24 hours in the Australian media

It’s been a busy week for the Australian media when it comes to reporting Islamic issues. Following the initial report in The Australian of Sheikh Taj’s speech, there has been a tsunami of coverage as each outlet has sought to offer a new and different perspective or insight on the events that are unfolding in Sydney’s south west. Events, we might add, that have culminated in the news that Sheikh Taj was taken away by paramedics a short while ago.

With all this excitement, it’s perhaps understandable that some mistakes creep into media reports. So here’s a snapshot from the last 24 hours.

Exhibit A

In reporting the supposed meeting to decide Sheikh Taj’s future, the Sydney Morning Herald informs its readers that the LMA would be calling an umma. They write (emphasis added):

The Herald believes the plan, thrashed out at a closed-door meeting of the Lebanese Muslim Association on Saturday, was devised after discussion of several options. They include the staging of an umma – a national consultative process – to determine whether the sheik should be stripped of his title of Mufti of Australia and New Zealand….That can be done only through an umma, which may take several days or weeks to organise because it involves clerics, Sunni and Shiite, from every state and New Zealand….While declining to confirm any decision to stage an umma…

An umma, readers of the SMH are advised, is “a national consultative process” that could take “several days or weeks to organise.” However, as any Muslim would know, the umma refers to the body of Muslims: that is, it refers to the global community of believers in Islam rather than a process, consultative method or approach. I suspect what they mean is shura or perhaps someone said, “the ummah will decide Sheikh Taj’s future” and the media got confused.

Exhibit B

The second example comes from the Sunday Telegraph. As everybody, including the Telegraph, knows, Keysar Trad is the spokesman for Sheikh Taj, is not a cleric and doesn’t live in Melbourne. Despite that, the Sunday Telegraph report:

Victorian cleric Keysar Trad, no stranger himself to inflammatory tirades, explained Sheik Alhilaly apologised “because there was a clear ambiguity that people who do not have a clear understanding of the religion (wouldn’t appreciate) … It’s not a message that applies to people who are not Muslim”.

Exhibit C

The third example is somewhat less obvious and comes from The Australian. Rebecca Weisser, a freelance writer, has a piece called “Hilali’s Radical Mentor” in which she attempts to make an ideological connection between Sheikh Taj and Sayyid Qutb. Fair enough, I suppose. But then she writes:

Qutb’s writings have been translated into every language in the Islamic world. During the 1960s and 70s he was translated into the Afghan language of Dari and his ideas became popular at the University of Kabul. They are said to have influenced the Taliban.

The Taliban are Pashtun and speak Pashtun. Dari is Farsi (Persian) and so it isn’t a language that most Taliban would understand. Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, didn’t go to the University of Kabul but was educated in Quetta and Kandahar. That Qutb’s ideas may have been popular amongst Persian-speaking Afghan students in the 60s and 70s has no relevence whatsoever to the emergence of the Taliban movement in the early 90s. Lastly, is there any evidence at all that the Deobandi, Afghan-centric Taliban were ever influenced by the pan-Islamic writings of Sayyid Qutb?

Exhibit D

And whilst we are talking about Sayyid Qutb, Piers Akerman wrote the following in the Daily Telegraph yesterday:

It draws heavily from the writings of Sayyid Qutb, Islam’s most influential thinker…

Though Alhilaly has claimed to have left the Muslim Brotherhood, he is an acknowledged admirer of Qutb’s philosophy and has spoken admiringly of his views on the Arabic language Voice of Islam radio station. Qutb’s works are also accepted as being the principal philosophy behind Osama bin Laden’s medieval attacks on the West and the driving ideology behind al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Jemaah Islamiah.

Islam’s most influential thinker? Hardly. There’s no doubt that Sayyid Qutb has had an influence in some quarters but to put him above figures such as al-Ghazzali, Ibn Qayyim, Ibn Taymeeyah, or even Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahab (whose ideology, unlike Qutb’s, begot a modern state) in terms of influence is just absurd. Likewise, it is absurd to conflate the Indonesian-based JI, al-Qaeda and the Taliban as sub-expressions of some common Qutbist ideology.

As many people have pointed out, al-Qaeda may have been given sanctuary under Taliban rule but the two are inspired by very different, and even competing, ideologies and goals. To name one such difference, the Taliban are Deobandi and strict followers of the Hanafi madhab; whereas al-Qaeda, for the most part, are not followers of any madhab and would consider aspects of the Deobandi creed to be — and let’s be diplomatic — highly problematic.

Exhibit E

Although outside the 24 hour window, let’s look at one last example. On the 28th October, the Sydney Morning Herald would inform its readership that:

After returning from the US, Qutb formed the Muslim Brotherhood before being imprisoned. He was executed in Egypt in 1966. Egyptian-born Sheik Hilaly was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood but said he left it because it became too extremist. “Sheik Hilaly does not regard the West as evil and has regularly condemned terrorist attacks,” Mr Trad said.

Whilst we hate to appear nit-pickers, the Muslim Brotherhood was formed before Sayyid Qutb left for the US. It was formed in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna. Of course, one would have to consult obscure sources like, say, Wikipedia to find this little tidbit so we don’t blame them for getting it so wrong.