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, 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.

OPINION: On Pompous Popes & Futile Protests

Recently an Australian Catholic Cardinal expressed the view that the Koran preaches violence. His view was based on a partial reading of an English translation of the Koran coloured by the views of an Israeli polemicist known for her extreme hatred of Muslims. When pressed, the Cardinal admitted he could not even remember which translation of the Koran he had relied upon.

How do I know this? Because I spoke to him myself. I approached him at a gathering and asked him politely about his views. I used a reasonable line of questioning, and was able to illustrate to those listening that the Cardinal’s views were based on his own ignorance combined with reliance on limited and hostile sources.

Of course, I could have taken the absurd and pointless route again being taken by Muslim crowds in some parts of the world. I could always gather a mob together and march in the streets, wasting my time and everyone else’s and achieving nothing except a sore throat and awful media coverage.

I would like to think that Muslim mobs had learnt from the PR disaster that accompanied protests against the Danish cartoons. On that occasion, corrupt and unelected Muslim leaders manipulated state-owned media and government-employed religious leaders to incite their masses into frenzies of violent futility.

As I type these lines, thousands of Muslims in the Darfur region of Sudan face certain death, whether by disease or starvation or bullets. Lebanese Muslims are struggling to rebuild their homes and their lives.

Muslims in Gaza are facing economic and social collapse. Muslims in Afghanistan face civil war as the Western-backed government struggles to defeat a Taliban militia we were led to believe was defeated years back.

Muslims in Pakistan are still suffering from the effects of the earthquake. Muslims across Asia continue to rebuild after the devastating tsunami. Muslims in Kashmir find themselves caught between fanatical militants and merciless Indian troops.

With all these difficulties facing Muslims, of what significance are a few throw-away lines from an ageing Pontiff? And why allow the sheer absurdity of his words be overshadowed by the greater absurdity of violent and hysterical response?

Muslims are beginning to behave in the same manner as European Catholics have until recently. At the height of their power, Muslims were quite happy to allow non-Muslims to criticise their faith.

Spain was home to a physician and religious scholar named Sheik Musa bin Maymoun. Sheik Musa spoke and wrote in Arabic. One of his many treatises was a work entitled (in English) “Guide to the Perplexed”. In this book, Sheik Musa sought to compare the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Sheik Musa’s conclusion was clear. Judaism was superior to its sister Abrahamic faiths, Islam and Christianity.

The Muslim response? Muslims who disagreed with Sheik Musa’s views did so by writing reasoned responses. Spanish Muslims still consulted Sheik Musa’s expertise in medicine. Sheik Musa himself wasn’t attacked, and copies of his book were not burnt until Catholic armies took back Muslim Spain. Burning books and effigies was too uncivilised for those polished and proud Muslims.

Sheik Musa was in fact the great Andalusian rabbi Maimonides. His critique of Islam, together with his skills as a physician, led the Kurdish general Saladin to appoint him as chief medical officer to the army that eventually conquered Jerusalem from the Frankish crusader kings. Maimonides went onto become one of Saladin’s closest and most trusted advisers.

(And in case you are wondering what Maimonides looked like, check out the statue of the dude in the turban and robes on the top right-hand side of this blog.)

Islam was robust and strong enough in those times to withstand Maimonides’ criticism. Muslims were sensible and educated and civilised and confident enough to be able to accept criticism. They could debate their critics on an intellectual level without having to resort to violence or being highly strung and reactionary to even the mildest rebuke.

In an environment as free as Australia, a humble layman like myself can expose the relative ignorance of a Cardinal. I can do this using intellect and logic, far more powerful tools than behaving defensively or threatening violence.

Muslims offended by the Pope’s comments about Islam and history are better off addressing these arguments than condemning the Pope. If Muslims become defensive or even hint at violence, they will merely be personifying (and thus confirming) of the Pope’s claims.

Muslims should challenge the Pope to name even one soldier or military commander who took Islam to Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country. He should be asked to show where a Muslim ruler has murdered 6 million Jews or where Muslims have conducted a Spanish-style Inquisition. He might also advise of which Japanese city Muslims dropped an atomic bomb onto.

The fact is that both Muslims and Christians have had blood on their hands at various points in their history. People have murdered, raped, terrorised, looted and burnt in the names of both Christ and Allah. We are all living in glass houses, and none of us is sinless enough to be able to cast the first stone.

It’s only to be expected that the leader of a missionary faith will criticise other missionary faiths. Just as we expect Don Brash to criticise Helen Clark or Kim Beazley to criticise John Howard or Hillary Clinton to criticise George W Bush. Thankfully, clerics tend to be more polite than politicians most of the time. But criticism (including self-critique) is part of the Abrahamic tradition.

Further, there are enough Christians (including Catholics) of goodwill who will be happy to criticise the Pontiff’s comments. Already, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt has issued a strong response.

My advice to any Muslim genuinely perturbed by the Pope’s comments is simply this - if you can’t stand the missionary heat, you should think about getting out of Abraham’s spiritual kitchen. If you are unhappy with the reason and restraint your religious heritage insists upon, you should find yourself another religion.