as the imposition of a militant nationalist religion built around the cult of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic. Turkey's past leaders, in cahoots with the military, have inflicted the grossest and most ridiculous forms of intolerance on its people.

Erdogan has not sought to ban alcohol consumption completely. His government seeks to curtail it at certain times. Compare this to the attitude of previous Turkish governments to women's dress. Until 2010, women who chose to wear headscarves were barred from attending universities. In 2007, Emine Erdogan, the PM's wife, was barred from entering a military hospital for failing to remove her scarf.

Perhaps the most notorious example of secular extremism was seen in 1999 when an elected MP, Dr Merve Safa Kavakci, was prevented from taking her Parliamentary oath simply because of a traditional piece of clothing she wore on her head. In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights found her expulsion from Parliament was a violation of human rights.

Erdogan's tactics in relation to the recent protests have been heavy-handed. But one wonders what would have happened if this kind of protest had taken place under previous Turkish governments. Erdogan knows what it is like to be on the wrong side of a dictatorial regime. In 1997, he was jailed for merely reciting a poem during a speech.

This may be Erdogan's last term in office. But for the sake of his successor, his party and his nation, Erdogan needs to recognise that a small but influential and highly articulate mass of protesters could leave his legacy of electoral triumph, political reform, economic success and international respect in tatters. A devout Muslim like Erdogan should recognise the value of humility.

• Irfan Yusuf is author of Once Were Radicals. This column was first published in the NZ Herald on Friday 14 June 2013.

Words Copyright © 2013 Irfan Yusuf