Rod McGarvie: Not all Muslims are the same

First published in The Australian, 25 May 2015 ––

Having spent 12 years working for a language development and cultural research organisation in East Africa (mainly Uganda and Tanzania) I had the opportunity to develop friendships with Ismaili Muslims. The Nizari Ismaili Sect of Shi’a Islam are little known in Australia but, in other parts of the globe as well as East Africa, they are known for their top quality schools and hospitals and their clean water and agricultural projects. Their approach is similar to the way many Christian organisations approach development. The Ismailis are business minded, but have a strong commitment to help the poor. They assimilate well into the African culture where they live and become part of the society.

There is a growing concern about what appears to be an incompatibility of certain sects and segments of Islam with Australian values, and the inability or unwillingness of some Muslims to effectively integrate into Australian society. More disturbing has been our nation’s general lack of willingness to discuss or scrutinise Islam and Islamism (militant Islam) within Australia. This frustrates concerned Australians and serves to increase the level of emotion, distrust, and resentment.

The Nizari Ismaili sect of Islam could provide Muslims with a fresh practical approach for reforming and modernising Islam.

Islam is not just a set of religious principles and practises on ways to live that pleases Allah. It is an all-encompassing political movement with political and legal objectives, the scope of which varies between sects. Observers of Middle-Eastern and African politics would recognise this, but Australians tend to try to equate Islam with what is observed in Australia. Australians attempt to find parallels with earlier sects once found in Catholicism or Anglicanism but, because of their global political agendas, punitive ideologies, and authoritarian tendencies, strict Islam has more in common with a totalitarian political movements such as the far left Greens than it does with a Christian denomination.

Many Australians see Islam as anti-western and driven by intolerance and acts of revenge. It is seen as a religion that reaches back to the violence of the seventh century for its inspiration and its cultural norms and mores. Whether true or not, these are tough perceptions to overcome. Constant parroting that Islam is a religion of peace doesn’t help, indeed, it goes against the evidence of the sickening violence of Jihadists.

The Nizari Ismailis on the other hand are pro-western in their outlook. For example, the schools they build in developing countries are based on the British O and A level system, not the religious Madrassa system. They support secular pluralism not theocracies, they promote intellectual freedom, the education and advancement of women, and private sector enterprise. Women are considered equal to men in every way and aren’t expected to wear any form of head covering. They assimilate into the society in which they live and they don’t remain aloof or apart from it. Entrepreneurial, but decidedly philanthropic, they don’t play the victim card, blaming the West or Israel for the woes in the Islamic world, in fact they appear quite pro-Israel.

The Ismaili sect is small and only makes up around 1% (15 million) of Muslims globally. Their leader is the Aga Khan (Prince Shah Karim Al Husseini Aga Khan IV) a wealthy Harvard-trained businessman. He claims direct lineage to the prophet Muhammad. In addition, he oversees the significant global aid and development work of the Aga Khan Foundation and Aga Khan Development Network.

Perhaps it is around this model that the various sects of Islam in Australia can reform, drawing Islam out of the seventh century and into the twenty first.

Muslims, who profess to love Australia, should not wait for their spiritual leaders to reform their religion, they need to take the initiative to bring change. In such a connected century, young Muslims could revolutionize Islam in Australia. Muslims need to openly reject the cultural baggage that feeds the negative stereotypes of Islam. They need to clearly reject the perverted practises of child brides, honour killings, and genital mutilation. It is important they take a strong position against all terrorism (or the support of) in any form, in any location. They need to take a stand against all forms of generational hatred toward Israel and Jews, including the spiteful Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement. They should openly oppose those espousing Sharia Law, and deride those promoting the baseless conspiracies about the USA and the Jews being responsible for the establishment of ISIS, and the planning of the 9/11 attacks. Ismaili Muslims would applaud such modernisation among fellow Muslims.

Islamism presents a clear and present danger to a strong, healthy, cohesive nation. It preys on the emotionally vulnerable and naïve, it promotes extreme and dangerous views. Once a person has bought into an ideology that defies logic and common-sense, it becomes a formidable task to bring change - but not an impossible one.

It is often an outsider’s observations that can identify more clearly the problems, challenges and peculiarities of a particular culture, things that the insider can be totally blind to due to cultural immersion. It is crystal clear to many looking on that there needs to be a major overhaul and transformation of the traditional Islamic worldview and its practises. The Nizari Ismailis obviously recognised this and implemented change. The changes weren’t particularly remarkable, they simply modernised and adapted over the centuries to remain culturally relevant to the societies in which they live. The Nizari have shown clearly that it can be done. The question is, will the major sects of Islam in Australia be able to overcome their disdain for the Nizari and implement necessary change, or will they continue on a path of increasing isolation from the broader community?

The immigration department could use the Nizari model as a benchmark in assessing the suitability and likelihood of successful integration of Muslim applicants seeking entry to a new life in Australia.

Rod McGarvie was the Executive Director of SIL International (Uganda – Tanzania Branch) for seven of his 12 years in East Africa. Rod stood as the Liberal National Party candidate in both the 2010/13 federal elections and is now the federal senate candidate for the Family First Party QLD.