Monday, July 18, 2005
Reluctant Advocates - Thoughts of a Frustrated Mossie
Am I asking for a medal? Should I get one? No thanks.
In 1985, I joined a group called the Islamic Youth Association. I was elected to its executive in 1989/90. During that time, I started to get involved in community advocacy. And at most steps of the way, I felt very lonely.
Muslim Australians are hopeless advocates for themselves. Most advocates have little idea of what they are saying. They don’t have their fingers on the pulse of mainstream thinking. They don’t bother to immerse themselves in media, think tanks, publications, etc. And they don’t even bother finding out what the Muslim communities think.
Most Aussie Muslim activists advocate for Islam, not Muslims. They ignore the views of Muslims. They focus, instead, on what they think Islam is all about.
And that often means they exclude the views and sentiments of anyone they regard as being outside the pale of Islam or whose views are deemed unworthy of consideration. And so we see persons advocating for Muslims but who ignore the views of Shia Muslims, Sufi Muslims, women and anyone who speaks a language they do not understand (usually English).
Community advocacy amongst Muslim Australians tends to be the domain of the unemployed and the unemployable. It is frequently carried out by organisational leadership consisting largely of people about as representative of Muslims as the Simpsons are of mainstream America. And sadly, these advocates frequently behave like cartoon characters.
I remember the first time I had a letter to the editor published in a major newspaper. It was the Sydney Morning Herald. It was 1990. I read an article about some Ahmadi group. Attached to the text of the article was a rather amusing cartoon reflecting popular perceptions about jihad.
I was a young activist kid with little experience but plenty of enthusiasm. I was also quite seriously depressed, largely due to family and personal issues. I could see no articulate response, and I could not talk to anyone about media issues. So I took matters into my own hands and write a rather emotive letter which was probably completely over-the-top.
Well, the letter got published. My dad hit the roof. His reasoning?
“Why do you have to stick your neck out and write these things? There are people who receive funding from governments to do this sort of work. You are still studying. Why get embroiled in controversy? Why rock the boat? Do you want to be unemployable?”
My father’s response really troubled me. I asked him whether he thought my sentiments were objectionable.
“Look, I understand why you are doing this. If you want to help Muslims, study hard and become the best lawyer in Sydney. When you get to the top, then you can help people more effectively.”
I was confused and resentful.
“Dad, should I get to where you are right now? You are a senior academic who is well respected. People value your judgment. But you never speak about these issues. Why not?”
I learnt very quickly that you never answer back to the son of a Mughal crown prosecutor.
What made things even more frustrating was when my father managed to get a senior community member to talk to me. This fellow was a senior health administrator and general surgeon. He was also the Vice President of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils.
“Irfan, beta. You are like my son. You cannot afford to write about these things now. Wait until you get on your feet. If you start writing now, people will cut you down.”
It is always easier to show cheek to one’s uncle than one’s father.
“Uncle, you are the VP of AFIC. Why doesn’t AFIC ever respond to anything? Why don’t I see you at the forefront of responding to the media?”
That was some 15 years ago. Not much has changed. I still ask my uncle the same question. And he still has no answer.
So now I am on my feet. I have a legal practice, political connections, the ability to string a sentence or two together. But my health is not the best. I suffered Litigator Burnout Syndrome (LBS) and had to take 18 months off in 2002. I am still suffering from 9/11 Syndrome, trying to do many things at once and feeling like time is running out for me and Muslims in general.
I cop plenty of flack from people for what I do, say and write. Many Muslims think that I should not be hanging communal laundry on the “kuffar line”, as if I am not a Sydney-sider and as if Sydney papers are not my newspapers. Many say that I am going too hard, that I ride shot-gun too much.
I agree with them. But I ask them a simple question. “When are you going to get off your backside and do something?”
Am I the only reluctant advocate? Am I the only one doing hours of unpaid work to improve the image of a people who deserve a bad image? It seems not.
There are others like me. One prominent example is Keysar Trad.
I mention Keysar because I am one of his fiercest critics. I don’t think Keysar has the ability or flair to do much of what he does. But then I stop and think – who else is there to do what he does if he drops dead tomorrow?
Who will interpret for our non-English speaking mufti? Who will advise the mufti? Who will follow debates and discussions in the press? Who will represent and articulate on Lebanese and broader Muslim issues?
Keysar has built up a ton of contacts among journalists and newspaper editors. He performs a thankless task and gets few cheers from the community he tries to defend.
Keysar is no idiot. He was a senior Commonwealth public servant. He speaks relatively good English. And he has been shafted and stabbed by his community (sometimes almost literally) on numerous occasions.
Keysar has a family and has personal commitments. So why does he do what he does? Why does he place his neck on the chopping block? Because like me, he knows what it is like to have to explain to your colleagues at work what some crackpot said yesterday on the news. And like me, he sees Muslim organisational leadership as completely incompetent.
Recently, he was shafted by the Lebanese Moslems Association. He set up his own organisation, and now rides shotgun like me. It is probably the best thing that has happened to him. Now he can speak and act freely and on his terms. He is responsible if he stuffs up.
Some people wish Keysar and I would just go away. But we advocate because no one else does it in Sydney. I would love to move down south and live under the shadow of Malcolm Thomas and the Islamic Council of Victoria. That way, if anything hot was happening, I could get on the phone to Waleed or Rowan or Asad or Malcolm or Ramzi or Shireen or anyone else. And I am confident they can deal with the issue.
I cannot do that in NSW. Even though we have 3 Islamic councils here, as well as AFIC headquarters, their cadres have proven completely irrelevant and incapable.
So I will continue to do hours of unpaid advocacy work whilst AFIC applies for more “Living In Harmony” grants from the Department of Immigration, Multicultural & Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) for the purposes of improving the image of Islam in Australia. But will AFIC ever invite me to assist? Or was that a pig I saw flying outside my window?
Muslim organisations are incompetent when it comes to advocacy. Any peak body that appoints a non-English speaker to act as “mufti” and then provides him with nil resources is an organisation that has no moral right to lead Muslim Australians. But who will speak out when the tongues of AFIC and the 3 Islamic pizza councils are tied?
Hence I again spend an hour writing these lines. I hope my hour’s investment was worth it. I hope other individuals are prepared to pick up where I am potentially leaving off. Because right now I am very reluctant to advocate for Muslims any further. Keysar will still be here. But Keysar is a better man than I.
© Irfan Yusuf 2005