Last century, British author and socialist George Orwell penned the popular political novel Animal Farm. I feel like a political and literary Luddite in admitting I still haven’t read the novel. However, I am familiar with one of his most famous lines from the novel – that all animals are equal but some are more equal than others.
I’m also familiar with this kind of reasoning being used in other contexts. In the post-9/11 and post-7/7 environment, with increasing scrutiny of Western Muslim minorities and their religious institutions, it seems any and every Muslim organisation is quite happy to tell any journalist or politician prepared to listen that their sect or organisation or faction is more moderate than their competitors.
Often the result has been that intelligence and law enforcement agencies have received very poor information. Within months of the London bombing, the prestigious Weekend Australian Financial Review reported that Muslim community figures were receiving enormous amounts for information supplied to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO, Australia’s domestic security agency) that the domestic intelligence agency have had to call in experts to curb this budgetary excess.
Sadly, much of the information is useless to the ASIO. As a result, a former spy chief had “to crack down on the amount of money wasted by the ASIO on agents receiving payment for concocted information”.
This followed an internal review which revealed that “many part-time agents in Australia’s Islamic community were being paid for information that had not been properly evaluated.”
The reporter, Brian Toohey, said that the ASIO had to learn the hard way “that Australia’s Islamic community is riven by religious, political and personal rivalries, which often prompt informers to take advantage of ASIO’s cash to make up damaging accusations against their opponents.”
Now in the nation’s capital, opposing factions of the Canberra Mosque are trying to use the same method to discredit each other. The problem is that this time, serious newspapers aren’t taking them seriously.
The Canberra Mosque fiasco is making minor headlines in different parts of the world. At the heart of the struggle is the imam, Mr. Mohammed Swaiti, who has served the mosque for over a decade.
I’ve personally never met Mr. Swaiti, and have only prayed Friday prayers once or twice at the Canberra Mosque. The mosque sits in the heart of Canberra’s diplomatic district of Yarralumla, and foreign embassies take a keen interest in its affairs.
Back in March, allegations of tax law breaches surfaced against the imam. Since then, the cold war between the imam and certain members of the mosque executive has turned very heated. The imam’s opponents have accused him of preaching ‘extremism’ and of being in the pocket of Saudi-style “wahhabists”.
Some readers will be aware that I’m not exactly known for my pro-Wahhabi theological leanings. Hence, you’d think I’d be quite happy to jump on any Wahhabi-bashing bandwagon. Think again.
It’s one thing to regard Wahhabi Islam as heterodox. It’s quite another to use one’s sectarian prejudice as the basis for publicly throwing mud at others. And it’s absolutely nuts to take advantage of the understandable fears of the broader community by pointing the finger at one’s former allies and scream “extremist” and “terrorist”.
It may well be that the Canberra imam is preaching extremism. I’d be concerned if he relied on the Hilali/Khan translation of the Qur’an. But apart from the imam being potentially on the Saudi payroll, what evidence is there that he is in fact an extremist?
One executive member opposed to the imam went on Radio National and provided the following evidence that the Imam is an extremist:
SABRE POSKOVIC: I see some violence. I, running to see what’s happened. I see my secretary bleeding, he was punched by a follower of Mr. Swaiti, imam … present-time imam. And I grabbed my secretary and I take him to a hospital.CONOR DUFFY: That’s very serious to happen inside a mosque. Surely you wouldn’t, that wouldn’t be run of the mill?
SABRE POSKOVIC: Well, it was very unacceptable in behaviour of our imam, present Mr. Swaiti and his followers. Actually his follower is brothers and family friends.
CONOR DUFFY: Did you see Mohammed Swaiti say anything at the time?
SABRE POSKOVIC: Yes, I see him inside the mosque before delivery. He’s actually, we sent to him a letter from Islamic Society and he’s sacked from Islamic Society, which we have a right to sack him and employ imam, but we write a letter to him, we sack him.
And what he done last Friday, his … by he push himself and I can say trespassing. Trespassing because he’s sacked and he’s trespassing, that’s he point at himself again imam in front all the people and screaming and he say, “I am imam here, nobody else. I will be imam for the rest of his life.” That’s what he say. He appointed himself imam, and appoint himself.
CONOR DUFFY: The new imam, Yasar Atay, says that you should drop the court action in the interests of peace and in the interests of restoring harmony in the community. You’re obviously not going to do that?
SABRE POSKOVIC: No, because it’s not happen definitely. Mr. Yasar Atay is very new person here. He is a good man, he is a good preaching, proper preacher of Islam, which provides understanding.
But this old imam, Mr. Swaiti, is really rude, arrogant at preaching Islam, how suit to him and not to our community.
CONOR DUFFY: And what sort of things has he said that’s concerned you?
SABRE POSKOVIC: To concern me. Concern me everything else. I want to put an imam to community can benefit it. Can preaching Islam properly.
CONOR DUFFY: How wasn’t he preaching Islam properly?
SABRE POSKOVIC: Well, exactly what Islam teaching. Islam teaching to be nice and polite and friendly with everybody else. But this imam is not friendly person. Is very rude and arrogant person, and he preaching Islam how it suit to him.
So there you have it. An imam isn’t happy about being sacked. He’s therefore very rude and arrogant. He isn’t friendly and he preaches Islam in a manner that suits him.
I’m not sure what other readers think, but based on what Mr. Poskovic has said, I’m of the view that this imam isn’t exactly the type who would strap himself with bombs and blow up a bus.
The poor mosque secretary who was punched must have been most upset at this attack by extremists. You wouldn’t expect him to be the kind of chap who would promote sectarian or separatist politics or start a special Islamist political party to have Australia ruled in accordance with the laws of the Qur’an. He’s not the sort of person who would start a party that provides tax incentives for people to own fire arms or for people who don’t eat pork.
The factions have brought the matter before the courts. Magistrate Beth Campbell (hearing the mosque’s application for a retraining order in the Magistrates’ Court) was quoted in the Canberra Times on 15 May saying that if the local Islamic community could not sort out the matter by mediation then “how can a humble magistrate of the ACT Magistrates Court have the wisdom of Solomon and Allah?”
Had I been the Magistrate, I’d have enraged genuine extremists even more by citing the Gospel According to St Matthew, Chapter 7, verse 5: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye”.
Clearly all Muslims are moderate, but some are more extremely moderate (or moderately extreme) than others!
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 NewMatilda.com, Malaysiakini.com and Crikey.com.au.