The Growing Intolerance towards the Islamic Faith

It is 9 years since I first wrote this article in response to the xenophobic attack on the Islamic faith by two contributors to the conservative Australian publication Quadrant. I am publishing it again because there’s been little progress globally for tolerance of difference whether it is to do with religious world views, sexual orientation, racism or the myriad other forms of hatred of difference which seem to have become a feature of the ‘enlightened technological age of the 21st century’. The savage murder of so many people since the start of 2015 because of their religious belief is a blight on all of humanity. It’s an assault on the dignity of everyone on the planet, and sadly there seems no end in sight to this madness
I have spent the last 14 years of my career as teacher and educational administrator living and working in the Islamic countries of the Middle East and South Asia, as a Catholic Christian. I count among my friends many ordinary people who are Muslim, and share an abhorrence at the distorted perversion of their faith by madmen, and the misrepresentation of Islam through the distorted lenses of western media and its obsession with ‘free speech’ (whatever that means anyway because in reality no speech is free and it comes along with accountability and responsibility: two key virtues lacking in the libertarian lexicon)

I was greatly relieved when my September 2006 issue of Quadrant arrived in Jeddah, in its clear plastic envelope. Moreover I was delighted that it had made its way passed the censors, particularly with its bold subheading The Growing Problem with Islam in at least a size 18 black type font, just below the magazine title. One could assume one of two reasons for this. Firstly, since the accession of King Abdullah (now deceased) there’s been an opening up of the Kingdom to some aspects of western media and its myriad forms of communication. It is not uncommon to finds books on Eastern meditation, westernized Yoga practices alongside American style self-help texts and periodicals like the Economist, Time and Newsweek, (but alas not Quadrant-at least not yet). Texts on Islam other than wahabbism are also available. I recently purchased the works of Rumi, the 13th Century Islamist Persian poet; renowned for his devout faith and mystical prayers to God; in a bookshop in Jeddah-one of chain of bookshops not dissimilar to Borders or Barns & Noble- in the Kingdom. It has a wide range of reading material from around the world. So the censors may often allow in magazines which provide some critic of the country; but they will censor anything which holds the Royal Family, and/or the Islamic faith up to too much criticism and/or ridicule (similar to Thailand and its laws governing the Royal family and Buddhism) The second reason could be that it slipped through without being noticed. This is highly unlikely given the strict scrutiny of anything coming into the Kingdom.
I read with keen interest both John Stone’s and Paul Stenhouse’s views on Islam and offer the following critical response. While a clearly well written piece it is my view that the writers do not distinguish clearly enough between the Islamic faith as practiced by over 1 billion people in the world, and malevolent, destructive anti-social behavior, along with a fundamentally conservative political ideology which has hijacked the Islamic faith for its own purposes. An ideology which I might add, is to be found in Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and a number of other faith based belief systems.
The title of John Stone’s article is disturbing, “The Muslim Problem and What to Do About It’, given that 80 years ago we might have read in magazines of a European cultural persuasion “The Jewish Problem and What to Do About It”. It seems to me, from my perspective as a westerner living and working in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, some 30 minutes from Mecca and Medina; the two holiest places in the Islamic world, that “the clear and present danger confronting us”[1] all is a lack of choosing to distinguish between Islam as a genuine faith emanating from Abraham, and acts of terrorism in their most malevolent form as practiced by criminals who happen (by chance?) to have been born into the Islamic faith.
Stone cites a number of incidents, which have received coverage in the international media, as well as in the Kingdom through the English language newspapers, as evidence of an ‘Islamic cancer’ [2] in the body politic of Australian culture. From the tenor and tone of his writing I assume he would apply this analogy outside of Australian society too-say to New Zealand, Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany and the United States of America. For he writes “It is a problem that is similar to the Muslim problem in all Western Countries where a significant immigrant Muslim minority has been allowed to become established”[3]. The use of the medical metaphor to demonize a whole group of people has been practiced before, and once successful enabled whole sub-groups within a society to be considered less than human and eventually exterminated. Besides Nazi Germany other more recent examples exist for us to choose from; Bosnia Herzegovina, Rwanda, Darfur in the Sudan and the Palestinians imprisoned in their small pieces of land designated by some as the Palestinian Territories.

What is the exact problem Stone cites? Is it really a problem of the “failure of multi-culturalism” as he suggest? Is it the angst he cites from one European Commissioner who spoke to an Australian journalist? Is it the failure of Australian society’s infrastructure in supporting unity through diversity? It is none of these. Rather, Stone’s address is a veiled attack on the Islamic faith itself. The core of the Muslim problem-for the world, not merely for Australia he writes, “lies in the essence of Islam itself”.[4]
Writing like a Crusader of old John Stone uses growing social unrest in Australian society to mask a full frontal attack on one of the world’s great monotheistic religions. Moreover, the ideals and principles of both Christianity and Islam are ignored to support an argument which asserts that Islam as a religion, and those States that are a single Islamic polity are incompatible with Western culture. Stone avoids defining what Western Culture is, although the irony is that within the subtext of his writing he appears to assert that it is a culture which is just as intolerant as the Islam he thinks he knows. John Stone’s vehemence towards Islam is not unlike that of Peter the Venerable, who proclaimed the “bestial cruelty of Islam”[5] at a time when Jews and Muslims were fair game for Christians, who in turn had laid claim to their own form of Gnosis through advocating the idea that killing large numbers of Jewish and Muslim men, women and children was simply exterminating a heresy. The sad irony here is that Jesus had urged his followers to love their enemies not annihilate them. It is my understanding that the Gospel message has not changed today; despite claims that render its interpretation as too literal and threatening the political and social stability of the Western polity.
Contrary to the assertion he makes “that Islamic and Western Cultures are today, within a single polity, incompatible” [6] there are a significant number of examples where people who practice their faith through the religion of Islam are happily integrated into their new cultures and countries. These can be found in all Western countries including the United States of American Canada, Great Britain, The Republic of Ireland, the European Union and New Zealand. Singapore in particular is a model of religious tolerance and an example of Islamic compatibility in a single polity. Furthermore, although continually asserting the right to do so, the state of Turkey is a model of a secular Muslim state in which a single polity is able to affect good governance (notwithstanding the internecine war between the Gulan movement and the current ruling party in Turkey)
I would further assert through experience and example that Islam is tolerant towards other faiths. While not considered democratic within a western definition Syrian Christians and Jews (before the civil war) were able to live and practice their faiths without discrimination; as are Christian and Jews in Iran and Egypt. Christians in Saudi Arabia are allowed to practice their faiths (On occasions I would attend Mass in a private house on my compound) although overt displays or actively promoting conversions from Islam to Christianity are prohibited.
The simple truth for the West is that since the turn of the 21st century it has had to learn about Islam, given the scant acknowledgment of Islam in both private and public education throughout the 20th century. Moreover, the West has had to come to terms with another simple truth too, that Islam is one of the fastest growing faiths in the world, while Christianity, as practiced in the West is in decline. These are specific Western problems which Western Nations must address through education; rather than using another faith virtually unknown to average Westerners, as the scapegoat.
Although Paul Stenhouse chooses a more moderate position, he also attacks the Islamic faith, and coming from a member of the Catholic Clergy who should be better versed in theologies other than his own; if not for conversion purposes rather than anything else; his condemnation is perhaps more perfidious. He cannot take the moral high ground given his own faiths transgressions of Christ’s message of peace on earth and good will to all of mankind. Moreover to argue that the perceived trade off as interpreted by western historians, between the founders of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the religious leaders of Islam on the Arabian peninsula; the Hanabali Wahhabis, “wreaks more havoc than malaria or dengue fever” [7] throughout Islam per se; is a dangerous and outrageous claim to make. Like Stones medical metaphor, Stenhouse uses the same approach to demonize Islamic orthodoxy. His islamophobia is simply crusadic in essence and is very revealing from a Catholic doctrinal view point. Father Stenhouse’s claim could equally be made against those who converted Constantine to Christianity, and there’s much evidence to argue that Christianity as practiced through Catholicism and Anglicanism is simply an aristocratic religion, divested of its intrinsic message from Christ’s ‘ Blessed are the poor and the peace makers’.

Stenhouse also confuses those who use, to quote the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a ‘heresy’ to promote a political cause. Yes, there are radical groups in the Middle East, Northern and Western Africa and throughout the world who advocate the violent overthrow of Governments and the persecution of non-Muslims. At the same time all governments are working together to defeat these usurpers and nowhere is this more evident than in Saudi Arabia, where the efforts of the Government has seen a period of stability and calm return to the Kingdom.
There are also simply historical errors and theological problems with Father Stenhouse’s argument. His claims that the alleged tolerance enjoyed by non-Muslim minorities in Spain from AD711 until 1492 is “propagandistic urban myth along the lines of alligators in the New York sewers” [8] is simply clever sophism and not true. Jews who had suffered persecution under Roman and Christian occupation on the Iberian Peninsula were the first to experience religious freedom after the Arab-Muslim conquest of Spain. Jews were given their freedom while Christians were allowed to maintain their customs in an effort to maintain local order. It is well known that educated Christians and Jews learned Arabic and contributed significantly to the multi-cultural Arab-Muslim society. The same cannot be said of the Catholic reconquest of Spain from about 1085 where options given by Ferdinand and Isabella were “exile, conversion to Catholicism or death” [9]. All religions have a history of proselytization too-not always by peaceful means either.
Islam does encourage theological debate and argument within its religious world view. And like the office of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, central to protect Catholic dogma and Doctrine, Islam looks critically at any academic enquiry which focuses on its central tenet of faith-that Mohammed was the last prophet sent by God. There’s nothing to stop Muslims or non-Muslims to debate or discuss this point.
As an educator I am deeply concerned about the growing intolerance developing in the world towards people of different religions. While I found the articles by John Stone and Paul Stenhouse disturbing because of the overt anti-Islamic tone, and the writer’s confusion between a religious faith on the one hand and a destructive ant-life ideology spawned through political and social discontent on the other; the more worrying aspect for me is the inability of a Stone and Stenhouse to distinguish between these two points for their audience, along with the composite view that all the problems evident in North Africa, the Far, Near and Middle east are sourced in Islam as a religion, rather than the more apparent social, economic and environmental problems facing these people, regardless of their faith.
I have worked and traveled in the Middle East for six years (now 14 years) I am taken with the integration of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in, Egypt, Jordan and Iran. I respect and understand from my own deep spiritual experiences the way the peoples of the Muslim communities live their spiritual lives through being called to prayer 5 times a day, yet being able to live a social and commercially based life which successfully cooperates and competes with the West and its neighbors.
I teach students who several generations on are part of the Palestinian Diaspora, along with those who recently fled Lebanon during the summer war of 2006. They are children of the Islamic faith and like their western counterparts, regardless of their religious beliefs, wish for a world of peace and tolerance. They struggle to understand the attacks on their faith; yet are politically aware and understand the problems they face in a world which has apparently grown indifferent to their histories and points of view. When well-educated individuals, including writers, Popes, political and religious leaders invoke images and arguments that have laid dormant in the annals of history we may well ask wherein lies the future for our children?

References:

1 Stone, J The Muslim Problem and What to Do About It, Quadrant, September 2006, p. 11
2. Op.Cit
3. Ibid, p.12
4. Ibid, p.14
5. Armstrong, K, We cannot afford to maintain these ancient prejudices against Islam The Guardian, September 18th, 2006.
6. Stone, J, The Muslim Problem and What To Do About It Quadrant, September 2006, p 15.
7. Stenhouse, P, Standing Up To The Islamists Quadrant, September 2006, p 23
8. Stenhouse, P. Ibid, p.22
9. Renard, J, Responses to 101 Questions on Islam, p. 28

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