A New Mufti for Oz


On 31 March 2007, a young legal academic from Griffith University was interviewed by Stephen Crittenden, host of ABC Radio National’s The Religion Report. Dr Mohamad Abdalla, the spokesman for the newly-formed Australian National Imams’ Council (ANIC), was articulating the widely held view that it made little sense to have a Mufti in Australia.

Some days back, this humble writer proposed some further reasons.

However, the powers-that-be at ANIC decided to appoint an elderly imam reaching his 80th year, surrounding him with an imams’ committee (including his predecessor, Sheik Hilaly).

Is this a good thing?

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Sheik Andrew bin Bolt, the Grand Mufti of American-owned Australian tabloids, issued the following pre-emptive fatwa against not only Sheik Fehmi but also against anyone who ticks the ‘Muslim’ box on their census forms: ‘Fehmi however moderate he is painted is not there to police our Muslims and assimilate them for you. His job isn’t to get Muslims used to secular Australia, but Australia used to Muslims.’

Yep, this congregation settled in Australia since at the latest 1796 requires someone to help Australia get used to them. It takes extreme hubris for a tabloid columnist born in country Victoria in 1959 to be casting aspersions on the Australian-ness of someone who has lived in Melbourne since 1951. Knowing this columnist works for a man who showed his loyalty to Australia by giving up his Australian passport to become an American, you really have to wonder why Bolt doesn’t borrow some of Julian Morrow’s tape and seal his lips.

Bolt’s major complaint against Sheik Fehmi is that he allegedly doubts whether bin Laden masterminded the 9/11 attacks. I must say I agree with Bolt on this. Seriously, Fehmi should know that the first journalist providing definitive proof of al-Qaeda’s involvement in those attacks wasn’t some paranoid thunderbolt scribe but rather the very sober al-Jazeera investigative journalist Yosri Fouda the only journalist known to have directly interviewed the 9/11 masterminds. Fouda later co-authored a book, Masterminds of Terror, with Sunday Times reporter Nick Fielding, which Sheik Fehmi should read.

(Of course, Bolt himself is known to have rejected popular wisdom backed up by no shortage of evidence. That might explain his scepticism of global warming and climate change.)

I’ve known Sheik Fehmi since December 1985 when I attended my first national Muslim youth camp in a gorgeous part of Victoria called Harrietville. Fehmi was camp imam, in charge of leading prayer services and all religious instruction.

At the time, I was 16 years old and had spent six years at an Anglican school whose chaplain couldn’t hide his admiration for Fred Nile and the Festival of Light. Mixing religion and politics were hardly a sin for Rev Alex, as we found out in senior high school when we started watching a series of videos entitled How Should We Then Live by the late American Protestant political activist Francis Schaeffer, regarded by many as the ideological founder of the American Christian Right.

Politicised religion was all-the-buzz at that time. My childhood mosque in the inner-Sydney suburb of Surry Hills used to hold ‘Afghan nights’ inviting representatives of the two major Afghan mujahideen factions to have a presence in Australia. Support for the Afghan rebels was encouraged during this Cold War period, and I still remember watching a 60 Minutes episode on Channel 9 showing the mujahideen in their baggy clothes and turbans invited to the White House to be honoured as freedom-fighters by then US President Ronald Reagan.

The Islam of Afghan mujahideen was coupled with Saudi-style wahhabi Islam. Both were encouraged by conservative governments around the world as an effective antidote to what was regarded as the more dangerous revolutionary Shi’a Islam of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian revolution.

So here I was, at this national Muslim youth camp, with all this excitement and encouragement toward joining the mujahideen, determined to head off for jihad. I consulted with some friends who shared the same wish. We decided to approach Sheik Fehmi in private, away from the other camp participants. I did the talking.

‘Sheik Fehmi, you know there is a jihad going on in Afghanistan. The mujahideen are fighting for liberation from the communists. We would like to join them. What do you think? Can you help us?’

The Sheik stared at us, looking visibly perturbed.

I continued. ‘But Sheik, this is jihad. If we die, we will go straight to paradise. We are fighting communists. We aren’t asking to do anything wrong.’

The Sheik sat us down and addressed us in a soft-spoken manner. He took out his notebook and read two sayings of the Prophet Mohammed (called hadith in Arabic). The first hadith was as follows:

A young man approached the Prophet wanting permission to fight in the Muslim army to defend the Prophet’s city. The Prophet asked the boy two questions. ‘Do you have elderly parents who need you to look after them? Do you have your parent’s permission?’

The boy replied that he had elderly parents who needed him. The Prophet then said: ‘Look after them. That will be your jihad.’

Just as the Sheik finished this story, I interrupted him. ‘Sheik, my mum reads that hadith to me all the time. She uses it as an excuse to stop me from getting involved in Muslim activities. If I listen to her, how will I be a good Muslim? Why should I miss out on paradise because of my mum?’

The Sheik became a little impatient.

‘So Irfan, you think that martyrs automatically go to paradise? You think that by running away from your duties and dying on the battlefield, you will earn God’s pleasure? You don’t understand your religion.

‘The Prophet did not say that all martyrs go to paradise. If you die as a martyr, all your sins are forgiven. All your obligations are satisfied. All, with one exception. Do you know what that is?’

We shook our heads.

‘Debt. If you owe money to someone, you must pay it back. You can’t avoid paying your debts just by flying off to Afghanistan. And who do you owe a greater debt to than your pa

‘The Prophet also taught us that the first man to be brought for judgment on the Last Day will be someone who died in jihad. God will remind the man of all the divine favours the man has been given. God will then ask the man what he has to offer God in return.

‘The man will say: œGod, I gave my life for you. I fought your enemies and died as a martyr so that your word could be proclaimed. 

‘God will then say to the man: œYou are lying. You only died so that people would glorify you after you were gone. You wanted people to sing your praises and write eulogies to your sacrifices. And they did. You’ve already received your reward, and I have no reward to offer you. Go to hell. 

‘This martyr will then be dragged by the face and thrown into hell. You see, boys? He was a martyr and he went to hell. Why? Because he had the wrong intentions. Even people prepared to give their lives can have wrong intentions and motives. They will be punished for this.’

I was familiar with all the hadith Sheik Fehmi had cited, but had never thought of them in this manner. I still wasn’t convinced.

‘But Sheik, there are so many people dying. Innocent kids. Women. Who will save them?’

The Sheik responded in his usual calm manner. ‘Irfan, they are being protected by their men folk, by the mujahideen and by Allah.’

I still wasn’t convinced by the theology. Fehmi then addressed the politics.

‘Irfan, do you think all the mujahideen are united into one army?’

‘Of course they are, Sheik. They are also getting weapons and support from outside.’

‘Yes, Irfan, they are getting support from the US. But if you think all the mujahideen are united, you are mistaken. You remember my words. The mujahideen will win this jihad insh’Allah [Arabic for œGod-willing ]. But if they are not fighting for the right reasons, they will start fighting each other.’

Sheik Fehmi was right. Following the Soviet withdrawal, major Afghan factions attacked each other. Soon, Kabul was locked in a brutal civil war, with neither side showing any mercy toward civilians. The mujahideen I so desperately wanted to join had turned into tribal thugs.

This jihad had turned into a war on innocent civilians. The Sheik was right. I was wrong. My youthful vigour could have led me to hell.

Without meaning to sound like a sycophant, I reckon Australia could do with a few more sheiks like Fehmi scholars who can process and explain mainstream theology for kids with little ability to differentiate between orthodoxy and extremism. And do so in a language they can understand.

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.