Friday, October 07, 2005


Bullying Australian communities out of their civil liberties

Recently, the Government-appointed Muslim Community Reference Group (MCRG) held a joint press conference with Attorney General Phillip Ruddock.

Following a briefing by Mr Ruddock on the new laws, Group spokesman Dr Ameer Ali was quoted as stating that the Group unanimously supported the laws and would sell them to the Muslim community.

Within hours, the Islamic Council of Victoria issued a press release directly contradicting Dr Ali’s statements. The ICV Chair, Malcolm Thomas, also sits on the MCRG.

Further, a representative of the Alawi Muslim community, Ms Iktimal Hage-Ali, also contradicted Dr Ali by stating that the onus was on the government, not the Group, to sell the laws to the broader Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

Muslim online discussion groups have been running hot with condemnation of the position apparently adopted by the MCRG. Yet who is on this Group? Who do they represent? On what basis were they chosen? How representative are they of Aussie Muslim reality?

The government has an unenviable task in dealing with Muslim communities. Islam knows no priesthood or central hierarchy. One American Muslim stand-up comic, Azhar Usman, summed up the reality of Muslim communities across the western world.

“I was telling a friend about Islam. He asked me to stop talking. He said he is against organised religion. I told him that was fine and he could become a Muslim. We are the most disorganised religion in the world!”

Australia has at least 2 competing peak Muslim bodies. The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils is an umbrella body of state and territory Islamic councils, themselves umbrella bodies representing the management societies of various mosques.

Not all mosques have an Islamic society. Indeed, most people attending the mosque are not members of the governing mosque societies. Further, AFIC has a history of replacing and creating societies it does not like.

In New South Wales, the state with the largest number of Muslims, AFIC has created 2 dummy councils in the last 5 years.

Competing with AFIC is the mostly-Lebanese Darul Fatwa Islamic High Council of Australia. This council claims to speak authoritatively on behalf of Muslims. Yet its own religious ideology declares the majority of Muslim scholars to be “kafir” (infidels).

Further, the Darul Fatwa Council members have openly expressed their opposition of any assistance provided by Muslims to non-Muslim faiths. Members of the Council have attacked the writer for his role in lobbying on behalf of a Vietnamese Buddhist community having trouble with Bankstown Council in approving extensions to their temple. The reason for the opposition was the notion that Muslims should not help “idolaters”.

Now let’s look at the reality of Australian Muslims. The most recent study profiling Muslim Australians was carried out by Professor Abdullah Saeed and his team at the University of Melbourne in 2004.

The study was based on figures in the 2001 Census, showing almost half of Australia’s Muslims were born in Australia. The suburb with the highest concentration of Muslims in Australia was Auburn (37%), not Lakemba or Bankstown. The overwhelming majority of Muslims speak, read and write English fluently.

More than half of Australia’s Muslim community are aged below 40. Muslim Australians have been at the heart of mainstream Australia for over 150 years. Muslim involvement in Australia pre-dated European exploration and settlement.

Yet this Muslim reality is not reflected in the Government’s choice of people to sit on its reference group. Most were born outside of Australia. Most are aged over 40. Very few are women.

If the government were serious about consulting with Muslim Australians, it would have included those Australians making major contributions in business, politics, sport, academia, the arts and the professions. These are the real Aussie Mossies.

Yet the government is committed to treating this very indigenous faith community as just another “ethnic” or “migrant” phenomenon. For this reason, it has attempted to create a reference group that is unrepresentative and that will tow the line.

And as is often the case in national security issues, the Government is getting it all wrong. Whatever their public statements, prominent Reference Group members are telling Muslims that the current anti-terror laws are being forced upon the community.

In short, the Government is bullying Muslim Australians to sit down and shut up as their civil liberties are stripped away from them. The government is expecting the Reference Group to endorse laws that have not even been drafted. The Group members did not consist of a single lawyer, nor did they have the benefit of advice during and following Mr Ruddock’s briefing. Yet this is precisely the community the Government needs to have on side if it is to effectively fight the war against Islamist extremism.

The author is a Sydney lawyer who has advised peak Islamic bodies and Muslim independent schools. He is also an occasional lecturer in the School of Politics & International Relations at Macquarie University.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

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