Some weeks ago, I saw a movie that seriously resonated. It was the story of Manny, an Australian stand-up comedian who’d reached the pinnacle of his Australian career and is about to launch into North America.
Manny has it all – a nice car, a gorgeous harbour side apartment, sold-out shows, plenty of money and so much brand recognition that he cannot walk the streets without fans recognising him.
Manny has it all and yet not much. His relationship with his manager is terrific. His relationship with his dad is awful. He has no other relationships.
His manager organises a party. Manny chats with three women enamoured by his comedy, but finds the exercise unfulfilling. Everyone wants to know Manny but only on their terms, only someone famous to take selfies with or to read about as tabloid gossip.
But you don’t have to be famous to suffer extreme loneliness, to walk the earth searching for a way out, to look part of the mainstream while inside feeling on the fringe of the species.
You can be part of a major religious community, with adherents making up almost a quarter of the world’s population and still feel completely alone. Islam teaches we will all be alone when we die. On the Day of Judgment, the loneliness will continue. Our own mothers will ignore us, too worried about the impending judgment.
But why should we be lonely here on earth? Our judgment after death will be in accordance with how we behaved here, on this planet, with each other. We won’t reach paradise purely by securing God’s mercy, even if that is the overwhelming consideration.
The most social times for many believers are the loneliest times for others. I notice that soup kitchens are full at Christmas time, many volunteered by Jews, Muslims and persons of other faiths and none. But apart from such occasions, where do the lonely wonder?
These days, Muslim converts (sometimes called 'reverts' in recognition that they have reverted to the purity they were born with) are regarded almost as security threats. If you believe everything you read in the papers, you’d think every Muslim convert is a naïve kid ripe for 'radicalisation' and saving up for a one way ticket to Syria. Every convert seems to have downloaded competing ISIS and/or al-Qaeda apps and is awaiting instructions for the next mission. Every convert should be stripped of his or her citizenship.
In my experience, many converts are rejected by their families and inevitably lose friends. Islam is hardly a faith the average Aussie family or community would endorse. But it gets worse. Even 'born' Muslims often reject converts and treat them with suspicion. The oldie might wonder why a newbie would want to take on a strange set of rules and requirements. The oldie might live in a siege mentality world where new coverts are just agents seeking to infiltrate, destroy from within or recruit for some nefarious purpose. Or oldies might be put off by the zeal and perfectionism of converts who often see the oldies’ ways as more inspired by alien culture than by the orthodoxy found in books.
Despite the largest ethnic group (by place of birth) being those born in Australia, Islam in this country is still a largely cultural affair. There are plenty of Lebanese, Turkish, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Bosnian, Indonesian and other mosques. The Friday sermon is still mainly delivered in Arabic and a language other than English. With few exceptions, bodies governing mosques insist on employing 'imported' imams with few English language skills. Few support services are provided for young people, let alone converts.
If the government really imagined young Muslims and converts are ripe for 'radicalisation', an excellent investment they could make would be in support services for new Muslims. But why should the government provide converts with special attention? Surely this is something for community organisations themselves to do.
Apart from the isolation and rejection from friends and families many converts face, there is also the desire to be loyal to the new faith and community. Converts to any faith or belief system are known for their zeal. Yet this is often manipulated by 'born' Muslims with unscrupulous morals. It isn’t unknown for a desperately lonely female convert to come under the spell of a 'leader' or 'imam' and convinced she needs to be married. The imam’s nephew, whose visa expires next week, is often the natural choice.
On a less drastic note, last week a convert who happened to be a graphic artist told me he was tired of working for Islamic organisations. 'There’s always a problem with getting paid', he said.
A poorly-organised ill-resourced minority community whose elders often feel marginalised by language or political rhetoric or newspaper columnists often feels it has better things to worried about than 'white' converts. In our lucky country, even among the truest of believers, there are many layers of loneliness, many excuses to marginalise and feel marginalised.
But things are improving. Among both Sunni and Shia Muslims, support services are opening up for converts in need. The oldies are helping out the newbies, and the newbies are also organising themselves. One day the papers will realise not all those who choose Islam for whatever reason are a security threat. And the sum total of loneliness will reduce without anyone losing their citizenship.
Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
22 June 2015
Irfan Yusuf has stated the major impediment for broader acceptance of Islam in Australia: "Despite the largest ethnic group ... being those born in Australia, Islam in this country is still a largely cultural affair. There are plenty of Lebanese, Turkish, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Bosnian, Indonesian and other mosques. The Friday sermon is still mainly delivered in Arabic and a language other than English. With few exceptions, bodies governing mosques insist on employing 'imported' imams with few English language skills." Remember when football (soccer) teams were all named according to which country of origin the team, club and supporters came from? Since laws were passed requiring "culturally neutral" naming of teams, the game has become far more a part of general Australian society. It would benefit all Australian Muslims, not just the Anglo-Celtic converts, if Australian mosques followed the lead demonstrated by the world game. Australian imams for Australian mosques!
22 June 2015
This article called to mind Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) and his music I grew up on as a kid in the late '70s. Strange how Israel deported him a few of years ago for supporting Hamas in Palestine. His conversion to Islam was an act of solidarity with stateless Palestinian, I gather. We need more hippy converts like him!
23 June 2015
I believe it is a specific duty incumbent on all members of the Muslim community to welcome and nurture new converts. Perhaps this challenge, among others, may help Australian Islam become less ethnocentric.
24 June 2015
Thanks for your compassion and understanding.
24 June 2015
If someone converts to Islam, don't they become a member of a loving and supportive community? Why should this be again and again government business?
24 June 2015
"Islam in this country is still a largely cultural affair"...... The same is true of EVERY religion. This is part of why conflicts exist between the various religions. The other part is that each group assumes or at least acts on the belief that their particular interpretation is the One and Only Path to God. Only when all religions realise that God, as the Father of all, provides many paths, each tailored to the culture of the various communities, will we be able to stop equating 'our' religion with God, and transfer our allegiance to God alone, not to 'our' immature interpretation of how we should approach God, and the belief that 'our' way needs to be defended at all costs. Only then will we learn to cooperated and support each other as One Family of God.
24 June 2015
Thanks Irfan! So much to the point. Our focus, as members of a diverse, and potentially culturallly-rich community here in OZ, does not need to be on 'de-radicalising', but on finding ways to reach young Muslims, be they 'Newbies' or ones born into families from many different places. Being 'disaffected' is something with which I can identify, and we can surely search for ways to 'engage' with young people in particular who can feel adrift, not valued, or much worse, in terms of how they link up with community, whether of their own faith or none. An approach I've suggested, in another context, as a poetntially 'Reforminng Catholic', is what I call PIE - for 'participate','interact' and 'engage' - just mentioned. My life has certainly been enriched by the chances I've had in my 'retired' years to interact and .engage with a growing number of Muslim, beginning with a family of 'middle Eastern origin who 'adopted' ME when they came to Oz with their Dad, and now, so many more, including devoted Dads and each one's "Missus'. God, Allah, Yahweh, help us with this! Like that young Indigenous woman in the anti-smoking ad' - "If I can do it, we all can!' And it's not a one way street, with me and mine reaching 'down', rather than 'out' and 'into'! Thanks again Irfan!
24 June 2015
The answer to your headline, question, Irfan, seems from what you have written here to be, "Not the mainstream Muslim community."
24 June 2015
Remember the ethnically based Catholic parishes and/or churches, some of which still exist and the priests and religious brought to Australia to minister to 'new' migrants. Polish, Italian, Maltese, Lebanese, Ukrainian, Croatian. Today there are migrant chaplains ministering to the more recent migrants - the Sydney Archdiocese website lists 46 migrant chaplains. There seems to be a tendency to expect Muslims to fast track their journey to a 'cultural neutrality' that has not been asked of 'ethnic' Catholics.
Michael D. Breen
24 June 2015
It is a government matter, Eric because the government made it one. Howard declared that he was there for the "mainstream" not the unusual,different,disabled dispossessed. Persecuting a minority group works a treat for politicians who want to appeal to our lowest sentiments. Then again, inside religious groups dogmatism can be lonely making.