When Turkish engineering professor Ali Ilhan and other Turkish migrants established a mosque in the outer-Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows, they could never have imagined that one day this humble structure would one day attract some of Australia’s business and sporting elite to one of its Friday services. Then again, Professor Ihan could also not have predicted that he would first have to lose two sons.
Tributes are flowing in for the Professor’s younger son. John Mustafa Ilhan founded the “Crazy John” business empire and was one of Australia’s wealthiest men. According to the latest BRW Top 200 list, Ilhan was worth around $310 million and rated Australia’s 126th richest man. Managing director Brendan Fleiter spoke of how Ilhan “grew a business from nothing to become the biggest independent mobile phone retailer in Australia”. The PM speaks of Ilhan as a migrant success story. But those close to Ilhan also speak of his devotion to his wife and family. And to his faith.
Ilhan never hid his faith, but also didn’t make an issue of it. It wasn’t until recently that Ilhan’s ethno-religious heritage became known to members of the public. And for many Australians, media coverage of Ilhan’s funeral at the Broadmeadows Mosque will be the first time they will learn that the man behind one of Australia’s most successful business brands was in fact a practising Muslim.
Many Muslims however won’t be surprised. After all, they don’t share the popular prejudice of a devout Muslim being a beady-eyed long-bearded fanatic with a hostility toward all things worldly (or at least Western). Muslims attending the service also won’t be surprised to learn that Ilhan’s wife also shares his faith. Like most Australian Muslim women, Patricia Ilhan doesn’t regularly appear in public covered head to toe in a black veil.
Ilhan is really quite typical of Australian Muslims, most of whom are too busy getting on with business, work and life in general to worry about stereotypes. Most are quite puzzled by the ranting of cultural warriors who only imagine Islam being at odds with Western civilisation and modernity, and for whom the only good Muslim is an ex-Muslim. Yet the fact that such warriors still have wide audiences and political influence is all the more reason for all the other Ilhans out there to speak about their faith.
I first came across Ilhan speaking openly of his faith when I read the August 2005 edition of the Australian Financial Review magazine. That issue was devoted to the topic of “Faith in Business”. The only Muslim to be featured was John Ilhan. The magazine said Ilhan “carries his Islamic faith with him everyday … applying what he sees as basic tenets of honesty and integrity to his business”.
And what are these basic tenets. First, there is “asking for forgiveness”. Then there is loving one’s neighbour as one loves one’s self. He won’t open an outlet next door to a competitor he knew, even if it be a former employee or a cousin.”
I remember at time showing the magazine article to a friend of mine. There was John Ilhan, standing in the water with his trousers rolled up, telling readers about how his faith affects his dealings with competitors. I felt proud. My friend was confused. “When did Crazy John convert?” she asked. It was only after googling Ilhan that she believed me about Ilhan’s Turkish Muslim heritage.
Ilhan’s life and work was a slap in the face to monocultural warriors. Yet Ilhan also recognised that three fingers had to be publicly pointed back at that tiny minority of caricatured Muslims whose antics provide fuel for monoculturalist fires. On the eve of Australia Day, Ilhan penned these words:
“The loyalty first and foremost to Australia should also be remembered by some religious leaders, including some radical Muslim leaders in Australia, who pretend to speak for the faith, but instead promote intolerance and hatred. These, thankfully, are in the minority, but they should respect Australian laws and not preach division and fear. My Muslim faith qualifies me to strongly denounce any racist and inflammatory comments made by any Muslim leaders because they perpetuate a stereotype that is unhelpful and dangerous.”
Ilhan realised that sometimes allegedly religious Muslims are Islam’s worst enemy. Extremists had to be put in their place. At the same time, Ilhan was also true to historical tradition of Muslim migration which has always involved adopting the cultures and symbols of the communities they joined.
American Muslim scholar Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah writes:
“For centuries, Islamic civilisation harmonised indigenous forms of cultural expression with the universal norms of its sacred law … In China, Islam looked Chinese; in Mali, it looked African. Sustained cultural relevance to distinct peoples, diverse places and different times underlay Islam’s long success as a global civilisation.”
In Australia, Crazy John’s Islam could be found at the heart of Australia’s business, sporting and cultural life. Ilhan’s Muslim devotion was expressed in devotion to his family, in hard work and in passionate support for his favourite Australian Football League club, not to mention generous donations to the Melbourne Children’s Hospital, the Shane Warne Foundation and a host of other charities.
Like most high-flying Muslims, John Ilhan had settled into Australian life so well that it was hard for many to know he was Muslim. It’s ironic that the best Islamic values are universal ones whose practice makes Muslims even more invisible. A truly Australian Islam needs more Crazy Johns to make it more prominent than the dangerous stereotypes paraded as Islam.
Only when we see hundreds more Crazy Johns – Muslims in high positions prepared to be open about their spiritual heritage – will Islam be seen as part of the Australian landscape. Crazy John Ilhan’s legacy of actively embracing mainstream Australian life will today bring the likes of Shane Warne and Eddy McGuire, not to mention others in business and sport, to visit the mosque his father helped establish. More John Ilhans will ensure that those who try to marginalise Muslims and followers of other minority faiths are seen to be rowing against the tide and without a paddle.
Irfan Yusuf is an associate editor of altmuslim and a Sydney-based lawyer whose work has appeared in some 15 mainstream newspapers in Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia. A version of this article previously appeared in ABC Online.