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In Muslim Australia, loyalty is a fleeting aberration and disunity is the status quo. The federal government makes overtures to the community as it grapples with fundamentalist influences and the shadowy presence of radicalisation but, in truth, it is as unlikely to find a true whole-of-community leader as are Muslims.
There isn’t one. There are the pretenders, the charismatic but unlearned Islamic scholars, the conscientious and the symbolic. The Grand Mufti is largely silent and considered elitist by his own constituency and the peak body for Muslims, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, is a disaster bordering on farce. The two, once intertwined, are no longer on speaking terms.
There are the powerbrokers and the wannabes, though no arrangement lasts very long. Allegiances are fragile and forever shifting.
“This whole Catholic business of ‘take me to your leader’ is nonsense in Islam,” Monash University Global Terrorism Research Centre acting director Gary Bouma says.
“The way Islam is organised, it has no hierarchy, particularly in Sunni Islam. Shia Muslims have some more organisational moments but they are a much smaller proportion of Muslims in Australia. They are radically Baptist, radically congregationist.
“They come from 63 different backgrounds. Sydney has a lot of Lebanese and some Turks but in Melbourne there are more Turks. Each mosque is on its own, each imam is on his own. There are loose associations, and that’s about it.”
Power is gained and lost on two fronts: control of money and religious authority, granted by the masses.
The institutions, like AFIC, that have control of the money-making schools and halal certification guard their investments jealously. Civil wars have been fought in the community over this control and it is this that lies at the heart of AFIC’s misery.
Few will go on the record to discuss its perceived dysfunction but respected members of the Muslim community are united, at last, on their derision for it. “It is a disgrace,” says one. Another tells Inquirer it should be “wiped from the landscape” and another still says its powerbrokers “have come from other countries, they don’t understand democracy”.
It’s a curious barb, fleshed out by the startling willingness of others to explain many of AFIC’s decision-makers are “subcontinental Muslims”. This, they say, explains much.
The body’s desperation to hold on to power is obvious from its deliberate battles with its own member organisations.
Those who have angered it have been kicked out or banned, and lovingly anointed new groups are created to become the “official” new state member.
In its history, AFIC has kicked out the Islamic Council of NSW only to have the decision overturned in court, kicked it out again and replaced it with the Muslim Council of NSW, which in turn was suspended and replaced with Muslims NSW whose president, Amjad Mehboob, is an AFIC veteran and its former chief executive.
AFIC has suspended the body in Queensland — despite the constitution having no such provision — and repeatedly tried to force the hand of the Islamic Council of Victoria.
Mehboob, the man many allege is actually running AFIC and who is officially its spokesman, is not inclined to answer pointy questions about its management.
But he spoke at length with Inquirer to settle matters against those he perceived had wronged him.
“People are saying all kinds of things, that we are siphoning money out of the schools, that we are deceiving the government, that we are funding terrorists,” he says.
“These are outrageous claims.”
Relations between Mehboob’s AFIC and the Australian National Imams Council have broken down and are irreparable, at least while the current personalities remain in play.
“We have very little if any relationship with the Imams Council,” Mehboob says.
“We are not happy with all the policies and some of the things they are doing. They don’t consult us and we leave them alone.”
Mehboob declines to go into detail about what policies, specifically, his organisation dislikes, only to add: “I don’t want to go into that, it is not very productive.”
The Grand Mufti of Australia, Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, has not responded to requests for an interview.
A predecessor, Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, a polarising figure at best during his tenure, when he was accused of Holocaust denial, blaming women for rape and investigated over alleged funding of Hezbollah (later dropped), has been more forthcoming.
“(Muslim leadership) suffers from failure and deficiency as a result of the external and internal obstacles and challenges. It is no different from the rest of the Islamic leadership inside and outside the Muslim world,” he says.
“In Australia, there is no central general leadership that can influence the Australian Muslim community nor is there one that (genuinely) shares in government decisions for Australia.”
He joins almost every other person in the Muslim community in saying the peak national body needs reform and gently unravels the ineffectiveness of the Australian National Imams Council.
“Each one of these imams submits to the Islamic society or association that pays his salary and is therefore unable to go against his committee,” he says.
“The only good thing this body did is that it has brought together a number of imams from diverse nationalities. However, they are not able to agree on matters that unite the community.
“There is no doubt that they serve their local community by promoting awareness of the teachings of Islam and also on social matters.”
Hilali’s time in power was a significant headache for the federal government. He was unpredictable and a firebrand, two of the worst political combinations possible.
Despite being re-elected to the position, Hilali stepped down in 2007 and was replaced by Sheik Fehmi Naji El-Imam before the ANIC elected Mohammed.
Mohammed is known as a bridge-builder by government, but his constituency is wary of his approach. “There are some in the community who see him as a government tool,” one leader says.
“The whole Imams Council is probably the body most severed from its community. I think the government is happy with a figurehead who is not very noisy but he is just a figurehead; and if the government expects traction in the community from a figurehead they are delirious.”
To understand the divisions in the community, it is instructive to follow the money. After the oil boom, Saudi Arabia spent almost $100 billion exporting ultraconservative Wahhabism throughout the world, including to Australia.
The money helped build schools, mosques, prayer halls and other Islamic infrastructure for what were then relatively new but growing settler populations.
King Fahd gave millions — Mehboob says it was $2 million, other reports suggest $12m — to the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils in the 1980s and they named their Sydney school, Malek Fahd, for him.
Sydney man Shafiq Khan became the Saudi point-man in Australia, funnelling $120m into various projects throughout the country, but particularly in Sydney. He was on the Saudi payroll then and Mehboob says he believes he still is.
“He was a religious guide for AFIC, that is why he came to Australia, and after three or four years he was asked to leave (the organisation),” Mehboob says. “The Saudi ambassadors would go and visit him in person. He is still getting that salary today.”
Khan’s influence waned at the turn of the century, however, when he was forced out of the halal certification market after a court case that alleged he had steered $1m from the Supreme Islamic Council of Halal Meat in Australia to his own projects, including Al Faisal College which he founded.
Khan paid more than $1m to the council as part of a settlement and his opponents took control of the body.
Enter the World Muslim League, a global organisation funded by the Saudi regime that bolsters Islamic settler communities with the Wahhabi ideology so favoured by the kingdom.
The WML general secretary, Abdallah Ben Abdel Mohsen al-Turki, flew to Australia in late 2013 to hold a conference, organised in shambolic fashion by AFIC.
The ordeal did not start well as Turki’s entourage was met at the Sydney airport VIP lounge.
“They said they only wanted to be met by two people and (AFIC president) Hafez Kassem started yelling and screaming because he wanted more people with him,” one person familiar with the blow-up says.
The conference was boycotted by community groups and the Grand Mufti — none of whom regard AFIC in any high esteem — but they were all present at a dinner held by Shafiq Khan.
Now here was an influential man, Turki began to believe.
Last year, in secret, Turki and a panel of influential leaders — many of whom are supporters of or loyal to Khan — signed the Mecca Charter, which sought to invest in and divide the profits of halal certification in Australia.
Inquirer understands the signatories are yet to push the button on this agreement but it may well kickstart the fortunes of Khan when they do. Leadership, as ever, comes back to the money.
The Lebanese Muslim Association, one of the largest single Muslim associations in the country, did not respond to a request for comment.
The vast majority of Muslims in Australia are Sunnis and about 15 per cent are Shi’ites. Divisions among the former are common, too, as ideologies go to battle. The Wahhabi (Salafi) movement is led by its most senior cleric in Australia, Melbourne’s Sheik Mohammed Omran from the Hume Islamic Youth Centre.
The Sufis, a more mystical branch of Islam with followers only in the thousands, tend to be dismissed by more conservative leaders.
Then there are the Tablighi Jamaat adherents. These are similar, in a way, to Salafists. The ideology is an attempt to move Islam back to what its followers claim is a more pure, morally sound strain.
Sheik Omar El-Banna, based in Sydney’s Masjid Al Noor mosque in Granville, is one of the movement’s more charismatic leaders and is popular with young people.
“When the community feels under attack, the Wahhabis and Tablighis grow in number,” one community leader says. “That is what is happening now and that is what happened after the World Trade Centre attack. They flex, like a muscle.”
This is the impossible puzzle for any government that wants to work with the community on terror.
Such alliances between government agencies and Muslim leaders breed mistrust among the grassroots. Those leaders who abstain from such alliances, for whatever reason, become more popular.
Earlier this year Griffith University and the University of Queensland released the results of focus groups it held with Muslim people from around Australia. Again and again the same themes arose: the community has felt almost constantly under attack since September 11, and attempts by their leaders to stamp out pockets of extremism backfire easily.
“I don’t think we are ready for the police to work with our community leaders because the young people will see it as our leaders have joined forces with the police,” one person says.
Another man goes further.
“We know the Council of Imams, they have their regular meetings with ASIO. What happens is that now they’re creating a big rift between the community and the youth,” he says.
“The youth feel like they can’t trust the imams any more. So they go off — they go, ‘we’re not coming here any more (in reference to attending their local mosque). We’re not even going to talk to them any more.’
“Even guys our age are of a different mentality, they’ve had their fair share of bad experiences with the feds and ASIO. So when they hear, ‘OK, these idiots that treated us so badly are now forming some sort of an alliance with our local imams,’ where do they stand?”
The Coalition’s new special envoy on citizenship and community engagement, Philip Ruddock, tells Inquirer the current climate is one in which terrorism, not Islam, must be battled.
“I don’t like the idea that some elements suggest we are targeting the community through these (anti-terror) measures, we clearly are not,” he says.
“If it was a secular terrorist or a Buddhist it would be dealt with in exactly the same way.
“The fact that is relevant is terrorism. We are not about targeting Muslims.”
At a time of crisis, divisions in the Muslim community are deepening. There is no sign things are getting better.