On a hot summer’s night two years ago, a carload of Islamic gunmen drove along Auburn Road in Sydney’s west and sprayed bullets into a row of shops owned by Iraqi Australians.
This was no run-of-the-mill crime. On this night in January 2005, the gunshots echoed far beyond western Sydney and into the Canberra offices of ASIO, the domestic spy agency. The attack seemed to confirm what ASIO and other law enforcement agencies had long feared: that tensions between rival Sunni and Shia Muslim communities had spilled into violence.
It occurred only a week before the landmark free elections in Iraq, where Sunnis and Shi’ites were locked in a bitter and bloody power struggle.
The Sydney shooting of Shi’ite-owned shops followed the harassment of Shi’ite voters in Auburn the previous day as they lined up to cast their postal vote for Iraq.
A group of Sunni protesters had disrupted the voting, holding up a sign in Arabic saying “vote and die” and chanting anti-Shia slogans. So bad was the harassment that local sheik Haydar Naji advised his fellow voters for their own safety to scrub the blue fingerprint ink off their fingers, ink that was proud proof of their democratic vote.
In the eyes of the authorities, the clashes and the shooting in Auburn were a grim portent for the future. The last thing the nation’s counter-terrorism agencies needed was a mini Australian version of the bloody feud between the Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq.
So far, their worst fears have proved unfounded. The global divide between Islam’s two main groups, Sunnis and Shi’ites, has not become a flashpoint in Australia’s Muslim community. On the contrary, as was revealed by The Australian, the nation’s Shi’ite and Sunni leaders have formed a united front against Israel, declaring their support for the Iranian-backed terrorist network Hezbollah.
Yesterday Muslim leaders from both sects attacked the Howard Government and the Opposition for meeting a controversial US-based Muslim thinker, Wafa Sultan, who considers the prophet Mohammed evil and who says there is no difference between moderate and radical Islam.
The Australian yesterday revealed that Sultan, a psychiatrist who shot to fame last year following an interview on the Arabic news and current affairs television channel Al Jazeera in which she attacked Islam, met Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Opposition Deputy Leader Julia Gillard while in Australia on an “under the radar” visit to talk aboutIslam.
Sydney-based Shi’ite leader Salah Qurnawy yesterday joined Sunni leader Keysar Trad warning against anti-Islamic Muslims, saying they were as dangerous as radical clerics who wanted to destroy the West.
Qurnawy, president of the Al Sajjad Association, believes Sultan’s views and outlook on Islam threaten to undermine the relationships formed between Muslims and wider Australia. He says Sultan – who last year featured in Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in the world – should not have been allowed into Australia.
“She will create disharmony for the community,” Qurnawy says.
Trad, president of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, has called on Ruddock to investigate Sultan’s views under sedition laws. “These politicians are free to go to bed with whom they choose,” he says of the ministers who met Sultan. “But if they allow people like Wafa Sultan to colour their views about the Australian Muslims with her crusade of misinformation, then they will not be serving the interest of Australian society. Her views are divisive to Australian society.
“I would expect (Ruddock) to search through the sedition provisions that he introduced (to see if) the views she has already stated would create division or hatred within Australian society.”
The unholy alliance of Shi’ites and Sunnis follows comments by Australia’s top Shi’ite spiritual leader Kamal Mousselmani in The Australian in which he labelled Israel a terrorist state and expressed his allegiance to Hezbollah militants. Trad says his sect largely supported Sheikh Mousselmani’s comments. “Sunnis outside of Lebanon, they still have a great deal of respect for Hezbollah,” he says.
Trad is not alone in his thinking. Last year during an anti-war rally in Melbourne, Australia’s new mufti, Fehmi Naji el-Imam, called Hezbollah militants freedom fighters.
It remains to be seen how permanent this new-found unity is between Australia’s 270,000-strong Sunni community and the much smaller 30,000 Shi’ite population.
The tensions that erupted in Auburn in 2005 suggest it is, at best, an uneasy peace between the two sects that is being watched by ASIO.
“The ongoing violence in Iraq continues to have an impact on the Middle East community in Australia,” ASIO wrote in its most recent annual report. “During 2005, in the lead-up to elections in Iraq, tensions increased between members of the Sunni and Shia communities in Sydney, particularly in the Auburn area.”
State and federal police are also keeping a close eye on relations between the two sects. Victorian police recently visited the Victorian town of Shepparton, which has a large Iraqi community, and met leaders from both sects.
Optimists argue that the recent display of unity between the Sunni and Shia factions may signal a lasting peace, another successful fruit of multicultural assimilation where ethnic and religious grudges overseas are not played out in Australian society.
“There really is no hostility between the two groups in Australia although they obviously disagree on some fairly fundamental aspects of the religion and there has been a lot of conflict between the two groups in Iraq,” says prominent Melbourne Muslim Amir Butler. “The Shia have their mosques, leaders and representative organisations, and the Sunnis have theirs. They just exist in parallel in much the same way as the Catholic Church exists in parallel with the Anglicans.”
Prominent Sydney-based Sunni cleric Khalil Shami says tensions within Australia’s Muslim community are largely a result of factional fighting within the Sunni and Shia sects rather than between the two sects.
He says Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in Australia are united, rather than divided, by their cultural values and beliefs. “I attend many of the Shia places and functions and I never ever had any problems with them,” says the imam of Penshurt Mosque in Sydney’s southwest. “We’re used to doing that, it’s part of our way of life. We’re both Muslims. We may be a little bit different in terms of our religious customs, but that doesn’t make us enemies.”
A Shi’ite cleric who wants to remain anonymous says it is the politicisation of ideological and religious differences that is fuelling conflict between Shi’ites and Sunnis in the Middle East. But he is optimistic escalating sectarian tensions overseas will not translate into similar community divisions inAustralia.
Senior Sunni female spiritual leader Aziza Abdel-Halim agrees, saying there is no reason overseas conflicts between the two sects should play out in Australia.
But she says hardliners in both the Sunni and Shia sects in Australia try to undermine relations between their respective mainstream communities. So far they have been largely unsuccessful.
Abdel-Halim, a former member of John Howard’s Muslim Community Reference Group, says Sunnis who espouse the fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology – practised by the likes of Osama bin Laden – do not consider Shi’ites to be Muslims and thus treats them as non-believers.
“In groups where people are influenced by Wahhabi thinking, you may hear condemnation of Shia,” she says. “Because they are very narrow in their (religious) interpretation of everything.”
Iraqi Shi’ite leader Mohammed Taha Al-Salami lost three members of his extended family in Iraq during the past 18 months as a result of the sectarian feuding in the region. But he remains optimistic about the relationship between the two sects.
“Division exists in every corner of every religion,” the Iraqi Islamic Council of Australia president says. “But I’m not justifying any of those things. Some people are self-righteous and think they are right and everyone else is wrong … what can you do with those people?”
Al-Salami says Islamists from both sides of the religious divide continue to hamper chances of peaceful resolutions in war-torn regions such as Iraq and are also willing to turn their guns against their own people.
“It’s a global problem. Al-Qa’ida is now operating in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, everywhere,” he says. “And they’re killing both Shia and Sunnis.”
Abdel-Halim, a respected proponent of inter-faith dialogue, says the Koran specifically states that a difference of religious opinion is a rahma, a mercy. “And as long as you believe in the one God and have the same Koran, any minor difference should be overlooked,” she says. “And we should come together as people of the same religion or the same country. But of course in countries where there’s struggle for control of power or there is occupation, and other things interfere, then people play games … and politicise religious differences.”
The internal political dynamics of Sunnis and Shi’ites differ considerably. Infighting among Sunnis in Australia has frequently made headlines, while Shi’ites tend to be more discreet, knotting out most of their personal differences behind closed doors. National security authorities say the local Shi’ite leadership is more united.
The most common bond between Australia’s Sunnis and Shi’ites is proving to be their shared dislike of Israel.
Anti-Israeli sentiment among Australia’s Muslims has flourished since Israel’s aggressive military campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon last year.
Although Hezbollah is a hardline Iranian-backed Shi’ite terrorist group committed to the destruction of Israel, the scale of the Israeli attacks angered many Australian Sunnis who sympathised with Hezbollah. “There are some Sunni Muslims who are opposed to Israel and so they are willing to put the ideological differences aside because Hezbollah (is) seen to be ‘standing up’ to the Israelis and doing what, in their view, Arab and Muslim armies and governments have been unable or unwilling to do,” says Butler.
When Israel’s offensive in Lebanon was at its peak last July, several moderate Australian Muslim leaders who had backed John Howard on the war against al-Qa’ida called on the Prime Minister to rethink Australia’s branding of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation.
Ameer Ali, the then head of the Government’s Muslim advisory body, said Hezbollah was wrongly classified as a terrorist group because, unlike al-Qa’ida, it was “not creating violence at random” but merely protecting the state of Lebanon.
Howard was unmoved. “Rethink our proscription of it as a terrorist organisation? No chance, full stop. No chance at all,” Howard said.
Butler points out that not all Sunnis and Shi’ites are united on Hezbollah.
“There are many Sunnis who are opposed to Hezbollah,” he says. “For some, this is because they are Shia and seen as proxies for Iran and an Iranian attempt to establish itself as the dominant power in the Muslim world; and for others it is because they disagree with what Hezbollah have done within Lebanon. For example, many Sunni Lebanese blame Hezbollah for having provoked the Israeli attack on the country.”
Another bond between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Australia is their widely held belief that the Australian Government is persecuting Muslims in general and that the tough new terror laws are aimed at people of Islamic faith.
This perception of a common enemy so close to home is further helping to unite these traditional Muslim rivals.