One Hundred Hours of Islam

The last month has been an absolute blur of activity, between travel, getting a couple of new business ventures off the ground and the anticipated arrival of kid#2. After much negotiation with my wife and the establishment of an agreed cut-off date by which I was to be home and “at service”, I decided a few weeks ago to do a last “tour” to try and tie up some loose ends around my business activities. The usual sort of “10 countries in 9 days” trip. I spent 3 nights in a hotel room and the rest sleeping on planes.

Fun fun fun.

One of the things that frustrates me about this kind of business travel is that you never spend enough time in a country to really get to know it. Yet on this last trip, I had a very unique experience that I think could only have come from such a fleeting and condensed journey. The middle portion of my manic trip was a series of meetings in Geneva/Lausanne, Berlin, Beirut and Kuala Lumpur. A slightly eclectic selection of cities but then my business activities are somewhat eclectic too. I had meetings in all locations roughly within a period of 100 hours (including travel) which left me with a very blurred but interesting juxtaposition of perceptions about how the world is changing.

Starting in Switzerland – I think it is fair to say that although Geneva prides itself on being “multicultural” it is still quintessentially European. If Geneva is “Europe” then Lausanne is “Swiss” – quaint, clean, controlled and somewhat monocultural. About the most exotic thing you will find in Lausanne is the Turkish or Lebanese guy managing the Doner kebab stand at the train station. I’m not saying that Switzerland fundamentally has a diversity issue (or that Lausanne isn’t incredibly pretty) – I’m just saying that the Swiss would rather keep it – er… Swiss.

Nothing but Alpenhorns and Muesli here....

Nothing but Alpenhorns and Muesli here….

Moving ahead to Berlin, a few hours in the centre of the city provided a few insights into what the German government is currently dealing with in terms of refugee crisis. I saw a lot of Muslim families on the streets, a lot of begging and a lot of people that looked pretty “fresh” off the train from Eastern Europe. I’ve been to Berlin many times over the years and the change was palpable, including the articulation of concern by residents. I think it’s fair to say that Germany proved its international citizenship with a truly disproportionate intake from the Syrian crisis, but integration is going to be a challenging process if makeshift camps in central Berlin are anything to go by.

A Minaret, Berliner-style?

A Minaret, Berliner-style?

Then moving on to Lebanon. Driving through Hezbollah-controlled districts around Beirut Airport provided a stark reminder that this is a country with incredibly fractured rule and not a lot of stability. Motoring through military checkpoints representing different political “factions” makes you realise that it doesn’t take much to trigger unrest, indeed much of the city centre was cordoned off due to large-scale protests and riots. Although the newly rebuilt centre of Beirut was relatively peaceful, there was still an atmosphere of tension. A lot of military presence and deserted cafes. In Beirut, 1/3 of the population is a refugee from somewhere. Syrians continue to flood over the border.

Plenty of reminders that this is a city on the edge of a war zone, from a military checkpoints, to freshly bombed buildings stopping traffic. Beirut is a city with plenty of scars, and plenty of different occupiers.

Plenty of reminders that this is a city on the edge of a war zone, from a military checkpoints, to freshly bombed buildings stopping traffic. Beirut is a city with plenty of scars, and plenty of different occupiers.

Finally – on to Kuala Lumpur, where the Islamic world meets capitalism. KL is fast-moving and prosperous, notwithstanding a recent (significant) currency devaluation and a fair amount of economic turbulence. Although far from the Mediterranean outskirts of Europe, KL seemed oblivious to the plight of their Syrian brethern, with Muslim Malaysians seemingly willing to die for the glory of the Hajj but perhaps lacking the true embrace of Islamic brotherhood. It was not without international provocation that countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia took responsibility for their role in the refugee crisis but even as recently as last week, Malaysia has only committed to a mere 3,000 refugees over three years.

Of course Australia’s response was hardly stellar either … but compared to this…

Nothing but refugee-free prosperity here, folks... (well, except a bit of afternoon rain)

Nothing but refugee-free prosperity here, folks… (well, except a bit of afternoon rain)

CNN has started referring to some refugees as “economic migrants“, reflective of the serious Syrian “brain drain”, something that will no doubt hamper the ability for the country to rebuild itself anytime in the near future. But whether an economic migrant or a true refugee fleeing unimaginable violence, the truth is that people are taking huge risks to get to a better place, and they aren’t turning to the rest of the Islamic world for that future. Syrians see a future in the west – in Canada, USA, Germany, Australia – not UAE, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia or even beautiful Malaysia. Indeed, other than throw cash at the problem, Saudi/UAE have done shamefully little.

My “100 hours of Islam” reinforced this perception. Sunni-Shi’a tension not only poisons the political tension in Syria, it also underpins the migration pattern of refugees – political or economic. The big question is whether “we” can meaningfully integrate Syria’s diaspora in a way that offers peace and stability, or whether a generation from now we will just have one more failed, isolated and angry sub-culture.

I see you, Charlie Hebdo

I have been watching with great sadness, the outpouring of grief and anger in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It has been my blogosphere policy not to write about “Islamic Militant Attacks” because I personally don’t believe that is what they are. I have far too much basic respect for the “other” Children of Abraham to accept that this kind of loveless and an inhumane behavior deifies the Qur’an. I accept that there are extremists that are intolerant of the modern social spectrum, freedom of expression and diversity – but this should not be our default perception of Islam. Nor should we recognize the religious guidons that they bear.

Besides, Islam doesn’t have an extremist monopoly on xenophobia and bigotry. Christianity, Judaism and even “peaceful” Buddhism does a pretty smashing job sometimes too.

I was in Sydney during the “Terror” when a lone gunman walked into the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Martin Place and took hostages in the name of the Prophet. In fact, our hotel was only a few blocks away from the police cordon and precisely at the time that fateful morning that Man Haron Monis was taking hostages, my son and I walked past the area on our way to Darling Harbour, wondering what was going on with all the police and emergency services (“Look Daddy!”). Frankly, the only thing that sickened me more than the tragic outcome of that hostage situation, was the non-stop media coverage that was given to a lone nutcase with a shotgun. It was relentless and unwavering and only glorified the situation for every other sicko out there thinking of taking a few people down on the way to the Afterlife.

A greater social crime than Man Monis?

A greater social crime than Man Monis?

Inevitably, there will more Charlie Hebdo Massacres and Sydney Terrors. The big question for our society, is are we willing to take an inter-faith view of religious tolerance and understand that in these dangerous times, our Muslim brothers and sisters need protection and care too? These extremist activities are not so discriminatory and neither are the potential hazards of our reaction. During the Sydney siege I watched a Pakistani or Indian hostage run out of the Lindt Cafe and then immediately get down on the ground with his arms around his head – no doubt concerned that the trigger-happy NSW police* would mistake dusky skin for a terrorist. If I was him, I would have been freaking out. Similarly, I was incredibly touched and heartened buy the #Illridewithyou initiative that spontaneously arose, recognizing that there was a real risk of reprisal.

Our society’s tolerance will always be tested in situations like this and while I feel no less for the families of those killed in Paris and Sydney (and many other places before), our response – including media response – should be measured. There will be always be a temptation for reprisal, especially from the shadowy corners of the world that may choose not to even put a face to retribution. Hooded lynch mobs have always existed and we will no doubt see many flaming torches and pitchforks in physical and digital domains. In my view, this is even more dangerous than a few psychopaths with guns.

My final comment is a tribute to the freedom of expression that was epitomized, not without controversy, by Charlie Hebdo. I don’t always agree that freely insulting someone else’s culture or religion should be unconditionally tolerated, but killing people falls very short of measured debate on the merits. Personally, I believe that there is great power in satire. It is simply one avenue that we have to explore the emotive and philosophical issues that polarize our world, often in a very catalytic way. I like to doodle but (unlike others) I don’t really have the talent to visually render the sadness that I feel. Instead I will offer my own satirical tribute in written form with the following recommendation:

Dear Yahya** if you are thinking of buying some artillery and going on a rampage in the name of the Islamic Caliphate, may I offer you a more effective alternative? Do what my fellow Christians and also many of our Brothers from the “Tribe” do (cliché only, no antisemitism please) – go into politics and financial services. You really don’t have to be any smarter (or dumber) than you already are. You’ll get better and more prolonged media coverage for your terrorist activities and you wont just kill a few random individuals, you can destroy the lives of millions for decades. If you are prepared to cash in your gold Rolex Oyster and engage a decent lawyer, you might not even spend time in jail. Best of all you don’t have to wait for the Afterlife for your reward of 72 “dark-eyed maidens”, they are called “interns.” *** 

لا إله إلا الله !

A photo taken from the back of a public toilet door in Sydney the morning of the Terror. This is not an Islamic banner, this is just graffiti. So too must we learn to distinguish mere social vandalism and paint over it as quickly as our grief may allow.

A photo taken from the back of a public toilet door in Sydney the morning of the Terror. This is not an Islamic banner, this is just graffiti. So too must we learn to distinguish mere social vandalism and paint over it as quickly as our grief may allow.


*I duly note that, in general, the perception was that the various emergency services and law-enforcement agencies did a very decent job on this occasion…

** Arabic Muslim version of John

*** Sorry ladies, religious satire has no wiggle room for gender issues. Forgive me.