A couple of weeks ago, NSW’s Young Australian of the Year Iktimal Hage-Ali drank bubbly in public and a few Islamic conservatives had a field day. Hage-Ali, who doesn’t wear the traditional hijab, drank the champagne at the NSW Art Gallery to toast her award.
A former adviser to John Howard’s Muslim Advisory Board, Hage-Ali was vilified on the Muslim Village website (www.muslimvillage.net) even before the awards, and after a story in last week’s Daily Telegraph, there were 422 comments on the site almost all highly critical of her. (The original thread has now been taken down.)
She has now become embroiled in another controversy after it was revealed this week that she was arrested (but released without charge) after a cocaine bust, just days before she received the award.
Contrary to the demands of conservative Islam, Hage-Ali also wears make-up and nail polish. She is one of the new faces of moderate Islam in Australia and, as such, her public profile will naturally cause conservatives to deride her for abandoning central tenets of her faith, while moderates will applaud her mainstream success.
Moderate Muslims who stand up and stand out take a risk of being judged harshly by their communities, but their work is too valuable for them to cower in the face of a few, anonymous, judgmental nay-sayers.
Muslim communities, as a whole, have not condemned Hage-Ali over the bubbly, but publicity over the drug bust arrest will probably have wider ramifications than mere website comments.
Although it’s understandable for Muslims to feel uneasy about Hage-Ali drinking in public, the Daily Telegraph‘s original story gave too much credence to a bunch of whingeing bloggers who hold little sway in the real world especially those who claim 99.9 per cent of Muslims do not drink. Alcohol can be a touchy subject I drink, but refrain from doing so in front of some Muslim friends, as the presence of alcohol is deeply offensive to them. But not having a drink is no problem for me.
Some Islamic conservatives will continue to say things that seem out of place and time in 21st century Australia, but bridge-building with mainstream Australia must be able to withstand a glass of bubbly, a slick of lipstick and a drug bust arrest. As it must be able to withstand Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali’s infamous sermon comparing women to uncovered meat. Or the stupidity of Islamic schoolboys urinating on the Bible.
Hage-Ali will inevitably be seen by some as aligned with women who are part of a sexually liberal society a million miles from what traditional Islam teaches is acceptable. The contradiction is that young Muslim men go out drinking, nightclubbing and have Western girlfriends, while young Muslim women are expected to obey strict, traditional rules of behaviour and protect their reputations at all costs.
Muslim communities’ preoccupation with saving face could also be at the heart of the apoplexy over Hage-Ali’s high profile. The paradigm of ‘honour and shame’ are at the core of traditional Muslim identities, with women and children seen as the keepers of moral purity and an extension of male honour, says Sydney psychiatrist Tanveer Ahmed.
These contradictions are played out constantly in other parts of the Australian Muslim community.
For example, in her books Does My Head Look Big In This? and 10 Things I Hate About Me, Sydney lawyer and author Randa Abdel-Fattah writes for teenagers precisely about this struggle for a new identity among young, Australian Muslims. She writes with humour and understanding about the double standards and conflicts within Muslim families. And like Hage-Ali, she has been criticised by conservative bloggers (one of her characters is described as bustling her father out of the lounge room so she can watch Sex And The City, the contents of which are said to be forbidden by Islam.)
Tour Poster from Preacher Moss and Azhar Usman Australia-NZ tour
Another example is American-Muslim comedian Preacher Moss, who toured Australia and New Zealand in November with stand-up partner Azhar Usman. Initially, Australian Muslims were not keen on the show, even though it’s been a raging success in the USA, UK and Europe. The New Zealand promoters, Arasta Productionz, approached over 70 Muslim-owned businesses in Australia for sponsorship and were turned down. Finally, a New Zealand (non-Muslim) Indian restaurant chain agreed to step in.
Arasta’s Afreen Rahman and Mohammed Rashid who are Indian-Muslim Kiwis said that Australian Muslims had been afraid the comedians would make fun of their religion or that the shows would be un-Islamic. But in the end, they flocked to the shows in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, and whereas the mix in New Zealand had been 50/50 Muslim/non-Muslim, here in Australia about 70 per cent of the audience were Muslim.
The comedy routines contained no swearing or sex jokes, but there was plenty of political satire and lampooning of racism and religious prejudice. Muslims and non-Muslims laughed at the same jokes.
‘For many Muslims, it was the first time they had been to a live show, or any kind of theatre,’ says Rahman. ‘To see Muslims getting out and enjoying themselves in the same arena as non-Muslims can be nothing but healthy.’
A little laughter can go a long way. Nick Giannopoulos and his fellow Greek-Australian comedians took the power out of racist ‘wog’ insults with the TV series Acropolis Now, a series of highly-successful stage shows and then a movie. There must have been conservative Greeks horrified at the send-ups, but Giannopoulos didn’t quit.
Preacher Moss has no time for al-Hilali’s position. ‘My mother ain’t no pork chop or sirloin steak. This guy’s giving us a bad name,’ he says. ‘Muslims have to stop whingeing and take the victim mentality out of their vernacular.’
Other Muslim moderates are also boldly speaking out, including regular New Matilda writer Irfan Yusuf and Melbourne barrister Yusuf Zahman.
Tanveer Ahmed says Islam can modernise and remain relevant. ‘If Islam is seen in its context, as a product of history and not above it, there could be a meaningful debate about whether a version of the religion, inspired by but not chained to its past, can contribute to modernity and human progress,’ he recently wrote in The Australian.
I hope Hage-Ali will weather the latest storm. She, and these other pioneering voices, are badly needed in Australia.
In a strange twist, some MuslimVillage bloggers are now sympathising with Hage-Ali after the Daily Telegraph‘s drug bust story on Wednesday. Bloggers have accused the newspaper of using Hage-Ali
to fuel more anti-Muslim hatred. Hage-Ali’s new blog, ‘It’s My Country Too,’ on the www.news.com.au website, has been removed.
Premier Morris Iemma said Hage-Ali’s job with the NSW Attorney-General’s Department was being reviewed. She may also be at risk of losing her award, if it was found that she had broken the law.
It’s the second high-profile Muslim story this week for the Daily Telegraph. The other about a teacher calling a 16-year-old student at Blakehurst High School a terrorist has attracted a slew of racist comments against Muslims on News Ltd’s website.
At the time of going to press, New Matilda‘s call to News Ltd for comment had not yet been returned.
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