A couple of weeks ago the ABC screened Jihad Sheilas, the story of two Australian women who became caught up in a whirlpool of religious extremism. They were among a tiny proportion of a generation of Muslim youths and converts radicalised by people linked to past conflicts in Afghanistan.
It's a story often best told in film. The 2001 Iranian movie Kandahar tells the story of an Afghan-Canadian journalist who returns to rescue her sister from Kandahar. She meets an African-American Muslim convert working as a doctor. He says he first came to Afghanistan to find God, thinking he could be found by fighting the Soviet occupation. After the Soviets left, he saw the tribes fighting each other, despite their children playing and suffering together. He becomes disillusioned with Afghan jihadis, concluding he would find God by bringing healing to children.
The convert doctor is played by actor Dawud Salahuddin (originally David Belfield). In real life Belfield, himself a convert, had his own journey through radical Islam, attracted to the Iranian revolution that was swept to power in 1979. He fled the US after being accused of murdering Iranian dissident Ali Akbar Tabatabai in 1980.
The convert doctor and the so-called "jihadi sheilas" are typical of many young Muslims (including converts) who saw Afghanistan as the theatre of sacred battle. The hysteria in the West surrounding the jihad against the Soviets is partially captured in the film Charlie Wilson's War, the story of a Democratic congressman from Texas who takes up the cause of the Afghan jihad.
Certainly the Afghan jihad was presented by Western media in the 1980s as a just war. I still recall an episode of Channel Nine's 60 Minutes profiling the courageous freedom fighters facing a superpower with World War I weapons. A coalition of right-wing think tanks and Western and Arab governments promoted the jihad.
By the early 1980s, when I entered my teens, the Afghan jihad and the plight of Afghan refugees were causes heavily promoted by religious foundations, imams and spokesmen for various Afghan mujahideen factions. In Sydney and Melbourne, representatives of the competing factions were a regular feature at mosques. My "home" mosque, the King Faisal Mosque at Surry Hills in Sydney, regularly hosted "Afghan nights" where mujahideen representatives provided updates on the conflict and sought donations for refugees.
Indeed, at a 1987 Muslim youth camp organised by the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, a representative of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's faction gave a speech and delivered the Friday sermon. In my mind, this effectively meant the jihad had religious sanction.
One "jihadi sheila" from the ABC program praises Osama bin Laden, whom some regard as merely a former CIA-backed operative who organised Arab volunteers for the Afghan jihad. Another attributes drug abuse and pedophilia to Australian victims of the Bali terror attacks, among them two members of the Sumer family of Cypriot Muslim origin.
So much modern political radicalism in Muslim communities is rooted in contemporary political conflicts in the nominally Muslim world. These often become the centre of spiritual attention for young Muslims with little exposure to mainstream Islamic theology and little understanding of the nuances of the conflict.
However, it would be wrong to generalise about all converts. Islam attracts people from all walks of life. Prominent Australian converts include former diplomats, prominent sportspeople and a former ABC foreign correspondent.
People turn to Islam and other non-Christian faiths for any number of reasons. They might feel outcasts in conventional society or disillusioned with aspects of mainstream culture. They might be searching for an alternative lifestyle.
Most Muslim Australians treat their faith as intensely personal. The core of Islam is the deeply spiritual tradition, which Sunni Muslims describe as tasawwuf and Shia Muslims describe as irfan, and which is known as "Sufism" in the West. To this day, translations of Jalaluddin Rumi remain the biggest selling poetry books in the US. Many converts enter Islam after exposure to Sufi teaching for reasons similar to the attraction of Tibetan Buddhism.
Fringe politicised Islam has few followers among migrant Muslims, whose exposure to mainstream Islam means they know a fringe sect when they see one. Australia's radical "thick-sheikhs" tend to attract Muslim youth and converts.
Converts often bring a zeal that many migrant Muslims born into Islam don't share. Sometimes they also bring problems whose solution is to be found not in religion but in counselling or psychiatry. Religious beliefs and institutions can only be of peripheral assistance to such people. I doubt any religion could have helped a convert who acknowledges being Elizabeth Taylor's apprentice.
New converts with no family support and on the fringes of Muslim communities can fall into a dangerous twilight zone. Muslim communities need to be more welcoming to converts. Support services should be set up and mosques should break down their cultural and linguistic barriers. When Islam becomes a genuinely Australian religion and not just a set of foreign cultural artefacts, fringe extremists will look elsewhere for recruits. Perhaps then people can make personal decisions about religion without being sucked into a whirlpool of political hysteria or media frenzy.