Thursday, February 7, 2008

Dr Herman Roborgh SJ

Muslims in Australia
At the end of his recent book on the struggle between moderate Islam and the extremists, Abou El Fadl appeals to non-Muslims for greater understanding. He writes as follows:
As for non-Muslims, what can they do? First and foremost, learn and understand, because nothing helps the puritans’ cause as much as Western ignorance, prejudice, and hate . . .. It is not an exaggeration to say that Islam-hating texts written in the West act as recruitment manuals for the puritans. Furthermore, Western writings that advocate a bipolar view of the world by contending that there is an inevitable clash between the Judeo-Christian tradition on the one hand and the Islamic tradition on the other, confirm the puritan worldview, and literally serve as propaganda material for them.[1]

Talk about a clash of civilizations only confirms the traditional Islamic view of the world as divided into two camps: people who are Muslims (dar al islam) and that part of the world that is opposed to Islam (dar al harb). This view of the situation is now outdated. There is a need for a new perception of Muslims and non-Muslim living together in one world.

In fact, the dialogue process should also seek ways to include those who do not subscribe to any particular religion but who hold and articulate such values as goodness, compassion, respect and justice. These people may not be “religious” in the usual sense of the word but they do show respect for religion and may well have a passion to foster understanding between various religious groups and between these groups and other non-religious people. Some of them may even have a keen awareness of the need to develop mutual understanding. These are the kind of people referred by Michael Amaladoss:
People who talk today about justice and human rights do not necessarily seek religious justification for them. There is a ‘secular’ consensus about their need that transcends particular religions. The groups of the oppressed who follow such goals often tend to be multi-denominational and multi-religious; religious differences seem not to matter much to them. Christians may, and often do, justify these goals in terms of the life and teachings of Jesus. Other believers may offer other justifications; faith is experienced as larger than Christian faith, but there is a consensus about the common goals that are pursued. There is certainly a link between faith and life. But there seems to be a certain ambiguity whether faith follows life or vice versa. Comparing these experiences with similar ones that owe their existence to other religions and even non-religious secular ideologies may make us aware of the limited role of faith. It is significant that in most of these narratives, the people concerned start reflecting on the relationship between faith and life only after the question is put to them, almost putting words into their mouth.[2]

Such people, and there are many of them in India and Australia, may no longer identify themselves with any particular religion but they are sensitive to the need for greater understanding and cooperation between all people.

The Situation of Muslims in Australia

According to the statistics, there are about 300.000 Muslims in Australia. The most numerous ethnic groupings are Lebanese and Turkish. Most Lebanese migrants came to Australia in the mid seventies to escape the civil war. More recent Muslim migrants are from Iraq, Iran and Sudan. Generally speaking, Muslims who come to Australia are looking for freedom and the chance to make a living for themselves and their families. However, the antipathy towards Islam now common in Australia makes life difficult for them. There is much stereotypical criticism of Islam in Australia as there is in the West, in general. The media in Australia and the politicians celebrate this type of attack on Islam and support Muslims who are willing to engage in self-depreciating criticism of Islam.

Recently, for example, Ayaan Hirsi Ali came to Australia and described her terrible experience as a young girl in Somalia where she experienced circumcision and other unacceptable practices. Her book Infidel tells the story of her life in Somalia and how she eventually became an asylum seeker and fled to Holland. After settling down in Holland, she became an articulate feminist who was not afraid to speak out against the horrors perpetrated against women in the name of Islam. Several articles have appeared in the Australian press exposing her critical views of Islam. Some Australian Muslims reacted to this media coverage by saying that Ayaan Hirsi Ali was confusing her own childhood experience with the universal precepts of Islam. Muslim respondents claimed that these barbaric customs and practices were common in countries like Somalia even before the arrival of Islam. Hence, they were cultural practices and should not be described as Islamic. In the history of Christianity, it is easy to find examples of cultural practices perpetrated in the name of religion. More clarity is needed regarding the distinction between culture and religion.

Furthermore, Hirsi Ali was reported to have called for the closure of Muslim secondary schools in Australia. In response, Muslims argued that it was precisely these Muslim schools that were capable of introducing young Muslims to a critical and balanced understanding of Islam. Without secondary schools in which students were introduced to the intellectual history of Islam, young Muslims would be more vulnerable to the extremist and reductionist interpretations of Islam propagated by movements such as Wahhabism.

The Muslim community in Australia needs teachers who know their Islamic tradition well enough to allow themselves to become engaged in a critical but balanced reflection about it. Teachers will be of no help to their students if they simply repeat the syllabus they followed as children in their home countries. Young Muslims in Australia are exposed to questions that were not asked in societies where the traditional syllabus of instruction was formulated and complied. Muslims in India are beginning to face similar questions and challenges.

Though different dioceses have different approaches, the Catholic Church in Australia is actively involved in promoting inter-religious dialogue. I have been involved in celebrations of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in which a Christian and a Muslim were both given the opportunity to speak. On that occasion, I spoke about the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and a Muslim speaker spoke about the faithfulness of the Prophet. After these presentations, the mixed audience of Christians and Muslims was invited to ask questions. I have also attended seminars where Christians, Muslims and Jews were exchanging views on an issue that affects the whole of society, like that of concern for the environment and for human rights. As we grow in our experience of dialogue and develop more trust in each other, we may be able to explore more sensitive issues.

Not all Christian groups in Australia promote interfaith dialogue. Recently, I attended a conference on Islam organized by an evangelical Christian church. The participants heard lectures on the history of Islam explaining how Muslims had oppressed non-Muslims by categorizing them as dhimmis (a special category that refers to non-Muslims) and by imposing a special tax (jizya) on them during the time of the Muslim Empires. Verses from the Qur’an were quoted to demonstrate Islam’s aggressive stance towards Jews and Christians (for example, Chapter 9 of the Qur’an, verse 5 and verse 29). It was clear to me that some of these Christians were interpreting the Qur’an according to a narrow and literalist interpretation. I became aware of the need to introduce these Christians to other, more inclusive approaches to the interpretation of the Qur’an.

Difference in perception

One of the main differences between the Muslim and the non-Muslim world concerns the conception of religion. Muslims are suspicious of a sharp distinction between religion on the one hand and social, political or economic life, on the other. In contrast, Christians can more easily understand religion as a personal or private responsibility. For this reason, non-Muslims in Australia are uncomfortable when Muslims bring religion into the public forum. On the other hand, Muslims feel that Christians could be more assertive about their moral standpoint.

This difference in perception arises from various theories as to the role that the Shari’a and the Islamic jurists should play in a modern State. For Muslims, the Shari’a is not just a legal system but a symbol of Muslim identity. The average Muslim may not be conversant with the technicalities of the Shari’a but he or she reveres the Shari’a as a symbol of Islamic authenticity and legitimacy. Because of the symbolic role of the Shari’a and its ability to appeal to and mobilize popular Muslim sentiment, activists and leaders of popular Islamic movements have tried to exploit the Shari’a to win support among the people.

Roots of the crisis

According to Abou El Fadl, the crisis in the Islamic world can be partly explained by the vacuum caused by the abolition of the Shari’a schools by the Western colonial governments that replaced the traditional Muslim governments. He says that the Shari’a schools in the Muslim world have been
replaced with Western-based secular legal systems. Many of the Shari’a schools were closed down, and today most of them function as poorly preserved tourist attractions. Shari’a schools, such as the Azhar in Egypt, became state-owned schools in which the state appointed and fired the faculty . . . . The material taught in the religious schools no longer included studying jurisprudential theory, legal maxims, legal precedents, hermeneutics, rhetoric, procedural theory, or any of the kind of subjects normally encountered in schools of law.[3]

As a result, the ‘ulama (Muslim jurists) were relegated to the margins of society without being able to influence social or political policy in a meaningful way. Gradually, their authority was given to lawyers educated in Western, secular schools of law. In modern Islam, this process has left a vacuum in religious authority. Popular movements led by people who had neither the training nor the traditional education of the jurists filled the vacuum. The decisions and opinions (fatawa, sing. fatwa) delivered by these self-declared experts in Islamic law have led to a crisis in the Islamic world.


In the vacuum created by the displacement of the traditional Islamic schools of law, two mass movements have become particularly influential: the Salafis and the Saudi Arabia-based Wahhabis. The foundations of Wahhabi theology were formulated by Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792). According to the Wahhabi ideology, it was necessary to return to a presumed pristine, simple and straightforward Islam, which meant a return to the literal implementation of the commands of the Prophet. The Wahhabis treated the religious texts – the Qur’an and the Sunna – as an instruction manual for a virtual utopia modeled after the Prophet’s city-state in Medina. Wahhabism rejected the cumulative weight of historical baggage and insisted upon a return to the “Rightly Guided” early generations. The Wahhabi idea was liberating for Muslim reformers since it meant the rebirth of ijtihad (independent and new analysis), which provided an opportunity for a re-examination of legal issues unencumbered by the accretions of precedents and inherited doctrines.

Wahhabi theology was resuscitated in the early twentieth century under the leadership of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Al Sa’ud (1902-53), the founder of the modern Saudi state, who adopted the puritanical theology of the Wahhabis. He invented a model for an Islamic State, which severely restricted personal liberty in the name of enforcing God’s law. Because of the twin factors of non-Muslim support and the discovery of oil, the Saudi government was in a position to withstand the criticism of moderate Muslim countries. In the 1970’s, the Saudi government decided to undertake a systematic campaign of aggressively exporting the Wahhabi creed to the rest of the Muslim world. The influence of the Wahhabi approach to Islam has also been felt in Australia.

Since Wahhabism had not been a school of thought within Islam, Wahhabi clerics have consistently described themselves as Salafis (adherents of the “early generations” (al-salaf al-salih). By emphasizing a presumed “golden age” in Islam, the adherents of Salafism and Wahhabism idealized the time of the Prophet and his Companions and ignored the subsequent development of Islamic history. As El Fadl says:
By rejecting juristic precedents and undervaluing tradition as a source of authoritativeness, Salafism adopted a form of egalitarianism that deconstructed traditional notions of established authority within Islam. According to Salafism, effectively anyone was considered qualified to return to the original sources and speak for God. The very logic and premise of Salafism was that any commoner or layperson could read the Qur’an and the books containing the traditions of the Prophet and his Companions and then issue legal judgments. Taken to the extreme, this meant that each individual Muslim could fabricate his own version of Islamic law.[4]


In Australia, Muslims have an opportunity that Muslims in more traditional societies do not have. In Australia, Muslims can study the writings of progressive Muslim thinkers. By studying the views of modern thinkers, Muslims in Australia can become more integrated into Western secular society without succumbing to the materialistic, consumer values of modern life. In fact, by expressing the eternal values and guidance of the Qur’an through modern concepts and language, Muslims can continue to make a very significant contribution to Western society, as they did in the past. Expressed in traditional Wahhabi concepts, however, the voice of Islam and its rich heritage will not be understood in the West.

[1] The Great Theft, Wrestling Islam From the Extremists, Khaled Abou El Fadl, San Francisco, HarperCollins Paperback Edition, 2007, pp. 286-87
[2] Michael Amaladoss S.J., Promotio Justitiae, no. 94, 2007/1.
[3] Ibid, pp. 35-36.
[4] Ibid, p. 76.

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