Profile: Waleed Aly
A lack of planning has left the door open for this sports-loving academic.
He's not a professional sportsman but it's fair to say that sport - especially Australian Rules football - has played a big role in shaping Waleed Aly's life.
Aly, 30, is best known as an articulate commentator on Muslim issues and was one of 40 young people invited to the Future Summit in April. He's a university lecturer, author, a former lawyer and board member of the Islamic Council of Victoria.
Growing up in Melbourne's eastern suburbs, he says it was "mainly Anglo kids, a couple of Asians and me". Because Aly played basketball, footy and cricket against a brother 10 years older than him, he was pretty comfortable playing against children his own size.
"If you were good at sport, that overcame just about anything because people wanted to be on your team," he recalls. "It mattered if you were good, then people had to respect you and be nice to you."
Years later, sport again shaped his destiny. It was September 11, 2001, and Aly went to watch his beloved Richmond Tigers training for the AFL finals. Journalist and author Martin Flanagan was there and wrote a newspaper story a few days later about the training session on the eve of the World Trade Centre terrorist attacks.
Aly recognised in the story a description of himself as a spectator and wrote to Flanagan saying he was interested in writing. A month later, Flanagan called and asked to see some examples of his work.
The feedback was good. "He told me 'writing is like playing footy - you can play or you can't. And you can play,' " says Aly, who still counts Flanagan as a friend and mentor. "He convinced me I had something to say."
A year later, Aly, then working as a commercial lawyer, had his first newspaper opinion piece published. It was a response to Fred Nile's assertion that the government should ban Muslim women from wearing the traditional chador because they might be concealing weapons.
By 2003, Aly had been appointed to the board of the Islamic Council of Victoria and became the Australian Muslim community's spokesman during a period that included the London, Madrid and second Bali bombings, as well as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Sydney gang rapes and the Cronulla riots.
His advocacy led to an unexpected job offer from Monash University in July 2007 to lecture in politics within its global terrorism research centre. He also developed the television comedy series Salam Cafe, first shown on community television, then on SBS last year, highlighting the lighter side of being a Muslim in Australia.
"I don't plan," Aly says. "People talk about a five or 10-year plan to aim towards. All the most exciting things, such as my shift to academia, my book, writing in newspapers, I've never planned."
As for Australia's acceptance of its Muslim community, Aly says anti-Muslim sentiment has "cooled down a lot" in the past year since the defeat of the Howard government. The Rudd Government, he believes, is more dourly focused on the credit crisis and global warming.
"Howard's focus on social politics made life pretty uncomfortable for a lot of Muslims," says Aly, adding that the case of Brisbane doctor Mohamed Haneef also changed things.
"People became a lot more sceptical of the government."
With political attention back on the economy, the social side of things can evolve naturally. "I've detected almost no spike in social stigma after the Benbrika trial or after [the terrorist attacks in] Mumbai. A couple of years ago, that would be unthinkable."
THE BIG QUESTIONS
Biggest break I don't think I've had a big break, more a series of little ones. [For example], getting my first opinion piece published in November 2002 in The Sunday Age. Up until then it had never really occurred to me it was possible.
Biggest achievement I was going to say my book [People Like Us] but I don't actually like it. I think a lot of authors are like that. Or perhaps convincing my wife to marry me. I eventually decided I wouldn't chase after her any more and that was the way to do it.
Biggest regret Allowing all my creative disciplines to lapse once I got to uni - especially music [he plays guitar and saxophone]. I've just started a band again, I'm remoulding my brain.
Best investment Avoiding the stockmarket before the crash. I'd just got some money and my financial planner sent me an email saying: "It's time to invest." A few days later everything dropped. The good fortune of being lazy.
Worst investment I don't buy stuff. But I've just spent $3000 on two new guitars - I'll tell you in a year if that's a bad investment.
Attitude to money People talk about money and I fall asleep. I left the law for academia - I'll never be rich.
Personal philosophy Just do things. The more you do, the more doors open.
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