Waleed Aly is probably the most recognised Muslim man in Australia. An Australian of Egyptian descent, he is a frequent commentator on Islam in Australia and also has broader interests in numerous subjects – he’s an author, radio and TV presenter, political commentator, academic, lawyer and perhaps the world’s first prominent Muslim intellectual to also be a rock musician. He was in the UAE last week to present a series of talks, when we caught up with him to ask what it’s like to play so many roles.
You host the daily RN Drive programme on the national broadcaster, ABC Radio National, and Big Ideas on ABC television. You’re also a lecturer in politics at Monash University, where you work within the Global Terrorism Research Centre. And you’re a dad of two. How do you fit it all in?
My broadcast work is improved by my being an academic and my academic work is better as a result of communicating with the general public through my broadcasts. It does mean that I don’t get many days off – when I take time off from one job, I’m doing another.
What influence has your family had on your life?
The thing I find amazing about my parents is the way they built their lives in Australia – from nothing, really. My dad taught at Monash University, where I teach now, then became a schoolteacher and finally a civil engineer – dad’s influence was to make sure I was also interested in the sciences, so I ended up with an engineering degree, too. If you’re Egyptian, it seems to be compulsory to be an engineer. Mum was thinking of going to Canada but decided it was too cold – she’s not the first person to have made that decision. She ended up teaching Australian history and English, of all things, at a school in Australia. For a young woman who had just left Cairo, that is amazing, I still don’t really know how that happened. She instilled in me a love of words and I probably would never have ended up being a writer were it not for her.
You are a guitarist and key songwriter for the rock, funk and jazz band Robot Child. How did you become a rock musician?
Going through school I learnt saxophone and guitar, which I took fairly seriously, and when I was in year 12 of my international baccalaureate I was also a big Queen fan. So for my extended essay, I wrote a harmonic instructional analysis of Bohemian Rhapsody, which to this day remains the greatest assignment I have ever done. When you’re into music, it’s always a part of your life.
You wrote the book People Like Us in 2007, about people’s misunderstandings of Islam. Are Muslims integrated into Australian society?
Muslims are generally well-integrated in Australia. When travelling in the Muslim world I’ve found people have often been staggered that Muslims exist in Australia. Being a Muslim in Australia, you appreciate the way Islam varies around the world and suddenly comes together there. So it teaches you to understand Islam in a much more global way that reflects the diversity of the entire Muslim world – not just the Arab world, but through Asia, too, and Africa. I don’t know really of any other time in history when Muslims have had to do that.