Eva Collins : Photographs and Writing


[D!ssent Political Comment Magazine]

Not many people know how supple Waleed Aly is. While at school, he amused his friends playing guitar behind his back and now you can see him amuse audiences with a humorous television program he helped to set up, the SBS’s ‘Salaam Café’.

At 30, he is a lawyer, engineer, author, columnist, public speaker, academic, married father of two and until recently, a representative on the Islamic Council of Victoria.
His CV and list of public engagements is disproportionately long for his age.

In Australia, he is seen by many as the Muslim ‘Voice of Reason’. Restrained, logical and calm, he commands respect. “I’m not prone to emotional outbursts,” he says,” I’ve seen too much negativity arising from people’s judgments clouded by emotion.”

But his calmness is in manner only. “I’m really angry at the dynamics which exist in the Muslim world,” he says, “they are not just raging against the West; they’re also tearing themselves apart. They blame the West, which is not entirely unjustified, but it is overstated.”

In response to the present tragic situation of world wide violence, he sees it as imperative that the Muslims should not embrace the politicized Islamist movements, but revert instead to the classical, traditional Islamic teachings which are fundamental but not-fundamentalist. As glorious as Muslim intellectual history is, its intellectual present, sadly, is not. During its Golden Age, scholarship was vibrant, diversity valued and other religions tolerated. Under Muslim rulers, the cultures of its non-Arab subjects were preserved. But the scholars of the past have been replaced by practitioners who both learn and teach by rote. Today, he says, Muslim world is going through the equivalent of the European Dark Ages and what is urgently needed is the Muslim version of the Renaissance.

In his latest book, ‘People Like Us’ he states that “In Muslim majority societies, mistreatment of …non-Muslim minorities is disturbingly common. (And) The atrocious abuses faced by many Muslim women must surely sicken anyone…” But, he says, fighting the radicals will only worsen the problem. “We must understand what drives these people to violence and work from there. When human beings behave inhumanely, it is still human behaviour which needs to be understood.”

But does understanding the terrorists let them off the hook, I ask “On the contrary,” he replies, ‘if we believe these people are inherently evil, then that lets them off the hook. You can’t criticise a dog for barking and in the same way, if you believe that Muslims are innately flawed creatures, then you can’t criticise them for detonating bombs, because after all, that is in their nature, and that of course is nonsense.” Aly maintains that fundamentalism is more akin to Bolshevism than to traditional Islam.

Other Muslim writers, such as Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji and Salman Rushdie who had been critical of their fellow Muslims have had the curse of Fatwa placed upon them. Is he afraid of the same fate, I ask.
“It has never crossed my mind,” he answers,” I think that death threats are abhorrent, but I also think that they are exaggerated.”

He feels no affinity or respect for these well known writers. “I suspect that people who gravitate towards speakers such as Irshad Manji do so principally because they then feel absolved from their own prejudices. They feel validated, because here is a Muslim who blames other Muslims for the woes of today’s world and thus exonerates the West.”

The outspoken Irshad Manji does not mince words when she calls the extreme Muslim leaders ‘Islamo-Fascists’. Waleed could not disagree more, pointing to an inaccuracy in that most of these leaders are secular and once they fall, they often leave in their wake more religiously inspired polities which take over and are just as repressive. “Many people who wanted the Shah to go didn’t necessarily want what they have now,” he says.

Part of that extremist zeal was the destruction of the ancient huge Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Waleed is quick to respond that in over a thousand years of Muslim rule in Afghanistan, no Muslim had desecrated Buddhist sites until the Taliban came along. “If this violence had always been there, then there wouldn’t have been any Buddhas to blow up as they’d all have been destroyed long ago.”

In the face of so much damage done in the name of Islam, I ask if he thinks that the voices of moderate Muslims are heard.

Waleed agrees that they should speak up and even apologise on behalf of their community, because the moderates ‘are unavoidably associated’ with the radicals. He says that many Muslims have already done so, but being outspoken won’t stop the terrorists. A summit of 800 Muslim scholars in Malaysia in 2003 denounced al-Qaida, but this did not stop the violence occurring. “These people are on a war-path to bring down corrupt Muslim governments and to strike out at the West which supports them. They are akin to cults. Those who condemn them for what they do are dismissed as ‘non-Muslims’,” he says, “And of course there are also those who are reluctant to speak out, because they fear that this would be an admission of guilt for which they don’t personally feel responsible.”

Apart from engaging in dialogue with the radicals, I ask if there is any other solution to the currently wide spread violence. Waleed insists that without a renaissance of the classical Islamic tradition, there won’t be peace in the world. “It won’t happen next week,” he shrugs sadly, “those things take time. It took centuries of bloodshed in the West for their cultural re-birth to arrive and it will be the same in the Muslim world.”

For an enlightened revival you need progressive leaders to come forth. “There are plenty of intelligent Muslims around, but they end up in the West and ironically, he says “the Islamic Renaissance will probably come out of the US. It’s because their (the Muslim) talents are not fostered back home. They are born there but not raised.”

What about Muslims who take offence when their prophet is joked about, and severely punish the offenders (see the recent ‘teddy bear’ incident in Sudan) and yet allow wide spread racist propaganda in their own countries against the West and the Jews?

“It’s reprehensible,” states Waleed,” Those politicians who so vigorously defend Islam, where are they when they’re locking up Muslims or when they are killing each other? Muslims feel oppressed by their own rulers.”

He agrees that the anti-Semitic propaganda is inexcusably popular in the Muslim world.
“Jews and Muslims got on well in the past. It is only since the creation of Israel that the prejudice against them has sky rocketed.” He doesn’t think the Arabs realize how inherently Western their propaganda is. They have produced a grotesque imitation modelled on pre-World War II European anti-Semitism when sinister allegations were made of blood libel and world conspiracy based on the infamous, fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion book. “I don’t think they realize that they are imitating other people’s vile campaigns.”

Are the heads of the Muslim governments concerned with world opinion in allowing racism to flourish in their countries?

“It is in their interest to facilitate this kind of attitude,” says Waleed. “It distracts their subjects from criticising their governments’ ineptitude and focuses them on an imaginary external enemy.”

We switch to the ever- controversial topic of the hijab. Waleed explains that the Koran refers to women drawing their head dress over their chest, and so it is presumed that they wore a head cover in the first place. Some jurists say wearing a hijab is compulsory, others insist women should also cover their faces and yet others take a more controversial view that the headscarf itself is not compulsory. He does not accept the assumption that ‘women cover up and men don’t’. Muslim men also have a dress code. “It just so happens that in the West that dress code is less noticeable,” he says.

However, Waleed emphasizes, that it is the woman’s choice to wear a hijab, not the role of governments to impose, or for men to dictate. A hijab provides a portable private space for the wearer. “If a woman wears a hijab to placate a man, rather than as her choice to observe a religious observance, she is then not referring to God but taking instruction from a man and this resembles idolatry,” he explains.

And yet his wife wears a hijab. “It is solely her choice. If I expressed my opinion on it, she’d tell me where to go,” he smiles. ”Why is the West so hijab fixated? There is no harm done in a woman wearing one, she won’t trigger some health epidemic.”

Why is it then that some people object to it? Is it because it’s foreign or is it because they see it as a symbol of oppression? Waleed points out that back in history Muslim women were not oppressed, they were often far more liberated and publicly active than their Western contemporaries or their current day sisters.

“We project our meanings on to what these women wear. These meanings are not inherent or universal,” says Waleed. “Originally the practice of head-cover was seen as a mark of the noble class.” And that is why the Prophet forbade women from covering their faces during their pilgrimage to Mecca. He wanted equality of social, economic and gender status in the way people presented there.

Can one argue that just as Western women modify their dress when visiting Muslim countries, so should Muslim women adapt to Western norms, when they’re here?

Waleed strongly disagrees. It’s a question of religious obligation. “If let’s say, it was prescribed that Western women were not to cover their arms, then I’d object to any Muslim who forced them to cover up. You should not interfere with another’s religious freedom.”

Some people are anxious about the possible radical teachings taking place within the Muslim community. Should mosques be monitored? “That won’t help the problem,” answers Waleed,
“Radicalisation takes place in decentralised places, private gatherings and on-line, not in mosques. If anything, it might cause a somewhat siege mentality among the worshippers, thereby broadening their support for the radicalised community.

Is there a difference between Muslims and other migrants, I ask.

Muslims are not essentially different, says Waleed, but the circumstances they face differ from those of other migrant communities.  “Muslims face the same hurdles that stand in the way of social acceptance,” he explains,” but they are also in the middle of the culture war in Australia, against the background of the war on terror, and are under intense political and social scrutiny.  The mix of political and social factors is unique, even if its basic elements are common to the experience of various other migrant groups.”

Waleed again stresses that belligerent posturing will only inflame the current social problem. “We should be more conciliatory and engage in more dialogue.”

In his recently published book, ‘People Like Us’, Waleed points out that it is wrong to say that the world would be a better place if everyone was like us. But, it might be right to say that those who pontificate are often self righteous and self centred. They need to see other people’s humanity and fostering a tolerant attitude will depend on people like us.

Eva Collins