Australia meets with Muslim leaders to root out extremism

Prime minister John Howard held a summit with Muslim representatives, but left out many others.

The London Tube bombings this July have raised concerns about domestic terrorism in countries with large Muslim immigrant populations, including Australia, which has hitherto enjoyed a fair measure of interreligious harmony.

To discuss ways to combat the spread of radical teachings, Prime Minister John Howard held a summit Tuesday with moderate Muslim leaders. In the two-hour discussions, officials probed the curriculum of Islamic schools and suggested measures for vetting imams.

Mr. Howard has since detailed what this might mean: Sending outsiders into mosques and schools to monitor their messages for extremism.

"We have a right to know whether there is, within any section of the Islamic community, a preaching of the virtues of terrorism, whether any comfort or harbor is given to terrorism within that community," Howard told Australian radio.

As other governments have found, however, deciding who represents the Muslim community can be a delicate matter. Large sections of the youth, as well as conservative and more critical clerics, have been left out of Howard's summit - meaning some of the government's more aggressive proposals may meet resistance.

But the groups who attended the meeting Tuesday hailed it as a successful first step in an ongoing dialogue.

"We determined along with the prime minister that there must be more communication between the government and Islamic schools where it comes to teaching common values like democracy, fairness, tolerance and so on, and radicals will be reacted to, whenever they make inflammatory remarks," says Ali Roude, the acting president of the New South Wales Islamic Council.

Australia's most recent census in 2001 revealed rapid growth in the country's Muslim population. The census found more than 280,000 Australian Muslims, a jump of some 40 percent in five years. Some recent estimates place the figure over 300,000.

The government also counts more than 100 groups representing Muslim interests, however this week's summit only included 14 group representatives. Top leaders were present, including Ameer Ali, head of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. But Keysar Trad, the spokesperson for Lebanese Muslims in Australia, questioned the inclusion of "obscure" groups like Islam Care and the New South Wales Youth Advisory Council, which is "merely a government body with no support in the community."

However, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer expressed concerns before the meeting about including every group, fearing that extremists who "applaud the killing of innocent civilians" could dominate news coverage of the event.

But Mr. Trad believes that excluding the full spectrum of Muslim groups would only further isolate and radicalize certain elements.

"What mainstream society does not understand, is that even the radicals have come a long way here when they began to engage with the media. Their followers, even if they are a handful, will now accuse them of getting nothing for compromising themselves," Trad explains. "And they will feel even more marginalized than they do already."

Sitting in a cafe in the Islamic heartland of Sydney in the western suburbs, sipping cinnamon tea, Trad ponders the future of Muslims in Australia after the London bombings.

"It's much worse for us now, because 7/7 showed the world that the enemy is to be found within" instead of 9/11 when the terrorists were all foreigners. "Now they are suspicious of all of us, and it's very serious, but the prime minister is only playing politics."

But some Muslims here have a growing sense that they are being defined within the media by the voices of the extremists, and that an intervention by the government and moderate Muslims to counter such elements would be useful.

"So far it was OK to do your own thing. But if the media is focusing on the extreme elements, we need to do something about it," says Chabaan Omran, a senior member of the Federation of Australian Students and Youth, an organization that gives religious advice and teaching to young people. "Muslims need to interact more with mainstream Australia."

This might sit well with recent calls from ordinary Australians asking Muslims to assimilate. But Mr. Omran is worried about the connotations of the word "assimilate," and talks more of "positive integration without undermining our religion."

This week's summit will be followed by further meetings to continue the dialogue. Howard said that relevant government ministries would take charge of smaller sub-committees to work out new initiatives for weeding out radicalism.

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