‘For all their silly rhetoric, they are actually doing something.’ Photograph: Paul Miller/AAP
Irfan Yusuf is author of the comic memoir Once Were Radicals: My Years As A Teenage Islamo-fascist (Allen & Unwin).
The fledgling Australian wing of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) held a conference on Sunday on the theme “Innocent Until Proven Muslim”. Some 800 people attended, with more women than men. Media outlets were present in full force until the very end, and seemed very happy with the free biryani on offer at lunch time. One female scribe even draped on a headscarf. It must have been the chilli.
It was the third such event I’ve attended, and the message is becoming oh so predictable. In past years , HT conferences have focussed on providing a rich array of rhetorical gymnastics on how “they” (the west, western leaders, the media etc) are attacking “us” (the Muslims, the Muslim world, HT etc). Samuel Huntington has died, but his spirit (or its equal and opposite) lives on in HT thinking.
So how do HT still get so much media attention? Didn’t we all receive an invisible memo after the Zaky Mallah/Q&A Affair that media organisations must not give attention to fringe groups? Apparently not. Both the Australian and Fairfax provided space for op-eds by HT spokesmen; with all the free exposure they get, it’s no wonder HT had a full house.
Apart from media coverage, what else inspired people to attend? Were they discussing plans for a Canberra caliphate? Or did they just want a free biryani and a selfie with John Safran? Some media outlets described the conference as a sell-out. Not a difficult feat when there was no entry fee.
Loud fringe elements among Aussie Muslims, like HT, attract some mainstream Muslims to their events for the same reasons loud fringe elements in the media attract the ears (and wag the tongues) of mainstream politicians and commentators.
By way of example, compare some elements of HT to Andrew Bolt. Like him, they are fringe in their own sector. But I doubt as many Muslims take HT’s caliphate nostalgia as seriously as Liberal voters do Bolt’s nostalgia for Tony Abbott.
Also, they both say ridiculous things about groups they don’t like. When HT generalise ad nauseam about “the West”, it sounds as silly as when Bolt rabbits on about the threats of Muslim and/or Lebanese and/or Sudanese migrants or about Indigenous Australians not being black enough.
HT and Bolt are equal and opposite ideological twins in so many ways. They feed off each other’s hysteria. If ideological mindsets could book a room in a hotel, they should, and spare the rest of us.
There is one crucial difference, though. HT has never been granted a regular column in a Muslim community newspaper in Australia. Or in a Turkish or Arabic or Urdu or Bahasa Indonesia or Bosnian newspaper. And the only time I hear an Imam make a public statement about HT is when a politician or media outlet makes a big deal about them.
HT seems to get more of a response from George Brandis or Scott Morrison than from the vast majority of Muslims. Yet it seems the allegedly conservative pollies and their media friends rarely said or did anything when HT spokesman Ismail Wahwah was caught making some genuinely offensive and anti-Semitic remarks. Perhaps they think fighting anti-Semitism is less important than forcing school kids to sing the national anthem.
And if the National Anthem is so important, why don’t the Andrew Bolts and Scott Morrisons and Steve Prices of this world fly to Nauru and sing it to Abyan and all the others we have locked up there.
Perhaps another reason groups like HT have some traction is because, for all their silly rhetoric, they are actually doing something. Peak Muslim bodies are too busy arguing with each other, or with Cory Bernardi about halal meat certification.
Instead of spending money on youth activities and mentoring, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils pays lawyers on disputed election results or runs schools named after Saudi kings.
The Australian National Imams Council has appointed a lovely and highly educated man as “Mufti”, who speaks through an interpreter. The Lebanese Muslim Association does not allow women to be full members. And media outlets continue to flock to Keysar Trad, despite his Islamic Friendship Association having few members not sharing his surname.
With a volunteer workforce of university students and young mothers (and spending their own funds) HT has published a 32-page booklet explaining how counterterrorism laws and deradicalisation policies and procedures may affect us all. They are following events in the UK, US, Canada and other Western countries.
That is more than what many “moderate” Muslim groups do. You don’t have to believe in Hizb ut-Tahrir’s caliphate to appreciate their effort.