Don't get too radical, brothers Print E-mail
Saturday, 27 August 2005


ONE of Queensland's most respected Muslim leaders, Mohamad Abdalla, sat down earlier this year with an angry young brother. Abdalla was aware the young man, infuriated about the death of innocent Muslims in conflicts overseas, was becoming increasingly radicalised. After a two-hour rational debate about the religious meaning of jihad, Abdalla, an assistant imam, was satisfied the brother had been turned around.


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 concerns.


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 marginalised.


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 Australian values.


"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 ideas.


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 Australia."


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 West.


"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 Cobb.


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 government.


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."


Trudy Harris

The Australian, 27 August 2005

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