A controversial figure, Australia’s Grand Mufti is of more importance to The Daily Telegraph than he is to many Muslims.

By Mike Seccombe.

The vexed power of Grand Mufti Ibrahim Abu Mohamed

Grand Mufti Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohamed.
Grand Mufti Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohamed.
Credit: AAP

In the first major profile piece on Australia’s new Grand Mufti, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, in October 2011, the writer extolled his diplomacy, tact and political savvy.

The freshly minted mufti spoke expansively about improving understanding between Muslims and the wider Australian community, particularly the media.

Muslims were inclined to feel they were under attack by sections of the media – they were sometimes vilified, the mufti said, and forced to retreat.

“I want a strong relationship with the media,” he told The Age, “so this wall of fear can be broken and the ghetto opened.”

Four years down the track the wall is back up and the Grand Mufti, under attack from the usual media and political suspects, has himself retreated behind it. The first major profile remains the major profile.

Innumerable phone calls and emails from The Saturday Paper failed to rouse the mufti or any other spokesperson for the organisation he leads, the Australian National Imams Council (ANIC), to offer any defence to the latest round of tabloid smearing.

Perhaps it’s understandable. His treatment by some sections of the media and some in politics has been outrageous. Leading the charge, as ever, was the most anti-Muslim of the Murdoch tabloids, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph.

On the Wednesday after the Paris terrorist attacks, the Telegraph covered its front page with the headline “The Unwise Mufti”, and three photographs of Mohamed, with hands superimposed over his eyes, ears and mouth, a reference to the three wise monkeys. The captions read: “Sees no problem. Hears no concerns. Speaks no English.”

Actually, the mufti speaks good English, although he chooses Arabic for most of his public pronouncements. The other two claims relate to what The Daily Telegraph said was his “stubborn refusal to condemn the Paris terror attacks”. Which is not strictly true, either. 

In fact, Mohamed’s first response to the Paris attacks, posted to Facebook the day after the Paris attack, and two days after the Beirut suicide bombing, was this: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, families and people of Paris and Beirut at this time of unspeakable horror. We will continually stand united in peace with them against such heinous attacks of cowardice.”

The Daily Telegraph chose to ignore that, however. Instead, they focused on the media statement put out by the ANIC the next day.

“His Eminence, the Grand Mufti of Australia, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, and the Australian National Imams Council,” it began, “mourn the loss of innocent lives due to the recent terrorist attacks in France.”

It went on to convey “deepest condolences to the families and friends of the victims” and to “reiterate that the sanctity of human life is guaranteed in Islam”.

The error was in what followed: the release said the attacks highlighted the fact current strategies to deal with terrorism were not working.

“It is therefore imperative that all causative factors such as racism, Islamophobia, curtailing freedoms through securitisation, duplicitous foreign policies and military intervention must be comprehensively addressed,” it said.

“In addition, any discourse which attempts to apportion blame by association or sensationalises violence to stigmatise a certain segment of society only serves to undermine community harmony and safety.

“Credit goes to those who have called for calm and responsibility. We call upon all people of goodwill to stand against fear-mongering and injustice.”

So soon after tragedy was not the time for making political points, regardless of their merit. Many in the Muslim community saw that.

“I think the original statement – as much as I hate to criticise a fellow Muslim, especially one in such a senior spiritual position, I think it was very ill-considered,” says Keysar Trad, who was once close to the mufti and even translated some of his books, but who has fallen out with him.

1 . Right-wing attacks

It took two days for the mufti and ANIC to put out another statement, more appropriate to the tragedy.

The shifts in the tone of the message have prompted questions, both within and without the Islamic community. There have been suggestions that others in the council were responsible for the insertion of the tendentious material in the November 15 statement.

We may never know for sure. But in the meantime, the wrath of the political right came down not only on the mufti, but on his faith.

South Australian Liberal senator Cory Bernardi took to Twitter: “Grand Mufti statement on Paris Terror is a disgrace. The west is not to blame. Terrorists inspiration is found in 7th century ideology.”

Tasmanian independent senator Jacqui Lambie suggested electronic security bracelets be fitted to the 12,000 Syrian refugees Australia has agreed to accept, and added: “Maybe the first person that should have an electronic device put on them is the bloody Grand Mufti.”

But it was not just the political fringe that fell upon the mufti. Treasurer Scott Morrison had a shot at him on Melbourne radio, saying, “Australian Muslims were let down by the mufti yesterday.”

The man installed by Tony Abbott as Morrison’s replacement in the immigration portfolio went in much harder.

“These acts need to be condemned for what they are,” Peter Dutton said. “They’ve been condemned by Muslim leaders around the world and they should be condemned here in Australia by the leadership.”

The mufti should “make it very clear that he condemns these acts of terrorism, these murderous acts, without reservation,” he said.

Dutton’s comment was either woefully ignorant of what the Grand Mufti had actually said, or a disingenuous appeal to a prejudiced audience. He was speaking on Radio 2GB.

Dutton’s words were also reminiscent of his mentor Abbott’s widely criticised chiding of Australian Islamic leaders, in his “six flags” national security statement of February, for not being genuine in their protestations against extremism within the community.

“I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as ‘a religion of peace’. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it,” he said.

Like Abbott, Lambie, Bernardi, the tabloids and shock jocks, Dutton appeared to suggest the mufti and his council were not sincere in their denunciation of terrorism. That any suggestion that terrorism might have a complex causation equates in some way to condoning it. The implication is that the imams council response was not just impolitic at a time of mourning but disloyal.

2 . Controversial positions

If it is unAustralian to understand that Islamist terror is a complex phenomenon, then most Australians are unAustralian. An Essential poll just this week showed the great majority of people did not believe terrorism was solely a function of religious-based hatred of Western values, but also a reaction to “the role of Western countries in the Middle East”. The poll also showed that 45 per cent of respondents believed Australia’s military engagement there had made us less safe.

As for the imams’ assertion that the current strategies for dealing with terrorism are not working, the Paris attacks make that self-evident.

The suggestion that the politics of the Syrian conflict are duplicitous? You would be hard-pressed to find any expert in the field who does not think the relations between combatants as diverse as Russia, the United States, Iran, Turkey and the scores of other armed participants in the Syrian conflict are steeped in hidden agendas and duplicity.

The assertion that stigmatisation and Islamophobia undermine harmony and safety? Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten and other responsible and reasoning figures emphasised the same message.

That is not to say the Grand Mufti is a poster boy for modern Australian values.

He is an Egyptian-born and -educated Islamic scholar, author of a couple of dozen books on religious matters, well into his 60s, and holds views one might expect of a man with such a background. He is, as that first profile article put it, “a political moderate though religiously orthodox”.

As the mufti’s former associate Keysar Trad pointed out for the delectation of The Telegraph last week, in one of those books he complained that modern society encouraged women to go about “with legs and arms exposed, filling the shopping malls and the streets, competing for the glimpses of men”, and “exposed as a piece of sweet pastry ... devoured by the eyes of men”.

But even the Telegraph could not get too excited by those comments. Not like a decade ago, when Australia’s first Grand Mufti, Sheikh Taj Din al-Hilali, compared some women to “uncovered meat” that attracted hungry animals.

The circumstances were quite different. Hilali spoke in the context of a series of gang rapes, for which a number of Lebanese Muslim men subsequently received long jail terms. He suggested the sentences were excessive, given that Western women were apt to “sway suggestively” and wore make-up and immodest dress.

“But the problem all began with who?” he asked. “The uncovered meat is the problem.”

It is difficult to parse Mohamed’s views, because not many of them are on the record. Little has been translated. Public statements are reasonably few.

There is evidence that he supports Hamas, the Palestinian organisation listed as a terrorist group by many Western governments including Australia’s.

About three years ago Dr Mohamed visited Gaza and met with Hamas government officials. The Australian Jewish News later released a translation of some of his comments, caught on camera during the visit, in which he said: “We came here in order to learn from Gaza. We will make the stones, trees and people of Gaza talk in order to learn steadfastness, sacrifice, and the defence of one’s rights from them.”

Jewish groups in Australia were concerned by the comments, but the evidence suggested no overt support for acts of terror.

Jewish community leaders suspect Mohamed also supports the Muslim Brotherhood, which would hardly be surprising given that its roots, like the mufti’s, are in Egypt.

But philosophical support for what is called Islamic revivalism is a long way from support for the Wahhabist-inspired murderers of Daesh.

Jewish leaders spoken to for this story, who know the mufti, said there was ready acknowledgement he is no radical. One even offered an excuse for the clumsiness of the post-Paris statement issued by the imams council in his name.

“He was elected to the position on the strength of his religious scholarship. But like many religious figures, he is not sure how to deal with big real-world issues,” he said.

“The smart ones surround themselves with advisers who understand the nuance of the wider political debate.”

He thinks the mufti was simply badly advised.

3 . Muftis' relevance

Hussain Nadim, a counter-radicalisation expert who has worked in Canada, the US, Britain and Pakistan before becoming co-ordinator of the South Asia study group at the University of Sydney, thinks otherwise.

“I think the mufti’s statement came as it did for a reason – because he understood his constituency and realised that if he only condemned the Paris attack that would not satisfy those Muslims who see large numbers of Muslims dying every day,” he says.

“I don’t agree with that. I think every action has to be condemned equally, fully, unconditionally.”

The bigger question, though, is what constituency the mufti actually speaks for and why one impoliticly worded media statement should provoke such heavy response from the broader community.

“Over the past couple of decades the role of the muftis, the imams, has been reduced down to the idea of leading prayers, blessing the newborn,” says Nadim.

“The political narrative has been taken out of their hands. If you ask me, the social-political value of Grand Muftis, it’s absolutely none.”

Dr Joshua Roose, research fellow at the Institute for Religion Politics and Society at the Australian Catholic University, has a similar view of motivation behind the mufti’s media statement and his relevance.

“There is an Islamist, postcolonialist perspective that you see in parts of the Muslim community … The idea that the big bad West is the problem and there’s nothing wrong with us,” he says.

“I suspect the mufti has had to take that into account. Because those people are quite influential in the community.”

He also questions the relevance of the Grand Mufti, not just to the broader political debate but to Australian Muslims.

For a start, the usual media descriptor of the mufti as “spiritual leader” of Australian Muslims takes no account of the diversity of the country’s 500,000 odd Muslims. According to census data, Nadim says, the biggest group by country of birth are Australian. They represent 37-38 per cent, followed by the Lebanese, Pakistani, Afghan, Turkish. There are also rapidly increasing communities from Africa and South and South-East Asia.

To suggest that one imam speaks for them all is even more misleading than suggesting one Christian leader – George Pell, for example – speaks for all Christians. Or even all Catholics.

To suggest that an elderly man who makes his pronouncements in a language many do not actually understand is more so again.

Says Nadim: “I am a Pakistani Muslim, and I can tell you what we practise in Pakistan has absolutely nothing to do with what the Wahhabis are doing in Saudi Arabia or what the Shias are doing in Iran.”

There are other pronounced divisions – socioeconomic ones. The Australian Islamic community is unusually bifurcated in terms of educational attainment and employment. Indian and Pakistani Muslims in Australia tend to be professionals, Nadim says. “They came here under skilled migration visas, whereas the Lebanese came here as refugees from the civil war.”

“If you look at England, where I worked on de-radicalisation issues, it is the opposite. Over there, the Pakistanis who left for England in the 1950s were not well educated, did not integrate and they tend still not to be educated or integrated. In England the community at greatest risk of radicalisation is actually the Pakistani community.

“A lot depends on from which area, in which era, people are coming.”

Then there is the matter of the majority of Australian Muslims being quite secular.

“As best we can assess,” says Roose, “only about 30 per cent of Australian Muslims are practising. Seventy per cent are not particularly engaged with their faith. They may have a basic respect for religious leaders, much as many people consider themselves Christian but don’t go to church, or maybe at Christmas.

“They are the silent majority, who are just not engaged, not on the political spectrum. They are neither radical extremists nor moderates out there encouraging any particular view of Islam.”

4 . Youth needs leadership from elsewhere

There is one particularly worrying trend among Australia’s Muslims, says Roose.

“Somewhat ironically, what we are seeing is the generation that has grown up in the post 9/11 context, now in their teens or early 20s, in a quite politically hostile atmosphere, where everything to do with Muslims is scrutinised and suspected, who are more likely to be politicised in their faith.

“They’re the ones most impacted by negative discourse … which suits the extremists, whose aim is to polarise society.”

For these at-risk young people, the Grand Mufti is an irrelevance.

“Most wouldn’t even know his name,” says Nadim. “So I don’t think the mufti did any harm, just as I don’t think he can contribute greatly [to social cohesion]. He has not the power to damage or contribute.”

The key is finding a way to appeal directly to those who are at risk of radicalisation. Working through intermediaries, be they elderly clerics, police or welfare workers, will not do it.

Nadim points to the example of Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, “who is reaching out to Muslims himself, from top to bottom: leaders, parents, youth. He doesn’t need an intermediary.”

The sad fact is that the Grand Mufti of Australia is not the solution any more than he is the problem, the experts suggest. Through little fault of his own, he has become a lightning rod for the dividers.

What is needed, in Nadim’s words, is something, someone, to make confused youth “feel Australian”.

There are a number of such people out there, says Roose – young, educated, articulate, starting to be heard. They will become the key figures in the fight against radicalisation. Not an elderly, largely irrelevant Egyptian bloke, whom the tabloid media are keen to make an emblem of division.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 28, 2015 as "The vexed power of the Grand Mufti".

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