29 March 2015

Feeding lies to Muslim children in Australia

From an article on March 26, 2015, by Julie Szego*:

Illustration: Matt Golding

The head of a Victorian Islamic School is regurgitating distorted ideas about the West which could drive radicalisation.
Perhaps the most telling disclosure from the principal of Victoria's largest Islamic school is that when he warns his students not to join Islamic State because it is a plot by Western countries, he's careful to hold back. Omar Hallak, principal of the nearly 2000-strong Al-Taqwa College ...demurs from identifying the specific countries he believes are training and equipping IS as part of a plan to control oil in the Middle East.
All he says is, "some" Western countries are behind the scheme. Presumably Hallak sees the omission as a measure of his caution and restraint: why smother one bonfire only to pour fuel on another? But what of his students? Aren't they bewildered, poring over maps in the hope of landing on a nation capable of such evil genius – Italy, maybe? Lichtenstein?
Of course not. Hallak can leave the idea half-formed because he knows his students can fill in the blanks: Israel and America. In this genre, even as the storyline changes, the villains are always the same. Hallak cites evidence of the plot in IS's "shiny new equipment". As killing innocent people is not "the Islamic way", Hallak says, "we don't believe Muslims are creating IS". His students are told this truth "many times", and shown "evidence" that IS has no link to Islam. 
Now I've searched for the most generous interpretation of Hallak's quotes, wondered if the published words blunted some nuance. Maybe his was a sophisticated geopolitical analysis about the unforeseen consequences of the US-led invasion of Iraq, IS seizing American weapons from the Iraqi army, the West's bankrolling of unpalatable militias and despotic regimes and indeed sometimes for oil, the whole damn mess. Maybe he means IS isn't Muslim, as in they're not what he regards as "true" Muslims in a theological sense – an increasingly unviable rationalisation, though one with mainstream cred.
But there's no nuance in what he said because he's working off a template: Hallak's views are as unoriginal as they are disturbing. They spring from a pathology that's widespread in the Arab and Muslim world – and fast spreading to the West – where conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic propaganda run rife and uncomfortable truths can be supplanted with delusion and lies. 

  • The Holocaust is a hoax. 
  • The Israeli Mossad orchestrated 9/11. 
  • The West or the Mossad staged the Charlie Hebdo massacre, a theory advanced by several Turkish politicians from the ruling party, including, in some cryptic doublespeak, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself.
As to the theories about IS, they began swirling almost as soon as the medieval butchers seized the world's attention. In Iran, a minor PR hiccup last November saw the deputy foreign minister claim IS was created by the Mossad to "tarnish the image of Islam" when previously the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had instead attributed the group to the US and Britain.
Last month in Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for directing genocide in Darfur, responded to the IS's video purporting to show the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya, with the claim the CIA and the Mossad are behind IS and Boko Haram as "there is no Muslim who would carry out such acts."
And in Melbourne, Hallak regurgitates these lines even as he insists he educates his students to be good Australian Muslims and that his school has no problems with radicalisation. I don't doubt his sincerity. I do doubt his capacity to grasp the irony that it's precisely these types of distorted narratives, casting Muslims as eternal victims and Israel as the cause of all the world's troubles, on which IS and other militant groups feed.
This is the type of narrative that can drive radicalisation; Jake Bilardi's classmates say his path to martyrdom began with his increasingly one-dimensional take on the Middle East conflict. Here, Hallak extends this narrative to prove IS isn't Muslim, which paradoxically affirms the militant worldview. The head spins.
Victoria's Education Minister, James Merlino, called the principal's comments "reckless and dangerous," but said there wasn't much he could do because the school is "independent." The Islamic Council of Victoria spokesman Kuranda Seyit said he did not support Hallak's comments and while "everyone has a right to have their own theories and beliefs" teachers should not be confusing young people. He also made laudable comments about the need for harmony in a multicultural society.
But last year the council itself drew an explicit link between Israel's actions in Gaza and the surge of recruits to IS, without challenging the underlying premise that a geographically removed conflict largely focused on slaughtering Muslim apostates is the responsibility of Israel. Hallak goes even further than alleging Israel fuels IS and says that Israel is IS.
Neither Seyit's nor Merlino's criticisms nail the problem. Hallak isn't simply "confusing" his students with his quirky "theories," he's feeding them outright lies, sinister, not to mention racist, fairy-tales directly contradicted by evidence. The lies are indeed dangerous, even if the purveyor of those lies doesn't recognise them as such. What's our Western education system worth if independent schools are allowed the independence to represent toxic lies as verifiable truth?
And how do we dissuade young people from joining a murderous band of ideologues when there are authority figures so blinded by ideology they can't even see the problem?
*Julie Szego is an Age columnist, author and freelance journalist.