Having read a recent interview with Australia’s top Muslim cleric, the Grand Mufti Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, I have much sympathy for what he has said. True, mosques are not centres of radicalisation and they should not be feared. Yes, it appears that many applications for the construction of mosques and Islamic schools have been rejected, and certainly, Muslim terrorists are antithetical to traditional Islamic learning. However, his diagnosis, that more mosques (and Islamic schools) are the solution to combat radicalisation, requires further exploration and probing.
To begin with, mosques are only as good as the imams they employ. If these pivotal guides cannot connect with large numbers of their flock, young Australian Muslims will go elsewhere for religious instruction. Increasingly, many turn to the internet for guidance and others to fringe, charismatic individuals who are culturally relevant and linguistically conversant. Most radical Muslims that I have had the misfortune to speak to in the UK over the past decade were initially disenfranchised by mosques because they could not understand their mother tongue – the first language of most imams. During my recent three month stay in Australia’s unofficial Muslim capital, Sydney, I found the same tendency among many of the youth I encountered.
As in the case in other western countries, convicted terrorists in Australia have proven to be religiously illiterate (some also having shown signs of mental illness). In other words, they do not speak authoritatively from faith, only through emotion. The two recently charged for the brutal murder of soldier Drummer Lee Rigby in the UK, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, will certainly confirm this trend too. This phenomenon is hardly surprising given that the former al-Qa’ida leader, Osama bin Laden was an engineer by profession, and the current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri is a qualified medical doctor. They waged a global war against non-Muslims and Muslims, not as religious authorities, but as autodidacts. Their minions are Muslim only in name; they betray everything that the Islamic faith stands for.
The Australian Muslim leadership needs to ensure that Muslim scholars and theologians are able to articulate theology in a meaningful manner and be bold and robust to challenge a theology of hate that festers in the ghettos. The more the Muslim community is able to acquaint themselves with it, the more they will be inoculated from a bizarre, putrid, literal reading of Islam that is seductively tied together by conspiracy theories.
But, the onus is not simply upon the Muslim community. There needs to be acknowledgment that many Australian Muslims feel alienated from their society, especially when research confirms large proportions of mainstream society holding anti-Islamic sentiments. That Mosque and Islamic school planning permissions have failed isn’t surprising given such a climate of distrust. Locals feel threatened by such institutions, others feel such structures are “out of place” and will clash in character and nature with the broader society, while others simply hold onto misinformed views about Muslims and of Islam.
Overwhelmingly, the majority of Australian Muslims feel that Islam instils universal values that are shared by Australians: they believe that their faith makes them better citizens. Yet, large swathes of Australian Muslims feel demonised and vilified, largely due to events that stem overseas, involving Muslims. So a polarisation within society creates distrust and fear. Only bigots and extremists on both sides of the spectrum thrive and gain in such an environment to the detriment of everyone else.
There is almost near consensus among academics that radicalisation is a process that is triggered by many events. Some are personal, others economic and political (the so-called “elephant in the room”) but also cultural and societal. Through their rhetoric, fringe radical preachers encourage a climate of fear within mainstream Australian society, thereby contributing to a hostile environment for Muslims. Whereas these preachers masterly manipulate real and perceived inequalities in society to show disenfranchised young Muslims that non-Muslims have an inherit hatred for Islam and Muslims, global terror events involving Muslims, confirm to the wider society at home, the worst fears about Muslims and Islam. This environment, in turn, provides a fertile ground for radical Muslim discourse, which takes root among a minority of Muslims who already feel the effects of discrimination.
To combat it will require the assistance and a partnership of both the Muslim community and government. While Australian Muslims already feel that they are under intense scrutiny, the Australian government needs to be sensitive to ensure that it is seen to be anti-terror and not perceived to be anti-Islam. Moves need to be taken to regulate and make mosques more amenable to young Muslims and the wider public. As the Mufti correctly said, institutions do need to be built, but not only to cater for the masses. We need the creation of enlightened institutions with a curriculum that comprehends modern thought that will be able to attract talented students. Without such institutions, it is unlikely that a sophisticated understanding of the Islamic tradition can be fostered. We also need to see institutions that nurture and better empower indigenous imams with the tools to navigate through and understand the challenges of modernity, and not simply to regurgitate a textual understanding of Islam from overseas.
A conversation is taking place among young Muslims, towards an indigenous form of Islam, something that is neither imported nor imposed by governments, but is anchored in Australia. A generational shift is in the making; I saw it first-hand in Sydney. Still very much in its infancy, it needs leadership and guidance to take the Muslim community from a reactive, isolated and defensive one, to a community that is concerned with the advancement and general well-being of the wider society. There are visionaries out there trying to get this discussion moving, but they can’t do it alone.
The outcome of investing in the youth now, is that you will create an inquisitive, creative, empowered and articulate generation of Australian Muslims who will see no dichotomy between holding onto their faith and living and contributing to a democratic, secular state. They are Australian and Muslim; it is within this growing community of believers that we can see the most potent force against radical Islam. I spoke to and taught some of them while I was in Sydney.
I know that the future belongs to them, not to the radicals.
Aftab Malik is a UN Alliance of Civilizations Global Expert on Muslim Affairs and a Board Advisory member of the British Council’s “Our Shared Future” project based in Washington DC, which aims to improve the public conversation about Muslims and intercultural relations in the United States and Europe.