Close the door to discussing religious differences, and risk radicalisation

Article written by Denis Dragovic in THE AUSTRALIAN newspaper - 13 May 2015

"Glossing over the differences between Islam and Christianity in a misguided effort to find an all-inclusive religion is counter productive and risks further radicalisation.

The now former leader of the British Labour Party, Ed Miliband, made a dangerous commitment leading up to the recent elections in the UK, one that should be a warning of things to come in Australia. Islamophobia, he promised, would become an aggravated crime.

“We are going to make sure it is marked on people’s records with the police to make sure they root out Islamophobia as a hate crime,” he said.

As a scholar involved in the study of religion I am increasingly forced to tread carefully when expressing views that differentiate one faith or culture from another. Yet it is only by openly discussing these differences that we gain a better understanding of our own beliefs and those of others and, importantly, how they impact on other people’s lives.

This is why the all too quick accusation of Islamophobia and the shutting down of debate risks stifling inter-religious understanding and the internal evolution of all religions.

When important discussions such as the relationship between Islam and war are glossed over by simplistically saying “Islam is a religion of peace” — or questions that ask how inherent values of particular cultures contribute to underdevelopment are dismissed — it is both ignorant and dangerous.

The idea that Islam is a religion of peace is as nonsensical as saying Christianity is a religion of peace. Christian groups such as the Mennonites and the Quakers may claim that epithet, but for most other denominations there are rules that guide the use of force. Most recently in Ukraine, religious leaders referred to this when justifying their people’s fight.

In Islam the internal division on this topic depends on the preferred rules of interpretation. For many, if there is a contradiction then more recent verses abrogate older verses. This means that the revelations Prophet Mohammed received when he was based in the city of Medina, in today’s Saudi Arabia, and leading an expansionary army overrule the verses from the earlier period when he lived in the then multicultural city of Mecca.

Others prefer the rule being dependent on circumstance; in times of war the Medina verses abrogate those of the Mecca period and vice versa. In times of coexistence with other people it is to the Mecca verses that Muslims must turn.

Both interpretations respect each and every divinely revealed word in the Koran, a must for any believer, but both also recognise that in certain circumstances even the more hostile verses in the Koran offer guidance to believers.

That such statements may be offensive to some Australians, particularly non-Muslims, is odd. From the Western emphasis on the individual, as opposed to the community, to the corporate structure of capitalism, Australia, and Western society more broadly, has its roots in Christianity and Christian values. It is arrogant to presume that all other value systems must align seamlessly with a Judeo-Christian world view.

Western society’s emphasis on the individual leads to the elderly living alone, apart from the family, and, in many cases, the responsibility of the state.

In community-based cultures younger generations and the broader family have a responsibility to care for their elderly.

Whereas a corporate structure with legal rights and shareholders emerged in the West, in the Islamic empires of the past the emphasis was on benevolence through the establishment of trusts that built public goods such as water taps, schools and hospitals.

At the time this benevolence made the community stronger and life better, but because of the perpetual nature of trusts they were also one contributing factor to the geopolitical weakening of the Muslim Ottoman Empire.

By pushing aside these differences, equating Islam to Christianity and to every other religious or even humanist view, leaves some believers looking elsewhere in a search for answers that explain the meaning of their religion’s divine revelations.

For fundamentalists of any hue, such efforts to water down their religious beliefs can lead them on a path of radicalisation.

These differences should be debated openly, welcoming input from all perspectives whether in academe or on public airways.

Pointing an accusatory finger as soon as differences in religion and culture are raised weakens the potential for moderation and prevents efforts at bridging the growing gap between Australian communities."

Denis Dragovic is an honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne and author of Religion and Post-Conflict Statebuilding: Roman Catholic and Sunni Islamic Perspectives.

In general I like the article.

Certainly, enabling open discussion of the various belief systems in a nation will promote better understanding and a realisation that there is great commonality to be found.

This can the foundation for a cultural shift towards “unity in diversity”


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