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Religious and human freedom

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

Prof Abdullah Saeed
Published at uniya.org, August 2003

An 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.

September 11, 2001 changed the life of Muslims in the West, including in Australia. As we all know, Muslims in Australia today, their beliefs, values, practices and institutions, are under the microscope. There is a fear among many Muslims in Australia, a fear that is difficult to explain. In their turn, Muslims are feared by many non-Muslim Australians, many of them Christians. In this presentation, I will focus on three issues:

Muslims in Australia: a monolithic entity?

First of all, substantial diversity exists among Muslims, in the same way that it exists among Christians. Muslims around the world, 1300 million of them, agree on just a few things such as belief in one God, the prophethood of Muhammad, life after death, and some basic practices such as five daily prayers, fasting, giving charity and pilgrimage. They also agree on some basic ethical-moral values which they share with Christians. But they disagree on a vast array of things, from religious tolerance, to gender equality, to human rights, to system of governance.

Muslims in Australia number around 300,000, or 1.5% of the population; 36% of them were born here. Australian Muslims do not even form a single community; there are Sunnis and Shi`is, and different traditions and schools within those broad religious groupings. There are also ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences. Not all Muslims in Australia were migrants; some are 2nd or 3rd generation Australian-born. There are converts to Islam from Anglo or other backgrounds. Some Muslims are conservative in religious matters while others are liberal. Some are observant, others are not. Demographically, Muslims represent a cross-section of Australia with their political and socio-economic differences. In addition, more than 75% of Muslims in Australia are Australian citizens.

Christians and Muslims have a lot in common.

There is a generally held view among many of us that Muslims and Christians have been in continual conflict with each other since the beginning of Islam in the early seventh century, and they are distinguished by their differences rather than by what they have in common. While I do recognise there are plenty of negatives in the Muslim-Christian relationship over the past 1400 years, in this presentation, I will not make any apologies for emphasising the positives.

It is worth remembering that Muslims and Christians share a common religious heritage. A significant part of the Qur’an, the Holy Scripture of Muslims, is devoted to Jesus Christ. One of the chapters of the Qur’an is named after Mary, probably the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an, which refers to her as an example to the humankind. The Qur’an recounts the virgin birth, that Jesus Christ is not like any other human being, that he was a ‘word’ sent to Mary, that he was ‘raised’ to heaven, that he performed many miracles. What the Qur’an does not believe is that Jesus Christ is son of God or God.

Prophet Muhammad (d.632) had also a wonderful relationship with many Christians. When the Prophet Muhammad experienced his first revelation in 610 CE, one of the first people with whom he discussed the matter was a Christian, a cousin of Muhammad’s wife. Also, it was a Christian ruler, the King of the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia, who gave asylum to the first Muslim community of migrants when they fled Mecca because they were persecuted in that city for their beliefs. The King gave them complete freedom to practise their new religion under his protection. It was thus under Christian protection that the earliest Muslims managed to practise their religion freely first.

With reference to the way many Christians received the Prophet, the Qur’an (5:82) says (addressing Muhammad):

…And you [Muhammad] will find the closest in love to the faithful [the Muslims] are the people who say ‘we are followers of Christ’, because there are priests and monks among them, and they are not arrogant.

Sadly, this positive atmosphere changed to a large extent in the post-prophetic period, largely as a result of Muslim–Christian military conflict that saw much of the Near East/North Africa, previously Christian, come under Muslim rule and political control. Despite this conflict, however, very many Christian communities continued to exist under Muslim rule in places like the Middle East and North Africa. Muslims and Christians lived as neighbours, friends, business partners and colleagues. Many of these Christian communities still exist today. Of course, the situation of Christian minorities in Muslim majority countries varied greatly.

Emphasising the commonalities between Christians and Muslims, a Jewish historian, Bernard Lewis, says:

During the centuries of confrontation and conflict, Muslims and Christians alike were more conscious of their differences than of their similarities. Yet these similarities are very great, for the two religions and the two cultures had much in common: both shared the inheritance of the ancient civilisations of the Middle East; both had adopted the Jewish religious tradition of ethical monotheism, prophetic mission, and revelation preserved in Scripture; both were disciples of Greek thought and science..…However much Christians and Muslims may have argued with one another, the very fact that they were able to do so, using a common logic and common concepts, shows the degree of kinship that existed between them.

In the twentieth century, we are seeing an increasing emphasis on the commonalities between Muslims and Christians. Theologians on both sides are attempting to focus on the need to move forward, to build bridges, and improve relations between Muslims and Christians. Significant advances have been made on both sides in rethinking the past, in inter-faith dialogue, and in emphasising commonality rather than difference. The basis of this commonality was expressed by Pope John Paul II:

The Church has a high regard for them [Muslims], convinced that their faith in the transcendent God contributes to building a new human family based on the highest aspirations of the human heart.

We can concentrate on what we share while allowing the differences to remain. Islam and Christianity are two different religious traditions. They do not have to be identical. But with so much common ground between them, Muslims and Christians can talk to each other, and work together on issues such as social justice and human rights both here in Australia and elsewhere.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, spoke in 2002 on the connection between love of God and love of neighbour:

For Christians as for Muslims there is no higher commandment than to love God. But Jesus reminds us that this fundamental orientation towards God cannot be separated from our relationship to our neighbour. The commandments to love God and neighbor belong together. If we think that we can love God while we ignore, despise or hate our neighbor, we are deceived and our religion is empty.

In Australia, Muslims and Christians are literally neighbors. And a part of both religious traditions is that the love of God should be extended to our neighbours.

Christian-Muslim relationship, Muslims and violence

Despite the positive developments of the twentieth century in the area of Muslim-Christian relationship, there are now major challenges to extending love, which Dr Carey referred to, to the Muslim neighbour in Australia. In the post September 11 period, much of this is associated with the link so commonly made between Muslims, terrorism and violence. For many here in Australia, the threat of terrorism from Muslim Australians is now perceived as real, an unease fed by images in the media and the political sub-texts. Equally, Muslims in Australia are worried that they are being unfairly labelled and targeted.

It seems to me that in order to build bridges and establish good neighbourly relations, we need to understand each other, first. I believe that we have no choice in this regard. We share the same neighbourhoods. Our children share the same schools. We share workplaces and, more importantly, we share the future of this country. Without understanding, we will continue to move towards the irrational, in the form of mistrust, stereotyping and suspicion.

No one would deny that Muslim militants, extremists and fanatics exist in a number of countries, that many of them have an anti-Western agenda, or that they believe in the clash of Islam with the Christian West. We have seen that some of these militants are ready to eliminate those whom they see as their enemies, be they Muslim or Christian. But what we also know is that the Muslim militants are relatively small in number, and that the vast majority of Muslims in the world are not fanatics, hate-mongers, violent extremists, or suicide bombers. History also tells us that terrorism and religious violence are neither new nor the exclusive preserve of Muslims.

Given what we know, why are terrorism and Muslims still so closely connected in our minds?

There are many reasons for that. Let me mention briefly some:

  • First, terrorist activity and Muslims are linked every day in the media, from suicide bombings to attacks on American or Western interests
  • We still have in our minds the images from the past of Islam as a violent, fanatical religion, and Muslims as violent and fanatical
  • With the end of the Cold War, Muslim militants were there to assume the role of international bogey-man
  • Locally, fear has been fuelled by some of our politicians’ allusions to Islam and Muslims as being a threat to our society; that Muslims are somehow anti-Australian or anti-Christian

Demonisation of a community is insidious; it develops slowly, perhaps unconsciously, as we saw with the Jewish communities of Europe. We should be careful not to compare Germany in the 1930s with Australia today; there is no comparison. But history is there for us to reflect on and learn from. What I would like to emphasise is that demonisation of a religious community, particularly a visible one, can start small but gradually take hold of an entire community, leading to a climate of hate, fear and irrationality. In fact, one Australian in every eight interviewed for a comprehensive survey on racist attitudes admitted that they were prejudiced, particularly towards their fellow Muslim Australians. This is a serious worry for average Muslims, many of them escapees from persecution elsewhere, who happen to be law-abiding citizens and residents of this country.

Perhaps also it is time for the so-called terrorist threat, particularly the Muslim terrorist threat in Australia, to be contextualised.

Terrorism, for most Australians, is still something that happens somewhere else. Of course, I am not suggesting we should ignore the threat of terrorism but to put that in perspective. Terrorism is a problem; it can be dealt with by law enforcement agencies without the hype and alarmist propaganda that are so commonly found in our media today. I must also say that this can be achieved without creating unnecessary fear within the broader Australian community, or pointing finger at the Muslim community here. The fact is there has been no single case of arrest and conviction in Australia of a Muslim terrorist or terrorist network so far. Let me provide also some statistics to show that there are far bigger problems to worry about here, at home.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (April 2002), for the previous 12 months, there were:

  • 665,400 households who were victims of household crimes (break-ins, attempted break-ins, motor-vehicle thefts)
  • 811,700 persons aged 15 years and over who were victims of personal crimes such as robbery, assault, sexual assault
  • 2,534,500 incidents of assault
  • 62,700 instances of sexual assault experienced by female victims

In comparison, since 1978, Australia has not experienced any terrorist activity on its soil, let alone Muslim terrorist activity. Of course, this is before the Bali bombings in which 88 Australians were killed. Even then, the number of victims of terrorism in Australia pale compared to the victims of other crimes. The figures provided here do not include the number of people who are murdered, commit suicide or are killed on our roads. One wonders why this so-called threat of Muslim terrorism is given such a wide currency in Australia.

Muslims in Australia hope that the Muslim militant minorities, wherever they exist, will be prevented from carrying out their destructive activities. For them it is distressing that Muslims of the world (approximately 20% of the world population) are unfairly associated with terrorism because of a tiny number of extremists and militants.

The present experience of Muslims can damage our long-term prospects as an Australian community. The Australia I saw in the late 1980s and early 1990s is not the same Australia in 2003. Many Muslims are worried about the direction of the rhetoric on the so-called ‘war on terror’ and the legislative and regulative environment into which we are moving. Many also feel that in Australia, now, being visibly Muslim is a problem. The religious freedom we have in this country, while technically unaffected, is seen by many to be contracting in the case of Muslims. If the trend continues, it will be disastrous for the Muslim community here.

I believe we can work together to dispel the myths and stereotypes that give rise to what is at best discomfort and at worst fear.

Let me conclude with a Qur’anic verse that emphasises the common humanity all of us have:

O humankind! We have created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and have made you nations and tribes, that ye may know one another. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you (Qur’an 49:13).

Professor Abdullah Saeed is Associate Professor and Head of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne and author of Islam in Australia (2003) published by Allen & Unwin