I want to reflect on the unspeakably appalling terror events that have occurred recently in Afghanistan, Iraq, Manchester, London, Melbourne and Tehran in the light of monotheistic religion and the ethical requirements that flow from it.
Islam shares roots with Judaism and Christianity. Its monotheism is audibly announced through the first ‘Pillar’ Shahada (faith) and ethically required in the third, Zakᾱt (charity). For a Muslim, life is a journey of submission: submission to God and to a charitable response to fellow human beings. Both submission to God and charitable submission to fellow human beings is practiced in ‘jihad’, a life time struggle to live a better life. If jihad is seconded to defend, even encourage, violence towards others; I submit subversion of the term must be challenged and corrected by Islamic leaders. While military jihad is justified as a defensive strategy, perhaps in the same way that Christians might argue for a ‘just war’, in practice this perverted interpretation of jihad kills far more civilians than military opponents and entrenches violence’s, inevitable and vicious cycle. More often than not victims are fellow Muslims. This is no way to further the struggle to lead a better life.
Islam’s monotheism gives it the right to believe that all humans can potentially be Muslim, but this right travels with the obligation to treat all human beings equally with dignity and honour as children of God. The former right is annulled if the latter is not in place. This is also the case with Christianity, the right to be a universal faith carries the obligation everywhere and in every age of universal human care and justice.
Therefore in light of these unspeakable and ongoing acts of terror, in the name of Islam, what is to be done?
- As hard as it might be, Islamic leaders must name the perpetrators for what they are, apostates, infidels; for engaging in these atrocities they abandon any right to be named amongst those who are submissive to the one true God. This message must be clear and unequivocal. I realise the difficulty. In the West we assume the hierarchies that we see in Christianity with Pope, Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops to be transferable to Islam. Sunni Islam (majority Islam) is organisationally flatter. Here in is strength, but also great weakness, even danger, for it seems almost anyone can put up their shingle as an Imam. A Christian minister or priest who stirs enmity, who preaches division should be (will be) stood down. So should any Imam who abuses the privilege of religious freedom in this country. Such freedom carries civic and social responsibility.
- The West must be far more honest and discerning about the manner in which it condones injustice, perceived or otherwise, for injustice is a radicalising catalyst. It needs to be said that the West has a very long history of interference in the Arab world out of blatant self interest, not out of Arab well being. In recent history the Iraq war was ill-conceived and has done untold damage. Unless the actions of the West are transparently conducted in the interests of those whose lives are being disrupted, the problem of terror must be expected as a consequence. More than that, if those whose lives have been detrimentally disrupted are not aided on a path to recovery, on their terms, then these consequences remain. The oppression of Palestinians, even though a very small part of Middle Eastern injustice, is nevertheless a significant source of radicalisation within Palestine, throughout the Arab world and beyond.
- The West’s hypocrisy in terms of its chosen friends and enemies must come to an end. The home base for 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers was Saudi Arabia – the US ally. Wahhabism, a puritanical form of Islam ideologically underpins ISIS. This ideology perpetrates violence against others ‘less pure’, and against their ancient sites. This ideology is linked to the house of Saud, although since 9/11 and to retain the US as an ally against Iran, the links are less overt. Nevertheless Saudi Arabia should be called to account. Terrorism (including ISIS) is perpetrated by people who claim to be adherents of Sunni Islam and Saudi Arabia its financial backer.
- Iran, the sworn enemy of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US is neither Arab nor Sunni. The people are Persian and adherents of the minority branch of Islam, Shia. Shia Islam is focussed on what it believes to be its divinely sanctioned religious leadership. The Ayatollahs thus have considerable power in what might genuinely be referred to as a theocracy, but they are equally more open to demonization from the West than their secular counterparts might be in Saudi Arabia. Iran is no less a target of ISIS terrorism than the West as seen yesterday in their parliament. Why is the US so implacably against Iran? The answer is multilayered. What should however be clear is that Iran exercising its place as a responsible international partner makes for a much more peaceful world than such a large proud and powerful nation being ostracised to the edges.
Terrorism in its many forms must not become the new normal. Its source is not monotheism, for monotheism’s counterpoint is equality and justice for all humanity. Banishing terror to the periphery will require effort on the part of everyone.
It will require leadership from western leaders who should condemn terror but not demonise Islam. The undisciplined rightwing of Australian politics pours oil on the fire.
It will require leadership from Islamic leadership everywhere to denounce perpetrators as apostate.
It will require a new world order in which alliances are made out of global and regional best interest, not national (often hypocritical) best interest, for national best interest exercised by the strong will inevitably mean injustice for the weak and a perpetuation of the cycle.
It will require effort from ordinary citizens to reach out beyond difference so that inclusion and respect becomes the mark of each community.
George Browning is former Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn.