February 3rd 2007

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Is Malcolm Turnbull out of his depth?

EDITORIAL: Are we in for another interest rate hike?

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Why Howard Government could fall this year

THE ECONOMY: Qantas takeover bid - leave it to the market?

WORKPLACE RELATIONS: New laws exploit vulnerable employees

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Sheik's outburst - more than once is enough!

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: When truth is no defence

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Invisible premier / Victoria Agonistes / From log-rolling to White House / Another conspiracy? / Russian roulette / Media watch

SRI LANKA: Who are the terrorists in Sri Lanka?

CUBA: Mass-murderer Fidel Castro to die unpunished

EAST TIMOR: Alkatiri's right-hand man tried in East Timor

SCIENCE: Cull the human race - Australian scientist

No such thing as 'private' morality (letter)

Messiah status for Labor leaders (letter)

Major doctrinal errors in Nativity film (letter)

Word engineering (letter)


BOOKS: JACKA VC: Australian hero, by Robert Macklin

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Sheik's outburst - more than once is enough!

by Christopher J. Ward

News Weekly, February 3, 2007
To what extent can a democratic country permit what is effectively a hostile counterculture to exist unchecked in its midst, asks social scientist Dr Christopher J. Ward.

Australia's top Muslim cleric - the "grand mufti" of Australia, Sheik Taj al-Din al-Hilaly - has done it again. He has proved quite conclusively that he has learned nothing from his inappropriate remarks demeaning Australian women as "uncovered meat" in October 2006.

Neither his self-proclaimed exile nor taping his mouth has stopped him from appearing on Egyptian television to once again denigrate this country, criticising Australian law, culture and values, although one is sorely tempted to agree with him about certain practices that are anathema to some Christians as well as Muslims. However, the disdain that he showed for Australia in describing this country as peopled by descendents of English convicts, and claiming that Muslims had more right to live here as they had paid their fares, is beyond the pale.

Islamic fundamentalism

It was also informative that the sheik made these comments on an Egyptian current affairs program, while "explaining" the gaffes of last year. He visits that country frequently and it is only reasonable to point out that it is home to the notorious Muslim Brotherhood, the umbrella organisation for Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups, especially Jamaat al-Islamiyya and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, both of which have ties to al Qaeda.

While not for one minute suggesting that the sheik is a member of either group, his theology is very much in their tradition and he has a long, documented record of inflammatory statements since arriving in Australia. In 2004, he was reported as stating that the 9/11 attacks on New York's World Trade Center were "God's work against the aggressor", and has appeared to support suicide-bombers. Hence the current criticism from a number of Australian Islamic groups and individuals is as welcome as it is unexpected.

As usual when al-Hilaly manages to shoot from the lip, his old colleague and erstwhile translator Keysar Trad, president of the so-called Islamic Friendship Association, was quick off the mark, stating that the comments appeared to be a "slip of the tongue".

"I don't believe that he intended to take a swipe at Australian society. I got the impression that he was trying to justify living here to a person that was probing him … Those offensive remarks were made when the interviewer challenged him …

"He was about to explain why he stays here despite all the controversy." (The Australian, January 13, 2006).

It is noteworthy that this time "Trad the Translator" actually remarked that the mufti's words were offensive - surely a first.

Not unsurprisingly, the sheik has once again claimed that the remarks in Egypt have been taken out of context and, predictably, Keysar Trad has again supported the "grand mufti", although it must be said that quite a number of prominent Australian Muslims have said that enough is enough - he is an embarrassment to their community.

Political reaction was quite interesting. The Prime Minister John Howard's first reaction, when he emerged briefly from his well-earned holiday, was somewhat muted: he described al-Hilaly as "a growing embarrassment to his community". Opposition leader Kevin Rudd was quoted as saying that al-Hilaly was "several sandwiches short of a picnic".

Again, according to The Australian, Acting Prime Minister Mark Vaile took the view that there was nothing new about the brouhaha. "Obviously, they [the sheik's words] were totally inappropriate, as we've come to expect from Sheik Hilaly," he said. "You would ask yourself a question: 'Why does an individual live in a country where he doesn't agree with the laws of the land?'"

And indeed that is a question that should rightly be asked.

Perhaps the Minister for Immigration, Senator Amanda Vanstone, who has been criticised of late, deserves plaudits for being one of the first to condemn al-Hilaly's words. In a pointed statement, she said: "Australians can be forgiven for questioning how seriously Sheik Hilaly takes his citizenship pledge to Australia and its people, a pledge that he shared Australia's democratic beliefs and he respected our rights and liberties."

She added: "I remind Sheik Hilaly that if he doesn't like Australia, our heritage or our way of life, he doesn't have to come back."

Despite significant and welcome criticism from within the Muslim community, including Kuranda Seyit, executive director of the Forum on Australia's Islamic Relations, and Waleed Aly, media spokesman for the Islamic Council of Victoria, there is little doubt that condemnation of the sheik across the board is tantamount to flogging him with a limp lettuce-leaf and will have about the same effect. Surely it is time that a new look is taken at the elements within the Islamic diaspora in this country.

Once again, the question has to be asked: "To what extent can a democratic country permit what is effectively a hostile counterculture to exist unchecked in its midst?" Let there be no doubt that fundamentalist Islam constitutes such a counterculture.

As in most Western countries, a proportion of fundamentalist Muslims in Australia crave Sharia law. They are by no means a majority but overseas research, especially in the United Kingdom, consistently suggests that about 40 per cent of a given Islamic community is likely to feel that way.

Social research conducted in the UK also indicates that the majority of that 40 per cent are likely to be from a low socio-economic background and face difficulty in securing employment. However, a segment of fundamentalists are well-educated and, unlike the previous group, appear to be assimilated. As the bombings in London in 2005 proved, attacks were found more likely to be carried out by educated fanatics.

A colleague of mine is famous, or notorious, for abhorring uncritical cross-cultural transfer of research results. However, it must be said that the UK is a comparable society to Australia in many respects. After all, we share a common heritage; more or less adhere to Judeo-Christian ethics; and are globalising societies, which welcome migrants.

A problem arises when any migrant community achieves what could be described as a critical mass - that is, a sufficient number to practise their own cultural rites and follow their own mores and values, without necessarily being dependent on society as a whole.

For example, in 1970, ABC television's current affairs program Four Corners ran a documentary on Greek migrants in Victoria, working on the assembly lines at General Motors Holden in Dandenong.

There was criticism that so few spoke English. One worker summed up what was probably the majority view, through a translator: "I speak Greek at home; have fun at the Greek club; worship at the Greek Orthodox Church and all my mates on the assembly line are Greek. Why should I learn to speak English?"

Why, indeed, especially when we were becoming a multicultural country?

The dividing line in this instance is that Greek immigrants basically followed in the European tradition and the Orthodox religion. Their folkways, like so many European migrant groups, were able to be sustained without conflict with the host culture.

However, many Muslim immigrants find it extremely difficult to become involved in everyday life, have problems with the English language and become effectively "ghettoised".

It is not difficult to feel sympathy for them and, while many work hard, others are left to the mercies of the welfare system and the charity of their community. And it must be said that Islamic charity groups funded from abroad, as well as locally, make life tolerable for newcomers.

Regrettably, in Europe, the UK, the US and Canada, money from some of these charities has found its way into the hands of extremists and putative terrorists. Muslims in Australia are not a homogenous group - we see that in everyday life. Some of those most critical of Sheik al-Hilaly run the risk of alienation from their co-religionists and, given the dynamics of migrant communities, they could face punishment to varying degrees.

The problem with the "grand mufti", as the sheik is frequently described, lies in the fact that he cannot be removed from what was a virtually self-appointed position.

Moreover, his support base, centred on the Lakemba mosque in western Sydney, is strong and fundamentalist in orientation. The claim that the sheik's remarks have again been taken out of context does not stand serious scrutiny, notwithstanding a belated apology.

Is this good enough? How many more times must Australia be traduced by this man and how long can ordinary citizens be expected to tolerate such divisive comments? Can we effectively measure the contribution the sheik has made to Australian life in terms of enrichment?

The Prime Minister has quite rightly pointed to the fact that the previous Labor administration granted al-Hilaly Australian citizenship, probably for purely political and electoral reasons. It must be said that this was done in the face of honourable and stern opposition from the then Minister for Immigration, Chris Hurford, and objections from ASIO.

Some elements of the press are apparently trying to stifle the sheik by using humour, and this can be a useful tactic. However, it is doubtful whether many in the Muslim communities see the joke. In fact, it is no laughing matter.

Simply stated, Sheik al-Hilaly is a divisive force within Australia. The Howard Government has no qualms in turning away refugees, many of whom are deserving of support and residency.

Australian citizenship is a privilege, not a right, and if the mechanism does not exist in law for revoking citizenship and deporting a person, then it should be immediately introduced into Federal Parliament.

It should also be possible to deny re-entry to this country to "citizens" who have effectively undermined our way of life and slandered our fellow countrymen. Contrary to belief in some quarters, national sovereignty is one of the most important issues for the 21st century.

- Dr Christopher J. Ward is a social scientist.

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