Shia Muslims prepare for Arbaeen pilgrimage
Australia’s Shia Muslim community is concerned about the effect new ‘no-go zones’ law will have on citizens who undertake the Arbaeen pilgrimage to Karbala in southern Iraq.
Arbaeen is the 40-day commemoration of the killing of Mohammed’s grandson, Hussein bin Ali. Millions of Shia Muslims from around the world are expected to undertake the 80-kilometre, three-day walk from Najaf to the third most holy city in Shia Islam on December 10 - a pilgrimage that was banned under the dictatorship of Iraq’s Sunni leader, Saddam Hussein.
Around 200 Australians are expected to travel to Iraq for the occasion this year and many fear they may come under federal scrutiny.
"If legislation is targeting particular groups, it’s unfair. It should only target people doing the wrong thing.”
– Ali Sheriff, a director at the Imam Husain Islamic Centre
Ali Sheriff, a director at the Imam Husain Islamic Centre, said “some (Australian Shia Muslims) who have made plans at the beginning of the year have reassessed and decided it’s not worth the security risk from insurgents (in Iraq), but others still feel the need to go.”
The pilgrimage, while not one of the five ‘pillars of Islam’ as is the annual hajj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, is “highly recommended” in the Shia faith, he said.
Tour operators in Australia that cater to a small number of Shia Muslim pilgrims usually take care of domestic and visa arrangements and connect travellers with larger groups from other countries, such as the UK and USA.
“Most prefer to go in a group to share this experience with friends and those who share a commonality of belief,” Sheriff said.
The Iraqi Government has been cautious in handing out visas to people who undertake the pilgrimage, Sheriff said. But with the introduction of the Foreign Fighters Bill he was unsure whether this would be sufficient proof to the Australian Government that travellers weren’t engaging in hostile activity.
In a recent development, the Iraqi Government has discontinued giving pilgrimage visas to Australian citizens, Sheriff said, so only those who received visas before the Foreign Fighters Bill was passed can go to Iraq.
The new security context is in “the back of everybody’s minds (who is undertaking the pilgrimage),” he said.
“(Suspicion) is not without foundation – unfortunately, there are people acting outside their duties as a Muslim and an Australian citizen.”
But he hoped that federal agencies would “make the distinction” between Shia Muslims undertaking pilgrimage and others who are foreign fighters.
Preceding the hajj, which took place between October 2 and October 6, security efforts stepped up at Australian airports had the unwitting consequence of disrupting tour groups. One high profile Muslim sheikh, of the Australian National Imams Council who works closely with government agencies, was leading a tour group to Mecca when detained and questioned at Sydney Airport and subsequently missed his flight.
Foreign Fighters Bill
The Foreign Fighters Bill that was passed by the Senate in federal parliament this week bans Australians from travelling to “declared areas” where terrorist organisations are active, which could include areas of Iraq.
Exemptions, or defences, against the primary offence of entering a “declared area” include working as a government or UN official, journalists, humanitarian workers and those called before a court. The legislation also exempts “making a bona fide visit to a family member” or “any other purpose prescribed by the regulations”.
Muslim community leaders have previously questioned whether religious pilgrims would qualify for exemption.
Defence barrister Zaid Khan, of the Muslim Legal Network, said to The Point, “What do you have to prove? What’s sufficient? What type of proof is required to show that you weren’t up to something you shouldn’t have been doing?”
Ali Sheriff said the workings of the law were unclear “until we see it in action. If legislation is targeting particular groups, it’s unfair. It should only target people doing the wrong thing.”
The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service has published a guide for travellers Know Before You Go which is available in many languages and accessible online at: http://www.customs.gov.au/knowbeforeyougo/
Shia Muslims fear that proscribing areas could impact on their religious pilgrimage
This story is an updated version of the one originally published to relay information that the Iraqi Government is no longer issuing pilgrimage visas to Australian citizens.