Languages of the Divine

We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning

 Werner Heisenberg

The development of the written script holds a special place in mankind’s histories. Written language codifies a set of shared signs that enables a civilisation to trade, establish social, cultural and political structures and to shape specific world-views. In the contemporaneous European context, the question of language has been paramount in shaping its philosophical enquiries. From the projects of structuralism, poststructuralism and deconstruction, language comes to be seen as a prison that conditions our entire existence, leaving us playing eternal language games.

Hasan Azad reflects upon the status of the mystical in western philosophies, arguing that ‘western philosophy has for too long been caught up in circular arguments of what can or cannot be expressed, rather than passing over in silence to higher levels of knowing and, ultimately, being’. Expressed differently, it can be stated that in any language, absolute confidence in language and its associated claims is a problem. One recalls Sophocles’ suspicion of the sophists, voiced through the tragic tale of Oedipus Rex, whose desire to bring the truth to light ends in the gouging out of his eyes when he learns the truth of his crime, questioning the doctrine that man is the measure of all things. The Libyan novelist Ibrahim Al-Koni explains that the ‘Arabic word for profession is derived from the same root as literal. And to be literal is deadly. As Paul the Apostle teaches us: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”’; this is why the spirit amongst the settled people is dead. Indeed, George Steiner (1967: 30) writes, ‘the Apostle tells us that in the beginning was the Word. He gives us no assurance as to the end […] The highest, purest reach of the contemplative act is that which has learned to leave language behind it. The ineffable lies beyond the frontiers of the word’. When it comes to voyaging towards the attainment of higher “Truths”, language, then, has to be left behind. To give one example, in the Muslim artistic tradition, ‘poetry is capable of illuminating – by “showing”, instead of “stating” or “arguing” – the highest experiences of philosophers and ordinary folk alike’ (Azad).  The Muslim poetic tradition is full of images of fire, light and reflection. The classical Greek myth of hubris (human pride) exemplified in Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with his waxen wings and melted, also embodies this metaphor. ‘Facing’ God is akin to being burnt: we cannot face His glories because we are unable to comprehend them in their intensities and those who claim to do so are heretical. We can only access – and express – His glories through the geometries of reflection, like a perfect symmetrical structure, each reflecting Him, yet each of us unable to grasp our positions within this infinite and harmonious composition. The significance of reflection can perhaps be grasped in the fact that despite the intense heat and light of the sun, the moon (which reflects light from the sun) has far stronger gravitational pull on the earth’s surface. In the words of Rumi:

At night, I open the window and ask the moon to come and press its face against mine. Breathe into me. Close the language-door and open the love-window. The moon won’t use the door, only the window.

Civilizations are the sum of their methods of measurements and calculations. There is another facet to the problem of language that challenges our deep seated notions about communication between the plant, animal, human and spiritual realms. Science has evidenced the chemical and electric languages of communication between plants and animals that reveal interplays between scent, touch, sight and taste. Science is also revealing the possibilities of sound that plants emit in growth. Stephen Hawking rather provocatively stated that ‘philosophy is dead’ because philosophers ‘have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics’. He may be right. For it is the laws of physics, which Einstein contemplated throughout his life, that hold the secrets to decoding the universe. And it is aspiration to these ideals that should animate philosophers all over again...

By Chloé A. Gill-Khan

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

Symposium: 'Australia and Afghanistan post-2014: securitisation and its impact'

20 November 2013

On 14 and 15 November the MnM Centre, in conjunction with the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) hosted a symposium on the future of Afghanistan, entitled 'Australia and Afghanistan post-2014: securitisation and its impact'. Australia was one of the first countries to pledge support to the United States in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and subsequently joined the coalition that occupied Afghanistan and drove the Taliban from power in the capital Kabul. The occupation of Afghanistan has lasted for over a decade, and Australian troops have been there throughout, turning Afghanistan into Australia's longest war. The decision of the United States finally to leave the country has forced Australia to do likewise, as its small contingent of troops and support personnel cannot function without the support of its coalition allies. The symposium came at a time when many are questioning whether the attempts at state building and the democratisation of Afghanistan have been successful enough for the survival of the democratic system. The Taliban are still a threat to Hamid Karzai's government, and the withdrawal of coalition forces leaves the Afghan military and regional police forces severely weakened, raising doubts about their ability to continue the conflict. Furthermore, Afghanistan's political system is riddled with patronage and corruption, and does not come close to resembling a functioning polity. Afghanistan's future can look both bleak and promising, depending on your interpretation.

Professor Pal Ahluwalia, along with Dr Katerina Agostino from DSTO, hosted the symposium. Keynote speeches were provided by Professors William Maley and Amin Saikal (both from ANU). Other speakers included Dr Nahid Kabir and Dr Chloe Gill-Khan from the MnM, as well as Dr David Matthews from DSTO. Overall the conference was incredibly engaging, and covered topics as vast as inter-tribal political conflicts, women's rights, the role of the Taliban post-withdrawal, and the geopolitics of the region as a whole, including the future role of actors such as Russia, China, Pakistan, India and Iran. The depth of discussion was also impressive, with certain provinces, for example Kandahar and Uruzgan, coming in for particular attention. The expertise of all speakers and participants ensured that the level of discussion remained at the highest standard throughout the conference. As someone who takes great interest in the Middle East but has only casually followed the progress of Afghanistan since 2001, the symposium provided me with an ideal way to be brought up to speed on a very complex set of issues by world-renowned academics in the field. It was also the ideal complement to next year's planned conference on the future of Pakistan, as the two countries' futures are intimately and inseparably entwined. Although the future of Afghanistan won't be settled in academic symposiums, the speeches and debate that ensued made the possibilities that much clearer, and explored the range and depth of those possibilities. The degree of Australia's impact in Afghanistan will become clearer as Afghanistan's own future is determined by its ongoing struggles.

By Alasdair Hynd

My road to spirituality

1 November 2013

Nahid Afrose Kabir performing hajjI have performed umrah hajj four times and always wanted to perform the holy hajj (pilgrimage), the fifth pillar of Islam. Umrah hajj can be performed at any time of the year but hajj has to be performed in the prescribed tenth month (Zil Hajj) of the Islamic calendar.

I decided to take part in the hajj this year (4–22 October 2013). I was cautioned by my peers and elders that the hajj can be a very challenging spiritual journey which one has to be physically fit to perform. I was also told to be mindful and cautious when taking part in certain rituals as there have been a number of deaths by stampede during hajj. However I assured my well-wishers that I would maintain restraint if the need arose.

My journey, together with about 2 million people from across the globe, was spiritually uplifting (see also 'Hajj 2013'). Throughout the journey I lost track of time and forgot about the world I left behind. It was amazing to see how people of different races, colours, genders, professions and social status forgot their differences and submerged themselves in spirituality. Back in my parents’ and grandparents’ days, we heard that only retirees take part in the hajj. They saved money throughout their lifetime, and after retirement they were solvent enough to perform the hajj. But through our Australian travel agency, I learned that many professional young people in their twenties and early thirties go on hajj from Australia and New Zealand. Young people are interested in learning about their religion.

In any religion, people leave their comfort zones to undertake a spiritual journey and dedicate themselves to complete serenity and devoutness. Similarly, one could see such piety among Muslims during hajj. Hajj is, of course, a test of patience and endurance. I am extremely thankful to Allah that I could perform all of the rituals required in the hajj. I was also impressed by the assistance, security and hospitality provided by the Saudi Arabian government to the hajjis. And above all, our travel agent had a number of highly educated and well-informed volunteers, for example, Professor Mohamad Abdulla of Griffith University, who in his articulate speeches continuously reminded the hajjis of the importance of leading an Islamic life which included showing respect to our non-Muslim counterparts.

Now that I have successfully performed my Hajj, I feel liberated, spiritually empowered and content.

May Allah accept my Hajj.

By Nahid Afrose Kabir

Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai shortlisted for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize

15 October 2013

The Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban in 2012 for speaking out against their ban on female education in the Swat Valley, was recently shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize. Now resident in Britain, Yousafzai overcame near-fatal injuries to continue her fight for education and the right for every child to go to school. Her courage, activism and campaign work invited praise from politicians and dignitaries around the world including General Ban Ki-moon, Barack Obama and Gordon Brown. Yousafzai is also the recipient of the Sakharov Prize, a European human rights award.

In July 2013, at the age of sixteen, in a speech she delivered at the UN headquarters in New York, Yousafzai stated that 'one child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world'. And changed the world she has. It was Yousafzai’s blog 'Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl', which she wrote for BBC Urdu about life under the Taliban, that attracted national and international media attention – as well as the Taliban’s failed assassination attempt. Her life is still in danger in Pakistan, where the Pakistani Taliban has warned that anyone who sells Yousafzai’s book I am Malala will face serious retaliation. Recognising Yousafzai's achievements will do much to bring into international focus the right for every child to go to school and to eradicate discrimination against female education.

Educated young people are often able to create simple approaches to complex political issues that are otherwise mired by political agendas. The MnM Centre commends the Nobel Prize committee for acknowledging that the courage, will and determination of the young has the potential to create meaningful change where political will often fails.

The 2013 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The terms of debate in Quebec

2 October 2013

The  Parti Québécois government in Quebec has precipitated a controversy with its introduction of a 'Charter of Quebec Values' with the stated aim of providing 'clear' guidelines for assessing demands for reasonable accommodation, preserving the 'secular' aspect of Quebec society and maintaining the religious 'neutrality' of the state.

Briefly, it means that those who work in public institutions and provide government-funded public services, including civil servants, teachers, doctors, and daycare workers, will be prohibited from wearing 'ostentatious' religious symbols, such as turbans, kippas, hijabs, and large crucifixes, in order to present the religious 'neutrality' of the state. However, 'discreet' religious symbols, such as a small cross worn on a necklace as a piece of jewellery will be acceptable. These rules do not apply to elected officials. 'Ostentatious' religious symbols do not include the large crucifix on the wall of the Quebec National Assembly, which will remain where it is. In addition, anyone receiving government-funded services will have to have their face uncovered, ostensibly for security reasons, a measure that is directed towards the small number of Muslim women who wear the face veil. There are possibilities for a gradual, 5-year period of implementation and exemptions for some public institutions.

The proposed charter has garnered significant criticism from those who believe that it discriminates against religious minorities and furthers social divisions. Thousands gathered together in downtown Montreal on 14 September to protest this measure. The Manifeste pour un Québec inclusif, which has collected over 20,000 signatures, lays out well-argued objections to the proposed charter on several issues.

While the content of the proposed charter can and should be contested, it is also useful to consider the language employed by the government to discuss the matter. 'Quebec values' is a contested phrase. Its meaning is subject to social and political debate, as much as the meaning of a 'secular society'. Quebec's own history complicates this issue, as the Catholic Church played a dominant role in society for many years and the 'Quiet Revolution' of the 1960s also continues to hold a significant place in Quebec political memory. The PQ government's use of these terms to specify one meaning, and to propose to give that meaning the force of law, is highly problematic and exclusionary. By using these terms in this particular way, the government privileges a majority group's power to name and to define the discourse about belonging by excluding religious minorities from the political community in Quebec. In the debate over this proposed charter, that should be a starting point for discussion.

By Uzma Jamil

MnM Centre’s focus on Asia

24 September 2013

Sonia Piscayanti, Oka Rusmini and Dr Nahid Afrose KabirThis month I participated in two events that were mainly focused on Asia. Both events demonstrated how closely Australians are working with their Asian counterparts on the theme of social justice.

On 10 September I was invited by the South Australian branch of the Support Association for the Women of Afghanistan to launch their book, Two trees: Australian artists’ books to Afghanistan and back, at the Kerry Packer Gallery, UniSA. As I was reading the book Two trees (edited by Gali Weiss, Barbara Kameniar and Matthias Tomczak), I was deeply moved by the efforts of the Support Association for the Women of Afghanistan (SAWA) and the Organization of Promoting Afghan Women’s Capabilities (OPAWC) to engage Australian artists and Afghan women to express their solidarity through art, narratives and poetry. SAWA provided OPAWC with concertina booklets individually produced by Australian artists in which the Afghan women wrote their narratives revealing their continuing disadvantaged position in society, stories of poverty, illiteracy, family restrictions, early marriage, men’s drug addiction, and stories of families fleeing to neighbouring countries and their sense of loss and despair upon returning to Afghanistan. Their narratives also tell us of the prevailing corruption in Afghanistan and how foreign aid money is streamed by the warlords for their personal interests. Through these narratives, Afghan women have called for foreign aid to go to OPAWC, which would help to improve women’s destitute conditions.

A couple of weeks later, on 22 September, I participated in the Dialogue between Indonesian Writers and Members of the International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding at the OzAsia Festival at the Adelaide Festival Centre. Our session’s facilitator was Prof Pal Ahluwalia and the writers included Dr Gilbert Caluya, Mrs Oka Rusmini and Mrs Sonia Piscayanti. Prof Ahluwalia (Director of the MnM Centre and Pro Vice Chancellor, University of South Australia) spoke of how the MnM Centre is dedicated to broadening understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims globally through research, scholarships and informed debates. Dr Gilbert Caluya spoke on racism, community dynamics and the politics of fear. I spoke on Muslims in Australia and how sometimes they have faced resistance during their mosque-building initiatives. The Indonesian writers, Mrs Oka Rusmini and Mrs Sonia Piscayanti, (both invited by the OzAsia Festival organisers) spoke on Muslim and non-Muslim relationships in Bali.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world but the population of Bali is primarily Hindu. Hindus and Muslims have been living in Bali harmoniously for several centuries. They have been one people with a common culture and heritage but lately there has been a shift in attitude among some people in Bali, which is concerning. Mrs Sonia Piscayanti discussed the local Hindu Balinese acceptance of the increased number of Muslims in northern Bali and the fact that this area has become a more open and relaxed society, but sometimes fear of the 'Muslim other' surfaces when mosque developments are planned. Mrs Oka Rusmini discussed the deteriorating relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in southern Bali. Previously, local Hindu and Muslim Balinese celebrated religious festivals such as Eid together, but now Muslims are gradually endorsing an Islamic identity and moving away from the mainstream Balinese people. Some Muslims view the mainstream Balinese Hindu as the 'other'. Mrs Rusmini called for acculturation and acceptance. Furthermore, when hard-line Muslims from other regions of Indonesia threaten any events in Bali, it generates an atmosphere of fear among the local Hindu Balinese population.

Both these events (the book launch and the dialogue with the Indonesian writers) kept me thinking about the marginalised position of some people in both Muslim majority and minority countries. How do we address their issues, and how do we hear the unheard voices? It is now imperative that more research and proactive initiatives are taken to break the barriers between Muslims and non-Muslims, and also to address women’s issues within the Muslim world.

By Nahid Afrose Kabir

Muslim news in the print media

23 August 2013

In my previous blog post ('Eid al-Fitr celebration 2013', below), I expressed my joy at living in Australia with its multicultural spirit. At the Eid al-Fitr reception at Parliament House on 14 August 2013, I met people from a range of diverse backgrounds and different faiths, and there was a pleasant atmosphere of love and mutual respect. I also met Sheikh Riad Elrifai, the grand imam of Marion Mosque (Masjid Omar Bin Al-Khattab) at the Parliamentary Eid Reception and I was impressed by his approachable personality.

The Marion Mosque and three other mosques are managed by the Islamic Society of South Australia. The Islamic Society of South Australia has a good reputation for its community engagement. On 10 June 2013 the Islamic Society of South Australia (and Masjid Al-Khalil) orgainsed a lecture, 'Interconnectedness of Civilisations of Islam, the West and Australia', delivered by Associate Professor Mohamad Abdalla at the Adelaide Convention Centre. I attended the lecture and I was impressed by the number of people who attended despite it being a public holiday (about 600 people, mostly mainstream Australians). It generated interesting questions and discussions.

But on 22 August 2013 when the Adelaide newspaper The Advertiser reported the 'hate speech' delivered by Islamic preacher Sheikh Sharif Hussein, who was formerly associated with the Marion Mosque, I was surprised. My impression of the Marion Mosque has been positive. Also the Facebook page of the Islamic Society of South Australia revealed the supportive engagement in the community of the Marion Mosque.

The Advertiser reported that Sheikh Hussein delivered his speech in Arabic and it was translated into English and has been posted on YouTube. In his inflammatory speech Sheikh Hussein accused 'the American and British crusader troops, aided by the Australian troops' of raping many women in Iraq. In his speech he used derogatory language such as '365,000 Crusader pigs sent to Iraq'; 'Obama, oh enemy of Allah, you who kiss the shoes and feet of the Jews'; 'Oh Allah, count the Buddhists and the Hindus one by one … and kill them to the very last one'.

South Australian Police are investigating the legality of Sheikh Hussein's online video clip. Islamic Society of South Australia spokesman Dr Waleed Alkhazrajy said that Sheikh Hussein's comments were very disturbing and did not represent the views of the majority of Muslim people. Dr Alkhazrajy said the Sheikh stopped preaching at Marion Mosque in Park Holme about three years ago after he refused to accept restrictions on his speech.

Provocative comments made by Sheikh Sharif Hussein and printed in The Advertiser could encourage people to make generalisations about Muslims as the 'other'. It is a matter of concern and a wake-up call for both Muslims and non-Muslims that outspoken preachers such as Sheikh Hussein do exist. But my question is, has The Advertiser ever been keen to publish any positive news about the Muslim community (with the same enthusiasm as it has shown when reporting Sheikh Hussein's offensive comments). In The Advertiser’s letters to the editors page (23 August 2013, p 23) three letters on Sheikh Hussein were published containing statements such as: 'This is Australia, not the Middle East, for heaven’s sake'; 'he should be sent back to where he came from'; and it is a 'contravention to our freedom of speech'. In his opinion piece David Penberthy (The Advertiser, 23 August 2013, p 13) reminded his readers that few Muslims of the al-Qaeda ideology are still living in our midst.

Of course, I agree that if free speech is divisive, hateful and distasteful, then it is unhelpful. Similarly, when the Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) were published by various print media in 2005–2006; or when the controversial film Innocence of Muslims was posted online in 2012, was The Advertiser equally enthusiastic in its reporting of some peoples’/the press's abuse of freedom of speech?

To sum up, Sheikh Hussein’s choice of words were obviously inconsistent with the Australian or universal value of 'tolerance'. At a time when many Muslims are trying to establish social cohesion with their western counterparts, Sheikh Sharif Hussein's violent words against his fellow human beings (Buddhists and Hindus) are not helpful.

By Nahid Afrose Kabir

Eid al-Fitr celebration 2013

15 August 2013

Jay Weatherill, Nahid Afrose Kabir and Hieu Van LeAfter almost a month of fasting in Adelaide, on 7 August 2013 I left for Perth to celebrate Eid with my family. We celebrated Eid on 8 August. Despite heavy rainfall in Perth it did not stop me visiting my friends on Eid day. I returned to work in Adelaide on Monday 12 August somewhat disheartened because I felt that my visit to Perth was too short. But the next day, when our International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding hosted an Eid lunch, the spirit of joy resumed. It was not only delicious food, but catching up with my colleagues made me feel that I also have a community here.

On 14 August 2013 I was delighted to attend the parliamentary reception to celebrate Eid al-Fitr.  It was a privilege to meet distinguished people such as the Hon Jay Weatherill MP, the Premier of South Australia, Hon Hieu Van Le Lieutenant Governor of South Australia and Chairman of the South Australian Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs, Hon Jennifer Rankine MP, Minister for Multicultural Affairs, and Ms Sherifa Khan and Ms Miriam Silva of the Muslim Women’s Association SA, among others.

In his welcome speech, Premier Jay Weatherill said that historically South Australia promoted religious equality and tolerance, and it still cherishes such an ethos. As I was listening to his speech I agreed with him on the historical context of this state. It was a predominantly Christian colony but the founders of the colony also believed that other religions should be duly respected. In 1884, the first mosque in Australia was built in Marree. It was built by Afghans in Australia’s outback because of the mobile nature of their work. Later in 1888 (some say 1890), the second mosque was built in Adelaide. The Adelaide Mosque is still very much in use. Other examples of South Australian tolerance included leniency about marriage between Aboriginal women and Afghans. When Afghan Jack Akbar married Indigenous woman Lalli Matbar in Western Australia, under the Aboriginal Act of 1905 the Western Australian Protector of Aborigines AO Neville judged their marriage illegal. So they eventually moved to South Australia, where they brought up their family. Mohamet Allum, a renowned herbalist who cured many Australians, also lived in Adelaide. He received print media attention (for example, Smith’s Weekly, 12 August 1933) for his contribution to the wider society.

The Eid reception at Parliament House was a pleasant reminder of the presence of diversity in South Australia. It was attended by people of diverse backgrounds. The food was superb, and as people mingled they also enjoyed photo opportunities throughout the evening. I also enjoyed the photo opportunities with some important government officials and some Muslim and non-Muslim friends. The Eid celebration in Adelaide finally ended with great joy!

By Nahid Afrose Kabir

Zealot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth

6 August 2013

Fox News’ astonishing interview with Reza Aslan on 26 July 2013 about his latest book Zealot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth sparked heated discussions across the media outlets about Aslan’s subjection to a flagrant trial about what his faith permits him to write about. Lauren Green of Fox News began her interview by asking Aslan, also the author of How to win a cosmic war: God, globalization, and the end of the war on terror (2010) and No God but God: the origins, evolution, and future of Islam (2006), ‘You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?’ In the ten-minute interview Green insisted that Aslan’s book can only be biased on the basis that he writes as a Muslim.

In addition to re-igniting the question of Islamophobia in the American media, there is another and more universal issue that arises from this episode: the permissible intellectual pursuits of the (Muslim) writer. Surely in the realm of the imaginative mind historical, ethnic, religious and national divides can be crossed, inspiring creative scholarship, knowledge and exchange. Scholarship is all the more rigorous and richer for such travellers. Some of the greatest scholars on Islam and Muslim civilisation, for example Muhammad Asad, Marmaduke Pickthall, Henry Corbin and Annemarie Schimmel, hailed from diverse religious backgrounds.

Commenting on the interview, Bethanie Blanchard wrote: ‘In defiance of what good old Roland Barthes advised all those years ago, popular literary criticism has indeed seen a renewed interest in authors’ personal backgrounds, to the detriment of analysis or engagement with the works themselves’. Zealot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth became the US bestseller on Amazon, and Westbourne Press, an imprint of Saqi Books, an independent publishing house specialising in North Africa and the Middle East, has brought forward its publication of the UK edition. Let the readers decide – for the right reasons. 

By Chloe Gill-Khan

Critical Muslim Studies Summer School in Granada

16 July 2013

I attended the third annual Critical Muslim Studies summer school in Granada, Spain this year in June. Titled 'Critical Muslim Studies: Decolonial Struggles, Theology of Liberations and Islamic Revival', it aimed to create an intellectual space for Islamic critical thought as part of a broader epistemic decolonial perspective. It was organised by the Ethnic Studies department at Berkeley and offered through the Centre for Intercultural Dialogue in Spain. It was held in the beautiful location of Carmen de la Victoria at University of Granada, in the historic Muslim area called Albayzin in the city of Granada.

Like previous years, there were several inter-related sets of topics and themes covered through lectures and discussions by professors, scholars and activists who were experts in their fields of decolonial thought, critical Muslim studies, liberation theology and Islamic feminism. This year, students had the additional pleasure of having Prof Asma Barlas, Prof Tariq Ramadan and Prof Farid Esack, among others, as faculty members.

Prof Asma Barlas is Professor of Politics and Program Director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity at Ithaca College in New York state. Her work is on Quranic hermeutics and the position of Muslim women and she is the author of the well-known book Believing women: unreading patriarchal interpretations of the Quran (2002). She gave several lectures in the first week and was part of the two-day seminar on Islamic feminism which brought together Muslim feminists, both scholars and activists, from the US, UK, Canada, Morocco and Spain.

Prof Tariq Ramadan is Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University as well as Director of the Research Centre of Islamic Legislation and Ethics in Doha, Qatar. He is known by many as a public intellectual on issues relating to Muslims in Europe. He gave several talks in the second week about the position of Muslims in the West and about the possibilities of Muslim reform as part of his conceptualisation of decolonising from within.

Prof Farid Esack is a well-known scholar in Quranic studies, Islamic liberation theology and contemporary Islam. He is Professor in the Study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He gave several lectures on Quranic studies and liberation theology. He also spoke about his personal intellectual and spiritual journey, which has given rise to his work as an activist in South Africa and his scholarly perspective.

Having the opportunity to engage with these renowned scholars together in this decolonial intellectual space was a valuable and unique experience. Not only were their lectures thought-provoking, but the discussions with them afterwards allowed us to think further on the questions and themes that we had been discussing throughout the course of the summer school, in the classroom, over meals, and in casual conversations with each other. I appreciated the intellectual, collegial atmosphere which encouraged easy interaction with fellow students and faculty, and the rewarding intellectual exchanges that arose as a result. It is unlikely that I would be discussing my work with Asma Barlas over tea in another space. It is unlikely that I would be asking Farid Esack questions about how he conceptualises power in his work over lunch. It is unlikely that a group of students would be challenging Tariq Ramadan on his interpretation of the position of Muslim women using the work of Asma Barlas who was sitting right there in the room with us. These individual and group exchanges illustrated the value of this kind of intellectual space as well as the diversity and vibrancy of critical Muslim studies as a field for the many junior scholars who are developing their voices in it. I really enjoyed the experience and look forward to future collaborations with my colleagues and friends from the summer school.  

By Uzma Jamil

National Asylum Summit 2013: from here to where?

3 July 2013

On 27 June 2013 the Hawke Research Institute at the University of South Australia hosted the National Asylum Summit 2013. The event blended in well with the South Australian Refugee Week events for June 2013. The delegates at the National Asylum Summit included representatives from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, government and non-government organisation officials, representatives from migrant and asylum communities, academics, activists and policy analysts.

In his keynote speech Dr Jeff Crisp, head of UNHCR’s Policy Development and Evaluation Services, presented an overview of the global refugee situation particularly in Africa (Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Sudan and Somalia), the Middle East (Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon), and refugee displacement from the Balkans to the industrialised states. He also pointed out that the refugee and asylum seeker debate remains a contentious matter in Australia. Dr Crisp discussed some of the factors that have impacted on the movement of asylum seekers, for example state sovereignty and security, prosperity and recession, globalisation and social change, politicians and the media, integration and exclusion. He also suggested an alternative strategy, for example understanding public concerns, abandoning offshore arrangements, insisting on state obligations and promoting resettlement.

The panel members such as Prof Andrew Jakubowicz, Ms Carina Hoang and Father Frank Brennan shared their views on the complexities of globalisation and the movement of people. Ms Carian Hoang delivered her very moving and inspiring life story including her escape from war-torn Vietnam on a wooden boat at the age of 16. Other panel members who shared their insightful thoughts later in the day included Prof AbdouMaliq Simone, Prof Ranjana Khanna and Mr Hassab Ghulam.

Throughout the summit, the round table sessions were productive. I attended two sessions: 'Hospitality and the politics of deterrence: regional challenges in the aftermath of the Houston Report' (morning session); and 'Cosmopolitan visions' (afternoon session). In the morning session on 'Hospitality' (chaired by Mr Richard Towle, UNHCR representative for Australia, NZ, PNG and the Pacific) we discussed the Houston Report, for example, the challenges and the loss of lives of people in the sea. After the Houston Report, we asked, what is next and how should we move forward? There were suggestions that there should be regional engagement through dialogue among civil society, UNHCR and governments. There were also suggestions that we should move beyond bilateral arrangements. One participant noted that in 2012–2013 the federal government has allocated $1.1 billion for border protection, and $121.4 million has been allocated to regional cooperation and associated activities over the next four years and now the Australian government’s focus should be on efficient management. Another viewpoint was to review the health issues in detention centres versus community placement of asylum seekers. Other suggestions included community engagement at the grassroots level through social interaction between asylum seekers and mainstream Australians; ethnic Australians should undertake voluntary roles in refugee settlement; politicians of ethnic backgrounds should engage with the shock jock radio programs and tell people about their success stories; and there should be moral leadership from our politicians.

Australian leaders should spread the word that people arriving by boat are acceptable to our society because they are fleeing persecution in their country of origin. Yet there were voices of scepticism. As one participant in the session commented, Tony Abbot’s attitude of  'We will stop the boats' is not helpful. At this moment, I am thinking how helpful will our new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s talk about regional conflict be? During his election campaign in 2007, Kevin Rudd’s comments about the construction of a proposed Islamic college at Camden in Sydney were unhelpful.

The afternoon session 'Cosmopolitan visions' (chaired by Prof Bryan Turner) also generated interesting discussion. There were discussions on bottom-up or vernacular cosmopolitanism and whether asylum seekers or young Muslims belonged to that category. I was quick to contribute to this discussion as my research findings on Muslim youths in Australia, Britain and the USA (which also included participants from refugee backgrounds) contradicted the fixed notion of bottom-up cosmopolitanism. I found that Muslim youths live in very segregated communities but they are very much a part of the wider society through sports and music. The above views can be perceived as elitist cosmopolitanism, while some may view them as consumerist cosmopolitanism. Yet the discussions acknowledged that cosmopolitanism should incorporate recognising and respecting other peoples' human rights and dignity. Our discussion on cosmopolitanism also revolved around Jacques Derrida’s Of hospitality.

Overall, the summit raised important issues: the uncertain future of unaccompanied children/minor asylum seekers; the security of Temporary Protection Visa holders; the regional solution; and the Australian government's execution of its international obligations. To sum up, I appreciate the UNHCR's initiatives to address the challenging global refugee/asylum seeker question. Yet our summit's discussion mostly revolved around Australia. The refugee/asylum seeker issues in some other places also need due attention. For example, Rohingya refugees fleeing from Burma to Bangladesh need protection. By the end of next year, all foreign forces will leave Afghanistan. The Taliban are likely to come back to power. In this political football, the minorities (the Hazaras) in Afghanistan will once again become the most vulnerable people, and will be desperate to flee from persecution by the Taliban. And then at our end, in the name of state sovereignty and security, we may hear political rhetoric such as 'We will stop the boats and we will make a difference from day one.'

By Nahid Afrose Kabir

Whose violence counts first? Narratives of violence and terrorism in the West

4 June 2013

The killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich by alleged attackers Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale has revived narratives in the mainstream media and public discourse about the alleged 'intrinsic' relationship between Muslims, violence and terrorism. These narratives have gained currency since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and have been renewed with each new 'terrorist event', such as the 7/7 bombings in 2005, the Fort Hood shooting in 2009, and most recently the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013.

The outcome of this has been that, since 9/11, all Muslims living in western countries are asked to bear collective responsibility for the violent actions of a few. Every time there is violence carried out by Muslim perpetrators, they are all asked to 'explain their religion'. They are asked to apologise, to soothe and defuse fears by stressing that Islam is a peaceful religion and they are peace-loving Muslims who do not wish to kill anyone or blow up anything. In other words, Muslims are 'fixed' into a relationship with violence and terrorism through these narratives, even when they are trying to challenge the underlying Islamophobic assumptions.

The same type of response is visible in the UK since Lee Rigby’s death. The English Defence League (EDL), a right-wing nationalist group, has organised anti-Muslim protests in various cities across the country, blaming Muslims and Islamic extremism. At the same time, incidents of harassment, name calling and assaults against Muslims have also increased. Vandalism and attacks on mosques and Islamic centres have also been reported.

Counternarratives to these expressions of anger and violence are also visible. Muslim citizens have expressed their sorrow and sadness at Rigby’s death, as well as asserting the peaceful nature of Muslims. 'We just want to extend our sincere regrets to all against this heinous attack on humanity, on behalf of all peace-loving Muslims', said a message left alongside many others at the site of the attack. At the Greenwich Islamic Centre, a sign taped at the entrance condemned the murder and stated, 'We strongly suggest that both these men should be severely punished as criminals and not as so-called Muslims'. In an effort to defuse tensions and potential violence, a mosque in York served tea and biscuits to EDL protestors.

However, a deeper question remains unresolved in this case. One of the attackers allegedly stated to bystanders afterwards that he did it as revenge for the killing of Muslims overseas. According to his statement, the starting point for the violence was in the past, in British military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this killing was the response to it. However, the violence directed towards ordinary Muslim citizens and their places of worship in the UK since Rigby’s death can also be read as 'revenge': revenge for the death of Rigby and a collective blame placed on all Muslims. In this cycle of violence and counterviolence, there is a gray area over what counts as the beginning that then justifies subsequent actions. Simply put, whose violence counts first? This question points to the gap in power between majority narratives and minority ones in the West around violence and terrorism.

The same gap was highlighted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The dominant narrative of the war on terror launched by the United States and its western allies took the 9/11 attacks as the starting point, as an 'unprovoked' act of hostility and therefore grounds for the military interventions in first Afghanistan and later Iraq. The clock started at Ground Zero for them. Yet many Muslims understood the 9/11 attacks as a response to American imperialism in the Middle East and embedded within colonial and postcolonial histories of power between the Muslim world and the West. For them, the clock had started decades ago.

Where do we go from here? What do we do with these narratives and the cycle of violence and counter-violence they seek to explain? It requires a shift in thinking about power relations between the Muslim world and the West, and the way they are played out in the contemporary relationship between Muslim minorities and non-Muslim majorities in the West. A first step may be, as Glenn Greenwald has suggested, by acknowledging the violence carried out overseas by western allies and its impact at home.

By Uzma Jamil

Gender segregation and listening to Muslim women

7 May 2013

Gender-segregated seating at a lecture at the University of Melbourne organised by an Islamic group has provoked debate among politicians, university staff and the Muslim community. Yassir Morsi argues that the would-be saviours of Muslim women also treat them as silent subjects. They have not listened to the voices of the women they wish to save. Read Yassir's Overland article. And his Right Now article.

The 'radical' in radical Islam

30 April 2013

After Boston we have witnessed the Islamophobia industry in full swing through a cadre of intellectual vendors, tweeters, bloggers, politicians and Facebook pundits. They are all quick to point at the ‘Islam’ in ‘radical Islam’ as the driving force that kills innocent children.

However, this Islam in ‘radical Islam’ simply turns meaningless rhetoric about the Muslim world into an assumed investigation into the causes of violence. We could read hundreds of articles on the radicalised Muslim bombers’ biographies without ever figuring out why these two brothers, and not other Muslims, bombed a marathon. It is a description that purports to be an explanation. Reports of the brothers’ series of religious engagements in mosques and websites were arbitrary; and in being so they carelessly implicated many similar orthodox or political Muslims as prone to radicalisation.

More to the point, is it not precisely in labelling terror as Islamic that we give it its political meaning? The term ‘Islam’ adds an ethnic oomph where there really is none. It is not really my point then to say that there is nothing inherently Islamic about the violence in Boston, but rather that there is nothing inherently violent about Islam. Something else is at play.

Yet, for some in the Islamophobia industry, Islam is retrospectively defined as the cause of an event. It does all the work for many of their curious readers. It gives motive, purpose, character and ambition, and dresses the enemy in the typical garb of Otherness. It pushes violence to the edges of society, as if violence comes from beyond western norms, and not from within. This is the return of the policies and prophecies of the war on terror.

So why should we over-determine the role of an Islamic lecture by an Australian sheikh on Harry Potter’s polytheism, and yet undervalue the careless journalism of a broader-reaching industry in creating a culture of us-versus-them? Why is Islamophobia not under scrutiny for the radicalisation it creates? Why not scrutinise certain media’s persistent labelling of violence as ours-and-theirs as an invitation to play in an exchange of such violences. The point is that the way we commonly describe violence when it happens on American soil demands an immediate identity for us to point at and blame.

The war on terror is an amorphous thing, and it generates a global empire of security that operates without a central cultural hegemony. The war’s language cannot be explained under the grand narrative of Islam and ‘the West’ for, in reality, the Muslim world’s struggles are embedded both in the First and Third World.

Thus the scrutiny of Islam as a religion in this game is a brutal force in itself. The ceaseless and sensationalised focus on all things Islamic is also an actor in creating radicalisation. The industry of ‘suspicion’, the atmosphere of  peddling phobia, is an ideological machinery. It does plenty to create a global source of ‘hatred’ against the US and its appeals to ‘freedom’. So why not also see radicalisation as a designation explaining the often catastrophic consequences of the languages of media and politics – why only look for a bad sheikh or a bad mosque?

By Yassir Morsi

Further reading:
Chloe Patton, 'Boston bombings: beware the multi-million dollar Islamophobia industry', The Conversation, 25 April 2013.

The Boston Marathon tragedy

17 April 2013

It is heartbreaking to hear that the beautiful city of Boston suffered a terrorist attack on 15 April 2013. The Australian reported that explosions killed three people and injured more than 170 people. The youngest victim was an eight-year-old boy, Martin Richard, who was waiting to hug his father after his father crossed the finished line. The first explosion detonated on Boylston Street at 2:15 pm followed by a second explosion 10 seconds later.

I was shocked when I saw the site of the terrorist attack. I visited this street when I was in Boston. Quite close to the terrorist attack site is Cambridge, where I lived from 2009 to 2011 as a visiting fellow at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.

During my stay in Boston, I fell in love with the city. Its people, art and architecture, heritage buildings, the educational institutions, the natural beauty, people canoeing in the Charles River, spoke of the amazing standard of the city. The John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum details the remarkable achievements and contributions of the Kennedy family.

Boston is such a peaceful city and I am still in a state of shock about the terrorist attack in this city. In this saddest moment of Boston’s history, I express my sincere condolences to the victims of this tragedy.

By Nahid Afrose Kabir

Celebrating the centenary of Canberra

16 April 2013

The Canberra Islamic Centre (CIC) invited me to give a talk on Muslims in Australia at their Centenary of Canberra celebration on Saturday 13 April 2013. About 300 people attended the centenary celebration at CIC. The Honourable Senator Kate Lundy, Minister for Sport and Minister for Multicultural Affairs, opened the event. The Honourable Gai Brodtmann MP also attended the event, among other distinguished guests.

The day before the event when I was still in Adelaide I was interviewed by ABC Canberra Local Radio about my talk on Muslims in Australia.

I felt very honoured to be the guest speaker at this special event. At the beginning of my talk, I paid tribute to Canberra, which occupies a special place in my research achievements. I told the audience that I visited Canberra in 1999, twice in 2007, once in 2011 and of course this was my fifth visit. ‘Canberra’ is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘meeting place’. It is true to its meaning. Canberra has been a focal point for knowledge and learning, dialogue, reconciliation and understanding people of diverse backgrounds.

When I commenced my PhD study on Muslims in Australia in 1999, I went to Canberra for two reasons: first, for archival research in the National Archives of Canberra and secondly to interview some Muslims about their settlement in Australia. I found that a few Muslim families settled in Canberra in the 1970s. Since then the Muslim population in Canberra has grown. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics the Muslim population in Canberra in 2006 numbered 4,367. ABS Census data from 2011 revealed that the Muslim population in Canberra had almost doubled to 7,432 Muslims.

The rapid growth of the Muslim population in Canberra is also revealed by the construction of mosques. The Canberra Mosque was built in 1960 and there are a few musallas in Canberra. After a decade of effort, the site for the Gungahlin Mosque was approved in 2011. And the construction of a new mosque at the Canberra Islamic Centre at Tuggeranong has recently been approved. There is also one Islamic school in Canberra. The Islamic Council of ACT also meets Muslims’ needs. The Australian National Islamic Library at the Canberra Islamic Centre also speaks of the growing Muslim population in Canberra.

I told the audience that Canberra has been an icon for Muslim and non-Muslim understanding. On 2–4 March 2007 Dr Pamela Ryan organised a national deliberative poll, Australia Deliberates, at Old Parliament House in Canberra. I was an invited panellist for the event. Over 350 randomly selected Muslims and non-Muslims (mostly non-Muslims) came together to discuss some of the issues concerning both Muslims and mainstream Australians. Several plenary sessions were addressed by community leaders, historians and other experts on immigration and race relations. The sessions were chaired by political icons, for example by former Prime Minister Bob Hawke and politician Barry Jones. Overall, Australia Deliberates was very successful. Before the poll many non-Muslims held negative views about Muslims but after the Australia Deliberates sessions poll results published in the Sydney Morning Herald (5 March 2007) were very positive as they showed mainstream Australians’ fear of the unknown (Muslims) had dropped to a great extent. Many were convinced that both Muslims and non-Muslims can co-exist side by side.

In August 2007 I was an invited panellist at the National Security for a Diverse Community Forum in Canberra to discuss strategies for national security, in 2011 I attended a conference at Australian National University on violence against women, and in 2013 I was once again in Canberra to celebrate the centenary.

After paying tribute to Canberra, I gave a talk on Muslims in Australia. I spoke on Muslims’ presence and contribution to Australia from 1860 to 2012. Then, on 15 April 2013, I delivered a talk on young British Muslims’ identity at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at Australian National University. I told both the CIC and ANU audiences that the spirit of Canberra (knowledge, learning, dialogue and critical scholarship) is also the very spirit of our International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding at the University of South Australia.

By Nahid Afrose Kabir

MnM Award celebration in Brisbane

5 April 2013

Stephen Pincus (QUT), Karen Dare (GM Communify), Glen Elmes (MP for Noosa) and Nahid Afrose Kabir (MnM) and a representative of the Saudi Students AssociationOn 3 April 2013 the recipient of the inaugural MnM Award for an organisation, the Exchange Community Centre, held a prize-winning ceremony at the Queensland Academy for Creative Industries Gallery in Brisbane. To celebrate the event Exchange Community Centre invited me to speak on behalf of our International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding. I gladly accepted their invitation. Notable guests at this celebration included the Hon Glen Elmes MP, Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Multicultural Affairs and Minister Assisting the Premier, Hon Robert Cavallucci MP, Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs, MC Carolyn Mason, President Communify Queensland and Song-woman Maroochy, representative of the Turrbal people.

In my speech I offered my personal congratulations to the Exchange Community Centre for their work on community engagement through Eid celebrations, English language classes, knitting classes and sporting activities. Their other notable activities include homework tutoring for Muslim children whose parents were studying at university and a range of other services. I told the audience that our MnM Centre has similar community outreach activities that help to break the barriers between Muslims and non-Muslims through dialogue, communication, public debate and scholarships. I paid tribute to our former Prime Minister, the Hon Bob Hawke, who was an inspiration for the establishment of our centre and who is very passionate about building better understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim people.

The MnM Award celebration event in Brisbane was attended by over 120 diverse people including Afghans, Australians, Bangladeshis, British, Chinese, Iranian, Japanese, Mongolians and Saudis. Some people dressed in their national costumes and of course the food represented the presence of diverse cultures in Australia.

After the celebration, the hosts of the event took me out for dinner, which gave me the opportunity to see their neighbourhood. I found that the Exchange Community Centre (a Communify Hub in Kelvin Grove Village) was placed in a unique setting. It is adjacent to the Queensland University of Technology and it is surrounded by social housing, university apartments and multicultural restaurants. I assumed that Australians of low socioeconomic backgrounds were living in the social housing, while mainly international students were living in the apartments close to QUT.

As I was walking in the area, I felt that the overseas students looked very much at home. Some of the locals wore Saudi dress, for example, the white thobe (long dress) with their red and white traditional head gear, and Arab women with children were sitting on the lawn and relaxing. I assumed that these people were international students who had come to Australia with their families for a short period of time.

The cosmopolitan Kelvin Grove urban village is an ideal place where people of diverse backgrounds are becoming familiar with other peoples’ cultures, and in this setting the Exchange Community Centre is playing a vital role in meeting the needs of the community. For example, in their English class or in the knitting class, women of diverse backgrounds meet and socialise with each other. For Muslim (and non-Muslim) women there are women-only English classes. In the knitting classes, Muslim and non-Muslim women meet, chat and socialise. This is a unique way to reduce the isolation of new arrivals. I therefore commend the Exchange Community Centre for their remarkable efforts for Muslim and non-Muslim co-existence, harmony and social cohesion.

By Nahid Afrose Kabir 

Islamophobia overshadows bipartisan multiculturalism inquiry

2 April 2013

The release in late March of an important report into the state of multiculturalism in Australia went almost unnoticed amidst the turmoil of the Australian Labor Party’s public implosion. The report is the outcome of a two-year inquiry into issues surrounding migrant settlement, the effects of globalisation on social inclusion, and the contribution of migration to the nation’s productive capacity. When the bipartisan Joint Standing Committee on Migration called for public submissions addressing these concerns, however, it was met with an outpouring of hatred directed at Muslim Australians. Read more about these submissions and what they tell us about relations between Muslim and non-Muslim Australians here.  

By Chloe Patton

In conversation with Javed Ahmad Ghamidi

2 April 2013

On 22 March 2013 the International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding had the honour of welcoming the renowned Pakistani public scholar and educationist Javed Ahmad Ghamidi for discussion over lunch in anticipation of a talk he delivered that evening. Staff and students asked Mr Ghamidi for his insights on a number of current issues relating to Pakistan and the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. Mr Ghamidi spoke about the politico-religious situation in Pakistan, the upcoming elections and his hopes and aspirations for the future of the nation. He expressed his view that real political change in Pakistan will not be instantaneous, that is, dependent upon the upcoming elections and institutional architecture; rather, political, ideological and societal shifts require the will and sacrifices of the Pakistani people over several generations.

Mr Ghamidi was also asked (and no conversation about Pakistan would be complete without the following) where can Pakistan’s youth turn to, a generation that is passionate about change and reform. Mr Ghamidi stated that formal education is vital, but that it should not be privileged over other forms of understanding and knowledge that are essential in a nation crippled by ethnic, religious and political tensions.

The MnM Centre looks forward to fostering greater connections with thinkers from the Muslim world in order to enhance understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as opening spaces for dialogue within the Muslim world.

By Chloe A Gill-Khan

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