Provocative Preachers: Irreverent words from irrelevant imams

Feiz Mohamed stands up in front of 1,000 people at Bankstown Town Hall and declares that women are eligible for rape if they dress a certain way. Weeks later, he repeats the same message on national television.

Mohammed Omran declares on national television that Usama bin Ladin is innocent. He ignores a huge body of evidence including bin Ladin’s own admissions and the research and interviews of at least one senior investigative journalist from Al Jazeera.

These two imams have certain things in common. They both belong to a fringe salafist strain of Islam, one rejected by both mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims. They both studied at the same university in Saudi Arabia. And they both have small followings.

Omran is lucky to get a few hundred attend his Friday prayer service in the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne. Far greater numbers attend mainstream mosques, including the Islamic Council of Victoria headquarters in Melbourne CBD and the Naqshbandi Sufi mosque at Coburg.

After making his comments about dress and rape, the bulk of the females in Feiz Mohamed’s audience walked out. Indeed, he was not the main act at this Muslim gig. He was just the supporting act to a prominent and respected African-American scholar.

Feiz Mohamed’s 1,000 people could hardly be compared to the 5,000 that attend the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque each Friday, taking an hour out of their lunch time. It fades into insignificance compared to the 30,000-plus who attend the annual Multicultural Eid Festival & Fair (MEFF) at the Fairfield Showground each year at the end of Ramadan.

These two imams use inflammatory speech in a desperate bid to gain an audience. They have to shout just to be heard. And thankfully, they are generally ignored.

When young Aussie Mossies want to hear lectures, they would prefer to download the speeches of Americans like Hamza Yusuf Hanson or Poms like Tim Winter. The last major Islamic scholar to attend Sydney, Dr Jamal Badawi from Canada, had much larger crowds showing up to his talks.

So why are Feiz Mohamed and Mohammed Omran so often interviewed and quoted? Why do some journalists hang off every word these people say?

Perhaps it is more to do with the fact that this pair represent the typical caricature of a beady-eyed nasty terror-loving types. The sort of fellows you’d more likely find on the wrong side of Team America than in downtown Sydney or Melbourne.

As a result of their antics, most Australians don’t associate Muslim communities with the mainstream. The articulate Malcolm Thomas (Chairman of the Islamic Council of Victoria) is not enough to convince the doubting tabloid Thomases to change their image of Aussie Mossies.

In the UK, the story is slightly different. The BBC frequently hosts Tim Winter, a softly-spoken Cambridge scholar. In the United States, President Bush had the good sense to be photographed with the well-spoken Greek-American Hamza Yusuf Hanson immediately after September 11.

On my iPod, I have a range of music, from Van Halen to Paul Kelly. And I also have a set of lectures downloaded from the website of an American sufi whose in-laws live in Brisbane. Sheik Nuh Keller lives in Jordan, is a translator and scholar of both classical Islamic sciences and the less religious science of commercial fishing. He and his students publish a high quality quarterly journal Islamica that could teach mainstream Australian magazine editors here a thing or two.

These scholars have written and spoken against terrorism and against separatist attitudes that breed terrorism. Imam Hamza Yusuf Hanson told Muslim Britons in 2001 that those people who did not like English culture and traditions should leave England and live in a Muslim country.

These are the voices of mainstream Muslim communities across the Western World. They work together, and have established institutions, thinktanks and publications. And they all have a sense of humour.

This brings me to another thing these scholars have in common. They are huge fans of the American Muslim stand-up comic Azhar Usman. In his latest release entitled “Allah Made Me Funny!”, Usman asks his audience: “Why do people blame me for 9/11? What makes you think I am responsible for 9/11? 7-Eleven maybe. But 9/11?”

Irfan Yusuf, an Australian industrial and employment lawyer, is a freelance writer whose interests include law, gender issues, international relations, spirituality and conservative politics. His writings can be seen online at Planet Irf and Madhab Irfy.

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