Multiculturalism is widely considered to be a cornerstone of modern Australian society. The aftermath of the Sydney Lindt Café siege, including government policies and the # iWillRideWithYou movement, have brought the issues of multiculturalism and religious intolerance into sharper focus.
It is perhaps in this spirit that the North Ringwood Uniting Church hosted the Understanding Islam seminar series, with the first on Wednesday 18 March. The approximately 200 registered attendees illustrated that this is a topic of note within the church.
Although the audience skewed older, the younger people present pointed to cross-generational interest in the topic.
The first session featured presentations by Dr Bernie Power, Vickie Janson and Elizabeth Kendal.
Dr Power, an Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations lecturer from the Melbourne School of Theology offered an abridged background to Islam.
“I normally teach a whole semester on Muhammad, a whole semester on the Qur’an and a whole semester on Islamic history and you are getting three semesters in 40 minutes,” Dr Power said.
His presentation tracked Muhammad’s rise from a goat herder, orphaned early in life, to a merchant trader and then Prophet of Allah.
The talk unearthed commonality between the early lives of Jesus and Muhammad. They came from humble roots; they were oppressed and their followers persecuted; and they spoke truth to authorities regardless of the consequences.
Jesus and Muhammad also shared the desire to turn the masses from idolatry and worshipping of other religious icons.
As Muhammad preached in the streets of Mecca about believing in one God and turning away from idols, the Bible makes similar references: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20).
Ultimately, the actions of their followers are also similar, with both Christians and Muslims committing atrocities in the names of their religions throughout history.
Dr Power’s presentation concluded with the sentiment of Islam being pulled in five different directions, from traditionalists, through to Modernists and Jihadists.
“And this is why we are finding within the Muslim community there is a lot of dissension, misunderstanding, you will hear different messages coming out of the same community because of that.”
This segued to Vickie Janson’s presentation, which centred on her personal experiences with two Muslim friends: “Two friends, two Islams. One which would support the concept of freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and one that would not.”
Through this lens, inter-religious relations are of political significance, impacting the Australian way of life.
Ms Janson’s approach is firmly based on her rigid belief that as a Christian, she should “not bow to religious sensibilities”.
According to Ms Janson, this contrasts with laws enacted to enforce respect which she says only result in “cultivating a culture of fear, mistrust and abuse and they are totalitarian in nature which I think is heading us in completely the wrong direction for a free democracy”.
Ms Janson’s first interpretation of Islam is borne of the change in her friend Hekma, who became a stricter adherent of Islam after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This change also led to her embrace of missionary activities and seeking to spread her religion to non-believers.
“What I learnt from Hekma is that deeply held beliefs, especially religious beliefs, have political consequences.”
An example of this societal impact as posed by Ms Janson is the decision by some KFC stores to become Halal-certified.
“This does affect non-Muslims because now KFC does not cater to everyone in those particular stores. So despite advertising nationally for all, that you know they have got bacon burgers, they are off the menu in those stores. Understandably, that might annoy and inconvenience the customer who goes to KFC especially for the bacon burger. And we can see what sort of problem that sort of thing can have in our society. You know, they are not going to be happy.”
Her second view of Islam is informed by her friend Zalifa, a gentle, thoughtful and caring person who experienced a radical phase during her university years. Although she still identifies as Muslim, she chooses what tenets to believe in.
“She does not want Islam to dominate non-Muslims.”
This illustrates Dr Power’s point of there being multiple, often competing views within the Muslim world, as it is in other religions.
Elizabeth Kendal, an adjunct research fellow at the Melbourne School of Theology, concluded the evening with a talk on rising religious tensions negatively impacting societies.
As master of ceremony Robert Lattimer acknowledged in his introduction, this “is a fascinating and complex topic” with the series hopefully sparking a journey of understanding for the audience.
The Uniting Church is committed to this journey and Crosslight will present a longer feature in the May edition. It will cover the second session held at North Ringwood Uniting Church, and include views from Muslim scholars whose voices were lacking during the first night.