Alawis will be Alawis

Iktimal Hage-Ali, an Alawi (or Nusayriyya as they are often termed in the classical Islamic texts) member of the now defunct Muslim Community Reference Group (MCRG), has been nominated as Young Australian of the Year.

After being nominated for the award in recognition of her supposed contributions to relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, she drank some alcohol to celebrate. Some Muslims are outraged.

Iktimal Hage-Ali, 22, has been targeted on Muslim websites for drinking alcohol and declining to wear the traditional hijab.

Her anonymous attackers condemned her after she drank the champagne to toast her award at the NSW Art Gallery last Thursday.

“It’s true, I was celebrating. Bloody hell, I had a glass of champagne in my hand – so what?” Ms Hage-Ali told The Daily Telegraph yesterday.

When somebody that has been held up by the media and politicians as a representative of Islam and Australian Muslims drinks alcohol in public and then scoffs at the reaction from the community she ostensibly represents, it’s understandable why some Muslims would be annoyed.

However, Ms Hage-Ali is an Alawi and so this is hardly surprising. The drinking of alcohol isn’t prohibited in their religion and even forms the basis of some of their religious ceremonies. As Daniel Pipes writes, Alawis seem closer to Christianity than Islam in this regard:

Some ‘Alawi doctrines appear to derive from Phoenician paganism, Mazdakism and Manicheanism. But by far the greatest affinity is with Christianity. ‘Alawi religious ceremonies involve bread and wine; indeed, wine drinking has a sacred role in ‘Alawism, for it represents God. The religion holds ‘Ali, the fourth caliph, to be the (Jesus-like) incarnation of divinity. It has a holy trinity, consisting of Muhammad, ‘Ali, and Salman al-Farisi, a freed slave of Muhammad’s. ‘Alawis celebrate many Christian festivals, including Christmas, New Year’s, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost , and Palm Sunday. They honor many Christian saints: St. Catherine, St. Barbara, St. George , St. John the Baptist, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Mary Magdalene. The Arabic equivalents of such Christian personal names as Gabriel, John, Matthew, Catherine, and Helen, are in common use. And ‘Alawis tend to show more friendliness to Christians than to Muslims.

For these reasons, many observers-missionaries especially-have suspected the ‘Alawis of a secret Christian proclivity. Even T. E. Lawrence described them as “those disciples of a cult of fertility, sheer pagan, antiforeign, distrustful of Islam, drawn at moments to Christianity by common persecution.” The Jesuit scholar Henri Lammens unequivocally concluded from his research that “the Nusayris were Christians” and their practices combine Christian with Shi’i elements.

Therefore, it is unreasonable to criticise an Alawi woman for acting in accordance with her own faith. Rather, Muslims should simply clarify the extent to which the Alawi faith is representative of normative Islamic ideas and practices and, based on that, the extent to which Ms Hage-Ali can rightly be seen as a representative of Islam or Muslims.

Of course, we can’t expect journalists to know these things or to have much of an interest in understanding them. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the Daily Telegraph dedicates not one, not two, not three but four articles today to defending Hage-Ali’s drinking. Strangely, they go so far as to hold up a willingness to drink alcohol as a sign of moderate Islam.

For example, journalist Luke McIlveen offers this in an op-ed:

To her credit, Iktimal told The Daily Telegraph yesterday she had enjoyed a drink in the past and probably would again.

It’s appalling that, in 2006, a young Muslim woman who has done so much for her community should be vilified for behaving like an Australian.

And then the editor of the paper weighs into the debate with this editorial:

In fact, she is a genuine representative of moderate Islam, speaking gently of her faith in an Australian accent. That extremists would shout her down for such offences as wearing make-up and sipping champagne identifies them as shockingly out of touch with not just moderate Islam but every aspect of modern Australia.

Columnist Piers Akerman goes further. When a person points out that Islam prohibits alcohol, Akerman responds:

Even that is questionable, the Koran has typically contradictory passages, and historically Muslims have used alcohol. In the so-called Golden Years of Islam. Perhaps they all need to get back on the booze.

If the Daily Telegraph think drinking alcohol is a sign of a good, moderate Muslim then I suspect they will find that the problem of ‘extremism’ is far worse than even they ever imagined.