Encountering the Other
Muslims and Christians: Where do we Stand? 2003 Jesuit Seminar
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
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.