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Arabisation of Islam fuels extremist factions

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Friday, 26 November 2004


One would think in the sensitive climate of the war on terror that extremist Islamic view would be almost inaudible, especially in a Western capital city. At the very least, they would surely have moved underground to private dinner parties or meetings in coffee shops. Not the case it seems.

The end of the recent month of fasting, or Ramadan, heralds a day of celebration for Muslims, known as Eid. This occurred recently. It signals a day of feasting and gift exchange. The joyous day begins with a prayer and a short sermon.

This year, I found myself sitting in a suburban mosque listening to an Arab cleric sprout outlandish opinions. In front of a gathering of a few hundred, the cleric launched into a tirade of how there was a global conspiracy against Islam, how the Jews may be behind it all and how our attire should correspond to the time of the birth of the Islam, i.e. the sixth century AD. He stopped just short of encouraging us to join a global jihad.

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The majority of the gathering was shocked. They looked around the room, fidgeted awkwardly and spoke amongst themselves. Some of the more daring picked up their shoes and stormed out. Some of the women were particularly outraged, for the cleric had implored the largely South Asian crowd never to wear saris, but instead to don on the full length hijab. This was the true dress of Islam, the beard adorned cleric insisted.

He said this first in a fiery Arabic, then in broken English.

If ever there was an instance of what was wrong with modern Islam, here it was.

Whilst the religion of Islam is generally associated with Arabs, it claims to spread a universal message. Historically, it has been most successful in places like Spain and Turkey when the religion fused successfully with local cultures. But the growing Arabisation of the religion is directly related to its modern extremist factions.

On our doorstep, it can be seen in organisations such as Jemaah Islamiah, which has sprung up in Indonesia, a country not usually associated with such an “Arabised” interpretation of the religion.

First of all, radical clerics continue to press for rituals and attire derived from a nomadic culture of the desert over one thousand years ago. These are the same people who then argue there is too much Americanisation of their cultures and that Mossad was behind the September 11 attacks. Meanwhile, the Saudis fund schools which teach the extreme Wahabbi brand of the religion throughout the world - the brand that inspired the Taliban Government of Afghanistan.

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Second, there is the problem of how mullahs are chosen. The different ethnic groups within the capital cities tend to bring out leaders from their own countries. They are not tested for their English abilities or their interest in Australia. Their key qualification is not a widespread education, but a fluent grasp of Arabic and a literal understanding of the Koran. Not surprisingly, this encourages leaders with a more extreme interpretation of the religion.

Furthermore, the complete emphasis on a superb knowledge of Arabic prior to understanding the Koran contributes to its authoritarian character.

The Christian Reformation was driven by dissidents like Luther, who could print translations of the Bible and allow the people to make their own decision.

In Islamic circles, only those with the knowledge of Arabic are allowed to make interpretations of the Koran. This is despite the fact that linguists agree that the written word, even with its cultural overtones, can be translated. Once again Islam’s claim towards a universal message looks more like a claim to an Arab message.

It is most ridiculous when mullahs try and convert the mosque into a political rally. This has its roots in the Arab world where state control of media and suppression of free speech often meant that the mosque was the only place for open political dialogue. But it is clearly ridiculous in the West when there is a mullah speaking to crowds often filled with highly educated professionals about weighty political ideas. It is embarrassing, as well as dangerous.

Whilst the technologies of the current era have democratised fields that once belonged to experts only, Islam remains a religion led by experts - many of them of dubious quality. The sooner it re-learns its past flexibility to mould with the local yet still preach the universal, the sooner its extremist factions can be defeated. 

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Article edited by Ian Miller.
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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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