About Face: Who Speaks on Behalf of Australia’s Muslims?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull hosted an Iftar dinner celebrating Ramadan at Kirribilli House in Sydney on Thursday 16 June 2016. Guests included broadcaster Waleed Aly and his wife Susan Carland. Picture: Andrew Meares / Fairfax Media

The inclusion of prominent Australian Muslim clerics with reprehensible views in Malcolm Turnbull’s recent end of fasting celebration (Iftar) during Ramadan has the potential to precipitate a long-overdue conversation: what do mainstream Muslims in Australia really think?

Outrage from the far Right and mainstream Left starts as soon as this question is raised. Both sides claim to already know the answer, and appear unwilling to dig a little deeper: ‘True Islam is violent,’ say some on the Right. ‘True Islam is peaceful,’ say many on the Left. Others, perhaps less interested, justifiably ask: ‘Why? Why do we need to know what mainstream Australian Muslims think true Islam is?’ The answer has two parts: firstly, the truth should always be pursued vigorously. Clearly both of the opposing views can’t be right: the truth must lie with one and not the other, or with a more subtle position.

Secondly, and more importantly, the conversation about Islam in Australia—and the West more generally—needs more nuance and more perspective if we are to prevent significant socially induced radicalisation. If the Muslim ‘community’ (scare-quoted because a homogenous Australian Islam is a myth) is constantly portrayed as violent, then the non-violent majority will be rightfully offended. Likewise, however, and this view may be deeply unsettling for many, portraying the same community as essentially Western in all but name—with similar values, morals, attitudes to family, marriage, education, women, children, work, crime, law, money, sex, alcohol, drugs, media, etc.—will be equally alienating as they feel they have to conform to a culture in which they do not comfortably fit.

The antidote to a toxic ‘negative’ generalisation (‘they’re all violent’) is not a ‘positive’ ‘they’re all just like us’—whoever ‘us’ is. Sure, both scratch the speaker’s itch for clear group boundaries, but both also frustrate, alienate, radicalise, and deepen schisms between ‘us’ and ‘them’—the former assumes the worst, the latter is aspirational. What if ‘they’ actually don’t want to be like ‘us’? Ultimately fruitless, both approaches need to be called out for their arrogance and obfuscation leading to either worthless results, or worse, marginalisation.

Let’s return to Malcolm Turnbull’s Iftar dinner guests.

Present on the PM’s table that night were some of the most prominent and influential Muslims in Australia—an assumption based on seating arrangements for the evening. They included senior Muslim clerics, as well as Waleed Aly and his wife, Susan Carland. As the The Australian recently reported, alongside Malcolm Turnbull on Table One were numerous elected members of the Australian National Imams Council (ANIC) and other representative bodies who hold or held views which most Australians would be appalled at.

There was Imam Yusuf Peer, the chairman of the Council of Imams Queensland, who, according to The Australian, is clear about homosexuality and Islam:

“We do not have a problem with the people themselves, just the act and ideology,” Imam Peer said. “But this is what the sharia law says and we have to follow that. There is no way around that. When we are talking about gays, we have to be confident (they are gay) and there must be a lot of investigating.” When asked if sharia required death, Imam Peer said: “Yes.”

Also present was the president of ANIC, Sheik Shady Alsuleiman, who, in a 2012 YouTube video, stated:

“Islam protects offspring … that’s why if someone commits (sex outside of marriage) their penalty should be 100 lashes if they’ve never been married or to be stoned to death if they’ve ever been married.”

If this were your only exposure to ANIC, you could justifiably assume that it was fringe movement fundamentalism by hyper-conservative elements of the Australia Muslim community, however, according to its website, the council includes 95 registered Imam members and its vision and purpose is to be:

“A leading body representing mainstream Islam in Australia … [striving] to clarify the meaning of Islam and mainstream Islamic ideology.”

Taking the pulse of the Muslim majority by only listening to the views of Sheik Shady or Imam Peer is foolish, and as many on the Left might be quick to point out ‘Islamophobic’ in the vein of a Trump or Hanson populist.

Fair enough, perhaps, but not if the conversation continues by arguing that true Islam is represented by the views of Waleed Aly or that Susan Carland’s Islam is what the majority of Muslim Australians believe. The double standards here are blatant, intellectually indefensible, and dangerous. By all accounts, Aly and Carland are intelligent, likeable, and progressive. But it is probably wishful thinking to suggest that the Islam they practice is representative of most Australian Muslims.

To be fair to Aly and Carland, both have repeatedly denounced any claim that they are the face of Muslim Australia. Carland, a former Australian Muslim of the Year, is particularly quick to refute any suggestion that she represents the Muslim community, and that talk of her and Aly as a ‘Muslim Power Couple’ is laughable. But the fact remains that whether they like it or not; whether they have sought it not, for many non-Muslim Australians they are the face of Muslim Australia.

For some, it would be preferable if most Muslims in Australia were like Aly or Carland: clever, urbane—‘Western’ by most accounts. But there simply is no evidence to justify this belief. Likewise, there is no real evidence that most Muslims are not like Aly and Carland, however much the views of some of ANIC’s members suggest otherwise.

Caution is needed; it would be dangerous to conclude that ‘if Muslims like Waleed aren’t a fair representation of the ‘moderate’ majority, then the hyper-conservative, homophobic sheiks at ANIC must be.’ Such a view isolates the many Muslims who sit between the poles represented at Turnbull’s table. It commits a generalisation about the Muslim community, that obscures reality and mutes reasoned discussion about serious issues. A more measured approach is needed. Perhaps like that which occurred in the UK recently as Channel 4 conducted a poll of British Muslims to determine their beliefs. It interviewed a ‘representative sample of 1,000 Muslims across Great Britain’ finding that

  • 52% do not believe that homosexuality should be legal in Britain,
  • 47% do not believe that it is acceptable for a school teacher to be homosexual,
  • 23% support the introduction of Sharia Law.

This kind of study, while doubtless flawed—including the reluctance of interviewees to provide honest feedback on contentious questions, or ones which they might assume would cast them outside mainstream British opinion—is needed in Australia. Particularly due to the media’s fixation with Muslims like Aly and Carland, and the seemingly irrepressible desire to cast all Muslims in Australia in their image, rather than closely scrutinising other leaders such as the Imams of ANIC who are elected and not media-appointed representatives. This situation is inexcusable intellectually, but also dangerous socially as it only deepens divisions. Wishful thinking on the part of many in the media will always provide a veneer of comfort when the realities of the world are too complex or too unsettling to even consider. In the end, however, we’re all ‘mugged by reality,’ whatever that reality may be.

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