Breaking down walls of division


NO Islam; NO Sharia; No Halal! These were the slogans on one side of yesterday’s demonstrations.

Ignorance breeds racism. Australia welcomes all. These slogans were shouted back.

Picture courtesy perthnow.com

There’s real pressure on us to take sides. We have beliefs about our friends’ beliefs, about our fellow-tertiaries’ strong opinions, about our fellow-Christians’ ideas, and our default position is to follow what we think they think!

Of course we do. We are social animals. I want to go to Perth and stand with Christians who welcome refugees and embrace Muslims. I can argue the case for inclusion with vigour and clarity. But therein lies a problem. To be a vigorous advocate at the moment risks creating divisions and fomenting hatred in the community.

Rather than practising my lines bolstering my ‘side’ of the current arguments, I should be walking in the shoes of people who have different views.

One exercise in our training for non-violence involved splitting into two sides at opposite ends of the room and emphasising the differences in the two groups. Then individuals crossed the line in the middle and looked at the issue from the point of view of the other group. These actions brought the group back together.

I’ve studied Islam, and rather than shout at people with hateful catchphrases like ‘NO Sharia!’ I should acknowledge that there is real fear in the community. People look at societies like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan and see the punishments certain Muslim governments mete out. We would not stand for the way women are banned from driving. We are outraged that people are put to death – often in barbaric ways – for converting from Islam. Rather than shouting back at those who shout ‘NO Sharia!’ I should agree. I fear a Muslim government that treats its citizens like that.

I don’t think Halal certification of meat costs the average shopper. I do know that certification provides a livelihood for ordinary Australian family farmers who sell livestock to the abattoirs in Katanning. I agree that the certifying most foods for sale is unnecessary and confusing and worth resisting. It’s more complex than saying either ‘No Halal’ or all certification is good. A conversation where there is more trust and less fear would benefit all.

Australia is not going to become a Muslim country overnight. At the 2006 Census, 63.9% of Australians claimed to be Christians as against 1.7% Muslims. The 2011 numbers have not been analysed yet, and, while it is true that the proportion of Muslims has grown, the size of the Muslim community is still a tiny minority. We are a strong community. We can handle that much diversity. But we must take care, as a settler society, to make changes slowly.

So I admit to being tempted to man the barricades, to take a stand on one side of this debate, and imagine that will make society more inclusive. I need to resist that temptation and find ways of healing division, of understanding legitimate fears and concerns and creating harmony. That seems to be the Franciscan way, the way of Christ for me.

Christians and Malaysia


The London based weekly journal The Economist has called the recent victory of the ruling party in Malaysia “a tawdry victory”. There is no doubt that the elections were not completely free and fair. After 50 years in power, the Barisan Nasional has engineered a strong gerrymander. There were serious allegations of vote-buying and irregularities like the permanent ink used to mark the fingers of those who have voted being easily washed off.

 

In addition Government policies favour ethnic Malays and, in Borneo, other indigenous groups.  People of Chinese and Indian origin are not so favoured. A strong whiff of racism pervades politics in Malaysia.

 

The disquiet of Malaysian Christians goes beyond the immediate problems of the election. They are concerned for example about non-Muslims being banned from using the word “Allah” to describe God. This controversy has been alive since at least 2007 when Christians were banned from using “Allah” in any publication, including the Bible. Catholic Christians took the Government to court, but failed to overturn the ban.

 

A fatwa issued in 2010 confirmed the ban and in January this year the Sultan of the State of Selangor strengthened it with threats of legal action against anyone who defied it or spoke out against it. Prime Minister Najid Abdul Razak supported the Sultan saying that their viewpoint protects harmony in a country with many religions.

 

Christians and Hindus in Malaysia argue that the word “Allah” does not belong just to Muslims. It is the normal Arab word for God, and Arab-speaking Christians in the Middle East have been using it probably for 1900 years. “Allah” entered Bahasa (the language spoken by Indonesians and Malays) more recently with both Christians and Muslims using it freely – until the last few years.

 

This ban, in a country with a secular constitution, obviously discriminates against non-Muslims, but it also restricts Christians in theological discussion about God.

 

Muslims appeal to Christians to use only the word “Tuhan” (which means “Master” or “Lord”) when speaking of God.

 

Bible translators, for example, are faced with two different words for God in the Old Testament: “Elohim” and “YHWH” (The Lord). In the New Testament “kyrios” and “theos” both refer to God. To be consistent in Malay Bibles, translators need two words to distinguish “God” and “Lord”.

 

The Malaysian Christians I know are not anti-Muslim, but they are worried by the way that this and other religious issues are used as a wedge between Muslims and Christians. They want rather to foster dialogue between the two faith communities.

 

Because of possible legal consequences, Christians in Malaysia are restrained in discussing these issues openly. Praise God that in Australia we have no such restriction. We can help our sisters and brothers by praying, and by expressing our opinions when we have the opportunity. If you know Malaysian Christians, you could tell them of your support and solidarity. They will value it.

 

Vignette III of Peace


VIGNETTE III OF PEACE

The email screamed, “Nine thousand Muslims are coming! Keep them out of our Christian country! They will pervert our children and destroy our way of life.”

The chaplain should not have forwarded the email to me, her boss, whether or not she knew my views on immigration and on Islam.

I should have ignored it.

But I had a gnawing unease. Unless I did something about it, I would go on thinking that way about that chaplain. She had lost my respect, and it was important for me to restore it.

I started refuting the email line by line. Bad plan. That made me angry and made me write angrily. That way inflamed the situation. My first intuition to ignore the email had reason. I stopped writing. I waited a day. I prayed.

Then I wrote back to her, “I am sorry I cannot agree with your email,” I said, “but is it not possible that God wants 9,000 Muslims to come to Australia so that we can share our Christian faith with them?” I sent the email and waited two days.

She sent one more email, “I hadn’t thought of that. You may be right.” And then she apologised, “I am sorry I sent you that email without thinking first.”

Next time I saw her, I thanked her publicly for the commendable work she was doing in a difficult school. In praising her, I felt good about myself.