asylum seekers · human rights · journalism · media · politics · religion

Syrian refugee crisis: This is about humanity, not religion- as featured in ABC’s The Drum

My latest in ABC’s The Drum on the death of little Aylan Kurdi and government’s reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis. I haven’t reprinted the image- I think everyone has seen it already. Also here a great discussion on the debate around the publication of the distressing images.

To donate check out Bina Shah’s excellent blog and her latest post- In memory of Aylan Kurdi where she has links to organisations you can support.

Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent, at a camp for displaced Syrians, in the village of Atmeh, Syria. Picture: Flickr/ Freedom House
Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent, at a camp for displaced Syrians, in the village of Atmeh, Syria. Picture: Flickr/ Freedom House

The fact that the Government would pause in light of such a visceral tragedy to suggest that Australia should prioritise Christian refugees from Syria speaks volumes, writes Sarah Malik.

It was the picture that shocked the world.

A little boy lies face down on the beach. His still, lifeless body caressed gently by waves. His sandals are still strapped to his little feet. In his neat red shirt and little blue shorts, he could be sleeping or resting.

A Turkish police officer stands to one side, his shoulders hunched as if in prayer.

The discovery of Aylan Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach last week cut a searing image in the conscience of the world. It tore through the ballast of politics, rhetoric and racialisation that continues to obscure one of the great humanitarian crises of modern times.

The little boy who perished along with his brother Galip and mother Rihan, one of 12 Syrian asylum seekers trying to reach Greece when their boat sank, represents the many thousands seeking safety and asylum as their country is torn apart by war and conflict.

The picture of the doll-like three-year-old on the beach has galvanised public opinion around the world, forcing even the Australian Government to outline its commitment to Syrian refugees. But the racialisation continues, with Barnaby Joyce calling for Syrian Christians to be prioritised in any asylum intake, a motion that has been echoed by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Australia was recently criticised in the New York Times for a military response to asylum seekers which is shrouded in secrecy. This has been combined with bizarre border security campaigns including thefarcical ‘Operation Fortitude’, a proposal quickly scuttled after widespread ridicule.

The campaign purporting to subject Melbourne residents to random visa checks underscores a Government that will take advantage of any opportunity to represent itself as the strongman protecting us from the ‘illegal’ hordes threatening to destabilise Australia.

The fact that the Government would pause in light of such a visceral tragedy, blasted into public consciousness in such horrific fashion, to make a subtle distinction on the kinds of Syrian asylum seekers it would be willing to consider is callous.

It speaks to the depths it will go to in order to stoke fears of the brown Muslim hordes threatening our pristine white borders.

It doesn’t take much to read between the lines of random visa checks and the prioritisation of Christians. People like us only, please.

The image of Aylan underscores the vulnerability of those fleeing, their powerlessness in the face of a political and military machinery that punishes and paints them as threats. It is a powerful image that threatens the curtain of abstraction, silence and othering that has come to characterise the rhetoric around refugees.

This otherising of refugees, the destruction of their humanity, allows travesties such as our detention regime, regularly exposed as rife with reports of sexual assault, violence, suicide and depression to continue with impunity.

When it becomes a crime for employees to talk publicly about what happens in detention centres with the passing of the Border Force Act, when refugees live in fear of speaking to journalists, with access a constant issue, the result is an abstraction. It is an easy to demonise an abstraction.

Aylan’s picture has blazed onto the soul of the nation the reality of the human. This child’s death must inspire us to look beyond categories of race and religion and towards a common humanity.

The most powerful threat to an abstraction is the power of the singular. A child just like yours, with blue shorts and sandals.

As Persian poet Rumi said:

Not a Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi or Zen, Not any religion… first, last, outer, inner, only that breath breathing human being.

This article was originally published on ABC’s The Drum (http://www.abc.net.au/thedrum). Read the original article here (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-07/malik-syrian-refugees/6755696).

human rights · islam · media · racism · religion

Stop the dog whistling on radicalisation, Minister- as featured in ABC’s The Drum

tasbih
Muslims are framed as a ‘problem to be solved’ by political leaders. Picture: Flickr/ Brian Jeffery Beggarly.

Andrew Robb wants quick fixes and easy answers for the problem of radicalisation, but his framing of the “Muslim” as a problem to be solved isn’t helping one bit, writes Sarah Malik.

My phone is exploding with Happy Eid! texts.

Except it’s not Eid. Not for me at least.

The texts are mainly from my well-meaning white friends who have watched Eid celebrations at Lakemba mosque on Channel Nine.

I’m celebrating the next day, like half the rest of the state’s Muslims. The old school method of marking the end of Ramadan involves waiting to see the arc of the new moon indicating the beginning of the lunar month as opposed to the fixed scientific calendar method.

This is one of the million fine details of the complex and diverse Muslim communities who hail from dozens of varied cultures and strains, but are forced into a uniformity by an external culture that imposes modes of understanding aligned with its own understandings of religious ritual, politics and practice.

Chief among these is the myth of a unified and Vatican-like leadership hierarchy Andrew Robb seems to be appealing to in his demands on ABC’s Q&A on Monday night that Muslim leaders pull in their radicalised youth.

One of the great attractions of Sunni Islam is the lack of hierarchical or mediating priest-class, with a focus on the individual’s direct relationship to God.

Sure there are imams who lead prayer, and scholars who have spent years nutting out points of law, and an axis of orthodoxy most mainstream leaders are guided by. Beyond that, leaders are made more by their following and popularity rather than anointed by overarching councils or bodies.

This makes things difficult for politicians like Mr Robb, who needs someone to cop the flak for the rash of young nutcases running to the Middle East.

When it’s young Muslim men, the community is expected to take responsibility.

Only when it’s a young white male like Jake Bilardi, there is a recognition of the risk faced by young, isolated people with complex personal compulsions and histories that make them vulnerable to the call of extremism.

There is a barrage of material trying to understand the lure of militancy. Is it the search for belonging? Alienation and marginalisation? Anger at foreign intervention in the Muslim world? The promise of an Islamic golden age utopia in the face of political humiliation? Sex and kittens? The internet? An outlet for existing criminal tendencies, or just a way to escape the tedium of ordinary life?

One thing remains clear, there seems to be no one-size-fits-all approach to the trajectory of these lone and few individuals who often leave behind their own baffled and distraught families and communities.

These few individuals rarely interact with mainstream leaders or mosques. Like most young people, not just Muslims, traditional religious authorities (read: old people) have failed to connect with the millennials’ quest for meaning in a changing social media world.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.

The internet, like most things, is a reflection of the people who use it.

Social media provides communities for minorities rarely given a voice in the mainstream. Hamza Yusuf and Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan are among a spate of celebrity sheikhs that have connected online with global youth audiences.

They successfully market a homegrown western Islam, that despite their detractors is grounded in the world migrant kids can understand and for all its conservatism generally stress political participation and integration.

Mr Robb wants quick fixes and easy answers for the problem of radicalisation.

There is one simple one that I can offer free of charge.

The constant framing of the “Muslim” as a problem to be solved by politicians and media who use these communities to whip up ratings and dog whistle politics is a disgrace. It is far disproportionate to any risks posed.

It only adds to the genuine anguish of Muslim communities struggling against a small but virulent association of extremism with the added burden of racial aggression and hysteria.

This article was originally published on ABC’s The Drum (http://www.abc.net.au/thedrum). Read the original article here (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-04-22/malik-stop-the-dog-whistling-on-radicalisation-minister/6411074).

interview · religion · sexuality · spirituality

The Citadel

The topic of sex seems to always draw a crowd. Sex, Islam and the Arab world seems to magnetize one. The western obsession with Arab and Muslim sexuality seems fixated on harems and hijabs with a sometimes prurient and salacious gaze that fetishizes the exotic other.

Former Al-Jazeera presenter Shereen El-Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel is thankfully not part of the ‘harems and hijabs’ brigade. But her book does delve into the bedrooms of men and women in Egypt and across the region to look at the ways in which sexuality intersect with religion and tradition and is linked to politics and the greater fight for democracy in the region.

Continue reading “The Citadel”

dying · religion

On dying

Woody Allen once said “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

There is no way to adequately deal with death.

Despite being the only predictability it always seems to hit  unexpectedly, haphazardly. Inevitable but anarchic, it turns your  stomach inside out, leaving disordered and painful ruminations on your  own existence and those close to you.

The passing of a cancer-stricken uncle earlier this year (in Pakistani parlance, a family friend) is the first time death feels as close as a cold breath.

Continue reading “On dying”

feminism · human rights · injustice · interview · islamic law · media · muslim women · politics · religion

Heroes and heretics

Islamic scholar Amina Wadud has been branded both a heroine and a  heretic.

Heroine for her academic framework for Muslims in legal and policy reform  around the world; heretic for leading a mixed gender prayer in New York in 2005  which made worldwide headlines.

The prayer session propelled the 58-year-old African American into celebrity  Muslim reformer status, a position the theologian does not seem entirely  comfortable with.

“I try to keep my sense of humour about it,” she said, speaking in Sydney  after engagements in Melbourne and Canberra.

“I didn’t play into it. I didn’t stoke the sensationalism of it.

“The time was a little bit comical but I could not live along those lines. I  like the basic parts of my life where you have anonymity.”

Asked if the controversy had obscured her long-time activism and scholarship  on Islam and gender issues, she said: “I regret things being obscured for any  reason. But I do not regret the prayer if that is reason why people obscure  things. People have not been pleased with my work for a long time. So the prayer  is just a ruse … and … excuse for not listening to what you have to say.”

Dr Wadud is the author of several books, including Quran and Women:  Re-reading the sacred text from a woman’s perspective and Inside Gender  Jihad: Women’s reform in Islam.

Her central thesis is that for centuries Islam has been interpreted by male  scholars which has obscured its essentially egalitarian ethos. This ethos, Dr  Wadud says, has inspired her reform work particularly around Islamic family  law.

While her religious detractors accuse her of heresy, other criticisms of Dr  Wadud involve the charge that she feeds into the never-ending contestation of  religious texts which has no purpose in the modern era within a secular  framework. However, her books have worked as a framework for Muslim activists,  particularly through lobby groups and her organisation, Sisters in Islam in  Malaysia.

One of Dr Wadud’s central ideas is that as a believer she accepts the  divinity of the Qur’an, however, its readings must always be open to scrutiny  and re-evaluation. This is particularly important if laws are to be based on its  precepts and have impact in the real world on women’s lives.

Born in the American South, in Maryland in 1952, to a Methodist preacher  father, Dr Wadud converted to Islam at university at the age of 20 after a brief  stint as a practicing Buddhist.

“I was a practicing Buddhist for a year,” she said.

“I came across Islam and it grew exponentially and I came to an understanding  of the universe that worked for me.”

The liberation theology of the black leaders of the civil rights movement and  her own upbringing also influenced her.

“My family situation was one where the relationship between social injustice  and faith was explicit. You do not oppress. Oppression is against God’s will,” she said.

“I grew up in the era of black consciousness. I lived in a transformative  time as a young person- you could hear and feel you had a certain sense of  social responsibility – a mandate to fight to remove injustice as it was being  established in the context of our lives as African Americans.

“I was brought up in the revolutionary spirit of justice and it was common  sense to transfer that in terms of Islam and gender justice.”

Dr Wadud, a devout and thoughtful woman, finds much of the hype around her  work distasteful, so much so that at one point she eschewed the label ‘feminist’  altogether.

“There are obviously large sectors of non-Muslim and Muslim population who  think Islamic feminism is an oxymoron,” she said.

“I am less concerned now about whether or not I make everyone comfortable in  terms of the self designation (of being feminist) than at another point.”

She said the term ‘feminism’ often led people to dismiss her work.

” … I feel a little bit more comfortable in my own skin being able to say  feminist. At another point [I would avoid the label] in order to avoid the  politics of the discussion and to avoid the marginalisation of my work into  those politics,” Dr Wadud said.

This perceived incompatibility is incongruous with her own study of Islamic  thought and philosophical thinking.

“They are limiting feminism from its own intellectual and political history,”  she said. “They are also limiting Islam from its own egalitarian  trajectory.”

Dr Wadud has found crowd hostility toward her more pointed in Sydney than  Melbourne, where the largely Muslim audience seemed much more engaged.

Her lecture this week at the University of Technology, Sydney, involved  several heated exchanges with young men.

“Some people in the Australian audiences, they come because they’ve heard  there is something wrong or bad or evil about me,” she said.

“They come because they will set me straight. When they get here and I don’t  say anything outrageous for them to pick up on – they make up stuff.”

Dr Wadud finds arguments with those who have not even read her ideas tiring  and is now focussed on reaching out to those who have.

“In the past I felt a much greater responsibility to be understood by as many  people as possible,” she said.

“You spent all your time trying to convert people who are absolutely  unconvinced about where you’re going.

“Then there are some people who are trying to understand certain things and  have a nominal level of agreement and maybe want to go further and engage with  your ideas. That’s a more interesting level to engage.”

There have been rumours of death threats, but Dr Wadud is quick to clear the  air.

“I never received any death threats,” she laughs.

“There was this thing where people got into saying I had death threats.  But  I never had anyone actually threaten me.”

From SMH

culture · human rights · islamic law · law · Pakistan · politics · religion

Pakistan’s traditional spirituality hijacked?

Every week sees a fresh wave of violence strike Pakistan. Just two days ago, a suicide car bomb in a crowded shopping street in the north-west town of Charsadda killed almost 20 people and injured dozens. It was the third such incident in three days. These follow blasts in Rawalpindi and Peshawar, which killed dozens in crowded marketplaces, the latter of which coincided with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit.

The violence has put many Pakistanis on edge, many blaming the country’s relationship with the US. They point to the loss of civilian lives in badly aimed drone attacks and a historical relationship that suggests the US looks after its own interests and should not be trusted.

The Obama Administration finds itself dealing with partners in both Pakistan and Afghanistan who do not have the strong mandate of their people, with Hamid Karzai’s recent win in a one-man election in Afghanistan, and Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan, who as widow of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto has benefited from a Bhutto stranglehold on the ruling Pakistani People’s Party despite being mired in corruption. The shadowy standing of the two leaders threatens the legitimacy of the partnership.

The current Administration has done well in bypassing the leadership and attempting to reach out to the people through cultural dialogue with frank meetings with media professionals and students. Clinton’s visit wearing a billowing blue dupatta to a Sufi shrine in Islamabad moved many and represents in many ways the true spirit of Pakistani spirituality, which has been hijacked in recent years with the rise of extremism.

In the past 10 years, I have seen a steady shift to the right. The folk spirituality of Pakistan, traditionally involving a mixture of Islamic Sufism and saint worship, has given way to a more puritanical form of Islam, which shuns Shiite Muslims and other minorities. Weddings are increasingly segregated and without the traditional Pakistani music and dance that make them so lively. The dupatta, a deliciously sheer piece of cloth worn with colourful shalwar kameez as part of the traditional dress, have given way to burqas and niqabs in certain areas.

The contradictions that lie at Pakistan’s fractured soul are emblematic of its very origin. Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a secularist and English-trained lawyer, initially used religion as nationalistic rallying cry and political tool for the creation of Pakistan. This backfired badly with Pakistan fighting for its national identity ever since. The question being if Pakistan was created in 1947 as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims than why should it not also be an Islamic State? The historical Jinnah in Pakistan has been transmogrified into a pious, sherwani wearing “Quad-e Azam” or “Great leader”. This image is a far cry from the man found in the Jinnah museum in Karachi who was fond of his suits and cigars.

This is symptomatic of unease with which Pakistan has dealt with the religious question. It seems it does not have the ideological courage to be either an Iran or Turkey but will settle for being both and something in between.

The majority of Pakistanis are moderate, this can be seen in elections where Islamist parties have consistently received a small minority of the vote. If ideologically speaking, Pakistanis are scattered, the building of institutions will be a bulwark against excesses. The lack of education, health, literacy and poor state of women’s rights have put Pakistan at the risk of a kind of national myopia.

Democracy depends as much on the healthy state of an informed public as a free election. The rise of the lawyer’s movement, which protested against former military dictator Pervez Musharraf ‘s move to force out Supreme Court justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry in 2007, to the creation of community run police-citizen patrols to deal with law and order issues show that the Pakistani people have developed ingenuity to deal with its social problems despite an ineffectual state apparatus. A government whose only occupation seems to be to repeatedly fund and create militant groups it quickly loses control over and an obsessive rivalry with neighbour India.

Pakistanis can only dream of the possibilities of not struggling under the weight of this monstrous disability.