In case you hadn’t noticed, Islam has been in the news recently

I recently came across the following quote:
“I am appalled by some of the divisive things that have been said recently about Muslims and their religion of Islam. Muslims believe in the one God. That is the belief that unites all believers in religion. Christians and Jews and others might have different views on what God might have said or did, but the belief in God outweighs all of them. As Cardinal Bea, the great ecumenist, once said: “The things that divide us cannot be compared to the things that unite us.”

This view is correct in one respect – we should avoid divisiveness, in both word and deed. However, its appeal to a common god in attempting to identify that which unites us is quite wrong. What of Buddhism – a religion which, strictly speaking, has no god as it’s ultimate? What of Hinduism, with its many gods? What of those in society who do not believe in any gods? What role might be found for them in the writer’s ecumenical project?

No, what unites us all is our common humanity, regardless of the beliefs of any individual or group. Recognition of this fact has given Australia a secular government that is (or ought to be) blind to its citizens’ religious beliefs – that does nor privilege monotheists, or polytheists or atheists. Added to this is a policy of multiculturalism that allows those believers among us to freely worship as they see fit, but within the bounds that Society has judged reflect our common values. If one’s concept of worshipping God impels them to, for example, marry off their daughter below the legal age, it is Society’s job to prevent that from happening – in the interest of the daughter. This should not be interpreted as “divisive”, but as acting in concert with common Australian and human values. The things that unite us as humans are of a higher order than the beliefs and values that Muslims, Christians and Jews might share.

It is true that attacks occur on Muslims in Australia – for example, abuse over their manner of dress, or discrimination in the workplace. Such oppressive behaviour is to be condemned – it is counter to the values that find expression under the umbrella of ‘civil Society’ and it is against the law. There are also laws against discriminatory speech, so again the “divisive things said about Muslims” that the quote deplores run counter to civil Society, regardless of whether or not one is an adherent to one of the monotheisms.

Should individuals be restrained from criticising Islam (or any other religion for that matter)? No. We have no problem with robust debate over politics, or criticism of the aesthetic merits of artworks. Why, then, should religion be privileged?

But how should we criticise Islam without being open to charges of “divisiveness”, or “Islamophobia”?

One option is to criticise practices that occur in the name of Islam, but which are generally held to be inconsistent with the religion itself, or could reasonably be criticised by its followers. Examples might be suicide bombing, or Boko Haram kidnapping 200 girls in Nigeria. These acts have been criticised by Muslims as well as non-Muslims. However, seemingly these appalling acts are carried out by sincere, highly devout Muslims with a religious motivation. How are outsiders to the religion to judge whose is the ‘true’ voice of Islam in these cases – that of ‘moderate’ Muslims or that of the terrorists? It is apparent that militant jihadists attract followers through their ability to promote their Islamic motivation by quoting the Koran and Hadith.

Another approach might be to affirm and encourage Australian Muslims, and take a stand against acts of oppression directed at them, whilst at the same time condemning oppressive acts carried out in the name of Islam in other countries. This might appear to be a stance frequently adopted by politicians in this country, who both support their local Muslim constituents and support military action by the West in Muslim-majority countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. One may observe that violent acts against Muslims, by Muslims, in Muslim countries far outweigh (in both frequency and severity) acts of oppression towards Muslims in Australia. This is not to condone demeaning or racist behaviour directed at Muslims in Australia, but to point to where the greater concern for the welfare of Muslims might reasonably be focused.

One might also observe that whilst it is a fair proposition that we criticise acts by Muslims that might reasonably be expected to attract criticism from within the religion from its own adherents, actual internal criticism appears to be quite rare. This might be for a number of reasons: perhaps individual Muslims are too fearful to speak out; perhaps they do regularly criticise certain acts by other Muslims but this occurs behind closed doors, and is not publicised in the wider community. Or it may even be the case that acts of violence or the subjugation of women are consistent with Islamic texts and traditions, and individual Muslims have difficulty in advocating otherwise. When moderate Muslims do make a stand that is consistent with broad Australian values, they deserve the active support of Society. An example occurred when Sheik Hilali blamed “immodestly dressed women who don’t wear Islamic headdress” for being preyed on by men and likened them to abandoned “meat that attracts voracious animals.” Muslim community leaders were outraged and offended by Sheik Hilali’s remarks. The comments were also condemned in broader Society, but I am suggesting that this condemnation be couched in terms of solid support for the Muslim leaders who spoke out, and affirming that their criticism is consistent with the values of Australian Society generally.

The quote at the start of this post promoted the commonality between Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Yet in the modern age knowledge, the scientific method and sound historical enquiry have eroded the unquestioning sway that the two latter religions once held. What then sets the other monotheisms apart from Islam is that they have been exposed to 400 years of criticism and emerged altered, but more resilient from it. Muslim apostate Ayaan Hirisi Ali has called for a Muslim “Enlightenment Project” and I believe that her proposal deserves support – both from within Islam and without. It may not always be a comfortable experience for Islam, but it would help address the “divisiveness”.

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