At about the same time at the other end of the country, leading
Melbourne Muslims decided to have a quiet but frank discussion with
radical cleric Abdul Nacer Benbrika, also known as Abu Bakr.
The Algerian-born Bakr, who is closely monitored by ASIO, says he
does not tolerate other religions and some of his students have
reportedly trained in camps overseas. The leaders patiently explained
that his teachings were un-Islamic and hurting the wider Australian
Muslim population. Despite their best efforts, Bakr rejected their
The meetings were revealed to Inquirer this week as proof that
Muslims are working in their communities to curb the type of dangerous
thinking that can lead to terrorism.
Rather than turn a blind eye to the possibility of an attack on
home soil, they are challenging the very small number of people the
Prime Minister said at this week's terrorism summit should be
The summit, with 13 Islamic leaders carefully selected by the
Government, was hailed as historic. It was the first time Muslims, John
Howard and senior security officials had sat down together to begin to
tackle the complex issues of Islamic extremism and the threat of
terrorism it carries.
While many Muslims agree it was a positive step towards
improving relations with the Government, it was at least three years
overdue. And after just two hours of dialogue, they had barely
scratched the surface. There were plenty of motherhood statements and a
promise of future talks, but little substance or acknowledgment of what
Muslims on the ground are already doing.
"It reflected their shallow understanding of the issues that
the communities are facing," says Abdalla, one of many leaders not
invited to the summit.
The statements are a list of agreed principles that many
Muslims contacted by Inquirer this week thought insulting and
confusing. The list includes denouncing terrorism and endorsing core
"We agreed to condemn terrorism a long, long time ago, the
community has already done that, by and large, and is still doing
that," Abdalla says, adding that an agreement to encourage Muslims to
become loyal citizens is insulting. "Muslims are already loyal citizens
of Australia. The fact that they have lived for the [past] 100 years or
so in peaceful coexistence here, well integrated and with tolerance, is
testament to that."
Youth leader Chaaban Omran is puzzled about the meaning of shared values.
"We grew up learning about the Aborigines and the Ned Kellys of
the world and the entire history of Australia and how it all started,"
says Omran, president of the NSW branch of the Federation of Australian
Muslim Students and Youth, which conducts leadership forums for young
people. "We know tolerance and compassion. What other Australian values
are they talking about?"
It is widely recognised among the country's 300,000 Muslims
that there is a battle under way for the hearts and minds of
impressionable young people who are the most vulnerable to radical
Abdalla, therefore, welcomes the summit's discussion on
fostering locally born imams and ensuring all religious leaders
understand our mainstream society. Abdalla warns that some imams, after
studying in Middle Eastern and South Asian countries, preach strict
Islam in prayer halls here without considering the Australian context.
"The effect is dangerous in the sense that it creates a
dichotomy between us and them, and this us and them mentality is
dangerous in a multicultural society," says Abdalla, who is also
director of the Islamic research unit at Griffith University. "It can
shatter the fabric of any pluralistic society. So imams who come here
should undergo a certain course or program that allows them to
understand the mentality, the culture, the politics and social life of
Proposals to deal with radicalisation of youth must acknowledge
continuing concern over the war in Iraq. Howard told the leaders at the
summit they weren't there to discuss Australia's foreign policy. But
Muslims everywhere stress it is fuelling resentment and anger against
"The more our foreign policy is involved in killing innocent
civilians, the more the youth will want an explanation, and if they are
not getting that, then the kickback will be sometimes you will get that
one-off person - like they did in London - [who] takes matters into
their own hands," Omran says, stressing that Islam does not encourage
its faithful to commit such acts.
Muslim youth are also frustrated that they were not better
represented at the summit in Canberra. Only one of the leaders present
was under 30: Iktimal Hage-Ali, a community services worker with the
NSW Government in Sydney's Islamic heartland. "If the main issue on the
agenda was the youth, then why weren't they represented?" asks Deakin
University student Abdul Nasser Alkhateeb.
The third-year multimedia student says another issue that needs
more discussion is how Muslims deal with "so-called radicals" in their
communities. He rejects Howard's call at the summit to marginalise
them, saying open discussion is more logical.
"I would think the Muslim community should have debates with
them rather than showdowns with them," says Alkhateeb, 24, also a
member of the student federation. "There is no point in marginalising
them, they are just going to get more extreme."
He says Muslims are being victimised because of a widespread fear that radicals exist in their communities.
One Islamic leader in Sydney, aware that these meetings with
radicals are going on, agrees. But he warns that radicals will respect
and listen to only those brothers who follow a similar religious
ideology, such as followers of the fundamentalist strand of Islam known
as Wahabi and Salafi. And none of the leaders at this week's summit
fits those categories.
"They (the leaders at the Canberra summit) are not close enough
to the ground, to the grassroots groups, who can do something about
this," says another leader who does not want to be named.
Another leader who was at the summit rejects suggestions it was
unsuccessful, saying it was an important first step in the right
direction. "It is still early stages in the discussions, but we believe
that this meeting was a step in the right direction and one which is
long overdue," says Ali Roude, acting president of the Islamic Council
of NSW and principal of Rissalah College, an Islamic school in the
Sydney suburb of Lakemba.
"We had a very frank but diverse discussion and examined a
number of strategies that the Government should consider in the
elimination of intolerance and the promotion of harmony," he says. The
strategies include ensuring Muslim schools preach tolerance. More talks
are planned with Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship Minister John
Waleed Kadous, convener of the Australian Muslim Civil Rights
Advocacy Network, acknowledges the summit had a positive effect by
showing co-operation between Muslims and the highest levels of
But he warns: "The Prime Minister will have to look more
broadly in order to get a real impact rather than just (conduct) a
massive PR exercise."
The Australian, 27 August 2005