A New Moon for Osama


Some months ago, Andrew Bolt writing in a Melbourne tabloid (the Sunday Herald Sun) made a huge deal about how imams in Melbourne still couldn’t figure out whether Osama bin Laden had something to do with the September 11 attacks. It was implied that imams were a deep, dark force of extremism within Muslim communities south of the Murray.

(What the story didn’t mention was that many imams probably still think that the Russians are occupying Afghanistan, and that Osama is one of Ronald Reagan’s political love-children!)

More recently, some neo-Conservative commentators published in the opinion pages of that American newspaper known as The Australian (Mark Steyn, ‘Islamist Way or no way’)claim that the biggest terror threat in Western countries comes from Muslim minorities, and that Muslim cultures forbid their adherents from properly integrating with their host societies. Some media outlets are almost suggesting that mosques and imams are at the forefront of hiding terrorists and plotting terrorist attacks.

That’s what the paranoid neo-Cons claim. But let’s be serious here. Pulling off a terrorist act requires meticulous planning and execution. The September 11 attacks were timed to perfection. It was all coordinated, the hijackers were trained, and the level of damage was almost predetermined.

I am not for one moment suggesting that the people responsible for 9/11 were not from Muslim countries or backgrounds. But, seriously, I find it really hard to believe that imams and Muslim organisational leaders in Australia could pull off a stunt like that.

How do I know this? Because these guys (and no, I’m not being sexist) couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery. Consider the following: Islamic religious festivals are determined by the Islamic calendar, which is lunar. This means that, in terms of our secular solar calendar, Ramadan and other Islamic months begin and end on different days each year.

Back in the days of the Prophet Muhammad some 14 centuries ago, in the days before telescopes, people used to sight the new moon with their naked eye. At that time, the Prophet gave instructions about what to look out for when sighting the new moon, and how to calculate the times for prayer using the length of a stick’s shadow.

Today, we don’t need sticks and shadows. Instead, we have watches and prayer timetables to determine when to face Mecca. But when it comes to determining when the months begin and end, each year sees a fresh controversy. And Aussie imams are in the thick of it.

Australian mosques are largely organised along ethnic lines. For instance, the Imam Ali Mosque in Lakemba in Sydney is known to be a Lebanese Mosque. In fact, you cannot be a member of its managing association, the Lebanese Moslems Association, unless you are eligible for a Lebanese passport.

The ethnic group with the largest number of mosques and imams in Australia is the Turkish community. And in Turkey, imams, astronomers and mathematicians have calculated the lunar months well in advance. That means, each year, Turkish Muslims in Australia and across the world know exactly when Ramadan begins and when the feast of Eid (to celebrate the end of Ramadan) will be.

The other ex-Ottoman Muslim groups (Bosnians, Cypriots and Albanians) tend to follow the Turks. The Lebanese and other Arabs also fall into line. As do the Indonesians, Malaysians and Central Asians.

But a sizeable number of imams and ethnic groups (like the Pakistanis of Rooty Hill Mosque and the Indo-Fijians of Green Valley Mosque) insist that pre-determined dates are not valid. They insist on sighting the moon with their naked eye. This inevitably means they start fasting a day later and have their Eid feast 1 or 2 days after everyone else.

Those who follow the naked-eye method claim their way is closer to the way of the Prophet Muhammad. The rest of the people say that insisting on actual sightings is a silly as throwing our watches and prayer timetables away and grabbing sticks and calculating their shadows. Or like throwing out the cars and investing in some camels.

Who is correct? Which method is right?

Well, for the average Muslim, it really doesn’t matter. They just wish all the imams and mosques could agree. I mean, think about it. You employ three Muslims. Each wants to take a day off for Eid so they can spend time with their family. But each has Eid on separate days. What would you do?

Or imagine trying to explain to your boss why your imam says Eid is on Thursday while your colleague’s imam says Eid is on Friday.

This is exactly what happened this year. And Muslims are still arguing about it. On the forum pages of IslamicSydney.com, they are now into their 5th page on the issue.

With Muslims too busy mooning each other over whether to sight with the naked eye, it’s highly unlikely that their imams could have the time to plot a terrorist attack. But this isn’t the most mundane thing Muslims argue about. Some Muslims actually argue about — wait for it — where to place their hands in prayer! Some commentators claim wahhabi Muslims are the real terrorists. But most wahhabis I know object to the way I pray because I place my hands just below my belly button and not on my chest as they do.

It gets better.

There are verses in the Qur’an talking about God’s hands and eyes. Now, some Muslims actually will argue until they are black and blue in the face about whether to take these references literally or metaphorically.

Imams and their followers can hardly be expected to pull off a terrorist attack when they cannot even agree on basic matters. To expect them to do otherwise is giving them more credit than is due to them.

This is an edited version of a piece posted on http://aussiemossie.blogspot.com on November 6, 2005.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.