Blog - 2014

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A Call for Increased Muslim and Non-Muslim Understanding in Australia

8th October 2014

A blog by Toni Jameelah Pikos-Sallie, secondary school teacher, Australian Islamic College, Kewdale, WA

Do Muslim and non-Muslim Australians need to understand one another better? The answer is an unequivocal YES. Let me give you some reasons why…

Let’s be honest, concerns and fears exist on both sides of the Muslim / non-Muslim divide. Non-Muslims are concerned about the risk of terrorism, which they see frequently in the media. Muslims are concerned that the general public is of the understanding that terrorism is a part of Islam and as such all Muslims are terrorists. The belief that all Muslims are terrorists leads to a fear and hatred of Muslims, which in turn creates a breeding ground for discrimination and mistreatment of Muslims in society. This fact alone warrants the call for increased understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim Australians.

Should non-Muslim Australians live in fear of the Muslims present in Australian society? Certainly NOT. Likewise, should Muslim women avoid travelling on public transport for fear of being bashed or should Muslim children dread going to school for fear of being bullied? NO WAY. So how can this situation be improved? The answer is really very simple. The situation can be improved just by getting to know one another! Yes, it’s that simple.

To illustrate, let me share with you a brief story. I was born in Sydney and grew up in an Australian-Greek Christian household in Sydney’s Western suburbs. I was a fair skinned child with freckles, so I blended well into my surroundings. During my years of primary and secondary schooling I only ever saw a handful of kids at school who were ‘different’. There was one Indigenous boy at our school, a couple of Italians and Greeks, and a couple of Asians and that was it. I used to feel sorry for anybody that came to our school who was ‘different’ because they would be teased and taunted for their ‘difference’. My father imparted to me some very strong principles of social justice, so I used to take it upon myself to stand up for kids who were isolated and I befriended them when nobody else would. I got an award in primary school for doing this noble action. But guess what… In 1996, after completing two years at university in Sydney, I moved to Perth. A few months later I became a Muslim. A few months after that I put on the head scarf known as ‘hijab’. Time does not permit me to tell you about all my experiences living as a Muslim and being ‘different’ in my own Australian society, but I will say that after all the years of standing up for those who were ‘different’ in our society, I sure feel emotional when someone steps in and stands up for me.

Anyway, about ten years ago I used to live in the northern suburb of Maylands and I had a lovely old neighbor named Ron. During the month of Ramadan (i.e. Muslims fasting month) I passed a plate of food over the fence to my neighbor at break-fast time (sunset). Ron was so touched by this simple act and became a good friend of ours ever since. Any fears or uncertainties that Ron ever had about Muslims before he met us (me, my husband and children) were all but vanished. Ron also became a vocal supporter of Muslim people on local talk-back radio. He avidly tried to correct people’s prejudices and misconceptions. He reckoned you just needed to get to know a Muslim first-hand and you’ll come to know that your fears are not based on facts.

The other week I was visiting a relative in the hospital and I got talking with one of the nurses. She asked me about my occupation and I told her that I am a secondary school teacher. She asked me which school I taught at and I told her that I teach in a Muslim school near Belmont. She looked surprised and asked if I was required to speak “Muslim” in order to work there. Of course there is no such language as ‘Muslim’, but I just carried on the conversation by informing her that all of the students speak English and most were born in Australia, except a few recently resettled refugees and these students go through our intensive English language program. She was quite surprised at this. Likewise, I was quite surprised that she didn’t know that most Muslims are actually born and raised in Australia and that English is their first language. It was also surprising that she believed that Muslims all spoke a common language called ‘Muslim’! Oh dear, I thought, we Muslims really need to get out there and interact more with the wider Australian society so they can know who we really are. This, I believe, is the crux of the matter. There has to be a willingness on both sides of the Muslim/non-Muslim divide. Do Muslims want to establish friendships and interact with the wider Australian society?? They sure do, but at the same time, Muslims need to feel that they are a welcomed and accepted part of Australian society so they will have the confidence to take that step.

I urge every Australian to say ‘hello’ to the next Muslim they see and I urge every Australian Muslim not to fear rejection or animosity, to be brave, to have faith in the innate goodness of humanity and to be an active member of Australian society so that people will learn first-hand who you really are.

Toni Jameelah Pikos-Sallie
©Toni Pikos-Sallie 2014

Conference in Perth and UK: AsiaScapes and Borderlands of Becoming…

August 2014

In June 2014 I attended a three day conference at the University of Western Australia, Perth. The conference was organised by the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA). The conference was highly relevant to my research work as speakers addressed issues of national identity, nationalism and the politics of transnational identities.

The keynote speech was given by Professor Chung Min Lee from Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy and International Affairs, Murdoch University, Perth. His speech, ‘Why the rise of Asia does not mean the end of the West’, displayed his concern over the emergence of China’s economy. The development approach that China has undertaken to boost its economy is achieving a short-term goal; but it has not been able to take a holistic approach in terms of health care, human rights, international security, challenges of transnational communities and the state administration along with the current development policy. In the long run, the current progress of China’s economy may be interrupted by the ongoing competition of the West.

In the second day of the conference, a special session was conducted by academic scholars from The South Asian Studies Association (SASA), The Asia Research Institute (ARI) and experts on South Asia. They discussed South Asian’s economy, ethnicity, race and gender and, particularly, experiences of transnational communities in the West. They also explained how people with diverse identities from South Asia have been treated by the people in the West. They also proposed possible research ideas in which more research can be undertaken by the young scholars.

The conference was concluded by a speech from Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane, on the Asianisation of Australia. He argued that people from Asia are underrepresented in politics and industry in Australia although nearly 10% of Australia’s population have Asian ancestry. He, however, acknowledged that many Asian faces were seen on popular media especially about culinary delights of modern Australia fusion food and cultural domains. He also believed that a new class of well-educated, ostensibly over-achieving Asian-Australians, who may nonetheless be permanently locked out from the ranks of their society’s leadership, will be ready to take over political leadership in future.

I also attended a conference in London, UK titled ‘Borderlands of Becoming, Belonging and Sharing’ at the end of July 2014. In the conference, academics form Europe, USA, Australia and Asia mainly argued on critical reflection about emerging social, political and cultural identities that are formed at the intersection of multiple and multi-sited belongings and expression and about the possibility of making them shared across differences. They also examined how the culture of everyday life is regulated and contested across diverse political, economic and social contexts, and whether and how it creates spaces of belonging with others. The conference was organized by the International Academic Forum.

By Abdul WOHAB

Space, religion and social relations workshop: an overview

3 June 2014

Rebecca CattoOn 30 May 2014 the International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding, University of South Australia in association with the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University (UK) held a research workshop titled ‘Space, religion and social relations’. Dr Rebecca Catto, Research Fellow at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, delivered the keynote speech. Dr Rebecca Catto is a sociologist specialising in religious–secular relations. Academics, researchers and PhD students from UniSA also discussed their research from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Dr Catto stated that, because we are faced with issues of diversity, structural inequalities, deprivation, climate change and security, we need to create space for dialogue in everyday multiculturalism, civil society and governance. There are particular issues in the UK context, such as the anti-immigration debate, white flight, the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), and the increase in hate crimes. In these circumstances, moving through city spaces and engaging young people in dialogue is vital. Dr Catto observed that inter-faith dialogue and interactions among young people are meaningful, but young people are increasingly absent from religious institutions. She has also discussed this in a recently published article.

UniSA academics and researchers working on British issues commented that British policies have historical roots. Over the last 15 years there has been a shift away from multiculturalism and a lack of initiatives to engage isolated migrant communities. There have been housing issues and policies that have set up zones of exclusion, and after 9/11 the debate on asylum seekers has led to another level of exclusion. Some politicians and media target ethnic ghettos and blame immigrants for failing to integrate; they use the language of ‘Othering’ to imply that immigrants are the problem. They point out that social issues such as ‘honour’ crimes have cultural or religious connotations, and they overlook the role of class, gender and power dynamics behind such horrendous acts.

Other researchers at the workshop said that gender inequality is universal. For example, the topics of female foeticide in India and domestic violence in families in Australia (irrespective of religion and culture) need space for dialogue.

There was discussion about political contestation in public spaces. People of the same ethnic and religious background may not actively engage in dialogue and may shy away from talking about their differences. Another opinion was that some young people may prefer not to engage in any dialogue (let alone inter-faith) because they do not belong to the privileged class that has the luxury of dialogue.

However, the researchers discussed that the outreach initiatives of our centres are worthwhile. They enable researchers to interact with people at the grassroots level. For example, one participant spoke about the resilience of Afghan migrants and their engagement with wider society in rural South Australia.

Other discussions evolved around exercises to map the notion of theology in urban spaces; the shaping of Muslim ummah identity in the global space; and identifying moral panics in public spaces.

The workshop opened up spaces for future collaboration among UniSA researchers as well as Dr Rebecca Catto and her colleagues in the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University. More importantly, it has brought researchers from many disciplinary backgrounds together to address a common theme: how do we interact in urban and rural spaces to make a difference?

By Nahid Afrose Kabir

In conversation with Dr Khalid Zaheer

7 May 2014

Dr Khalid Zaheer is a scholar at Understanding Islam UK (UIUK), a non-political organisation that spreads a moderate message of Islam based on the Qur’an and Sunnah. Before joining UIUK, Dr Zaheer was the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Central Punjab. Prior to that he served in the capacity of Director Education at Al- Mawrid, an NGO. He has also been Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and Ethics at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). He has more than 20 years of teaching experience. 
Dr Khalid Zaheer initiated a conversation with the postdoctoral research fellows and PhD students at the MnM Centre. An animated discussion took place amongst the postdoctoral research fellows, PhD students and Dr Zaheer and the members of his group. Dr Zaheer expressed great admiration for the name of the International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding, and believed that perhaps one day when understanding between Muslims and non- Muslims has been achieved it could become the centre for understanding between all people. 

Dr Zaheer explained that the organisation he represents contests the dissemination of fundamental radical Islamist views in the madrasas of Pakistan. Proclaiming themselves to be in favour of a moderate form of Islam, he claimed that religion is their focus and from this perspective their aim is to speak against the radicalisation of Islam and to propagate the correct principles of Islam that would be underscored by the democratic principle of consultation and recognition of majority rule. This they claim to be true Islam. The discussion became interesting when questions were raised over the legitimacy of democratic power when some of the greatest democracies of the world may be seen to be the most violent in their propagation of democracy itself, and further whether the majority is always right. This led to further questions about what was ‘true’ Islam and what power relations are at play when such claims are made.

Dr Zaheer was of the opinion that many western-educated Islamists preach the principles of radical Islam in the polished language of the West and want to dominate the world through principles that do not necessarily speak of Islam. Questions were also raised about ordinary people in Pakistan asking just for good government, to have their basic needs met and not wanting politics in the name of religion. The contest was whether to shift the focus to the political, social and the economic structures informing a system or to discuss the categories of Islam. We debated whether the problem was one of cognition or a systemic one. The discussion was not restricted to Pakistan but moved on to the UK, Egypt and Middle East. The allotted time of an hour and a half was barely enough for the ensuing debate.

This conversation and debate was greatly relevant, especially in the light of developments that are awaited in the Indian subcontinent, in the world's largest democracy. There is an anticipation that Narendra Modi, who is a strong contender for Prime Minister, may come to power after the elections in India. If Modi, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is a party that claims to represent the Hindu majority, comes to power, the political equations between India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other countries in the Indian subcontinent will change. The geo-political situation, with the Hindu right in India flanked by two Muslim countries, will become very sensitive. This shows that democratic platforms cannot be neutral platforms but can be used to garner votes in the name of religion. If Dr Zaheer’s concern is radicalisation of Islam, given the political dynamics taking place in India, politicisation of religion becomes the final question.

By Rupa Ghosh

Collective life unbroken

18 March 2014

America may have finally rewarded a black director for a film about slavery, but it continues to go out of its way to take apart black collective life. Black president aside, blacks in all walks of America aside, black billionaires aside, $910 billion in purchasing power aside, collective black life seems almost gone – something that made modernity and also made it something that need not have been, that could have gone some other way, something that need not be stuck in reiterating that anachronism known as ‘identity’, something that is an affirmation of life that does not have to prove anything. Black collective life, as Mary Patillo puts it, entails taking the otherwise meaningless commonality of racial identity to which blacks have been ‘condemned’ and using it as a platform to incessantly provoke, experiment, reach out, argue and figure out ways to be together.

Black populations in cities throughout the American north are in significant decline. Where have the blacks gone? Much is made of the return to a cheaper, more hospitable south. But for the most part, blacks are being pushed out into more remote and decaying suburban areas; incarceration rates are taking a larger share of the black male demographic. This disappearance particularly worried Sun Ra and Malcolm X in their own lifetimes. It should worry Muslims too, because too often we act as if we as a ‘we’ are on our way out.

The great black musician, Sun Ra, whose centenary we soon celebrate, always said that blackness has got to start getting technical. Blacks have to get rid of the old sentiments about freedom. For Sun Ra, freedom was based on building connections between different tools and modes of knowledge. It was about tracing out pathways among discordant sectors and horizons. It was about finding ways to infuse new capacities, no matter how small, into others with whom you would otherwise never work or know. It entailed building collectives discovered through trying things out, binding what is human to new, unexpected forms of appearance, no longer standing apart from the world.

Yet shopworn identities – ethnic, religious, national, geopolitical – continue to play themselves out the old fashion way, knocking each other about and getting nowhere doing so. No identity deserves any respect, and we might more productively see them as Sun Ra saw them – as technical devices to be used to take us somewhere else than we already are.

Sometimes, the Muslim world (whatever that is) seems knit together more on the things that we do not do, than what we try to do together. ‘We don’t do girlfriends in this hood’; ‘we don’t play music in this house’; ‘we don’t show no skin; we don’t go beardless’; ‘we don’t eat that kind of meat’. Friday prayers around the world will ritually invoke one downtrodden Muslim people or nation after another; imams will warn of the repercussions of having our identity disrespected. We may rightly be fed up with being demonised and vilified for no good reason, but then again we barely offer up a sufficiently good enough reason for non-Muslims around the world to really take note that we could constitute a collective force more persuasive than their long-ingrained racial privilege. We are overly preoccupied with adding useless drama to human life, note our obsessions with sex and bodily functions, when we should be finding opportunities to concretely blur the distinctions between life and non-life so necessary in order for the earth to avoid the human-induced destruction Sun Ra foresaw so well. We worry about preparing for the ‘afterlife’, but the afterlife is already with us, here and now, and in this time of Anthropocene we cannot live as we have before.

By AbdouMaliq Simone

Read the full paper: AbdouMaliq Simone, Collective life unbroken, MnM Working Paper No 10.

'Animal rights come before religion': Europe's ritual slaughter

12 March 2014

After years of campaigning by animal welfare activists, the Danish government has just passed legislation banning the slaughter of animals in accordance with Jewish and Muslim principles. It follows the suit of other European countries that have outlawed halal and kosher methods such as the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Dan Jørgensen, the Danish Minister for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, has defended the ban on the grounds that 'animal rights come before religion'. The new law still permits such methods of slaughter but requires pre-stunning of the animal. Although this has been accepted by some Danish Islamic leaders, it is in dispute by Danish Halal, a non-profit halal monitoring group, Danish Jews, and Jews and Muslims across the world. Furthermore, in actual fact, no animals have been 'slaughtered without pre-stunning in Denmark for the past 10 years'.

This is not the first time in European history that legislation has been passed targeting animal slaughter practices – referred to as 'ritual slaughter' – and specific communities. At the time of a similar ban in the Netherlands in 2011, the Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs stated that 'those who survived the [second world] war remember the very first law made by the Germans in Holland was the banning of schechita or the Jewish way of slaughtering animals'. In the lifetime of one generation, extreme right ideologies wrapped up in the language of the law, rights and the public good are again being enacted across Europe.

I will leave it to the reader to navigate the ample cogent and measured debates about whether animals feel less pain when stunned or given a clean cut to the throat when conscious, which method is healthier for human consumption, and the stigmatisation of European Jews and Muslims. But let's take a closer look at the question of animal rights in Europe on the basis of which of such legislations are being passed. If the proponents and supporters of this view believe that an animal has the right to die with minimal pain, then doesn't the animal deserve to live without pain and distress too? Consider, for example, a recent investigation of the cruel state of pig farming in Denmark and European meat production in general, outbreaks of disease and recent revelations of horse meat in the food chain. Animals deserve to be reared and fed with respect, a belief shared by secular and religious societies where humans are regarded as the custodians of animals and of the environment. The return, or strengthening, of extreme right ideologies in Europe needs a united response, for the bans 'tell us much more about human beings than about animal rights'. In the words of Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak about – because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

By Chloe Gill-Khan


4 February 2014

On 21 January 2014, Dr Leon Moosavi from the University of Liverpool delivered a public lecture titled ‘Islamophobia in British politics, news media and twitter’ to kickstart the 2014 MnM Invited Seminars Series. Moosavi’s talk, as the title suggests, proffered empirical evidence of Islamophobia in government, news media and social media, which he succeeded in doing. Drawing on government speeches, newspaper articles and tweets, he traced the emergence and rise of a growing malcontent surrounding Muslims in the UK.

As I was listening to his talk, I began to reflect on some concerns I had about the growing research on Islamophobia, to which I am only beginning to contribute. To begin with, what is the nature of Islamophobia? It seems to me that this question needs to be decided first before one collects evidence of Islamophobia, since one needs to decide whether a particular example fits the description or not and therefore whether it is indeed evidence. Without an explicit definition we are left with an implied understanding of Islamophobia as negative statements and stereotypes about Muslims. But is Islamophobia any negative statement made about Muslims? Or is it any stereotype and generalisation made about Muslims, good or bad? Does it matter how true or relevant it is to the discussion or who is speaking? Does it matter how it is said or the intention of the speaker? And can there be positive stereotypes that are nevertheless Islamophobic? These musings are pertinent precisely because public debate about Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism have been hampered by these sorts of questions in the media and scholarly work alike.

The second question was around the causes of Islamophobia. Much research on Islamophobia tends to focus on published material (newspapers, online media, social media, government speeches, policy and law, as well as documents published by NGOs and political organisations). Obviously, on methodological grounds this makes sense. As accessible published material they are easy to locate, track and, for other researchers, to verify. But there is a danger of conflating our methodological decisions with proof of causality by treating these data sources as causes rather than symptoms of Islamophobia. It is just as likely that they are influenced by something else which is the cause, and thus that their respective statements are instead symptoms of another phenomenon. This is not to release governments and media from their respective responsibilities and civic duties and thus to be held accountable for what they say and write in the public sphere. But it does make us, as scholars, ask hard questions about how we as a society have arrived at the current state of affairs. So while I am concerned about how governments use minorities as scapegoats (as work like Moosavi’s illustrates so well to the public), I am equally concerned by the growing ease by which scholarly work on Islamophobia uses governments and media as ready-made scapegoats that substitute for a more complex analysis of power and culture, of which I have certainly been guilty.

By Gilbert Caluya

Philosophy in the land of many lovers

13 January 2014

On 8–12 December 2013, I attended the 2013 Australasian Association of Philosophy (AAP) conference at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. The presentations over the five days ranged from topics such as challenging traditional schools of thought of what makes our species human (eg language, art or religion) through exploring the human desire for adornment, overcoming the shortcomings of both monists and dualists, to the analogies between syncopation in jazz music and Jacques Derrida’s concept of différance. In his talk Francesco Paradiso explored correspondences between the temporal and spatial properties of syncopation and différance, both concepts that displace the present/presence of the sign. From a temporal perspective, for example, in syncopation the rhythmic cadence is shifted from stable to unstable, opening it up to new dynamics, which resonates with the Derridean displacement of the present that allows for the presence of the absent trace. The innovative comparison illustrated the creative possibilities of reading contemporaneous philosophical concepts outside of traditional hermeneutics. Moreover, the breadth of philosophical ideas explored during the course of the week combining biology, physics, music, religion and mathematics was a reminder of how the synthesis of the humanities and the sciences has the potential to produce the most imaginative investigations into the human and the cosmos.

The North Island of New Zealand is defined by its volcanic sites, the ideal landscape for examining the metaphysical dualities of creation and destruction. For it is catastrophic volcanic eruptions that give rise to natural phenomena such as hot springs, geysers, whirling mud pools and streams streaked with the copper, yellow and green hues of minerals. It is not difficult to see why in Maori language Auckland is known as Tamaki Makaurau, the city of many lovers. As Albert Einstein reflected, ‘Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.’

By Chloé A Gill-Khan

The ten commandments controversy in the USA

10 January 2014

Three years after legislation was passed by the Oklahoma State Parliament, a monument to the ten commandments was installed in the vicinity of Oklahoma State Capitol in November 2012. Republican state representative Mike Ritze paid for the construction of the monument from his private funds. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma has filed a lawsuit seeking its removal.

On 9 December 2013 the New-York based Satanic Temple wanted to donate a statue of evil that would stand next to the ten commandments monument on the State Capitol grounds. Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the temple, and other legal experts argued, 'the Constitution is clear: the government can't endorse one particular religion. So, if a state capitol has a monument to one faith, it must allow monuments to others as well.' Later, on 11 December 2013, Hindus wanted to place a Lord Hanuman (monkey king) monument at the Oklahoma State Capitol.

Earlier in February 2011 the Washington Post reported that school officials of the Giles County public schools in Virginia posted ten commandments posters on its walls. It generated widespread debate whether in a secular country such as the United States such endorsement in public schools was acceptable. The school authorities argued that the posters were not endorsement but simply a reminder of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage. I believe that the points of the ten commandments such as 'Honor your father and your mother'; 'You shall not murder'; 'You shall not steal' are significant for all people irrespective of their religion.

The United States of America is well-known as a 'melting pot' where migrants from various ethnic and religious backgrounds have settled. Americans are generally proud of their democracy, their rights of freedom of speech and religion. The recent Oklahoma controversy has opened the floodgates to a barrage of debate and legal implications. When freedom goes overboard, there is a price to pay.

By Nahid Afrose Kabir

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