Setting the record straight

By Robert Latimer

As the key organiser and master of ceremonies for the ‘Understanding Islam’ series held on 18 and 25 March 2015 at North Ringwood Uniting Church, (NRUC) I would like to assure readers of Crosslight that the large audience (around 250 on the first night, rising to 300 on the second) was not a ‘voyeuristic mob’ as Andrew Juma alludes in his opinion piece.

The guest speakers did not present a narrative of Islam that was ‘simplified to terrorism and burqas’, rather, the event was carefully shaped to reflect the core values of the Uniting Church, with a commitment to truth, fairness, understanding, respect and peace.

By way of background, there were two sessions, each of two hours, with the opening session on the first night providing an academic overview of Islam – its history, traditions, practices and teachings – delivered by an eminent expert in the field, Dr Bernie Power. This was supplemented by personal viewpoints relating to Islam today, touching on current issues such as human rights and Western democratic traditions.

The second session was structured as a forum, comprising Muslim and Christian panellists, and was chaired by Dr Power; as he has done many times before, in other places, over the years. The two Muslim speakers who accepted our invitation to participate, Sheikh Dirani (Shia) and Imam Janud (Ahmadiyya) were candid and informative in their deliveries and in fact held the floor for much of the night – which is the way it was meant to be.
The audience seemed to appreciate the richness of the information presented in the first session, and the multiple perspectives that emerged in the second. Anyone wishing to view the event in full on Youtube need only contact me through the NRUC website for the link.

As to why we didn’t invite Muslim scholars and representatives to speak on the first night, as Andrew Juma presents as his ‘main criticism’, we felt that an academic, factual approach on the first night, delivered by a man with a PhD in the Hadith (or traditions of Muhammad), who lecturers on the subject at Melbourne School of Theology and who regularly takes students on visits to mosques for conversations with Imams, would lay a sound foundation on which to build our understanding. In reality, Islam has many branches – Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Druze, Ahmadiyya, Wahabist … the list goes on, so to begin the series with just one or two ‘Islamic interpretations’ would have been misleading and confusing.

As if to highlight the differences, Sheikh Ali Dirani dryly observed, if he were captured by Islamic State along with a Jew and a Christian, it’s more than likely that he, as a Shia, would be killed first. And when Australian-raised, fellow panellist and Ahmadiyya Muslim, Imam Janud said that his parents originally came to Australia escaping persecution in Pakistan, it was at the hands of other Muslims. The fact is, Ahmadiyya Muslims are regularly attacked and killed for their beliefs in Pakistan because they are not even considered Muslims and must sign a statement to that effect if they wish to obtain citizenship.

In closing, whilst we greatly appreciate the reporting of the Understanding Islam event by Crosslight, please allow me to express my deep feelings of hurt at its general tone. In particular the Opinion piece, which seamlessly weaves the simple act of us conducting such an event with anti-social behaviour and bigoted perspectives all topped off with the inclusion of a neo-Nazi, skinhead photograph. The intent appears to be to discourage us from understanding the changing face of Australia and entering into inter-faith dialogue.

On the topic of inter-faith dialogue and understanding, one of the Imams was so pleased with the event that he asked our minister to participate in a similar discussion panel at his mosque. The Imam has also accepted an invitation to a footy match with one of our members. Fostering such good relations must surely be a positive thing.

Robert Latimer
School of Ministry
North Ringwood Uniting Church

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