Samier Dandan and convener Silma Ihram. Photo: Nick MoirThe federal government’s proposed anti-terrorism laws have provoked bitter in-fighting within the Muslim community with some leaders walking out of a “unity” meeting amid claims of deception and power-play.
About 50 community leaders attended an open-door consultation meeting at Lakemba Mosque on Friday evening in an effort to develop a more united strategy regarding community concerns about the proposed laws.
The meeting followed a tumultuous week in which divisions opened up within the community over its response to the legislative framework, which includes softening the definition of terrorism and reversing the onus of proof for people coming home from terrorism hot-spots.
Some participants claim they were duped into believing the meeting was a private community discussion only to be told at the end of the three-hour session that notes would be forwarded to the Attorney-General’s Department.
One community member, who didn’t want her name published, said she asked convener Silma Ihram at the beginning of the meeting whether the information would be passed on to the government and she was told it would not be.
“I felt that it was a community meeting not a governmental one and I did not want our participation to then go on to be used as ‘oh well, after consultations with the Muslims we are not going ahead with their endorsement’.”
Many attendees were among the 60 sheikhs, leaders and community groups who released a statement last week refusing to “rubber-stamp” the government’s proposed laws.
The statement denounced the laws as unjust, unjustified and hypocritical, saying they were based on “hysterical rhetoric” and “racist caricatures of Muslims”.
However, Lebanese Muslim Association president Samier Dandan then refused to endorse the statement, saying it had no rationale and was “just another tool that other organisations are using to divide the community”.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott called the boycott threats “foolish” and “petty”.
Community activist Rebecca Kay, who walked out of the meeting, said a power-play within the community was undermining efforts to debate the anti-terrorism legislation.
She said there was an “Arab spring happening in the Muslim community towards self-appointed community leaders”.
“The notion that the 60-plus organisations that signed the statement are not legitimate and are divisive is incorrect and unfair,” she said.
“The LMA wants to be seen as the go-to organisation when they’re not a representation of the Islamic community. The only organisation that is representing the whole community is the Australian National Imams Council and the Grand Mufti’s office.”
The Imams Council has previously criticised the proposed anti-terrorism laws and boycotted an Eid dinner hosted by the Australian Federal Police.
Ms Kay claimed three others walked out of the meeting in protest. Ms Ihram said there was only one person who walked out and the consultation went better than she expected. Mr Dandan didn’t return calls on Sunday.
Dr Jamal Rifi, who attended the meeting, disagreed that there was any confusion or division.
“The community has never been homogenous, there has never been one opinion so whoever thinks the Muslim community is going to always be unified and share one voice – this is a delusion,” he said.
He said the timing of the statement, which was released on the same day as a video of US journalist James Foley being beheaded, was wrong.
The statement was also signed by several controversial and hardline groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama’ah.
Ms Kay said such groups had a wide support base and influence in the community so it was important not to exclude them from discussions.
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