“How to live best alongside Muslims in Australia”

“How to live best alongside Muslims in Australia”
By David Schütz (February 2018)

This morning when I arrived at work, I found someone had (yet again) parked in my carpark. I was not amused, but I did notice that the car had a large black bumper sticker with a yellow Arabic letter on it. I know very little Arabic, but I knew what this letter was. A Breitbart article from 2015 explains:

“Last summer, when ISIS issued an ultimatum to Christians in northern Iraq to “convert, pay or die,” they carried out their reign of terror by marking the houses and properties of Christians with the Arabic letter “N,” a symbol for “Nazarenes” (Christians), which they intended as a slur… “Nun” or ?, is the first letter of the Arabic word for Christian, “Nasrani.”

“From that time, an online Christian solidarity movement began to raise awareness about the fate of Mosul’s Christians. Users began changing their profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter to pictures of the letter ?, the same letter notoriously branding their Iraqi co-religionists, turning it into a symbol of support.” (Thomas D. Williams, 24 Mar 2015)

What was going on here? Why did a car in a Melbourne carpark on the opposite side of the world from Mosul have a letter “Nun” stuck on the back? Did it, I wondered, have something to say about the topic the editor asked me to write on, namely “How to live best alongside Muslims in Australia”?

I started working for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne in interreligious relations in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks of 2001. Before this time, I hardly knew anything about the Australian Muslim community. Honestly, I don’t think many people did. They went about their business quietly and unobtrusively. There had been violence in the Middle East, but most of it had to do with either the Israel/Palestine conflict or local Arabic dictators rather than Islamic radicals.

But in response to September 11, the Australian Muslim community came out and showed themselves clearly in public. They made great strides in public relations, in education, in building up networks of connectivity and portraying a positive image of themselves to our society in general. But the opposite happened when the Syrian/Iraq conflict exploded. Today Muslims in Australia feel less confident than ever of their place in our society. They feel they have been branded by the acts of radical Islamic violence overseas. In light of the threat of the new “lone wolf” style of terrorism that we are seeing today, Australians are looking at their Muslim neighbours with fear and distrust. And this distrust is threatening the cohesion of our society.

ISIS intentionally and explicitly played out their attacks according a jihadist narrative. In broad strokes, the first 1000 years of Muslim history was marked by conflict with the Christian empires of the East and West. This included the initial rapid expansion of Arab political control in the 7th Century from Arabia to Palestine to Egypt to North Africa and into Spain, and even to the gates of Constantinople. This was followed by early medieval successes of the Franks and Byzantines in stemming the Arab advance and even pushing it back a bit. Then came the high medieval conflicts of the Crusades, followed by the rise of the Turkish Ottoman empire leading (by slow attrition) to the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Fifty years later the Spanish “Reconquista” finally regained control of the whole Iberian Peninsula, the defenders at the Siege of Vienna in 1529 successfully repulsed the Ottomans, and a European coalition won a final decisive naval victory at Lepanto in 1571.

Now you could say that what I have just described is one long continuous story of Christian-Muslim conflict. But you get a different picture of this history if you emphasise the ethnic, political and national identities involved. Sometimes it would be the Byzantines against the Arabs, then the Franks against the Umayyads in Spain, and then the German Holy Roman Empire against the Ottoman Turks (in which conflict, the King of France sided with Ottoman Sultan). A lot more was going on in these conflicts than simply difference of religion. That’s why, for 400 years after the 16th Century, we don’t hear much about conflict between Christian and Muslim nations. The Arabs ceased to be any kind of global force to be taken into account, and the Ottoman Turkish Empire stagnated. In the meantime, the Western nations conquered and colonised most of the rest of the world. This isn’t to say that either Islam or Christianity declined in fervour. Both continued to gain converts all over the world. While Christians were converting the Americas, Muslims were converting people in Indonesia. When Australians went to war against the Turks on behalf of the British at Gallipoli, no one on either side characterised it as a religious war.

But the political unrest and wars of the 20th Century changed all that. The Ottoman Empire collapsed and conflict of the First World War spilled into the Middle East, and lots of other stuff happened and finally we had the Gulf War, and then we had September 11, and…well, welcome to the 21st Century.

So it’s time to ask the question: What does this mean for us? One response is to call for Christians to “fight back” and undertake a new crusade for the elimination of Islam. Stick a “Nun” on the back of your car and declare yourself for the “Christian side” and stand up against the “Muslim invasion”. Well, good luck with that, because I don’t think that will end well for anyone. Others have said that the solution is to eradicate not just Islam but all religion from our society altogether. After all, hasn’t history shown us that religion is the cause of all wars, violence and conflicts in our society?

I’ve been listening lately to the lectures of Dr Jordan B. Peterson, a Canadian psychologist and professor. In the introduction to his new book, 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote for Chaos, he offers the following analysis:

“We are thus eternally caught between the most diamantine rock and the hardest of places: loss of group-centred belief renders life chaotic, miserable, intolerable; presence of group-centred belief makes conflict with other groups inevitable. In the West, we have been withdrawing from our tradition-, religion- and even nation-centred cultures, partly to decrease the danger of group conflict. But we are increasingly falling prey to the desperation of meaninglessness, and that is no improvement at all.”

In other words: if we hold fast to our group-identities over against other group-identities, we maintain order and meaning but inevitably our order and meaning will come into conflict with the order and meaning of others. This is the basic sociological rule of tribal conflict – and the history of Christian-Muslim relations could be characterised as tribal conflict on a global scale. But even if it were possible, the “solution” of the secularist – to abandon our traditional, religious and national identities – is, as Peterson warns, “no improvement at all.”

So what is the solution? At the very end of an interview with Dr Peterson on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07Ys4tQPRis), the interviewer asks how people with different religions, mythologies, and stories can live side-by-side with one another in “a country like Canada” (or Australia). Peterson’s answer is simple:

“A multicultural society is dependent upon negotiation. And how do you negotiate? Well partly, you pay attention. You listen… You have to be willing to meet the other person in the space between cultures and you have to know how to operate in the space between cultures… What makes cultures rich? Trust. What makes trust possible? Honesty. You want natural resources? There’s nothing more valuable than trust and honesty… The default in the West is that ‘You won’t screw me’. That means that I can trust you. If the default is ‘You will screw me’, then I’m a barrel of snakes and you’re a barrel of snakes, and we will never get anywhere.”

There are plenty of places in the world where people do treat each other like a barrel of snakes, but if we want a rich, healthy community in Australia, we have to begin with trusting one another. That starts with rejecting the narrative formed by a 1000 years of Christian/Muslim conflict on the other side of the world in the distant past onto the here and now. That also means dialogue (Dr Peterson calls it “negotiation”). In true dialogue we take each other seriously enough to really listen to one another and speak to one another with truth and honesty.

Of course, dialogue can take many different forms. I work with four kinds of dialogue: the dialogue of faith, the dialogue of cooperation, the dialogue of religious experience and the dialogue of everyday life. That last one is probably the key for most of us. We do not live in a world where all the Muslim people are “over there” and all the Christian people are “over here”. As the question set for me by the editor points out, we live alongside one another as neighbours and fellow citizens. This gives us the opportunity to sit down with one another, pour a cup of tea, share a piece of (halal) cake and engage with our Muslim neighbours in an honest and truthful dialogue.

For those whose Christianity is of a more “evangelical” bent, there is room in this relationship for witnessing to the Gospel too: because dialogue is about truth-telling and that includes me telling others the truth about that which is most important to me. But it also includes listening and paying attention to the other person, with the expectation that perhaps I don’t know everything I think I know, and that I can in fact – yes, even in matters of faith and my relationship with God – learn something from my Muslim neighbour that will make me a better person, and our multi-cultural, religiously diverse Australian society a better place in which to live.