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Muslim academics must speak up

By Abe Ata - posted Friday, 2 February 2007

Prominent academic Abdullah Saeed will head the new national centre of excellence in Islamic studies, which he hopes will serve as an authoritative counter to extremism and, ultimately, a source of moderate imams.

Certainly some imams have aroused great controversy. The wider issue is the silence of academics in Australia who happen to be Muslim and the confused identity politics of the Arab-Muslim world.

Last year Egyptian-born Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, Australia's top Muslim cleric, publicly offended the women of Australia. There was a howl of protest, notably from Muslim women. Last week another prominent Muslim cleric, Sydney-born Sheik Feiz Mohamed, described non-Muslims as filth. He too has been condemned and some of his critics have been Muslim.


By and large, however, the established pattern has been for Muslim academics and commentators to greet controversy with silence. Why? One reason is conformity. According to Bashir Goth, a Muslim journalist and writer: "As Muslims we may claim to possess all the good virtues in the world but we definitely lack one very important virtue - that of self-criticism - while the West is at least blessed with this virtue."

One Muslim academic, who prefers not to be identified, puts it this way: "Arab culture tends to promote a rather severe deference to authority which discourages initiative among subordinates. It promotes conformity with group norms over innovation and independent thinking. It also tends to promote a fierce loyalty to the group, which encourages individuals to shield friends and relatives from shame and reinforces the emphasis on conformity."

This explains much. It explains, for instance, the succession of foreign-born Muslim clerics who, in the words of Australian Muslim academic Kamal Siddiqi of Monash University, "have little idea of Australian society". They continue to look to their home country to address local problems.

No wonder they cause offence, sometimes by what they say and sometimes by their silence. For Australian Muslims - and for Australians in general - there are some awkward questions that cannot be avoided indefinitely.

Why are Muslims under-represented in Australian public life?

Why don't Australian Muslims vociferously condemn crimes against Muslims in Darfur, Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan?


Why do authoritarian governments persist in so much of the Arab world?

Why don't Muslims protest against Australian cartoonists making a mockery of Christianity, as have many Australians against anti-Islamic cartoons?

Why are liberal elements in much of the Muslim world - including Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan - on the defensive?

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First published in The Australian on January 24, 2007

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About the Author

Abe W Ata was a temporary delegate to the UN in 1970 and has lived and worked in the Middle East, America and Australia. Dr Ata is a Senior Fellow Institute for the Advancement of Research, and lectures in Psychology at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne). Dr Ata is a 9th generation Christian Palestinian academic born in Bethlehem.

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