Chicago comic Azhar Usman tells a story of trying to convince his workmate to adopt the Islamic faith. The friend is reluctant. “I’m not a huge fan of organised religion,” the friend says. “Hey, man. You need to become an American Muslim,” Azhar responds. “We’re the most disorganised religion on earth!”
Australia is no exception. These days, if you’re an Aussie Muslim wishing to find out what’s going on in peak Muslim bodies or Muslim independent schools, you need to have a subscription to Crikey, The Australian (other than the opinion page, though opinion and reportage generally go together) or read a Fairfax paper or the Guardian Australia.
For instance, last week the Oz ran a piece on the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) headlined “Muslim leader stands down amid school brawl”. Apart from a court order, I couldn’t see much evidence of a “brawl” in the article. The headline seemed as outrageous as the 160-odd readers’ comments at the end, one of which read: “To soon? OK. I will try again after another slaughter of innocents on Australian soil.”
Good to see that comment passed the moderation guidelines of “anything prejudiced against any religion” and “inflammatory and which will not positively further debate”, not to mention “poor spelling”.
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AFIC’s own website provided little by way of clarification. You can download the latest edition of the group’s magazine (dated January 2015), the annual report from 2014 or catch up on the latest press release, from March 27, 2016, concerning the Brussels attack.
Anyway, back to the school brawl. It appears that the president of AFIC, Hafez Kassem, has resigned.
Kassem was relatively media shy. His replacement, however, doesn’t have that problem. Incoming president Keysar Trad is a man you have definitely heard of — unless you’ve just arrived on our planet.
Suffice it to say that Trad’s PR skills need some fine-tuning. More unkind folk may suggest the man is a walking, talking media stereotype. Seriously, every religion has its embarrassing bits. Which raises a simple question: why on earth does Keysar Trad have to bring up a proposal to change marriage laws to allow men to take on more than one mother-in-law?
Such as in 2008 when he told a journalist that he felt the urge to take on a second wife when his existing one was overseas. Or at the 2009 Festival of Dangerous ideas, when he spoke on why polygamy was good for Australia. Or in 2010, when he spoke about polygamy in the context of Centrelink payments. Or in 2012, when he argued laws should be changed to allow polygamy. Or, indeed, when he wrote on the topic for Crikey.
Back in those days, despite being the media’s go-to man for journalists too lazy to approach a woman for comment, Trad’s standing in Muslim circles was limited to being the president of the “Islamic Friendship Society”, which held regular meetings around his dinner table and whose members likely had the same surname.
But now Trad has hit the big time, able to spout his theories on polygamy as titular head of Australian Islam. True, AFIC doesn’t itself have the best reputation among governments and parents paying top dollar to send their kids to AFIC-run schools.
But more important is the problem that anything and everything to do with Islam is seen through the prism of national security, terrorism, radicalisation, etc. It’s a dangerous and divisive narrative that benefits extremists on all sides.
Is Keysar Trad someone who can meet the challenge of challenging the narrative, of defying the stereotype? Can he resist the urge to speak to every journalist who contacts him, to appear on every TV show, to comment on any and every controversy?