Extended comment: On the extreme ugliness of fanatics of all kinds…

20 Jan

Commenting on yesterday’s entry On the extreme ugliness of fanatics of all kinds… Lexcen wrote:

Ninglun, M. Fethullah Gülen may be an enlightened and noble thinker. As a non-Muslim I applaud his views. Of course, Islam is not a religion controlled by a strict hierarchy like Christian Catholicism. Islam is as fluid and malleable to opinions and views of extremists.

Whilst we talk and debate about the true nature of Islam, we may ignore or disregard the permeations of the ideology of the Wahabi school of Islam* from Saudi Arabia. The Wahabi have virtually unlimited financial resources and do export literature, preachers and doctrine around the world through Mosques and Wahabi financed schools. I do not fear the majority of Muslims. But, this attitude does make us complacent and allows us to turn a blind eye to the menace of the ideology of Jihad that stems from the Wahabi camp.

* See that Wikipedia article for this and other relevant terms and links.

I began a reply that grew and grew…

It is true that Islam has no formal structure such as the Catholic Church has, and no single voice. However, we clearly need to be aware whenever we say “Muslims” we are probably displaying a degree of ignorance which must be offensive to those who may be our best hope. Muslims will not give up fifteen hundred years of civilisation just to please us, or because we say so.

The Sauds came to power through the Wahabis, and US-Saudi relations make an interesting study, don’t they? Other interests — oil obviously the most significant — have led to much being overlooked. But you have obviously studied all this too.

All Muslims, except maybe for those whose numbers we can only guess at who are not especially religious, accept the notion of jihad, or “struggle”. The interpretation of that word and what behaviour is covered by it (or not) is something Muslims argue about among themselves.

Mind you, consider “Onward Christian Soldiers” and the military imagery in Paul’s epistles, and the whole Church Militant tradition, not always benign and metaphorical.

I am not advocating complacency. I am advocating a better understanding of the complexity of Muslim life and culture, about which we have been ignorant simply because until recently it didn’t concern us all that much. Now it does, we really do need to discourage the kinds of response reflected in the comments on Antony’s blog. Did you read them? That was what I was really addressing, a much smaller issue than Islam at large. We are not responsible for what Muslims believe, but we are responsible for what we say about them.

We certainly should frame our condemnation of extremists like Sheik Feiz Mohammed, and I am sure we would not disagree about him, in a way that does not actually assist him (and people like him) by overgeneralising from his position to the whole of the religion, thereby confirming his position that “they” all hate Islam. I am not accusing you of that, but I do know people, and have heard even more, who immediately think his views are those of something like 25-30% of the world’s population.

That is why I balanced my condemnation of him with my praise for Gülen. I try to do this all the time.

shsislamBy knowing about Gülen and people like him we may be able even to influence some of those who are also being targeted by the extreme groups you have indicated. I was in exactly that position at my school a couple of years ago, and made it my business to support, and sit in on, meetings of the school’s Islamic Students’ Society. (That’s one of their posters on the right.) They made me very welcome. When these issues came up I opened my mouth and pointed them to alternative views or suggested how other people might react to some of what they were proposing. I also introduced them to an old friend of mine, a Muslim convert (the one I call The Mufti of Watsons Bay in this blog), who is very much in the Sufi/pacific tradition. Naturally, I listened too. I hope to have done a little good, and I am not exaggerating when I say some of those boys I worked with were being exposed to the extreme teachings we all fear. That is a fact.

I am being careful too not to give the impression that what I did was big or important, but it taught me a lot. (I know the boss was duly grateful, because there was some colourful publicity in the press and on TV about our school at the time. On that see on the Big Archive The Mine and the Islamists: cause for concern? and 7.30 Report: The Mine and the Islamists. “The [Salt] Mine” was my personal blog code for Sydney Boys High.) All this was happening of course post-Bali and post-London.

My old ESL blog on Tripod was in 2005 called the “Sydney Boys High English and ESL Blog” and was one of my means of communication with staff and students. I changed its name when I retired. You might note what I put up there after the London bombings on Friday, 8 July 2005. For convenience, here is that entry with a few notes:

Friday, 8 July 2005


— photo by Derek Langley

O God of many names
Lover of all nations
We pray for peace
in our hearts
in our homes
in our nations
in our world
The peace of your will
The peace of our need.

— George Appleton, The Oxford Book of Prayer (Oxford University Press, 1985)

It is opportune to revive another archive from pages I deleted [on the SBHS ESL Blog] a short time ago when the site name changed [from SBHS to Neil Whitfield’s English and ESL Blog — that’s how I told the boss I intended to retire at the end of 2005!]

Back in September 11 2004 I put this in the Sydney High newsletter and on this site:

Good thought space.

"I would like to stress that any terrorist activity, no matter who does it and for what purpose, is the greatest blow to peace, democracy, humanity, and all religious values. For this reason, no one — and certainly no Muslim — can approve of any terrorist activity. Terror has no place in one’s quest to achieve independence or salvation. It costs the lives of innocent people." – Fethullah Gülen – one of Turkey’s most well-known and respected scholars.


I went to the Islamic Students’ Thursday meeting with the Gülen quote to discuss what I would put on the blog the next day about London. They thought the quote was great. They said they felt supported because someone was publicly saying not all Muslims are bombers. A couple of days earlier I had posted Amin Maalouf: It is up to the writers of the six continents to strike the right notes…. I should add I always printed a copy of the blog as well and posted it on a notice board outside my office. Some entries were also printed in the school newsletter. The boys did read them and it gave us a starting point for what I hope was useful discussion.

Look, I am not sure how much I really achieved, and certainly don’t want to exaggerate my part in all this. I was just one influence among many, but there were conversations over that year or two that encouraged me and confirmed that listening and learning was the way to go and that the response of many of the public and of certain elements in the media has been unfortunate when not actually disgraceful.

Colleagues in ESL in other schools faced similar challenges, more difficult in many places. The boys I was dealing with were very intelligent and comparatively open-minded. I also kept in mind my own religiosity at sixteen. It helped keep things in proportion.

Nor was I alone. One of the Maths staff was a Muslim convert, and very much respected by the boys. No-one less fond of the Wahabi view could be imagined. One of the group’s leaders, a boy from Iraq and a good soccer player too, was also a moderating influence, spending much time sharing his enthusiasm for the beautiful Persian Sufi poem The Conference of the Birds and his quite extraordinary knowledge of Islamic art and culture. (He was in Years 11 and 12 at the time. I see late last year he wrote this on a Sydney Islamic site. We all should read it. It is very moving.*) Some of the group were also prominent in debating and cricket and other activities around the place. Academically they tended to be first-rate. They were an interesting group, but yes the extremists were onto some of them, as you would have seen in those Blogspot entries. There is no doubt too that among them are very likely future leaders of Sydney’s Muslim community. The very fact that they got off their butts post 9-11 to organise an Islamic Students’ Society is an indication of that, and there was more leadership potential in that group of kids than you could poke a stick at. Just about everyone agreed on that.

So that’s what I did for the War on Terror, if ever any of my nephews/nieces were to ask me, “Uncle, what did you do in the War?” 😉 The thing is I learned so much from it myself.


It is possible some of the boys I was talking about will read this entry. If any of you do, your comments would be welcome.

For an in-depth approach to many of the dilemmas we face, see Depolarizing a Hostile World – A Key to Peacemaking by Charles Notess, a freely available e-book:

The book is an interdisciplinary resource that aims to broaden conceptual frameworks to help persons with diverse backgrounds understand and appreciate why they differ. I discuss causes of polarization and how to reduce polarization. I summarize successful examples of people from diverse cultures working together, sharing experiences, broadening their perspectives, and contributing to peacemaking. In this way they will get to appreciate the perspectives of others and will be better equipped to create a more peaceful world at home and abroad.

Charles Notess is a retired research aeronautical engineer from Colorado who began this project in 2001 and has continued to revise it. I find it very good.

After retiring, I volunteered with a social service agency (Weld Information and Referral Service) and with local economic development and church development organizations in Weld County, Colorado. These latter experiences made me sensitive to the variety of responses to polarization. Close interactions with ethnic and racial minorities before and after retirement helped me appreciate the mix of social, economic, and ideological forces acting upon citizens and to recognize the different ways people respond to the stresses of rapid social and cultural change.

The disaster of 9-11-01 motivated me to learn about Islam, to seek answers to the question, “Why Do They Hate US?” and to lead senior adult classes, in the Ft. Collins and Loveland, Colorado Senior Centers, based upon books Islam in America by Jane Smith, When Religion Becomes Evil by Charles Kimball, and many others. I have given talks to help Americans understand better the variety of approaches to Islam and to Christianity.

A real contribution, which I have mentioned several times before.

And then there was Cronulla

Dear to my heart, this one, given I lived out that way for 25 years. The famous riots capped my last really active year at SBHS. Another challenge. You can follow what I made of it here. An entry for 12 December 2005 is relevant to this entry.

Since I am at work today, I dropped in at lunchtime on the Islamic Students’ Society. They have had the occasional bit of controversy around them, as you may see above. I was interested to see what they, as intelligent teenage Muslim boys, felt about Cronulla and all that.

The gangs like the one(s) that have been causing trouble for years in Cronulla they utterly reject. “Leb arseholes.” (They mean of course those indulging in antisocial behaviour in groups in public. None of these young Muslims I spoke to today could be accused of bad manners, inconsideration, insensitivity, racism or sexism. But then they are confident, intelligent, and genuinely religious.) “Some of them are really bad people.” (That from a boy who knows the Lakemba/Campsie/Punchbowl area well.) As much to do with Islam as the Hells’ Angels are to do with Christianity. Definitely not practitioners of Islam. “They worry us as much as they worry you.”

The boys have heard around the traps that more bad things are going to happen…

I told them the Uniting Church in Redfern had prayed yesterday for tolerance and understanding between Muslims and other Australians. They told me the same had happened in their mosques. Let us all get behind those prayers. And reach out in friendship and respect.

They forgave me for growing up in Cronulla. 😉

* I have posted more about this student, Ali, on my English and ESL blog: A voice you just can’t ignore.

Monday 22 January 2007

Someone happened to visit Suzuki and Jones trounce Mufti as readers vote with their brains! early this morning, reminding me that there I mentioned Isis’ Guide to Sensible Islam Posting:

1. Learn to distinguish a news-worthy entry from the “Daily-Muslim-Outrage” (DMO) post.
2. Give Humanist Muslims their due.
3. Find new sources of information about the Muslim Community – especially in the United States.
4. Avoid the use of derogatory terms when discussing Islam, Mohammed and Muslims.
5. Reading Robert Spencer’s latest book or citing “the Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam” does not make you an Islamic scholar.
6. Consider that ex-Muslims do not offer completely untainted views of their religion.

Isis, you may recall, is a conservative Republican!

See also iMuslim (Tuesday, January 16, 2007).

Why should we be scared of debate? Bring it on, i say. But, the real problem here is not that non-Muslims are talking about us – it’s that we cannot easily talk back! Debate is a two-sided venture, but these programmes are notoriously one-sided; interviews with Muslim leaders are hacked to pieces to be used as evidence against them in the court of public opinion. Live debate is the best way to go, but how much justice can be done to such huge topics in the space of an hour?

I suppose one problem is, as many Muslims know, that those who speak on our behalf, do not speak on our behalf. Muslims, in the UK alone, are an extremely heterogeneous group. I myself do not subscribe to any particular movement or sect, and have little idea what umbrella organizations such as the MCB stand for.

Read the comments there too.

Do read Mossie Matters, Aussie Matters on my Big Archive (Tuesday, August 16, 2005).

NOTE: Now you can read chunks of Amin Maalouf — enough to get his drift — on Google Books: In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong.

Site Meter


Tags: ,

11 responses to “Extended comment: On the extreme ugliness of fanatics of all kinds…

  1. ninglun

    January 24, 2007 at 11:28 pm

    Thanks for replying, Ben, but you have probably put your finger on something tactical there that I really have a problem with, which makes me lean towards Renegade Eye’s view perhaps more than yours. I can’t help recalling what must be ancient history: the shifting tactical alliances of the Spanish Civil War, the Hitler-Soviet pact and its reversal, Tito in Yugoslavia, Hungary, Prague, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China, Pol Pot, and a whole list of other scenarios where the hard left here and in other western countries found itself caught in impossible positions and on the wrong side because misconceived tactical analyses prevented them being really honest about what was going on, for fear the Right would benefit, and the result? The Right benefited.

    I may of course be wrong…

%d bloggers like this: