Sunday, September 17, 2006

OPINION: Tony Abbott's respectful message to Muslims

The old man lay on his death bed in Melbourne. Decades of political and ideological struggle were reaching an end. At his side during these last moments were his family and close disciples.

And few could claim to be a closer disciple of the late Bob Santamaria than Tony Abbott. Few ministers are maligned for their religious faith as the Federal Health Minister. Mr Abbott knows what it is like to hold unfashionable views.

If the religious and political culture of conservative Catholics is unpopular in most sectors of the media, the religious and political cultures of virtually all expressions of Islam are regarded in the current climate as sinister and dangerous.

Conservative Christians, including Catholics, have been at the forefront of demonising Muslims. Columnists like Mark Steyn use satire to hide their deepest hatred for all people and things Muslim. Polemical pseudo-intellectual websites like JihadWatch.com, maintained by conservative Catholic Robert Spencer, are relied upon even by men of the intellectual stature of Cardinal Pell.

In such an environment, one could imagine anti-Muslim hostility to be a comfortable fall-back position for an ambitious parliamentarian. One would expect that with influential persons like Rupert Murdoch openly questioning the loyalties of Western Muslims, and with his views being often parroted by his flagship tabloid columnists and string-puppet reporters, a man viewed as a possible future Prime Minister would be happy to move up the ladder by stepping on a tiny marginalised group of 300,000 people.

To his credit, Tony Abbott has resisted the temptation. He has consistently defended multiculturalism when the PM and his Treasurer have questioned its utility. Abbott has even delivered a speech defending it as an essentially conservative value to a hostile group of Young Liberals and allowed his views to be published in otherwise hostile publications such as Quadrant.

Indeed, Abbott has prepared to criticise even members of his own conservative wing in the NSW Liberal Party. Last year he criticised calls by colleagues to ban the wearing of the hijab in state schools, despite such policies being adopted and supported even by Liberals in Abbott’s own electorate.

Muslim Australians seem to have few friends in the present Federal Government (or indeed in the Opposition). Tony Abbott has defended Muslims at times when it was simply not in his interest to do so. Hence, when he speaks about Muslims in a sympathetic and non-hostile manner using measured and sensitive words, the least Muslims should do is consider his argument.

In an address to a religiously mixed crowd under the auspices of the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta on Friday 15 September 2006, Mr Abbott made some pertinent observations. Unlike his colleagues, Abbott did not pretend he was an expert on Islam or talk at Muslims in an insulting and patronising manner.

Mr Abbott made clear his observations were made “as an outsider”. He expressed his empathy with Muslim males lectured by pundits to show respect to women in a dominant culture objectifying women in media and popular culture. He also understood why many Muslims would be cynical of a civilisation which preaches peace but which massacres civilians even in just wars.

Abbott reminded his audience that ethnic and religious tension wasn’t new to Australia. He reminded us of the prejudice faced by Catholics and of their struggles in such incidents as the battle of Vinegar Hill.

Abbott seemed to scold his Liberal colleagues by observing that the cause of communal reconciliation and harmony was harmed by sermonising and sanctimony. At the same time, he reminded his audience that friends should be able to express their feelings frankly.

It was here that Mr Abbott began his tentative personal observations. He said that whilst there was no shortage of Western critics of Western culture, Muslim critics of Islamic cultures seemed few and far between. He felt that Islamic societies seemed to lack a defined pluralism, and that the demarcation between what belonged to Caesar and what belonged to God was not clear. Further, his impression was that Muslims found it hard to tell the difference between sins and crimes.

Abbott observed that Westerners would find Islamic cultures easier to appreciate if those speaking for Islam were visibly more keen to condemn terrorism and less keen to debate Western transgressions, especially considering most terrorist victims are Muslims. Further, Western Muslims able to observe both forms of culture could play a special role of helping both the West and Muslim nations understand each other.

Elements of Abbott’s speech are, in my opinion, plainly wrong. Perhaps he needs to read further on the matter and talk to Muslim Australians, including Muslims inside the Liberal Party. But Abbott was humble and honest enough to admit that he was speaking from hurriedly drawn-up notes and as an outsider.

Muslims honest with themselves will recognise the Health Minister is not alone in holding such views. They should also recognise that he is exercising not mere diplomacy or politics but genuine respect.

Perhaps the most important advice Abbott had for his audience was that religious people shouldn’t be afraid to allow their faith to be hung up for scrutiny. “Something which is from God will prevail. All else will pass”. This simple truth is shared by both Christians and Muslims.

Abbott showed the tolerance and respect for Islam that is to be expected of a genuine Christian. Hopefully genuine Muslims will consider carefully his sincere words of advice.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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