Friday, July 08, 2005


A Message To Sydney Muslims

She works at Circular Quay. Each day, she travels to work by train. She is a young mother, a Chartered Accountant, one of many Sydney professionals who uses the beleaguered Sydney rail network.

Tonight, as I was sitting in her lounge room watching news from London, she said words that must surely resonate with the thoughts and fears of millions of other Sydney-siders.

“When will my turn come?”

Her fears were echoed by her husband.

“These damned terrorists are making me very edgy”, he said as we watched images of the blown-up London bus.

Across Australia, people are frightened. They have heard of al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiah, of Usama bin Ladin and Abu Bakar Bashir. They also have heard of local Muslims appearing on TV making strange statements, of sheiks appearing (with or without interpreters) and speaking strange alien ideas of holy war and rape.

Their image of Muslim Australians is the image of an alien community. And who is to blame for this image?

I am to blame. I blame myself. And I blame all the other educated Muslims working in professions, in business and academia. I blame all those Muslims who have spent all these years hiding their faith from their fellow citizens. And special blame rests with migrant Muslims.

In terms of country of birth, the largest block of Muslims are those born in Australia. I missed out on being part of that block by 5 months. But I have only ever held an Australian passport.

For me, growing up in suburban Ryde, Islam was always a cultural phenomenon. In my cultural universe, Muslims had to be Indian or Pakistani or Fiji-Indian or Bangladeshi. My school captain at St Andrews Cathedral School, the son of an Anglican Minister from Pakistan, was Muslim. Every year, I would go to the houses of our Hindu family friends and celebrate Deevali, a festival I presumed to be Islamic.

For many migrant Muslims, Islam is a cultural construct. Many insist on their alien cultural artefacts which have little relation to the faith and indeed often contradict Islamic teachings.

Muslims have for years insisted on marginalising themselves, on being different and on protecting their rights to be different. Muslim communities have spent thousands of dollars on legal fees battling councils for the right to build mosques of a certain cultural design.

Yet when the early Muslims spread far and wide, they modelled their mosques on local architectural tastes. In China, one can find a mosque dating to within 300 years of the passing of the Prophet. From its external appearance, the mosque looks like any Chinese pagoda.

Ironically, so many of the mosque designs the subject of appeals in the planning courts are based on the designs of Byzantine churches encountered in Syria and Egypt by the early Muslims. And so we have the absurd picture of nominal Christians opposing nominal Muslims building a mosque based on a design regarded as traditionally Muslim but is in fact Byzantine Christian!

During his recent tour of Australia, Cambridge Muslim scholar Tim Winter mentioned a mosque built by the early English Muslims. The mosque was modelled on a typical hall of an English Church. In one corner of the mosque was an organ which was used to play religious music. Muslim evangelism consisted of public gatherings where people would attend the mosque for tea and scones whilst a Muslim parishioner played the latest tunes on the mosque organ.

Yet if one were to suggest this strategy to Australian migrant Muslims, one would be dismissed as an innovator.

We choose to be different. Yet we never explain why we are different, and why our differences should be viewed as harmless. And much of this is caused by the fact that we ourselves do not know why we do what we do.

For instance, why do some Muslim men (typically Punjabi medical doctors) insist on their wives wearing shalwar kameez or saris whilst the men wear safari suits? Why do Muslims take different days off work for the same festival? Why don’t many mosque imams learn English? Why do some Muslim women shake hands with men and others don’t?

I am not saying that Muslims should not have a distinct identity. But why do we insist on a separate identity yet refuse to share this with our fellow citizens?

If we continue to marginalise ourselves without communicating the harmless nature of our customs, we will continue to be objects of suspicion and resentment. If we continue to refuse sharing the things that we value – our customs, ethics and ideals – then one day we might find material things fellow citizens value and share with us being taken away from us.

Our fellow citizens are frightened. Their reactions are natural. They are looking to us to alleviate their fears. We, too, are frightened. If a bomb goes off in Circular Quay in Sydney’s Central Business District, Muslim workers and professionals will be among the victims. Just as over 20% of the victims on September 11 2001 were Muslim. Now is the time for us to open our ears and hearts to our fellow citizens, to reduce the barriers, to come out of our cultural closets and to embrace our brothers and sisters in citizenship and humanity.

If we do not de-marginalise ourselves now, we will be double-victims should Sydney become the target of terrorists. We will be mourning our dead and injured. And we will be accused of complicity with the terrorists.

And when this happens, my good friends mentioned at the beginning of this article will also be doubly victims. After all, they are Muslim Australians.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

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