Thursday, February 07, 2008

Of sense and sensitivities

Two articles from today's SMH:

First, the sensitivities:
Strip-searched for meeting man in Starbucks

A businesswoman was detained and strip-searched by Saudi Arabia's religious police for sitting in a Starbucks coffee shop with an unrelated man, taboo in the country.

The English-language Arab News quoted a 40-year-old financial consultant, named only as Yara, as saying she was arrested by members of the powerful Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

She said she was holding a business meeting with the man in a branch of Starbucks in Riyadh, in a section reserved for families.

Saudi law requires that unrelated men and women be segregated in public.

Yara said she was taken to a Riyadh prison, strip-searched and forced to sign a confession to having been caught alone with a unrelated man - an illegal act in the kingdom that enforces a strict Islamic moral code.

"I had no other choice [but to sign]," the married mother of three said.

"I was scared for my life ... I was afraid that they would abuse me or do something to me."

She said the religious police, known as the Muttawa, released her several hours later after her husband, Hatim, intervened.

"I look at this as if she had been kidnapped by thugs," said Hatim.

The paper said the man with whom Yara had coffee, an unnamed Syrian financial analyst, was also arrested and remains in custody.

The sense, a column by Irfan Yusuf, a Sydney lawyer:
Converts' dangerous pull towards extremism

This week the ABC screened Jihad Sheilas, the story of two Australian women who became caught up in a whirlpool of religious extremism. They were just two among a tiny proportion of a generation of Muslim youths and converts radicalised by people linked to past conflicts in Afghanistan.

[T]he so-called jihad sheilas are typical of many young Muslims (including converts) who saw Afghanistan as the theatre of sacred battle. The hysteria in the West surrounding the jihad against the Soviets is partially captured in the film Charlie Wilson's War, the story of a Democratic congressman from Texas who takes up the cause of the Afghan jihad.

Certainly the Afghan jihad was presented by Western media agencies in the 1980s as a just war. I still recall an episode of Channel Nine's 60 Minutes with the late Richard Carleton profiling the courageous freedom fighters facing a superpower. A coalition of right-wing think tanks and Western and Arab governments promoted the jihad.

By the early 1980s, when I entered my teens, the Afghan jihad and the plight of Afghan refugees were causes heavily promoted by religious foundations, imams and spokesmen for various Afghan mujahideen factions. In Sydney and Melbourne, representatives of the competing factions were a regular feature at mosques. My "home" mosque, the King Faisal Mosque at Surry Hills, regularly hosted "Afghan nights" where mujahideen representatives provided updates on the conflict and sought donations for refugees.

So much modern political radicalism in Muslim communities is rooted in contemporary political conflicts in the nominally Muslim world. These often become the centre of spiritual attention for young Muslims with little exposure to mainstream Islamic theology and little understanding of the nuances of the conflict.

However, it would be wrong to generalise about all converts. Islam attracts people from all walks of life. Prominent Australian converts include former diplomats, prominent sportspeople and a former ABC foreign correspondent. People turn to Islam and other non-Christian faiths for any number of reasons. They might feel outcasts in conventional society or disillusioned with aspects of mainstream culture. They might be searching for an alternative lifestyle.

Most Muslim Australians treat their faith as a deeply personal affair. Islam's core is a deeply spiritual Sufi tradition Sunni Muslims describe as tasawwuf and Shia Muslims describe as irfan. To this day, translations of Jalaluddin Rumi remain the biggest-selling poetry books in the US. Many converts enter Islam after exposure to Sufi teaching for reasons similar to the attraction of Tibetan Buddhism.

Fringe politicised Islam has few followers among migrant Muslims, whose exposure to mainstream Islam means they know a fringe sect when they see one. Australia's radical "thick-sheiks" tend to attract Muslim youth and converts.

Converts often bring a zeal that many migrant Muslims born into Islam don't share. Sometimes they also bring problems whose solution is to be found not in religion but in counselling or psychiatry. Religious beliefs and institutions can only be of peripheral assistance to such people.

When Islam becomes a genuinely Australian religion and not just a set of foreign cultural artefacts, fringe extremists will look elsewhere for recruits. Perhaps then people can make personal decisions about religion without being sucked into a whirlpool of political hysteria or media frenzy.


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