Smearing Irfan


This year, Santa delivered a very special (and early) Christmas present. It arrived on the morning of 7 December. Here it is:

Chief among them was self-styled Muslim advocate Irfan Yusuf, a young lawyer of Pakistani extraction, who accused this newspaper of committing an ‘editorial lynching’ of the sheik in its news and opinion pages. This is simplistic thinking. Rather than condemn the newspaper, Mr Yusuf should have put his shrewd legal mind to work considering whether he would really prefer to let intolerant attitudes fester in the shadows before exploding and catching Australia unawares, as has happened in countries such as England, Denmark, Spain and The Netherlands.

This editorial plug was published in The Australian. The context was a defence of The Oz‘s reporting of Sheik Hilali’s most recent set of embarrassing comments.


Headed ‘Youthful Ignorance’ and subheaded ‘No One Is Served by Covering Up Islamic Outrages,’ the editorial’s first paragraph spoke of an incident at a Melbourne Islamic independent school where three pupils were expelled for defiling the Bible on a school camp. That incident was reported in The Oz, in one of a series of articles by Cameron Stewart.

The Oz also reported  the school’s library had videos of an English preacher who was banned last year from entering Australia.

I have no problem with Stewart’s careful and balanced reporting. He has little say, of course, on the wording of his or the editorial’s headline or in the prominence the story is given. I do, however, have serious problems with the editorial spin placed on the incident.

In what sense is defiling a scripture to be described as an ‘Islamic outrage’? Can The Oz‘s editorial writer point to anywhere in the Koran where Muslims are taught to defile the scriptures of other faiths?

And yes, it is true that no one is served by covering such outrages up. But what is served by describing them as ‘Islamic’? What has The Oz achieved for reform in this school? What has been the outcome of its repeated trawling for information on the school? Why make this a front-page story?

Well, The Oz has achieved two things for the school. Firstly, some dude claiming to be Jesus has assaulted a member of the school board. Secondly, the school now has a 24-hour security alert. Congratulations to The Oz for its contribution to community harmony!

The Oz didn’t run a single op-ed piece questioning the wisdom of such saturation reporting. In contrast, the Herald Sun ran an op-ed by John Kiely entitled ‘Are We Burning Muslim Bridges’ that offered a different perspective on the matter.

The Oz editorial describes the incident at the Muslim school as focussing ‘attention on the relationship between Islamic and non-Islamic communities in Australia, and the media’s role in covering conflicts between the two groups.’

In what sense is the ‘Islamic community’ a separate group from the rest of Australia? How are followers of Islam a singular community? How are non-followers of Islam in Australia a singular community? Is only one kind of Islam practised in Australia?

The editorial then mentions Sheik Hilali, and claims that ‘the reporting on Sheik Hilali flushed out a number of people who wished the whole story would go away.’ And who was at the top of the list of such people? Yep, you guessed it.

Clearly I am someone who would never want to see Hilali criticised, whether in Australia or across the Tasman.  I’d never allow my name to be used for promoting criticism of Hilali in The Oz or any of its sister papers. And I’d certainly never say even one negative word about Hilali in this esteemed publication .

Thanks to Bill Leak

But it gets better. The Oz editorial describes me as being ‘of Pakistani extraction.’ Apparently, spending the first five weeks of one’s life in Pakistan is enough for one’s arguments to be forever discredited. It was so wrong of me to be born there. Couldn’t I have chosen a more credible country?

My ‘Pakistani extraction’ is then distinguished from ‘more responsible and thoughtful sort of thinking demonstrated by the likes of Waleed Ali and Tanveer Ahmed, two Australian Muslims,’ So my buddies Tanny and Wal are ‘Australian Muslims,’ while I’m just a dirty Paki.

Perhaps the only rational sentence in the entire editorial was in the final paragraph: ‘Australian society rejects intolerance.’

This kind of editorialising may well explain why, for a national broadsheet, The Oz has circulation problems. Still, I don’t have an issue with The Oz as a whole. In fact, they have a superb Review section and I’m known to have written a book review for The Oz in my time. They also have many fine journalists and reporters. Generalising about any newspaper is dangerous.

My criticism of The Oz published in Crikey on 7 November merely stated that their saturated coverage of the Hilali scandal ‘is actually diminishing the chances of his removal.’ The same argument is also used by the very non-Pakistani Waleed Aly. Perhaps The Oz editors are only offended when such criticism comes from allegedly Pakistani lawyers.

(Of course, no newspaper can be held completely responsible for Hilali. As I wrote subsequently in Crikey on 9 November 2006: ‘And it isn’t up to [Opinion Editor Tom] Switzer or anyone else at The Oz or any other newspaper to deal with Hilali. Primary responsibility rests with Muslim leaders themselves.’)

The Oz editorial of 7 December also described me as a ‘self-styled Muslim advocate.’ I’ve discussed this and other false claims elsewhere.

Conservative commentators and columnists love to accuse ethno-religious minorities of manufacturing sympathy by posing as victims. I agree that victimhood is unhelpful posturing for any minority group. It looks particularly imbecilic when those claiming victimhood are newspaper ed
itors, columnists and scribes who make their living by criticising others.

Editorial writers at The Oz have made a vicious (and, in my opinion, openly racist) attack on me. But do I care? Hell, no! Anyone who engages in a public conversation on issues of national importance should expect to cop some criticism and flack.

Up until now, I’ve been a humble amateur writer trying to get the occasional word into an ongoing (and frequently hostile) public discussion on what Tom Switzer describes as ‘one of the world’s most intractable problems: the clash between conservative Islam and Western modernity.’

In the simpleton world of neo-Conservative ideological warriors, such a black-and-white ‘clash’ between two allegedly monolithic phenomena may have credence. But in the real world, things are far more complex. If Switzer sees the current ‘war on Terror’ as a clash pitting conservative Islam against the West, he is sadly mistaken.

Groups like al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah are hardly reflective of classical Islam. If anything, they are more a result of the imposition of modern (and indeed post-modern) modes of thought and organisation on Islamic traditions. They represent a complete distortion of Islam, a fact admitted by even Howard and Bush.

The Oz editorial writers may take a line on these issues which is contrary to all common sense and conventional wisdom. Their thinking may contradict the pronouncements of major world leaders. When they print simplistic opinions, I’ll be happy to criticise them.

And my criticism is obviously biting. How else does one explain the reference to my alleged ethnicity? How else can one explain the subsequent mention in the final item of The Oz‘s gossip column Strewth yesterday?

Now, some at The Oz might regard my alleged Pakistani extraction of some relevance. But at least I can say that I never have (and never would) give up my Australian passport and citizenship

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.