What Imams Have in Common With the Liberal Party


Natalie O’Brien’s story in The Australian last week accurately reflects just some of the tensions affecting the Australian National Imams Council (ANIC), which appointed the elderly Sheik Fehmi el-Imam as Mufti of Australia in June last year.

The decision saw the resignation of ANIC’s spokesman and interim chairman Dr Mohamad Abdalla, who was given the unenviable task of explaining ANIC’s handling of the crisis surrounding Sheik al-Hilaly’s ongoing verbal gaffes. Abdalla had told Radio National’s Religion Report in March 2007 that ANIC members had decided that the position of mufti – whose role is to provide an authoritative but non-binding opinion on complex or novel questions of Islamic sacred law – would have to be replaced by a specialist sub-committee of the ANIC.

Abdalla wasn’t the only one to leave. Turkish imams, who make up over 40 per cent of imams across the country (and over half the imams in Sydney and Melbourne) also walked out. That means the remaining Council represents less than half the imams in Australia’s two largest cities (where some 60 per cent of Aussie Muslims reside), and none in Brisbane.

So who does ANIC represent, then? And what authority can it claim now?

That hasn’t stopped it from claiming authority, though. The Council’s last major initiative, earlier this month, was to prepare a petition complaining about an undergraduate course taught by an academic at the Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies. The course, Women in Arabic & Islamic Literature, has earned the ire of the Council because it allegedly doesn’t reflect "normative" understandings of gender relations in Islamic sacred law. The lecturer, Dr Samar Habib, has written extensively on homosexuality in the Middle East.

Why would ANIC expect a course on Arabic literature to necessarily reflect "normative" understandings of Islamic sacred law? Is this a course on law or on literature? Don’t they understand the concept of academic freedom?

Even more concerning is that the petition is being distributed by a person who moderates a popular Muslim youth internet forum. This person has previously used her position to promote among Muslim youth the work of North American "scientists" who allege that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured.

Muslims aren’t the only religious congregation to frown on homosexuality or to struggle with gay believers. But when religious leaders become captive of persons promoting homophobia through bad science, it’s something we should all be concerned about.

O’Brien has also reported on ANIC’s petition concerning this Islamic studies course. No doubt, if the imams keep up with this factional squabbling, she’ll have plenty more stories to report on.

Imams these days seem to be taking their cue from the Liberal Party, playing out their vicious factional disputes in public or wasting time in "culture war" matters that the rest of us couldn’t give a rat’s backside about. Meanwhile the needs of people that really matter – be they voters in the Party’s case or people who tick the "Islam" box on the census forms in the case of imams – are increasingly ignored. In the long run, it’s the imams themselves that will find themselves ignored.

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