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Religious and human freedoms

Muslims in Australia: a monolithic entity?

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 and life after death, and some basic practices such as five daily prayers, fasting, 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, human rights and systems of governance.

Muslims in Australia number around 300,000, or 1.5 per cent of the population; 36 per cent of them were born here. Australian Muslims do not even form a single community; there are Sunnis and Shi’as, 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 second- or third-generation Australians. There are converts to Islam from Anglo and 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 incorporating political and socio-economic differences. More than 75 per cent of Muslims in Australia are Australian citizens.

Christians and Muslims have much in common There is a generally held view among many that Muslims and Christians have been in continual conflict since the beginning of Islam in the early 7th century, and are notable for their differences rather than the characteristics they share. While I 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, referring to her as an example to 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, and 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 a wonderful relationship with many Christians. When the Prophet Muhammad experienced his first revelation in 610ce, 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 kingdom of Abyssinia—who gave asylum to the first Muslim community when they fled Mecca where they had been persecuted 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 in freedom.

Describing 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 in the post-prophetic period. This was largely due to the military conflict between Muslims and Christians, which saw much of the near-east and north Africa, which was formerly Christian, now 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 has 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 20th century, we are seeing an increasing emphasis on promoting the commonalities between Muslims and Christians. Theologians on both sides are attempting to focus on the need to move forward and improve relations between Muslims and Christians. Significant advances have been made through studying the past, inter-faith dialogue, and emphasising commonality rather than difference. This shift in thinking is evident in these remarks 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 and allow the differences to remain. Islam and Christianity are 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 in Australia and elsewhere.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, spoke in 2002 on the indivisibility 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 neighbour belong together. If we think that we can love God while we ignore, despise or hate our neighbour, we are deceived and our religion is empty.’

In Australia, Muslims and Christians are literally neighbours. Common to both traditions is that the love of God should be extended to our neighbour.

Christian-Muslim relations, Muslims and violence

Despite the positive developments of the 20th century in Muslim-Christian relations, there are now major challenges to extending love to the Muslim neighbour in Australia. In the post-September 11 period, this difficulty arises because of the link so often made between Muslims, terrorism and violence. For many in Australia, the threat of terrorism from Muslim Australians is now perceived as real; an unease fed by images in the media and political agendas. Equally, Muslims in Australia are worried that they are being unfairly labelled and targeted.

It seems that in order to establish good neighbourly relations, we need firstly to understand each other. 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 support the idea of the clash of Islam with the predominantly Christian West. We have seen that some militants are ready to eliminate those whom they regard as their enemies, be they Muslim or Christian. What we also know is that the number of Muslim militants is relatively small, 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 acts of 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 this. Let me mention briefly some:

Terrorist activity and Muslims are linked every day in the media, from suicide bombings to attacks on American or Western interests. Historically, the images in our minds of Islam (and consequently Muslims) are those of a violent and fanatical religion. With the end of the Cold War, Muslim militants were an easy target in assuming the role of international bogey-man. Locally, fear has been fuelled by some politicians’ allusions to Islam and Muslims as posing a threat to our society; that Muslims are 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 prior to the Second World War. We should be careful not to compare Germany in the 1930s with Australia today; there is no comparison. But history can teach us much. What I would like to emphasise is that demonisation of a religious community, particularly a highly visible one, can gradually take hold of an entire community, leading to a climate of hate, fear and irrationality. In fact, one in eight Australians interviewed for a comprehensive survey on racist attitudes admitted that they were prejudiced, particularly towards their fellow Muslim Australians. This is a serious concern for Muslims, many of whom are escapees from persecution elsewhere, who themselves are law-abiding citizens and residents of this country.

It is time for the so-called terrorist threat, particularly the Muslim terrorist threat in Australia, to be put into context.

Terrorism, for most Australians, is still something that happens elsewhere. I am not suggesting we should ignore this threat but to keep it in perspective. Terrorism is a problem that can be dealt with by law enforcement agencies without the hype and alarmist propaganda so commonly found in our media today. The suppression of terrorism can be achieved without creating unnecessary fear within the broader Australian community, or targeting the Australian Muslim community. The fact is there has been no single case of conviction in Australia to date of a Muslim terrorist or terrorist network.

Since 1978, Australia has not experienced any terrorist activity on its soil, let alone Muslim terrorist activity. And while 88 Australians were killed in Bali in 2002, even here, the number of victims of terrorism pales beside the numbers of victims of violent crime within Australia. Consider the numbers of people each year who are murdered, commit suicide or are killed on our roads or the victims of theft, burglary, armed robbery, assault or sexual assault. One wonders why the so-called threat of Muslim terrorism is given such wide currency in Australia.

Muslims in Australia hope that the Muslim militants, wherever they exist, will be prevented from carrying out their destructive activities. It is distressing for Muslims (who comprise 20 per cent of the world population) to be 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 of the late 1980s and early 1990s is not the same Australia in 2003. Many Muslims are worried about the influence of the rhetoric underlying the so-called ‘war on terror’ and the legislative and regulative environment into which we are moving. Many also feel that in Australia today, being visibly Muslim is a problem. The religious freedom of which Australia is so proud seems to be contracting in the case of Muslims. If this trend continues, it will be disastrous for the Muslim community in Australia.

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 our shared humanity: ‘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.



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