By Archbishop Mark Coleridge
ISLAM has been much in the news in recent days.
A great deal has been said and written, some of it seriously misinformed.
Christianity and Islam have had a tortured history, and there’s a need to focus at a time of tension like this.
The word “Islam” means peace; and certainly Muhammad brought peace to the warring tribes of the Arabian peninsula when his religious inspiration and the text it generated, the Qu’ran, took institutional form in the seventh century and became the religion we know as Islam. From the first, Islam drew upon elements of both Judaism and Christianity, which suggests that the relationship between the three Abrahamic religions is more complex than it might seem to be.
Crude oppositions need to be questioned.
Although Islam drew upon Christian elements, it emerged as a different kind of religious phenomenon.
Essentially it was a desert religion, whereas Christianity emerged in the green hills of Galilee and took root early in the urban centres of the Mediterranean basin.
Geography shaped spirituality.
In the desert, you have to focus on the bare essentials if you want to survive; and that’s why one of Islam’s strengths is its simplicity. By contrast, Christianity can seem complex in its doctrine and practices. The desert is also a land of stark contrasts, and starkness can mark Islamic spirituality, whereas a gentleness can pervade Christian spirituality.
The desert is a land which can seem dead but which teems with life in hidden and surprising ways; and Islam, for all its starkness, can have a surprising sensuousness about it, as we see in its art and architecture.
Like Christianity, Islam is a mixed bag.
There are many different kinds of Islam, just as there are many different kinds of Christianity. The two different kinds we hear most about these days are the Sunni and the Shia, but there are many others less well known.
Yet some of what we hear these days gives the impression that all Muslims are the same. That’s not the case.
It’s true that Islam and violence have intersected from time to time through history.
But this isn’t the same as saying that Islam is essentially violent.
Nor is it true to say that Christianity – or all religion for that matter – has violence at its core. It’s true that Islamic armies have swept out of the desert (usually) with fire and sword from time to time through history.
But so too Christian armies have from time to time swept out of other places with fire and sword.
The obvious example are the Crusades, which have not been forgotten if the rhetoric of ISIS is any indication.
Yet these Islamic armies have not all been the same.
What’s happening now with ISIS is that a totalitarian ideology – a kind of fascism – is intersecting with religion, in this case Islam.
Religion and totalitarian ideology in any of their forms are always a lethal combination; and we need to be seriously on guard against it.
The problem with ISIS is not Islam but the totalitarian ideology which has press-ganged religion into service.
It’s the totalitarian ideology, which has violence at its core; and we need to wage war against that, not against Islam.
The fight against ISIS is not unlike the fight against fascism and communism in the last century.
They were essentially atheistic ideologies, whereas ISIS is a religious form of totalitarian ideology, which makes it even more dangerous.
Islam, unlike Christianity, has not passed through a Reformation and Enlightenment; and this accounts for the different way in which they address their sacred text.
It also accounts for some of the difficulties Muslims have in engaging aspects of Western modernity; and this can create a sense of alienation when Muslims settle in Western societies like Australia.
This alienation is part of the psychosis of young Muslims who go from Western societies to the Middle East to fight the battles of ISIS.
But Islam, like Christianity, is far from static.
Islam is changing and will continue to change as it settles more into Western societies.
It will in turn change those societies, so that we will see new forms of the mutuality, which has always marked relations between Islam and the West.
Through the centuries, the West has learnt and taken more from Islam than is usually recognised.
Although Muslims now tend to be regarded as the archetypal “other” in Western societies – as Jews and Catholics have been from time to time and from place to place – Muslims are in fact less “other” than they seem to be.
Their difference of language, custom and dress conceal the fact that they are more like us than we think they are.
In the end, Muslims are human beings; and it’s our shared humanity that we need to focus upon at a time like this.
Totalitarian ideology is always inhuman, to the point of being demonic.
But religion is about a shared humanity that has its roots in the God who is creator of us all. Prayer puts us in touch with that God, which is why for both Muslims and Christians prayer is an essential part of combating a totalitarian ideology like ISIS.
So too is dialogue which puts us in touch with the “other”, not as the enemy but as brother and sister.