I am a Columban missionary priest. I have been promoting good relations with Muslims for over thirty years in Pakistan and Australia. Yet I feel dispirited by events in Egypt and Syria which seemingly confirm the popular stereotype of Muslims as violent terrorists.
If a committed activist for Christian-Muslim relations like myself can feel discouraged, then how much more dispirited must a Muslim feel? I am a concerned bystander; but his religion has been misused; her scripture twisted; his role model distorted beyond recognition; her tradition subjected to public disgrace; he is dismayed at the violence done falsely in his name; she is appalled by the senselessness that shames her genuine devotion.
I can feel smug and self-righteous—my religion has not been involved (this time)!—but the Muslim must protest the violence, fend off suspicions, defend against slurs, all the while feeling sick at heart. It is a heavy burden to bear.
Some Muslims feel ostracised by the suspicion and negative stereotyping. Tragically, this makes them vulnerable to being radicalised. Others protest rightly that terrorism is contrary to clear Quranic and Islamic teaching - but sometimes their counter-presentation of Islam is so idealised that it not credible.
Islam emerged in 7th century Arabia as a religious movement calling people to be mindful of God’s judgement and to treat others justly. This challenged the wealth and privilege of the Meccan elite. When beatings, imprisonment, exile, bribery and boycott failed to stamp out the challenge, the Meccans resorted to full-scale military expeditions. Outnumbered, the Prophet Muhammad and his followers had to defend themselves in pitched battles. So of course there are militant texts in the Qur’an! But often overlooked are their directions on the conduct of battle—that taking up arms is a last resort, innocent civilians are not to be attacked, arms are to be put down at the first prospect of peace, and so on—all of which are intended to curb violence, not promote it.
Some non-Muslims go to another extreme. They blame Islam as the root cause of the violence, adducing other “violent” texts from the Qur’an to make their case, taking them out of their context and interpreting them literally. They too are attempting to preserve an ideal, that of the superiority of “Western” civilization, projecting all evil onto the Muslim “other”, thus denying any complicity or responsibility for the political, social and economic woes which fuel Muslim resentment and which extremists exploit in their resort to violence.
The reality is more complex and lies in between these two extremes. There is no monolithic “Western” civilization, nor is there a single Islamic “world”. There are many societies, each a product of different cultures, religions, languages, ethnicities and histories, each of them a mix of good and evil. To sift them requires attentive listening and discernment.
Most Muslims simply get on with life, sometimes fearful, keeping a low profile in an occasionally hostile social environment. They work for justice, promote good, oppose evil, practise virtue, build relations with their neighbours, provide for the poor, care for creation, all in accord with the religious and moral teachings of Islam. They deserve our solidarity, support and encouragement.
To this end, I am encouraged by the many people of good will, Muslim and Christian and other faiths, who refuse to be cowed by events and persevere in doing good, building relations, weaving a peaceful, harmonious society. I am inspired by the humble example of Pope Francis, who on Holy Thursday washed the feet of a Muslim woman juvenile detainee. The Lord has commanded us to do likewise.
Fr Patrick McInerney is the Director of Christian-Muslim Relations at the Columban Mission Institute in Strathfield, NSW.
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