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Encountering the Other

Muslims and Christians: Where do we Stand? 2003 Jesuit Seminar Series

Frank Brennan SJ AO
Published at uniya.org, August 2003

A edited version of this paper appears in the September 2003 edition of Eureka Street (vol 13 no 7), the Jesuit magazine of public affairs, the arts and theology.

Professor Saeed and Fr Madigan make religious dialogue look easy. You would almost wonder what is the problem. Each of them is a gentle, refined, respectful scholar. If only all Muslims and all Christians were like this, all would be well. We would all have a healthy respect for each other's religious differences and co-operate for the well-being of each other and the rest of the human community. To almost every proposition, they propose I can hear assent, followed by the murmur, 'Yes, but Š'. But for the activities of Osama Bin Laden, we would not have been hosting a seminar series on Christian-Muslim dialogue under the rubric of justice. But for Australia's participation in the Coalition of the Willing, it is unlikely that the seminars would have attracted such crowds across the nation. Despite the common ground between the professor and the priest, there is a problem and we have to ask what is the point of inter-religious dialogue?

We have always known that there is a problem for Christian minorities in many societies where the majority is Muslim. Since 11 September 2001, we have had to admit that there is also a problem for Muslim minorities in countries such as Australia where the majority is Christian. These minorities suffer discrimination. They evoke fear in the majority and they have grounds for being fearful of the majority. They have suffered demonisation by government and are hard-pressed to enjoy equal protection of the State's laws and policies. If in doubt about the treatment of the Muslim minority in Australia, consider the remarks of our alternative Prime Minister, Peter Costello, having learnt that he would not be Prime Minister after John Howard's 64th birthday. He spoke on tolerance. Sounding more like an Iranian ayatollah, he then conceded that 'tolerance' is a verbal block-buster and shared with the voting public one of the responses he received: 'Please note that if your personal policy is to pander to and show leniency to illegal Muslim immigrants who are queue jumpers and sworn enemies of all Christians, my family and I most certainly will not vote Liberal.' Mr Costello needed to establish his credentials to lead the nation, securely and fearfully.

What is the point of our dialogue? No doubt such gatherings provide the opportunity for Christians and Muslims to meet, putting a human face on the other, breaking down the barriers between 'us' and ' them'. The fear of the other is very deep-seated in the Australian psyche, in part because of our geographic isolation. It is also part of our history.

Walking through Sydney Airport, Walid, one of the Palestinian asylum seekers whom I had known in Woomera, greeted me. At first I did not recognise him. He had been granted a temporary protection visa (TPV). He was wearing new clothes and his bearing was confident and graceful. In Woomera, in the desert dust, detainees do not have or wear good clothes. They are often downcast and despairing. I then met Geoff Clark, Chairman of ATSIC, and asked if he would have time to meet Walid. He greeted him with the words, 'You and I have the same minister.' Philip Ruddock is Minister for Immigration and Minister for Indigenous Affairs. At that moment, I realised that he was minister for everyone who is 'other' in contemporary Australia. Clark explained to Walid, 'I have told our minister, "I don't mind you making tough laws for boat people PROVIDED you make them retrospective.''' Then pointing at me, he said, 'This is the trouble in this country. This mob, they're all boat people. But now they think they can run the show.' The identification of the other as 'one of us' or 'one of them' affects social relations markedly when a fear-filled community is concerned with security.

Those from different religious traditions and none might even find that they share deep convictions about ethics, as well as being able to identify the other as 'one of us'. The theologian Hans Küng has dedicated his energies in recent years to proposing a global ethic. He distils one and the same norm, the golden rule of all religions: 'Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.' In Christianity, it is expressed: 'In everything do to others as you would have them do to you' (Mt 7.12, Lk 6.31). In Islam, it is expressed, 'No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself' (40 Hadith (sayings of Muhammad) of an-Nawawi 13). It is an elementary principle of humanity that 'every human being should be treated humanely, not in an inhuman, bestial way'. Küng derives four directives from this principle and he finds that all major religions offer guidance on the implementation of these directives:

Have respect for life. Do not kill.
Deal honestly and fairly. Do not steal.
Speak and act truthfully. Do not lie.
Respect and love one another. Do not abuse sexuality.

When launching a multimedia presentation on this global ethic at the IMF Headquarters in Washington just after the first anniversary of September 11, Küng said, 'A global ethic truly does not mean a new global ideology, a new single world culture, even an attempt at a uniform unitary religion. It would be ridiculous to want to replace the Torah, the Sermon on the Mount or the Qur'an by a global ethic. A global ethic is not a substitute for religion, nor is it a simple ethicizing of religion; it is not a substitute for a specific religious or philosophical ethic.' We still need to live our own religious tradition. But in making sense of our lives and actions to others of other religious traditions, the golden rule and these directives can be useful tools. Many Australian Christians are revolted by the thought that Shari'a law would permit the amputation of the hand of a thief, but they do not think twice in joining the chorus advocating the death penalty for the Bali bombers. Many American Christians are as adamant about the state's right to inflict death on a murderer as are Pakistani Muslims calling for amputation of the thief's hand. Can our dialogue help us to better respect life?

Many Muslims are affronted by the sexually explicit advertising of the west. They see pornography on the internet as an unwelcome pollution of their religious world. Many Christian women are affronted by the way Turkish Muslim men treat their women. Many Christians in the west think the wearing of the hijab evidence of the oppression of women. Together we can learn better how to 'Respect and love one another. Do not abuse sexuality.'

Dialogue of this sort may help us bridge the gap between us and them, deepening our appreciation of the global ethic we espouse. But in a society like Australia, many of our fellow citizens become daily more convinced that the world would be a better place without any religion. Though religion cannot be divorced from politics, economics and nationalism when we are seeking the causes of war and conflict, it is often perceived to be a contributing factor to these conflicts and rarely an alleviating one. Secular humanists conveniently overlook the religious motivation of many people who are committed peacemakers and peacekeepers. Christians easily espouse that God's self-communication is Jesus, one who is fully human. The secular humanist can happily join common cause with the religious person espousing full humanity for all, bypassing the need for any discussion of divine self-communication.

Christians and Muslims should be able to share their commitment to human rights for all persons. But this is where I encounter some distinctive problems with Islam. What place is there for tolerance, individual conscience and protection of the human rights of the minority? Professor Saeed may preach a message of religious tolerance and human rights for all. But he is a religious scholar in a religious tradition where there is no religious authority able to give a definitive reading on his religion's approach to tolerance and human rights. Some modern Islamic societies propose a notion of a theocratic state far more restrictive and prescriptive than the Catholic tradition would have permitted before John Courtney Murray influenced the Second Vatican Council to espouse religious freedom and to accord more scope to the formed and informed conscience of the individual. Even if there be a bevy of Courtney Murrays in the Islamic tradition, there is no religious authority then to give a binding interpretation to the Saudi Arabian Muslims who would prefer to ban Christians wearing even an ornamental cross around their necks, while they are free to build a huge mosque in Rome. There will continue to be Islamic states that punish apostasy even if their Constitutions give formal acknowledgement to freedom of religion.

Though Christian minorities will continue to suffer grievously in some Islamic societies, that is no excuse for us to discriminate against the Muslim minority here in Australia. Our contemporary treatment of asylum seekers including the demonisation of them by radio shock jocks and politicians has been possible because the majority of the boat people were swarthy Muslims rather than white Christians.

During our Adelaide seminar, Mrs Roqia Bakhtiyari was moved to an Adelaide hospital, seven months pregnant. She and her friends sought regular visits by at least one close woman friend during her confinement in hospital. Initially declining the request, immigration department officials said that the presence of an ACM woman officer would be sufficient. Mr Ruddock continues to insist that the detention of such persons is not punitive and it is not a deterrent. He insists that administrative detention, without a judicial warrant or authorisation, is not designed or intended to be punitive or a deterrent, though it may have that consequential effect.

The design and intent of the detention policy is for a number of purposes that the minister says are justified, namely, health, security, identity, ease of processing, and availability for removal upon failure to establish refugee status. None of these purposes is met by denying a woman in labour access to the friends who usually travel a considerable distance to visit her in detention when she is healthy. So what is the purpose of denying her visitor rights, provided the hospital and her doctor have no objection to the visits and provided the visits are sufficiently restricted in number so as not to cause any security problem for the ACM guards?

Given the media attention given to Mrs Bakhtiyari, the government had a legitimate concern to avoid a media circus about her confinement in an Adelaide hospital. But a blanket ban on any women friends visiting her would be disproportionate and evidence of another undisclosed purpose. It is a flagrant breach of the golden rule, possible in a democracy only because the majority identify one of her race, religion and migration status as so 'other' that her basic humanity is to be denied. Religious persons open to inter-religious dialogue should have a heightened sensitivity to this sort of inhumanity and adverse discrimination.

A final benefit of inter-religious dialogue is that the Christian ought become a better Christian by meeting the one who is other and Muslim, more accurately and comprehensively discerning the action of the Spirit in the world. And dare I speculate that the Muslim could become a better Muslim by meeting those of us who are Christian when we put on our best face. At this time when Muslims live in fear in our midst, we have the opportunity to open the dialogue with Muslims of good will creating a social space where the Muslim and the Christian can turn to each other, face to face. Like the 29-year-old Iranian twins Ladan and Laleh Bijani who died during surgery to separate them, we may find that the dream costs us dearly. And there is no guarantee of success. But the stand-off cannot continue. It not only gives us a bad name. It also gives God a bad name, whatever name for God we might invoke, and whether we find God expressed in the Word made flesh or in the Qur'an.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ is Associate Director of Uniya. His latest book Tampering with Asylum (UQP 2003) will be published next month.