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Nutbags, McCarthyism and western Muslims

By Waleed Aly - posted Wednesday, 29 June 2005

As an executive committee member of the Islamic Council of Victoria, I receive my fair share of hate mail. Not usually for anything I’ve said or done, but mainly on the bogus assumption that because I am a Muslim, I want to see terrorism win the war on terror. Complete strangers regularly inform me that I am here to wage war against the country I have called home my entire life.

I have created a folder in my inbox labelled “Nutbags” where I file such correspondence, but despite its obvious stupidity, it does underscore the McCarthyism that seems inevitably to intrude upon the lives of many Muslims in the post-September 11 West. The barbarism so spectacularly manifest on and since that day has, in the minds of a vocal few, established a prima facie case against all of us, irrespective of how emphatically we condemned it. Loyalty to one’s own country is constantly questioned. Like a Kafkan defendant, western Muslims are regularly required to prove their own innocence. And very often, any rebuttal is dismissed as lies. Tough crowd.

So forget the words. The fact is that on three separate occasions in three separate countries, representatives of western Muslims have been prepared to put their own safety on the line for their countrymen, in opposition to Muslim terrorists and criminals. They have stepped up to the plate when it mattered. Douglas Wood’s saga provides only the most recent example.


In September last year, the so-called Islamic Army in Iraq kidnapped two French journalists, demanding that the French government repeal its controversial law prohibiting Muslim women wearing headscarves in public schools. On one view, the kidnapping provided a convenient pretext for Muslims to push for the law’s demise. But the very same Muslim women who bear the brunt of the French legislation protested against the kidnappers and called for the journalists’ release. They wanted no blood on their veils.

The French Council for the Muslim Faith urgently sent a delegation to Baghdad, which held talks with influential Muslim leaders in Iraq. In the process, French Muslims became ambassadors for their country. Council Vice President Mohammed Bechari told Le Figaro, “Everyone must understand that laying a hand on a member of French society affects all French people, all members of the Muslim community.” The delegation left Baghdad confident that the journalists would be released. Eventually, they were.

Later that month, when British engineer Kenneth Bigley was taken hostage in Iraq, the Muslim Council of Britain followed suit. Dr Daud Abd Allah and Dr Musharraf Husayn flew to Baghdad and met with religious authorities in Iraq and Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar.

Dr Abd Allah was in tears as he told reporters: “Mr Bigley is a victim as much as civilians in Fallujah are victims and we convey our pain about what we see on the television screens.” Ultimately, Bigley would be callously murdered, but British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was most grateful for the Muslim Council of Britain’s efforts, praising them as “magnificent”.

In the past six weeks, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils followed the examples of their British and French counterparts when news of Douglas Wood’s abduction broke. It sent the much-maligned Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali to Baghdad to fight for Wood’s release at great personal risk. I have no idea how pivotal Hilali’s role was in securing Douglas Wood’s release. Frankly, I don’t care. Whatever the case, Hilali put himself in danger for Wood’s wellbeing and offered himself as a hostage. This is a wonderful contribution, as Foreign Minister Alexander Downer so glowingly recognised.

French, British and Australian Muslim organisations were all resolutely against the war in Iraq. They have no truck for the foreign policy driving the war on terror. Just the same, their representative bodies came courageously to the aid of their fellow citizens. I don’t expect this to silence the McCarthyists. I will have many more nutbag e-mails to file. Shame really. They don’t seem to have a problem with their identities as western Muslims. Why should anyone else?

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A version of this article was published in the Herald Sun on June 23,  2005.

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About the Author

Waleed Aly, a Melbourne lawyer, is a member of the Islamic Council of Victoria executive. He is a lecturer in the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash Univeristy. His book, People Like Us (Picador), will be published in September.

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