Aussie Muslim model lambasted by cultural Muslim leaders
Australian model and Muslim convert Michelle Leslie
Australian model Michelle Leslie returns to Australia over the next few days. While in an Indonesian prison, this swimsuit and underwear model decided to don a head scarf. At one stage, she even wore a burqa covering her entire face.
Some Australian media had a field day with her alleged "conversion on the road to Bali prison". When her friends revealed Leslie had embraced Islam at least two years ago, the media cynicism on her conversion largely subsided.
But as Leslie's plane prepares to land at Sydney Airport, she will be greeted by another frenzy. Leslie has been told by the President of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) to cease her modelling career.
Dr Ameer Ali, AFIC President and an economics lecturer, was quoted in Sydney's Daily Telegraph as saying:
"If she is a Muslim I don't think she should go back to her job as an underwear model because Islam is about modesty. Taking off her clothes and being half-naked on the catwalk will raise a lot of eyebrows in the community. She can't have it both ways. Either practice Islam and do something decent or don't practice it at all."
This all-or-nothing mentality has become all too prevalent amongst the first generation migrants who dominate leadership roles within Muslim bodies and organisations. New converts or young Muslims returning to their faith are expected to immediately conform to a set of standards.
But this attitude doesn't account for human realities. We all have to start somewhere. And if some of us end up choosing to regard ourselves as Muslim, this does not necessarily translate into a complete change of career or lifestyle choice.
Leslie has a number of modelling contracts awaiting her return to Australia. Although the writer is no theologian, it is an Islamic theological given that her taking up modelling will not in itself take her outside the fold of Islam. The President of AFIC will know this. Or at least he should.
Being Muslim is a product of one's faith. And belief is a matter of the heart. Only Michelle Leslie and her Creator know what is in Michelle Leslie's heart.
Further, it is not for the presidents of Muslim bodies to be telling Muslim women how they should dress. Just as it is not the business of politicians to be regulating Muslim dress. Dr Ali's comments mirror those of conservative Liberal Party backbenchers who want to see the traditional Muslim hijab banned from state schools.
Muslim women living on either side of the Tasman have the same opportunities as any other women to participate in mainstream society. Whether they are converts or brought up in the West, these women should be allowed to make their own choices without men - and their often irrelevant cultural standards - becoming involved.
Many Muslim leaders find it impossible to bridge the cultural gap that often divides them from mainstream society.
Whether as converts or reverts, many non-cultural Muslims face difficult decisions and choices beyond the almost impossible task of adopting a new faith.
Leslie has taken an enormous step. She has changed her faith. It will take her some time to change her lifestyle.
Human beings are not robots or computers that can be programmed into a new set of habits and behaviour.
For many young Muslims the choice is even more difficult. They are forced to swing life's pendulum in at least three directions between parental expectations, orthodox religion and the Western culture they grew up in. For new Australian and New Zealand Muslims, both young and converts, conventional mosques and imams are locked in an alien cultural world.
I have a Kiwi Muslim friend who sometimes works behind a bar. She serves alcohol, and she enjoys drinking white wine or champagne mixed with orange juice. Both are habits regarded as sinful by mainstream Islam.
But beware anyone who says something nasty about her father's religion. My friend may not be the most observant Muslim on the planet, but in terms of passion for her faith I have known few people better and stronger.
More important than her job and her drinking habits is the goodness of her heart and her wisdom. Despite leading a difficult life, she is one of the most compassionate people I have met. She is extraordinarily sensitive to other people's feelings. I have never heard her speak ill of anyone. And when she rebukes her lawyer friend Irfan on his over-eating habits, she does it mildly.
My friend is the living embodiment of what American sufi Hamza Yusuf Hanson once said: A religious person is someone who doesn't want to go to hell. A spiritual person is someone who has been to hell and never wants to go back.
Islam teaches that a good heart and noble intentions matter more than appearances. Some rednecks claim that Muslims believe all martyrs go to heaven into the arms of 72 virgins. But the prophet Muhammad taught that a martyr who dies with the intention of being glorified will in fact be sent to hell. He made the same remark concerning the cleric and the philanthropist who do good deeds just to be seen.
The same prophet also spoke of a sex worker who finished her shift and went to the well to drink some water. She saw a dog dying of thirst and gave the dog water first.
For that good deed and for the purity of her intention, God made this woman destined for heaven.
Whether you're a neuroscientist, a barmaid, a swimsuit model or a sex worker, what counts isn't what people think of you. Like all mainstream faiths, Islam teaches that what counts at the end of the day is the goodness of your heart.
I hope Australians of all faiths will welcome Michelle home with open hearts.
* Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer.
(First published in the New Zealand Herald on 22 November 2005)
This article was penned for my good buddy Yazza.