The decent Islamic leader whom we ignored at our peril
If you really want to depress yourself, type the name Sheik Hersi Hilole into Google.
He’s an Islamic scholar and Somali spiritual leader who, almost two years ago when still based in Sydney, was howled down as a rabble-rouser for issuing what his (Islamic) critics dismissed as a reckless, baseless warning about the radicalisation of young Somali refugees in Melbourne.
Hilole is now living and working in Singapore as an academic. No doubt he watched the events in Melbourne this week with a sense of weary despair. For without wishing to prejudge the terror charges, the case which the prosecution will try to prove is pretty much a scene-by-scene enactment of the scenario painted by the cleric in 2007.
The trouble began for Hilole in April 2007 when he offered a candid analysis of the challenges facing the Somali community, particularly its youth, many of whom were struggling to adjust to life in Australia after escaping the horror of life in Mogadishu.
But Hilole didn’t use that backdrop of war, or their relative poverty in public housing in Australia, to excuse the fact that some young Somalis were not just susceptible to but active with terrorist sympathisers. He warned that it was dangerous, unacceptable, and urged that something be done about it.
As the ABC’s PM program reported at the time, Hilole found himself ostracised by others in the Somali community who resolved that because of the furore they should stop talking to the media and turn in on themselves.
Hilole kept on. In an interview with this newspaper in late 2007, talking to the award-winning journalist Richard Kerbaj (who broke Sheik Taj Al-Din Hilaly’s “uncovered meat” outrage), Hilole lamented the fact that his initial warnings had been ignored. Kerbaj wrote:
YOUNG Somalian Muslims are secretly travelling back to their homeland to fight alongside al-Qa’ida-backed terrorists at the urging of hardline spiritual leaders in Australia.
Somalian spiritual leader Hersi Hilole yesterday warned that young men returning from their jihad mission against the Ethiopian-backed Somalian Government were more likely to consider becoming involved in a terrorist attack on Australia.
“Now when they come back, how are they going to join the rest of society?” Sheik Hilole said. “There is a great danger that they could carry out any kind of terrorist activity here.”
Sheik Hilole, chairman of the Somali Community Council of Australia, said hardline clerics in Melbourne continued to “prey” on young Somalian men, whose welcoming attitudes to Wahabism - a puritanical interpretation of Islam espoused by Osama bin Laden - were a result of the ideology’s prevalance in their home country.”
Clearly a far-fetched scenario. Two months later, Hilole was warning again that he feared radical Islamists would use the defeat of the Howard Government to capitalise on the more moderate domestic political climate.
“The extremists will try to take every advantage that they think will be possible and available for them and they will most probably try to spread their ideas and recruit more people for their cause,” he said.
Again, Hilole copped it from most Islamic quarters over his remarks, even though he had also accused the Howard Government of exaggerating aspects of the Islamic threat for political gain. Despite that caveat a lot of Islamic leaders clearly thought Hilole should just shut up. Others, such as the former member of John Howard’s Islamic reference group, Indonesian Muslim spiritual leader Amin Hady, said it simply did not make sense to sideline the hardliners, as Howard had done when he excluded Melbourne-based cleric (and defender of the London bombings) Mohammed Omran from his group.
“The Government should use mainstream leaders to approach them (hardliners) and to bring them in line with the rest of the community members,” Hady said in challenging Hilole’s call.
Hady’s view reflected the sentiment of most Islamic leaders, who shied away from the tough conversation which Hilole was trying fruitlessly to initiate.
They probably didn’t want to create a perception that there were members of their community who wanted to kill other people, and themselves, in the pursuit of holy war on Australian soil, even though that perception might have been based entirely in fact.
The dismissal of the now-absent Hersi Hilole as some kind of fringe-dwelling doomsday prophet is a source of shame for Australia’s Islamic leaders.
It’s also a pity that the wider community did not do more to listen to him and elevate him, as he is exactly the kind of plain-speaking, excuse-averse guy which Australian Muslim communities need, rather than the lost-in-translation stylings of a Keysar Trad, who spent several hectic years complaining on behalf of Sheik Hilaly about the quality of the subtitles.
The Hilole case also demonstrates the massive problems a civilised nation such as Australia has in acting on the warning he made. In a society which tries to respect human rights, and values freedom of religion and freedom of association, Hilole’s call could result in state action which would immediately be condemned as offensive to our values and laws.
In his own clunky way, the uncle of one of the terror accused has given fresh voice to Hilole’s warning with the comments he made this week about his nephew’s alleged involvement in the Holsworthy plot.
Ibrahim Khayre told The Herald-Sun that his nephew Yacqub “fell in with a bad crowd” when he dropped out of school and left home, and blamed the police and social workers for blocking attempts by the family to make contact with Yacqub.
“I told them: ‘I don’t know where he is. You don’t know where he is. You have probably handed him over to terrorists’,” Ibrahim Khayre said.
Clearly, it’s absurd to level the blame for this boy’s subsequent actions on a couple of cops and social workers, and Mr Khayre has been carved up on talkback and online for suggesting as much.
But his point isn’t a world away from Sheik Hilole’s. And it begs the question - what should have been done? Should the authorities have gone in and seized this kid, stopped him from attending this prayer centre? Should the prayer centre be shut down? Its clerics put under 24-hour surveillance, or even jailed or, if possible, deported, for preaching violent jihad?
The problem we have as a liberal democracy is that most of the people who care about “inclusiveness” would much sooner go to some sort of multi-faith harmony celebration put on by the Uniting Church, rather than confront the tough reality that, at some tiny mosque, they’re watching re-runs of September 11 and have absolutely no intention of being included at all in mainstream society.
What you do about that, I don’t know. But as the treatment of Sheik Hilole demonstrates, pretending that it doesn’t exist is the worst possible answer.
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