• "Tackling Islamophobia is contingent on disrupting the perception that Islam is a monolith..." (Getty/Digital Vision/Photo by Jenna Masoud for MuslimGirl.com)
If we want to honour Islam’s diversity as well as our own, Australia must start differentiating between Islam’s many sects and schools of thought. Ruby Hamad explains.
By
Ruby Hamad

5 Jul 2017 - 11:15 AM  UPDATED 19 Oct 2017 - 5:31 PM

When the 2016 Census results were released by the ABS last week, two things concerning Australia’s religiosity got people talking. First, Catholicism was losing ground to “No religion” and second, Islam did not grow by as much as many predicted, rising from 2.4 percent of the population in 2011 to 2.6 percent.

What is interesting here is how Catholicism – a Christian denomination – along with Anglicanism, and the Uniting Church, are considered distinct religious categories while Islam, which contains multiple sects, sub-sects, and offshoots, is still regarded as a single religion.

However, not only do the interpretations between three sects within Islam – Sunni, Shia, and Alawite – differ in terms of observable practice (Alawites, for example, do not worship in mosques or wear traditional hijab), but even within these three sects there can vast differences. Indonesia, for example, has long followed the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam and known for its “moderate” interpretation of religion, but is struggling to contain the Wahabi ideology that has taken root in Aceh province.

What is interesting here is how Catholicism – a Christian denomination – along with Anglicanism, and the Uniting Church, are considered distinct religious categories while Islam, which contains multiple sects, sub-sects, and offshoots, is still regarded as a single religion.

Sometimes used interchangeably with Salafism, Wahabism is a strict strand of Sunni Islam originating in Saudi Arabia but rapidly spreading around the world.

Tackling Islamophobia is contingent on disrupting the perception that Islam is a monolith, that all Muslims agree on basic scriptural interpretations, and that there is such a thing as a single “authentic” Islam.

So why, then, do we continue to talk about Islam precisely as if it is this monolith?

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While it could be a matter of convenience for the Census to class Islam as one religious group, given it is such a small proportion of the population, this problem isn’t limited to demographic statistics.

Rarely do media stories distinguish between Islamic sects or schools of thought. Nor do they specify which sect a particular individual belongs to. Consequently, given many in the general public are not in contact with any Muslims, it is far too easy for assumptions to be made about such individuals being representative of all Muslims.

Last week, for example, Moutia Elzahed, wife of an Islamic State recruiter, lost her court battle after making headlines last year for refusing to remove her face veil or stand for a District Court judge, saying she “only stood for Allah.”

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In describing her only as a “Muslim woman,” media reports serve as fuel for the “Muslims are not compatible with the Australian way of life” fire. But Elzahed is a member of the hardline Salafi/Wahabbi school of thought and by failing to specify this, the media must shoulder some of the responsibility for assumptions that it is Islam itself that demands such obstinate behaviour, when in actual fact, most Muslims would agree it is not only reasonable but expected to show respect and identify yourself to legal authorities.

Moreover, as someone connected to an individual tied to ISIS, Elzahed represents an interpretation of Islam that the majority of Muslims themselves reject and consider a sign of encroaching fundamentalism. The city of Mosul in Iraq for instance, recently liberated from ISIS, rejoiced at being able to play music once again. “We want to be happy,” one woman told Reuters, “we want to listen to music.”

Even media stories with more sympathetic characters often get it wrong.  This article, for instance, tells of a “Muslim family” and their “challenges navigating (the) Tasmanian public school system.”  including things such as avoiding classroom activities involving music and dancing because they “conflict with…religious beliefs.”

The city of Mosul in Iraq for instance, recently liberated from ISIS, rejoiced at being able to play music once again. “We want to be happy,” one woman told Reuters, “we want to listen to music.”

But again, by failing to specify this family follows an extremely conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam, it gives the mistaken impression that it is Islam as a whole that rejects music and dancing. This is simply not true as the Mosul story demonstrates. Such austerity is not representative even of Sunnis, let alone all Muslims, and while this family is within their rights to follow their chosen religion, it is unfair on more liberal Muslims to have such practices assumed to be standard, not least because such practices are often inflicted on Muslims whether they agree with them or not.

“Muslim” is not a one size fits all label. The more society as a whole knows about the differences and reasons for frictions within the various Islamic traditions, the less likely it will be to regard the entire Muslim population as incompatible with the West.

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Accusing Alawites or Shia of supporting an Islamic Caliphate – a conservative Sunni concept – is akin to scolding a Jehovah’s Witness for the Catholic Church’s refusal to ordain women, or blaming an Anglican for Morman polygamy; it simply has nothing to do with them. 

When discussing groups like ISIS, the media must begin specifying that they follow their own perversion of already-strict Wahabi doctrine, because although violent jihad is simply not a part of Druze, Ahmadi, or Alawite doctrine, when the inevitable Islamophobic blowback happens, these groups are not spared the hateful backlash.

Islam is diverse. The longer we refuse to acknowledge this, the more suspicious we become of each other, and the closer fundamentalist groups get to their goal of wiping out this very diversity. 

As a member of the tiny Alawite minority, perhaps the most bitter pill to swallow is how even the well-meaning portions of western society buy into the fallacy that it is the most visible Muslim groups that are the most authentic and most in need of support. Consequently, the very minority groups that Islamic fundamentalists take it upon themselves to place outside the fold of Islam are often dismissed as “Westernised” and “inauthentic” and therefore not in need of protection.

At least one left-leaning media outlet, for example, came out in strong defence of Moutia Elzahed on the pretext of defending Muslims from Islamophobia, seemingly without bothering to check with any Muslims how they felt.

Islam is diverse. The longer we refuse to acknowledge this, the more suspicious we become of each other, and the closer fundamentalist groups get to their goal of wiping out this very diversity

The Mosque Next Door begins Wednesday 8 November, 8.30pm on SBS, and continues on Wednesdays. Episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere, for free via SBS On Demand

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