An academic recently mentioned to me of a conference he attended some twenty years back. Also attending the conference was Australia’s foremost academic historian of Islamic history, the late Professor Syed Athar Abbas Rizvi of the Australian National University.
The academic told me of the respect shown to Professor Rizvi by all except one person at the conference.
“Rizvi is such a humble and quiet old chap. We were all listening attentively to his workshop. But there was this fellow named Israeli who was terribly rude to Rizvi, badgering him at every available opportunity.”
Twenty years later, Professor Raphael Israeli of Hebrew University in Jerusalem is again ruffling the feathers of Australians. This time, Israeli’s antics have managed to get even the most die-hard supporters of Israel off side.
Israeli was invited to be scholar-in-residence by the Shalom Institute, a respected Jewish educational body attached to the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Part of his role was to deliver a series of lectures on Islamic history. He made the headlines of one sector of the Australian print media after he was cited in the Australian Jewish News for making grossly Muslim-phobic remarks during an interview.
Immediately following the publication of his remarks, Jewish community leaders acted swiftly to disassociate themselves from Israeli. The Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), a prominent pro-Israeli lobby group, was co-hosting many of Professor Israeli’s programs. They immediately issued a press release stating they would no longer be co-hosting Israeli’s future engagements.
The CEO of the Sydney-based New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, Vic Alhadeff, also acted swiftly to condemn the remarks, though his organisation’s President provided some guarded defence to Israeli in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Some Jewish organisations continue to support Israeli’s tour, citing academic freedom and freedom of speech concerns. However, it would be grossly unfair to suggest Israeli has the support of the majority of Australian Jews as he claims. When it comes to Islamophobia, Jewish opinion seems strongly divided.
Muslim responses were generally muted, with many Muslim leaders apparently hoping the issue would be buried as soon as possible (more on that later). Islamic Council of Victoria spokesman and Melbourne lawyer Waleed Aly elegantly disentangled Israeli’s argument in the Melbourne Age on 19 February 2007.
Outside the semi-official Muslim leadership, some were comparing the relative silence (if not support) of a number of prominent News Limited papers in relation to Raphael Israeli’s remarks to their overblown reporting and commentary on the offensive remarks on Sheik Hilaly.
Some Australian politicians are adept at using even the most minor incidents to take cheap shots at Muslims for short term electoral gain. They are frequently joined by regular contributors to some of Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited papers.
Yet these same politicians are happy to join forces with just about every wacky fringe group preaching hatred in the name of Christianity. It isn’t uncommon for people to compare John Howard’s attacks on Muslims who allegedly don’t integrate to his government’s support for the Exclusive Brethren sect whose religion regards such integration as sinful.
The entire Israeli incident also brought out the conspiracy of silence among many peak Muslim organisations in Australia. It was ironic that Muslims could look to Jewish leaders and Jewish community media for more leadership than to imams or mosque presidents. Most Muslim organisational heads were much too occupied with getting their dirty hands on the halal meat certification dollars that would flow following the elections of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC).
(Readers will remember that AFIC is the peak Muslim body in Australia. It is a federation of state and territory Islamic councils, and derives a fair portion of its income from halal meat certification and export. AFIC was the body which appointed Sheik Hilaly as Mufti of Australia & New Zealand, without bothering to consult the New Zealand peak Muslim body, the almost equally media-unsavvy FIANZ, Muslim communities were left open to criticism because AFIC was unable to sack Hilaly due to it being under a court-appointed administrator.)
Sadly, some online Muslim discussion on the Israeli affair has shown that some young Muslims lack the political and media sophistication required to deal with these issues. Sadly, these were the same young Muslims who formed the vanguard of Sheik Hilaly, defending Muslims at all costs and even for the wrong reasons. Sadly, things don’t get much better with each generation.
Irfan Yusuf is an associate editor of altmuslim.com and a Sydney-based lawyer whose work has appeared in some 15 mainstream newspapers in Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia. He also writes regularly online for NineMSN.com.au, NewMatilda.com, Malaysiakini.com and Crikey.com.au.