With all our minds?

We need more nuance in our national debate on Islam

Politics is not really my thing – I prefer the footy any day – but even I’ve noticed the global trend towards “dumbed down” politics. We see it in the USA, where it beggars belief that a completely unqualified populist like Donald Trump could be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. We see it in the UK, where the vote to exit the EU was explained by one MP, Michael Gove, as being largely because “people in this country have had enough of experts.”

We have just seen it in Australia too. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party swept back into prominence, gaining at least two seats in the Senate, and even 21 per cent of the primary vote in one Queensland seat. It did so on the back of policies like: a call for a Royal Commission “to determine if Islam is a religion or political ideology”, a ban on the building of new mosques and a ban on further Muslim immigration or the intake of Muslim refugees.

At best these ideas are simplistic, crude and unworkable; at worst they are racist, cruel and dangerously divisive. For many commentators Hanson’s popularity hovers somewhere between laughable and scary, but it would be a mistake to ignore that there are some social and ethical issues to do with Islam that really do need to be taken seriously by governments.

Islam, and the issues involved, is more complicated than Hanson makes out.

While she is clearly ignorant on many crucial details, Hanson intuitively – and sensibly – gets that political Islam is a real local and global problem. So plainly:

  • Islamism really is an aggressive political ideology, and often a totalitarian one at that.
  • The religion itself really does have something to do with it. Traditional Islam was a political faith, and the authoritative texts of Islam can legitimately be read as endorsing its violent enforcement.
  • Many Australian Muslims do hold to – or at least have sympathies toward – an aggressive Islamist theology. Perhaps up to one quarter of all Muslims support the imposition of some form of Sharia law as an ideal.
  • Jihadi Islamists often do arise from within resettled refugee populations and, on rare occasions, do strategically utilise the refugee highway to enter Western countries.

If this were all that could be said about Islam then you could probably mount a case that One Nation’s policies seem to be at least broadly on track. The problem, of course, is that there is so much more that needs to be said. Islam, and the issues involved, is more complicated than Hanson makes out. So it is also plain that:

  • The vast majority of Australian Muslims live ordinary lives and want nothing at all to do with political Islamism.
  • Political Islamism, while perhaps legitimate, is a disputed position in Muslim theology, and takes many different forms – very few of which endorse offensive military jihad.
  • Most of the support given to Australian intelligence services is provided by Muslim communities who are seeking to eradicate radicalism from within their own communities.
  • Most importantly, nearly all Muslim refugees are ordinary people who have suffered horribly (and unimaginably to most Aussies) and are genuinely in desperate need.

It is easy to retreat into the simplistic us/them ethics of One Nation. It is easy to be fearful.

In the case of Islam, dumbed down public policies aren’t going to cut it. Islam is a millennium-old comprehensive belief system followed, in myriad forms, by almost two billion people from all races, cultures and continents. It has a range of highly-developed theologies, societies and political models. To engage Islam, what’s required is a rich ethic that doesn’t shy away from complex theological, social and political issues.

Followers of Jesus have no excuse for holding “dumbed down” ethics.

Fortunately, Christianity provides just such a rich ethic. Followers of Jesus have no excuse for holding “dumbed down” ethics. Instead, Jesus sets his followers an extraordinarily high ethical bar: they are to wrestle with loving both justice and mercy at the same time; they are to struggle with both resisting evil and loving their enemy; they are to be both good, faithful citizens of Australia and subversive, transformative citizens of heaven. This call, combined with two thousand years of deep reflection, means Christian ethics has a deep well of nuanced wisdom that can be brought to bear on the engagement with Islam.

Moreover, the Christian ethic has important things to say about theology, society and politics. As theists, we understand a theological worldview – including how someone could be motivated to give up their life for the sake of an eternal kingdom – and we are uniquely placed to speak to Muslims of a truer vision of God and his interaction with the world. As those who understand everyone to be made in the image of a God who would stand in our place when we were his enemies, we have a compelling model for responding to every single Muslim (enemy or refugee) with compassion. As those who recognise objective moral law as inbuilt to the universe, we have the reason and framework to both pursue social justice for the oppressed and to bring oppressors to justice.

It is no surprise, then, that we find Australia has some of the leading Christian thinkers and practitioners wrestling in each of these areas of engagement. Many have voices that are heard in high places. I admire these thought leaders so much precisely because I have sympathy for “dumbed down” political thinking. It is easy to retreat into the simplistic us/them ethics of One Nation. It is easy to be fearful. But Jesus doesn’t offer us the simple road. Instead, he calls us to love him with all our minds, and we will need to take a real crack at doing that if we are to come up with the sort of nuanced, wise and creative public policies that will help us live fruitfully in a broken and messy world.

Dr Richard Shumack is a research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) and also Director of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at Melbourne School of Theology.

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