Workshop five highlights

The fifth session of the National Imams Consultative Forum (NICF) was held over 8th – 9th March 2014 in Melbourne.  A total of 20 imams attended, including 5 from Victoria, 4 from New South Wales, 3 from Western Australia, 4 from Queensland, 2 from the Northern Territory and one each from South Australia and Tasmania.

The workshop was opened by Professor Akbarzadeh, Professor in Middle East & Central Asian Politics at Deakin University.

A welcome was given by Sheikh Abdul Azim al-Afifi, President of the Australian National Imams Council. Sheikh Abdul Azim stressed the importance of the NICF workshops and the continual attendance and participation of Imams from around Australia. Sheikh Abdul Azim shared a personal anecdote about a family in which a young father travelled to Syria to fight and died there, leaving his wife and two young children behind in Melbourne. He shared the many problems caused to the family left behind, including difficulties in obtaining a death certificate and accessing many services.

During the workshop participants heard from the following speakers:

Ms Clare Birgin, Director, Counter - Terrorism Policy, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade commenced her presentation by offering assistance to the grieving family Sheikh Abdul Azim mentioned. Ms Birgin gave an overview of the situation in Syria, which she described as currently the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, and the strong concern that the Australian government has for the people of Syria. She highlighted the number of deaths and damages caused, with hundreds of thousands of children traumatized and affected by the situation in Syria. Ms Birgin informed the participants of the humanitarian contribution Australia has made to support Syrian civilians.  Australia is among the leading countries in the world to have extended help and support by providing over $110 million dollars of humanitarian aid since 2011 to Syrian civilians and refugees, including food, water, shelter, and medical assistance. Ms Birgin addressed the legal issues of joining the conflict in Syria on either side and encouraged people who wish to aid or contribute to do so via humanitarian aid.  Organisations that are recommended for Syria in particular are the World Food Programme, UNICEF, and the World Health Organisation. There is currently no Australian Embassy in Syria, which makes it difficult to help Australians who travel there for humanitarian purposes but get into difficulties; hence, the Australian government discourages individuals from going to Syria for any reason.  Ms Birgin also proposed that a roundtable discussion could be held with other senior officials from DFAT.

Mr Andrew Zammit, Researcher, Monash Global Terrorism Research Centre addressed the involvement of Australians in the Syrian conflict. Mr Zammit gave a brief background to the Syrian conflict. Of the 10,000 foreign fighters who are estimated to have entered the conflict in Syria, around 100–150 are Australians. There have been 10 reported deaths of Australians in the conflict, most of whom appear to have been involved in an armed group in some capacity. Mr Zammit discussed possible motivations for travelling to Syria, including radicalisation through social media, the continuing prominence of the conflict and the failure to resolve it through diplomacy, and the promise of religious rewards. He concluded that for now, Australia might not be under threat, but this could change if jihadist groups in Syria begin to see fighting the West as a priority.

Imam Afroz Ali, Managing Director Seekers Hub Global – contributed a pre-recorded address to the NICF workshop, focusing on his personal experience of visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey. His first-hand account painted a complex picture of the events happening inside Syria, based on interviews with nearly 500 refugees. In particular, he noted that Syrians themselves do not support violent conflict as the best means for resolving the current situation. He also drew attention to political and financial motivations behind the activities of some armed groups in the conflict, and the complexity of the situation on the ground, which needs to be understood better by those at a distance from the conflict. Imam Afroz’s videocast may be found at this link, and a written report concerning his fact-finding visit may be found here.

Sheikh Shady Alsuleiman, Imam of United Muslims of Australia shared a personal perspective on the Syrian conflict and its impact on Australian Muslim youth, with particular attention to the New South Wales experience. Sheikh Shady noted his personal connection to Syria, having studied there for six years, and referred to the oppression faced by Sunni Muslims under the Assad regime. Sheikh Shady discussed the impact of the conflict on Australian Muslim youth, and acknowledged the intentions of many are to help the oppressed in Syria. However, the relative lack of awareness in Australia of the difficult conditions in Syria and other countries overseas may lead to simplistic assumptions about being able to participate in the conflict. Sheikh Shady also referred to the frustration felt by many that the international community has failed to bring an end to the conflict, despite the catastrophic loss of life.

Sheikh Shady encouraged his fellow Imams to cover topics such as jihad in sermons in order to correct misperceptions and present an authoritative perspective on the issue. He encouraged open debate and urged imams to listen to the aspirations and emotions expressed by young Muslims.  He mentioned that young people need alternative messages and particularly positive messages that point toward positive action. Sheikh Shady concluded his presentation by reflecting on the significant developments experienced by the Muslim community in Australia, with high hopes for what the future holds for the community and more broadly.

Associate Professor Halim Rane, Griffith University gave a presentation entitled ‘Challenging media stereotypes: suggestions for Muslim leadership’. Professor Rane commenced his presentation by noting that most Australians are quite sceptical of the media, and don't always believe what they see or read in the newspapers. This should be encouraging for Muslims, since most media coverage of Islam remains negative.  Professor Rane discussed common problems in media portrayal of Muslims, including stereotyping, generalisation, sensationalism, and a negative focus, as well as explaining some of the reasons why it tends to be this way.  This includes journalistic competition, a need to attract an audience, and lack of experience in dealing with the Muslim community.  Professor Rane suggested that Muslim leaders consider carefully when it is appropriate to respond to the media, and in what form.  He suggested that requests for interviews be referred to experienced, credible spokespeople who will relate to their audience.

Chief Superintendent Steve Cotter, Deputy National Coordinator, Prevent gave a presentation on the UK government’s approach towards violent extremism and terrorism in all its forms.  He reminded the audience that political extremism, including right-wing extremism, constitutes a significant element of the problem. Superintendent Cotter gave an overview of the range of interventions that the Prevent program uses, including at the ideological level, through presenting alternative viewpoints, utilising community mentors including imams, as well as redirecting young people’s energies towards activities such as sport within a supportive environment. He also addressed the experience of Prevent with the Syrian issue, noting the importance of discouraging individuals from going to Syria to fight both from a legal perspective as well as in order to prevent harm being done to them or their families.  He encouraged all those who would like to help to do so via humanitarian aid.

Associate Professor Mohamad Abdalla, Griffith Islamic Research Unit, Griffith University, gave an overview of some of the issues faced recently by the Muslim community in Queensland, in particular with regard to Australians travelling to Syria. He underscored the importance of a united and consistent approach among community leaders, especially in dealing with security agencies, in order to counter negative community perceptions. Queensland Imams have agreed to collectively meet and discuss crucial issues and make joint statements.  Professor Abdalla concluded by stressing the importance of having discussions as a community in order to take a clear and open stance on issues including fighting in Syria. During discussion support was expressed for a clearer public stance to be articulated on issues such as Syria, by imams who have expertise in the area.

Workshop 5 NICF Statement

The Imams present discussed the situation in Syria and agreed to release a statement condemning the continued violence and advising Australians not to travel to Syria to fight, but rather to donate money and engage in the political process to seek an end to the conflict.

The statement can be found at the following link.

Future Directions of NICF

Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh led a discussion on the future of the Forum. All imams expressed the view that the continuation of the NICF is desirable and beneficial. The unanimous decision was for the NICF to continue into the foreseeable future. A number of ideas for future directions were put forward, and there was general consensus that future activities should strive to go beyond the imams’ forums and reach out to involve and engage with Muslim youth, the community at large.  Such activities would be conducted in other states, with a number of imams volunteering to take responsibility for coordinating activities in their state. The imams also expressed interest in conducting the next NICF workshop in Canberra, which will provide an opportunity to meet government officials and members of Parliament.