Sydney's surfing sheikh


Wearing a white turban and a grey robe, Haisam Farache pulls up to the white sands of Sydney's Narrabeen beach in a black SUV just before sunrise. Sporting a long, bushy, salt-and-pepper beard, the Islamic scholar changes out of his robe and into a wetsuit.

As Farache waxes his 2-metre surfboard, the born-and-bred Sydneysider explains how surfing has become a spiritual experience and helped him see things differently.

"It's a release, it's freedom," says Farache, who is referred to as a sheikh by his fellow Muslims. "All my stresses are washed away with the waves."

Farache works as a solicitor and an imam, applying Sharia law within Australian jurisprudence for clients who want to address disputes and issues according to Islamic teachings. But the 43-year-old's wave-riding pastime and passion has also intrigued students and fellow mosque-goers and helped him reach out to disenfranchised youths.

"I tell them, 'Here is what I do, I surf. If you come to the beach, we will go catch a wave together. We will have a laugh and eat. We will do it in a way that is permissible according to Islam and Australian law,'" Farache says.

Farache says he surfs several times a week. His favourite surf spot is the beach's Shark Alley, known for some of the best surf breaks in the world, with waves that average 1.5 metres. It is close to Sydney's north shore, where Farache was born and spent his childhood.

"Growing up my childhood was pretty typical Aussie," he says. "I played rugby. I surfed. Beach culture was an essential part of my upbringing."

Farache attended a Catholic high school and was "spiritual, but not very religious" until he went to the United States in 1992 for university, where he studied world religions.

After becoming a devout Muslim in 1996, he had to deal with issues related to Islamic jurisprudence while working as a family lawyer. He then went to Yemen in 2000 to study Islamic law for two years. Upon his return, he was asked to be an imam at Artarmon mosque in northern Sydney.

Two years later, he joined Lakemba mosque, the largest in Sydney and the Bankstown mosque after that. Farache says he is trying to bridge the growing schism between Muslims and non-Muslims in Australia, where politics and extreme views on both the sides are to blame for tensions.

Around 2 percent of Australia's 24 million residents are Muslim and many have confronted stereotyped thinking and racism, Gillian Triggs, the president of Australian Human Rights Commission, said last week at a speech at University of Sydney. "The Muslim community is disproportionately subject to hate speech and to discrimination, in employment and the delivery of goods and services," she said. Racial prejudice against Muslims is three times more than against other Australians, a 2015 study by the University of Western Sydney found.

Another study by Monash University found that more than half of Muslims born in Australia reporting discrimination against them.

The far-right parliamentarian Pauline Hanson recently called Islam "a disease that needs vaccination." "Australia has always been a racist country, unfortunately... The foundation of the country was based on racism," says Farache, quickly adding, "not everyone behaves that way, of course."

Australians have jumped on the bandwagon of nationalism and Islamophobia that has swept through the fringes of other western countries, Farache says.

"It's more about government policy and people in power... I consider myself a proud Australian, but unfortunately we have started to fail quite miserably" when it comes to bias against Muslims, Farache says.

Even if he can't change others' views, Farache is using his surfer-sheikh identity to reach out to the Australian Muslim community and provide guidance on questions about following Islam.

"People ... ask everything – how to deal with parents, how to earn halal income, how to lead a good Muslim life in today's day and age," Farache says. "My purpose is to let estranged Muslims know that they can be Muslims and Australian," the imam says. "They are not mutually inclusive in any way, shape or form."    (dpa)

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