Daniel Emerson, Amanda Banks And Belle Taylor, Courtesy of West Australian, 6 August 2010
A leading WA Muslim has risked a backlash from his community by calling on the winner of the Federal election to ban the wearing of burqas in public. Ameer Ali, an economics lecturer at Murdoch University and vice-president of the Regional Islamic Council of South-East Asia and the Pacific, makes the call in an opinion article in The West Australian today.
Dr Ali, describes the burqa and similar robe the niqab as “the lingering relics of a patriarchal, misogynistic and tribal culture” and argues there is no religious obligation in the Koran for it to be worn. The native Sri Lankan, who arrived in Australia in 1977, argues that the niqab – which covers the entire female body apart from a split gap for the eyes – and the burqa, which has a mesh instead of a gap, not only covers a Muslim woman’s anatomy but also “governs her mindset”. He argues the rise of Islamism, or political Islam, combined with “liberal immigration policies of Western governments”, has increased the worldwide spread of the garments, which make it impossible for the wearer to properly interact with others around them.
Dr Ali, who was the chairman of the Howard government’s Muslim advisory council, said yesterday he was prepared for an angry backlash from some sections of the Muslim and wider community. But he felt compelled to speak out and not “pander to the whims of political correctness”. He said he had received anonymous threats in the past after airing similarly contentious views on Islam. “Of course they will create all sorts of personal attacks but you see I am not attacking the religion. I am attacking the culture,” Dr Ali said.
He called on the major political parties to make banning the burqa a bipartisan issue. “France, the Netherlands and Belgium have legislated. Even Syria has disallowed this dress from public space,” he said. Former Ethnic Communities Council of WA president and multiculturalism advocate Suresh Rajan said he agreed the Koran did not prescribe that women wear a burqa, but banning the garment would criminalise otherwise lawful cultural behaviour.
A spokesman for Tony Abbott said the Opposition Leader found the burqa “confronting” but had no plans to ban it if he won office. A spokesman for Social Inclusion Minister Simon Crean said the matter was still before the courts.
ADDITIONAL ITEM FROM 2006: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/religionreport/stories/2006/1760378.htm
Stephen Crittenden: Welcome to The Religion Report.
We faced a dilemma this morning. We had almost 50 minutes of material but only 28 minutes to broadcast in the program. Among other things, I’ve got a lovely interview for you about Jack Straw, and Muslim women wearing the veil, but we’ll have to hold it over till next week. I think you’ll understand why in a few minutes.
A couple of weeks back it was the Pope who apologised for upsetting Islam, and this week he’s even gone so far as to alter the text of the lecture he delivered at Regensberg, adding in some nice remarks about Islam and the Qur’an.
Well now it’s the turn of Dr Ameer Ali to apologise for offending Islam. It’s been a difficult few days for Dr Ali, who chairs the Prime Minister’s Muslim Reference Group. Last week, in an interview in The Australian newspaper, he suggested that the Qur’an needed to be interpreted for a modern Australian context, and that Muhammad of Mecca was a human being who was not perfect.
The Mufti of Australia, Sheikh Hilaly responded by comparing Dr Ali’s remarks with Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. We set our watches to wait for Dr Ali’s retraction, and lo and behold, by Monday, Dr Ali was expressing regret for the offence that had been caused, affirming in a most humble manner that Islam and its prophet are perfect, and repeating the comments he made on this program a few weeks ago, that Australia is a Muslim country.
I asked Dr Ali whether it had been a difficult few days.
Ameer Ali: Indeed, indeed it was.
Stephen Crittenden: You say you were inundated by angry calls and emails.
Ameer Ali: Oh lots of them. These are things to be expected once you are working for the community.
Stephen Crittenden: Well tell us about that; what did they say?
Ameer Ali: Well it’s a mixed reception. You see when you have a telephone conversation, you can’t explain everything that you want to explain on certain delicate issues. So one has to be careful, but once you go on talking to a journalist, now and then certain words can slip through and journalists being what they are, they try to get mileage out of those words, and that’s what happened, and that was misunderstood by a lot of people, but some people understood what I said, so matters are now cooling down.
Stephen Crittenden: Well you say the comments attributed to you last week in The Australian were deeply offensive to all Muslims; are you saying that the mistake in the article was made by you, or was it made by The Australian‘s journalist, Richard Kerbaj.
Ameer Ali: The whole thing is a mixture there because after all, some words come from me, some words put on by the journalist, so it’s a mixed picture; I don’t want to put blame on anybody, and if I have been going to look at something for this whole mishap, I take the blame for it.
Stephen Crittenden: Are you saying you got Islam wrong?
Ameer Ali: No, no, not at all. I still believe in my religion, the prophet is the most perfect model, but I really don’t want to go into all those details now. We’ll leave it at the first one.
Stephen Crittenden: Did you get any calls or emails from people to support you?
Ameer Ali: Yes, some people support my views, and lots of people don’t agree with me, so that’s fair enough. You can’t expect 20-million people to agree with me, on anything in this country.
Stephen Crittenden: It’s their democratic right not to?
Ameer Ali: It’s democratic, exactly. They have their perfect right, they have a perfect right to criticise me if I am wrong, and those who think that I’m right, okay they telephone and say that Dr Ali, you have taken a good stand and that’s it, that’s the other matter.
Stephen Crittenden: When the Mufti, Sheikh Hilaly criticised you last week, he compared your words to what Salman Rushdie said in The Satanic Verses; did you take that as a threat?
Ameer Ali: No, no, I met the Mufti, I explained to him what happened, then he said, Well, it’s all media played it out, and actually he wanted to withdraw his comments after I’d spoken to him, but it was too late.
Stephen Crittenden: So you’ve withdrawn your comments, and he’s withdraw his?
Ameer Ali: The Mufti wanted to withdraw his comments about me soon after I explained to him on that very same day, but by the time he got in touch with the media people it was too late and it had gone to press.
Stephen Crittenden: Of course there was a death sentence issued by the Ayatollah Khomeni against Salman Rushdie, wasn’t there, that’s what everyone remembers.
Ameer Ali: No, no, no, I think that is too – you can’t go to that extent, I don’t think, there’s nothing of that sort in Australia.
Stephen Crittenden: Of course there couldn’t be, because I assume if there was, the person making a threat like that would find themselves pretty quickly arrested.
Ameer Ali: We’ve gone through this, I don’t want to go over this once again.
Stephen Crittenden: Let me ask you this: is it possible that what happened last week when you made your comments about the Qur’an and Muhammad, is that in a sense you were thinking aloud, and inventing your own Islam, because the real Islam, official Islam is difficult for Muslims in a country like Australia?
Ameer Ali: No, no. Not at all. I’m not inventing anything. In fact the Mufti agreed with me that as time moves on, we need to interpret things, and so it’s an ongoing process. There’s nobody inventing anything in Islam. Islam is Islam, the Qur’an is the intact, and doctrine is all there, you can only interpret it, you can’t remove it, or you can’t add to it. You can only interpret it.
Stephen Crittenden: So what’s your relationship with Sheikh Hilaly now?
Ameer Ali: Very, very friendly; we are very close. That’s it. I met him last night.
Stephen Crittenden: And what did he have to say?
Ameer Ali: I had dinner with him last night. In his house, in fact.
Stephen Crittenden: Everything’s dandy.
Ameer Ali: Everything is OK. There’s nothing between us.
Stephen Crittenden: And what about your ongoing status in the Muslim community? Are you going to be, do you think, making up for those comments for some time to come?
Ameer Ali: My position is I’m an individual in the whole community. The stronger the community trusts me and they believe me, I’ll do whatever the community wants. I’ll lead them. If they don’t trust me, I’m out of it. That’s it. It’s a democratic country, nobody has the divine right to lead any community in this country.
Stephen Crittenden: Thank you very much for being on the program, yet again.
Ameer Ali: Thank you.
Stephen Crittenden: I don’t know about you, but I had the peculiar sensation that I was interviewing two Dr Alis there.