Less blame, more responsibility
We’ve all heard some pretty terrible things from the mouths of so-called religious teachers, but this is a new low. Sheikh Sharif Hussein, an Islamic preacher and imam, used his platform during Friday prayers at the then Allenby Gardens headquarters on March 22 to call for the death of all Buddhists and Hindus, as well as issuing vile, hate-filled diatribes against the Jews, Australian soldiers, and others. The speech was published in an edited form by the US thinktank, MEMRI TV. Please watch this if you haven’t already. Among other despicable rantings, Hussein said this:
Oh Allah, count the Buddhists and the Hindus one by one. Oh Allah, count them and kill them to the very last one.
He has issued a call for the death of all Buddhists and Hindus. Hate speech does not get any worse than this. It is time for the Islamic community in Australia to stop apologizing for such people, blaming media bias and the West, and start accepting responsibility for the actions of their community.
The Adelaide press has reported the matter, and there have been responses from several community representatives, including the Federation of Australian Buddhist Council through its president, Kim Hollows.
The man is deranged. No surprise there; there are always crazy people in our world. What makes him more than just a loon waving a placard is that he has people backing him, and people listening to him. He has a platform, and that platform is supported by an institutional and community basis. This is why the most disturbing aspect of the event is not that such speech exists—which is disturbing enough—but that it is defended and apologized for by institutions in the Islamic community. The center where he gave the talk, the Islamic Da’wah Centre of South Australia (IDCSA) has, unbelievably, issued an actual defense of the speech. The Islamic society of South Australia has not gone so far, but has avoided making any real condemnation.
Imagine if I were to give a speech in the Dhammaloka Buddhist Center, calling for “Death to all Muslims and Christians!” What would happen? Well, firstly, the audience would not believe their ears. That a spiritual leader could say such a thing is so outside their sphere of comprehension, it would take a few moments to sink in. But when it did sink in, there would be an uproar. People would get up, leave, call out in protest. Quickly, the PA would be shut down and I would be firmly asked to leave the premises, and if I didn’t the police would be called. I would be immediately banned from the place, expelled from membership, and the BSWA would issue a statement condemning my statement and totally dissociating themselves from me and my views.
Well, that is what Hussein did, and none of this happened. The audience sat there, apparently quiet and acquiescent during the talk. No-one called out or protested. He was not cut off, but allowed to continue. The talk was recorded by the IDCSA and published by them on their Youtube channel. (The IDCSA still has a video of Hussein giving a talk at their center. Apparently lacking any irony, the talk is on “forgiveness”. Unfortunately the video is private so we can’t see what Hussein thinks about that highly relevant topic.) Again, presumably without any special comment or discussion in their community, this has been current since March. Their community has done nothing about this, but continues to receive “teachings” from this man. Only when MEMRI.TV published the edited clip did anyone say anything.
Now the IDCSA has issued a response. What exactly do they say? Here’s some points:
IDCSA do not necessarily hold the same views/positions of the video
Not necessarily hold the same views?! So they might possibly hold the same views, but maybe not. Well that clears that up then. It’s good to know that the people running this pillar of society do not necessarily wish death on a couple billion innocent people. As inadequate as these weasel words are, they are only the start. They go on to say:
we believe that the Sheikh’s words were clearly taken out of context and put together in a suggestive manner
Let me state this as plainly as I can: there is no context that can justify a call for the murder of billions of innocent people. To even suggest that this statement could be contextualized is nonsense. The man called for genocide. The only moral response is to condemn it.
But it gets worse. What is the context they allege is lacking?
The sheikh presented in his speech some of the war crimes directed against Muslims around the world, something that was completely ignored in the video. While addressing the mass rape cases in Iraq, the Sheikh was emotional and used strong words in addressing those who committed these crimes.
If you have seen the video, you know that this is simply false. The video, while obviously edited from a longer talk (who wants to listen to more of this stuff?), clearly presents Hussein’s allegations about mass rape and the like. The alleged missing context is right there in the video. This means that the IDCSA has either not watched the video (unlikely), or they are lying. Since they are defending a call to genocide, lying seems a good bet. Do they imagine we are all so stupid?
And the statement goes on:
some media organisations are trying to present this video as hate speech while ignoring the fact that denouncing a criminal act is a social right which falls under the general category of ‘freedom of speech’.
Yes, I know, the irony of fundamentalists relying on the free speech argument. Once again, it seems there is a need to spell out something very simple: denouncing what you think is wrong is not hate speech. Calling for the death of billions of innocents is hate speech.
This is obvious, but underlying it is something deeper. There is, concealed in this statement, a basic misunderstanding of what free speech means in a liberal society. Truly free speech is courageous and open. It does not hide behind closed doors, and resort to blame and hypocrisy when it is criticized.
Free speech happens in connection, in a multitude of voices contending, dissenting, arguing. So it only has meaning if there is someone listening. It is not free speech if you just rant and never listen to other points of view. Really listen, with compassion and understanding.
Free speech always tends towards reason and moderation, which is why fundamentalists cannot meaningfully take part in any broader dialogue in society. They can only imagine themselves as the outsiders, as the oppressed. If they actually listened to a voice of reason, they might learn something. Perhaps they might be able to contribute. Perhaps they might be able to join with the very many Australians who opposed the invasion of Iraq, and who turned out in their hundreds of thousands to peacefully protest the war.
And the statement from the IDCSA continues with more lies:
no part of that clip contain any call towards violence and/or friction between the non-Muslims and Muslims or multicultural communities in Australia. The lectures were delivered in relation to the Burmese Buddhist massacre of the Rohingya minority Muslims
No doubt the massacre of Rohingyas in Burma was one of the reasons the Buddhists got called in here. But the video is quite clearly calling for death to all Buddhists.
I remember a little story from when I was in grade 7 at Aquinas College in Perth. Our teacher, Brother McMahon, taught us all a particular way of ruling a page. He asked that we rule all out pages like that in future. The next day he was checking our homework, and saw that one of the students, James Toop, had not complied. He grabbed Toop, pulled him up to the front of class, and started whacking him with his strap. Toop started crying, and tried to talk, but couldn’t get a word in. When it was finished, he explained that he had been absent because sick the day before. Even while sick, he had called a friend to get the homework, and had done it all, but he didn’t know about the page ruling thing.
Terrible, right? So, we all thought Brother McMahon was a dickhead. But we knew well enough that this didn’t mean that all other teachers were dickheads. In primary school, we had learnt the basic moral lesson that if someone does something wrong, they are to blame for that, not everyone who is similar to them in some way.
But when hate burns like a wildfire, when reason exits and dogma reigns unchallenged, such elementary moral distinctions evaporate. Hussein and the IDCSA exhibit a moral consciousness that is more primitive than that of a primary school child. Thus the fact that some people who are Buddhists in Burma have done some dreadful things provokes a call for the death of all Buddhists (and Hindus and Jews and whoever else).
Finally, the inevitable blaming of media bias:
we would like to bring into question the reliability, independence and veracity of a media organisation like MEMRI TV, which has served as a mouthpiece for islamophobes
The IDCSA conveniently supply some links to back their claims up. I followed the links, and here is what they say.
The first link is to a page of the American radical political scholar Norman Finkelstein. The article says that MEMRI doctored a video interview to give the impression Finkelstein was a holocaust denier. A transcript is given, which shows which parts of the interview were kept and which were deleted. Check for yourself, but I can’t find anything in the deleted portions that would somehow construe Finkelstein as a holocaust denier. In fact, in the portion that was not deleted, he clearly says, “my parents passed through the Nazi holocaust. Every member of their families was exterminated during the war and I felt it was important to accurately represent what happened to them during the Nazi holocaust.”
Next there is an intelligent article in the Guardian, which discusses the political bias of MEMRI. The suggestion is essentially that MEMRI does not represent the full spectrum of political discourse in Arab countries, and should not be relied on as a sole source of information for Arab political discourse. There is no allegation that the videos themselves are untrustworthy; in fact at the bottom of the article they say that in the case in point—an allegation that Saddam Hussein cut the ears off deserters—there was independent confirmation.
Then there is a page on Sourcewatch. While repeating the criticism of biased selection, and various other specific criticisms, this also shows that MEMRI’s videos are widely cited.
The next link points to the Wikipedia page for MEMRI’s founder, Yigal Carmon. I am not sure what this aims to prove. Perhaps the fact that he is a Jew who has criticized jihadi extremists is, in the eyes of the IDCSA, sufficient to prove he cannot be trusted.
Next is a page on Counterpunch, where the author says regarding MEMRI: “Thus I specifically retract my allegation that the organization’s translations are questionable, and I apologize for my error.” He repeats the accusation of selective quoting. However, it seems even their critics acknowledge that the translations are correct. (The translation of the talk in Adelaide was independently confirmed by the Adelaide Advertiser.)
Thus of all the sources referred to by the IDCSA, none of them substantially show that MEMRI’s output is inaccurate. For an organization that disseminates information on such a controversial topic, some criticism is to be expected, and no doubt some is warranted. To leap from an accusation of selective quoting to try to argue away the incitement to genocide that was, quite clearly, spoken by Hussein in Adelaide, is utterly disingenuous.
So what is to be done? The shameful truth is that the answer to this is, not much. A principled and meaningful response by the Muslim community simply requires a consistent rejection of this kind of speech.
It seems that Hussein was kicked out of his former base, the Marion Mosque, because of his hate speech. Good on them. The IDCSA should follow this example. And if their leaders do not, the members should call a Special General Meeting, and have the sheikh and his supporters kicked out. This is what any Buddhist community in Australia would do. It is not too much to ask. If they do not do so, they should have their charitable status revoked, and to the fullest extent permissible by law, the SA and Federal Governments should shut them down.
And good on the principled Muslims like Director of the International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding Professor Pal Ahluwalia, who clearly and unambiguously slammed Hussein, saying
“The Sheikh has done his Muslim brothers and sisters no favours by preaching hate. Extremism in all of its forms is the natural enemy of truth – so every time this kind of extreme preaching makes headlines it obscures the reality of the strong, ethical, law-abiding, engaged and contributing Muslim Australians who are our neighbours and work colleagues, our class mates and friends. There are extreme groups across all religions and cultures and there are individuals who advocate violence and aggression for their own agendas. What people must remember is that just as Geert Wilders is not representative of all Dutch people or the Army of God does not speak for all Christians, so the extreme rants of one Sheikh do not reflect the views of all Muslims.”
Sadly, though, this voice is isolated. I have tried to find articulate responses from the more progressive of Australia’s Islamic community, and there is nothing here, here, here , here, or here. Perhaps I have missed things; if so, please let me know in the comments.
It is not hard to be honest. We must simply admit that some things done by people who adhere to our religion are bad. Here’s how to do it. There was a Buddhist mob in Burma a few days ago that attacked a police station and went on a rampage, led by three monks. They alleged that a Muslim man had raped a Buddhist woman. Their response was wrong. They should have supported the rule of law. The monks who led the mob should be disrobed, and criminal charges should be laid against them. In addition, the Burmese Sangha needs to give a clear and consistent message of harmony and understanding of difference.
See? Not that hard. I can do it, and so can the voices of the Islamic community. Bloggers, Imams, teachers, leaders, activists, scholars, humans with a voice: where is there someone who has the guts to stop blaming non-Muslims, and start taking responsibility for the acts of Muslims?