I have a confession to make. I’m what we call in Australia a small-“c” conservative. It’s true. I admit it. There was a time when my small-“c” conservatism was a reflection of belonging to a typical middle class South Asian family. Then in 1993, I joined the New South Wales Branch of the Liberal Party, Australia’s answer to Britain’s Tories. I managed to reach various heights in the organisation, chairing 2 policy committees and sitting in numerous controversial pre-selections. I edited a conservative youth magazine for a while and was even endorsed as a federal candidate (admittedly in a seat the Libs knew they’d never win).
My own views haven’t really changed. But what used to be a centre-right party has now moved to the far right. In their wish to be seen as cultural warriors, Liberals have gone completely troppo. As have their supporters in media circles. And because they have become so right wing, it means that I am viewed by them as extremely left wing. But from that far right, even Nancy Reagan would look left wing.
Putting on a cultural jihad
Of course, these days Tories everywhere have found a new enemy. How sad it is that a group of people can only ever get worked up when inspired by hate. Yesterday, it was communism. Tories and wacko jihadists got into bed together on the Afghan battlefields, helping rid this poor hapless nation of nasty communists. And the real name of that dude with the big beard was Usama bin Reagan.
Now my old conservative allies have declared a jihad (or, to use the ”Team America” language, put a jihad) on me and anyone with even the most tenuous link to Islam. Some absolutely hysterical articles have graced the op-ed pages of American-owned Australian newspapers. One former senator even claims Australia’s “Muslim problem” is a bigger threat to it than climate change!
Not all conservatives are this hysterical. Recently, a centre-right thinktank in the UK calling itself Policy Exchange (let’s call them PE for short) published a report from an Australian newspaper columnist Dr. Gerard Henderson on the former Howard government’s approach to “dealing with its Muslims”.
It’s easy to be critical about Henderson’s report. Yet the report is not without its merits. Unlike other conservative writers and self-serving Muslim apologists, Henderson doesn’t buy into the notion that Muslims represent a single monolithic “community”. He also acknowledges that Australian Muslims are, by and large, as secular and irreligious as most Australian Christians. “Many Australians who regard themselves as followers of Islam do not attend a mosque.”
Henderson also acknowledges that the vast majority of Muslims “have settled in well”. He castigates other conservative commentators for their responses to the December 2005 Cronulla riots. “Such responses … were ill-judged and, if embraced, would have proved counterproductive … [I]t would be an act of folly to bar those of Muslim faith from entering Australia simply because they are Muslim”. In this respect, Henderson certainly cannot be described as a sectarian bigot or a racist.
Muslims as a security threat
Yet Henderson’s entire analysis is coloured by concerns about terrorism and national security. It doesn’t so much talk about Muslims as talk at them. PE’s press release claimed the study showed Australia’s 8-point “model” to “approach its Muslim population.” PE has joined other conservative cultural jihadists in presenting Muslim institutions as some kind of giant security threat.
Let’s not live in denial. There are quite a few thick-Sheiks living in Western cities trying their best of suck in Muslim youth and converts into their fringe ‘Islaam’. There are also plenty of crazy books being sold in various places. So when PE published their most recent study on hate literature being sold among English Muslims, I certainly wasn’t surprised. I’ve had a few run-ins myself with bookshops selling wacky material.
My battles against Islaam
In 2000, one salafi bookstore put on a huge book fair at the Youth & Community Centre then managed by the Islamic Council of New South Wales in south western Sydney.
The bookshop had a huge vinyl sign at the entrance. Inside were plenty of books on sale promoting “Islaam” and attacking mainstream Muslim groups (including the usual array of anti-Shia polemical work). I had little hesitation in making a unilateral executive decision and removing the poster from the entrance. The owners of the bookstore then had no hesitation of making threats of violence against me.
On another occasion, I went to a public meeting organised at the same centre. It was about Palestine. One ‘Thick-Sheik’, a graduate of the Islamic University of Madeenah, was shouting at everyone at the top of his voice, well exceeding the 10 minutes allocated to him. I was standing next to an equally irreverent South African chap, and whispered to him: “When’s this dude going to learn to speak English?” One of the thick-Sheik’s students overheard me and asked: “What did you say about my Sheik?” So as not to disturb the meeting, I suggested: “Bro, let’s talk about this outside the meeting.”
The Bro took my suggestion to mean: “Step outside and fight like a man!” Outside we have a rather heated conversation. From my recollection, it went something like this:
ME: Bro, what I was trying to say was …
BRO: You insulted my Sheik. What do you have a problem with him about? He follows the purified sunnah!
ME: Huh? Purified sunnah? Isn’t that a tautology?
BRO: Why are you using big words for? He’s a Sheik. I follow him.
ME: Wow, you are following his madhab? Masha-Allah!
BRO: Astaghfirullah! We don’t follow madhabs. We follow Allah.
ME: Who do you follow?
BRO: Allah! We follow Allah!!
ME: Wow, you even do loud dhikr!
OK, I admit I was asking for it. Thankfully, some other brothers held him back.
I’m always most grateful to anyone who exposes the nastiness of Muslim wackos (or indeed of wackos of any persuasion). But I’m not grateful to those who associate me with those same wackos. I might be somewhat conservative, but I’m no cultural jihadist. I might be Muslim, but I’m not about to wear a suicide vest. Further, nothing is to be gained by pretending a real threat doesn’t exist. At the same time, there is no virtue in overstating a threat. Let’s call a spade a spade, not a (non-Sudanese) teddy bear or a hijacked airliner.
Some of the allegedly dangerous books exposed in the PE’s most recent study are hardly a problem. For instance, the study refers to Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi’s Behishti Zewar, a classic book containing a mix of Hanafi fiqh (sacred jurisprudence) and nasihat (advice) written especially for women. My mother had an old copy of this book in her library. Like many South Asian Muslim women, she probably received it from relatives on her wedding day as part of her dowry. She takes it off her shelf to read maybe once a year.
I know the book contains crazy misogynist, sexist, anti-British material. There’s plenty in the book to laugh at. Just as there are plenty of other cheaply-printed books published (or pirated) in India and Pakistan filled with spelling errors, bad grammar and weird conspiracy theories. But to describe Behishti Zewar as a hate-filled jihadi tract of salafist extremism is really over-the-top.
Dodgy receipts and even dodgier researchers
Still, on the surface, the PE report does seem compelling. They sent a group of 8 or so Muslims to various mosques to purchase certain books and obtain receipts. The research was collected and the report was written by a former academic with extensive expertise in Islam and the Bahai faith. The report made front page news of various newspapers. BBC’s Newsnight program wanted to do an entire episode on the report’s findings, and were provided with evidence by PE.
But hiding amongst PE’s ‘evidence’ were some dodgy receipts. BBC could smell a rat, and found numerous rats. The results of BBC’s investigation can be seen here. It baffles me that such important research could be undermined by using partisan and dodgy researchers who were even prepared to use amateurishly forged receipts. What makes the matter even more baffling is that PE is actually standing by its researchers after they have been exposed.
Even more amusing was to watch PE’s research director referring to the researchers as “brave”. As if they were risking their lives by buying books and asking for receipts. I wonder if any of PE’s researchers would be prepared to join me when I walk into bookshops in downtown Lakemba and give their staff a piece of my mind for failing to stock Rumi books or Hamza Yusuf tapes.
You don’t need to use dodgy receipts to prove dodgy books are sold by certain dodgy Muslims. And we certainly now have no need for dodgy allegedly conservative thinktanks using dodgy excuses to hide their essentially dodgy sectarian prejudices.
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