The spread of Islamic militarism and the threat posed by Islamic State in the Middle East sparks an endless and circular debate.
Muslims need to acknowledge and loudly condemn the violence being waged in the name of Islam, say Western political leaders, notably Tony Abbott. Islam is a peaceful religion and Islamic State has nothing to do with us, comes the indignant reply from Muslims, who grow ever more weary at being expected to condemn the terrorism they abhor.
It is a polarised conversation that ultimately goes nowhere. To probe deeper — to question the construction of religion and to analyse faith, today and through the ages — is akin to walking through a field of landmines.
Brisbane-based author Dave Andrews is ready for the challenge. The devout Christian has just published a book, provocatively titled The Jihad of Jesus, which asks Muslims and Christians to examine their religion in practice, and to acknowledge the violence that lies at the heart of the construction of religion throughout history.
The atrocities committed in the name of religion are undeniable. They stretch from the Christian holy wars that began towards the end of the Roman Empire, and continue through history right up to the present-day threat of Islamic extremism. But there is a process of minimisation at play that must be acknowledged, Andrews argues. It’s an almost unconscious discounting, or a shifting of emphasis, that seeks to justify or underplay the violence that has been waged during holy wars for centuries.
“This brings us face to face with the life and death question, at the very heart of the matter, that we desperately need to answer,” Andrews says in his book, launched this week.
“Are the atrocities that are done in the name of Christianity or Islam true indicators of the nature of Christianity or Islam, or not?
“If the answer to this question is that these atrocities are not a true indicator but mere aberrations, then we have nothing to fear from the continued expansion of Christianity or Islam. But if the answer to this question is, as I suspect, that these cruelties are true indicators — and inevitable consequences — of the way we have constructed our religions, then we have everything to fear from Christianity or Islam in the coming millennium.”
It is a thesis that cuts to the heart of the present debate raging around the extent to which Islam must confront the extremism waged in its name. But for Andrews, who has lived years of his adult life in the Middle East and South Asia, responsibility cuts both ways. Holy wars were being waged by Christians for centuries before the present flashpoint in religious warfare in Iraq and Syria, and overall, he concludes, “in the conflicts between Christians and Muslims, there have been more devastating wars among Christian states fighting each other than between Christian and Muslim states; and predominantly Christian states have killed more Jews and Muslims than predominantly Muslim states have killed Christians or Jews.”
It is a macabre balance sheet, but it’s all part of a process of introspection that Andrews says is critical if there is to be a lasting peace, in which Christians and Muslims can join together in a non-violent struggle for justice.
The author’s determination to broker peace began at home in the suburbs of Brisbane in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US in 2001. Andrews had lived for many years in Afghanistan during the 1970s and 80s and on his return to Australia he undertook voluntary work helping to settle Afghan refugees here. He had a large number of Muslim friends. Andrews was appalled by the scale of the 9/11 atrocity but was also deeply disturbed by the political response that culminated in the invasion of Iraq.
“I never expected that we’d need to engage in this dialogue across such a chasm of division and suspicion,” Andrews tells The Australian. “After 9/11 we were defined as against each other, as Christians and Muslims, and then the major challenge was to build bridges across the chasm.”
When Andrews first sought out Nora Amath, a Muslim woman active in the organisation Australian Muslim Advocates for the Rights of All Humanity, the graduate of a sociology doctorate was burned out. She assumed that like so many other devout Christians who used interfaith dialogue as a smokescreen to recruit Muslims to their own cause, Andrews was just another evangelist Christian.
“From about 2002 until about 2007 I was doing, I guess, what you’d almost call a one-woman campaign to go out there, meet people and confront prejudice,” Amath says.
“I just decided I’m going to put myself out there and answer any questions. But by 2007 I was pretty jarred by the whole experience. There were some wonderful moments of understanding and openness and grace from people, but at the same time there were quite a lot of incidents of bigotry that I just couldn’t break down. I said, ‘I can’t keep doing this.’ It was just really taking a toll on me.
“It was very frustrating being constantly expected to condemn terrorism. These people don’t represent me, why did I have to condemn something that I’m not really a part of? It’s exhausting. And I just decided I wasn’t going to do any more. I was just so disillusioned, really, by the whole process.”
So Amath initially rebuffed Andrews, who was keen to develop relationships with Muslims as part of his quest to establish a common ethic among religious traditions that could be used to counter violence waged in the name of God, or Allah.
“Some of my worst experiences of bigotry came from Christians who simply wanted to bash Islam, have a debate, and then convert me to Christianity,” Amath says. “I just thought, this is just going to be another evangelist. I really wasn’t interested.”
Eventually, Amath relented and met Andrews, and so began a series of conversations that have culminated in The Jihad of Jesus. “Reading The Jihad of Jesus was like walking down memory lane,” Amath writes in her preface to the book. “Dave embodies that ‘Australian soul’ which will better facilitate harmonious coexistence and understanding in our multi-religious, multicultural society.”
Andrews’s thesis is built on a concept of jihad that can be embraced by Muslims and Christians, jointly committed to a “radical, practical, non-violent struggle” to defeat extremism. “At the moment jihad is a byword for terror,” Andrews says. “So when people think of jihad they think of atrocities.
“But if you go back to the Koran, the word jihad is not the word for war. The word for war in the Koran is qital. The word jihad actually means struggle. The overwhelming emphasis of the word jihad in the Koran is non-violence. If you take that as a Koranic framework for jihad it just shows that everything that most of these jihadists are involved with is totally unacceptable in Koranic terms.
“So rather than taking the anti-jihad stand, which won’t succeed because jihad is such an important view in the Koran, we’re saying let’s reclaim it from the extremists, reframe it as a nonviolent struggle for justice; and if both Christians and Muslims believe Jesus is the Mesih or the Messiah, which they do, let’s look at Jesus as a role model for non-violent jihad and see whether, in fact, rather than see Jesus as a poster boy to legitimate crusading against Muslims, we see Jesus as a Messiah who can bring Muslims and Christians together, to work together non-violently.”
But achieving common ground it is not as simple as condemning violence, Andrews says.
It involves a critical reflection of the way religions have been constructed.
In 1978, a professor of anthropology based at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, Paul Hiebert, raised the alarm at the dangerous implications of what he defined as “bounded set” religion in an essay, Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories . Fixed ideas of orthodoxy or behaviour define religion via boundaries that theologian Robert Brinsmead has said draw “lines of demarcation through the human race”.
“I think in order to understand the violence of religion we have to understand that it’s a way of defining religion as a closed set, where you’ve got people who are in the right, people who are in the wrong,” Andrews says.
“Therefore the people who believe they are right feel they have the responsibility to impose their views on others non-violently, or if necessary, violently.
“And you can see examples of Christians and Muslims who operate like that. However, there is, within both traditions, an open-set mindset that doesn’t think that it’s got a monopoly on God, or a franchise on the truth, and includes the other in a way that is empathic and respectful and doesn’t lead to violence but instead leads to non-violent resolution of conflicts.”
There is much common ground in the Abrahamic faiths, Amath says. “I remember I was at a speaking engagement with Dave and somebody asked me about Jesus, and if I believed in Jesus,” she says. “I said emphatically yes, of course, as Muslims we have to believe in Jesus. He is one of the revered prophets, and in fact he is mentioned more times in the Koran than Mohamed is mentioned. And so he does play a pivotal role in the basis of Islam.
“And so as Muslims, it’s obligatory for us to believe in him, to believe in his life. We have the same understanding of the immaculate conception of Jesus from the Lady Mary, and in fact the Lady Mary has a passage devoted to her. And so these are two very revered figures in Islamic history. And so of course Muslims need to believe in Jesus, that’s part of their creed.
“However, I would say probably in the past three years, through my conversations with Dave, I realised I really didn’t know enough about Jesus.
“And so over these years I’ve learnt more and more, and as a practising Muslim I can now say yes, Jesus is an embodiment of non-violent struggle, and that’s an example I can follow.”
Andrews and Amath are hopeful that conversations across faiths can unfold throughout the community in the same way their own friendship has evolved. But the challenge of navigating such terrain is difficult amid a highly charged political environment.
“There’s a thousand years of conflict between our communities,” Andrews says. “So you’ve got this strong paranoia and this great underlying fear of one another that has erupted again since 9/11 in explicit and graphic and catastrophic ways. We have this incredible fear of one another, and it’s trying to reach out to the other that we are frightened of. That is the challenge.”