Moving humanity beyond hatred and violence

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The issue of the division between Islam and the West is something that I have been concerned about for a long time. In this blog-article I will talk about the current challenges as I see them, and possible solutions.

Submitted: April 08, 2019

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Submitted: April 08, 2019

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When I completed my last blog-article, I finished by saying that my next blog-article would be about the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Not true! But I promise that blog-article will be published by the end of this week.

Events have changed.

Most people will be aware of the massacre of Muslims which occurred in Christchurch New Zealand just over three weeks ago. Reality is that the impact of this tragedy was felt and experienced all around the world, however not as significantly as in New Zealand. There was the combination of shock and tragedy felt across New Zealand. Having been born and raised in New Zealand and having lived in Christchurch for five years while studying at University, this tragedy affected me even though I am currently not in New Zealand.

The issue of the division between Islam and the West is something that I have been concerned about for a long time. In this blog-article I will talk about the current challenges as I see them, and possible solutions.

But this blog article is not just about that incident. For me being gay, there are specific challenges in my relationship as a Westerner to Islam and just in the last week a new law has begun in Brunei where gay men can now be stoned to death. So, discussing this event will be important in the overall discussion of building better understanding and cooperation between different people around the world.

But before this blog-article could be written, another tragedy occurred here in the Dominican Republic where I stay from December until May. On Friday at a cemetery in a small town here in this country, a Facebook friend of mine, who I had never met but had chatted to, was found murdered. He had been raped and he had been decapitated. People were posting information on Facebook about the details of the horror and one of the people I chatted to sent me the photo of the murder scene. Here in the Dominican Republic it is quite common for gruesome photos of accidents and murder scenes to be published. As I am writing this blog-article today, a suspect is being hunted for the murder. It still remains unclear why this brutality occurred, but knowing that my friend was gay leaves me wondering to what degree this is a hate crime. It’s just unthinkable how people can do such acts of horror to other people, but I suppose hatred is usually the major motivator.

Somehow these events all interrelate. They all seem to share a lack of willingness for some people to allow other people to do or be as they choose. Whether we are talking about people choosing to practice a certain religion or for people to choose who they have a relationship with, both seem to share an example of intolerance towards other people’s freedoms. Even though I did not know Andy more than for some chats on Facebook, it still has felt very tragic and horrendous that such a thing would happen to another person, especially someone I kind of knew.

When the attack happened in New Zealand at the mosques, New Zealand responded swiftly to ensuring security would protect other Muslims, the Prime Minister stood clearly with grieving Muslim women by wearing the hajib. Many women including police officers began to wear the hajib to show solidarity and to provide added protection and safety to Muslim women. New Zealand has responded in a way to become more inclusive of Muslim communities and to explore how as a country this disaster may have been prevented. Winston Peters, the Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand, travelled to Turkey to attend a meeting of leaders from major Muslim nations to discuss the combating of Islamophobia.

This is the way forward that New Zealand is demonstrating, I believe; to bring different groups together. But it also has to be done with lots of intelligence and conversation.

I think the problems that have been growing throughout the world towards distrust between the Western world and the Muslim world, lie in so much lack of education on all sides. The history of the divide between Islam and the Western world goes back hundreds of years to the time of the Crusades. Like many things, ignoring the problem does not ensure that the problem goes away. Sometimes the problem just goes underground. I think at the moment there has been a lot of political correctness where in many places people do not express their true concerns or discuss issues of tension between Islamic beliefs and Western ones. The alternative to the suppression of this conversation has been an equally muddled one involving many politicians with limited education using the opportunity to divide and create further separation often expressing their own prejudices and fears rather than facts. This is especially the case with politics in Australia. The breeding ground for the person who carried out the massacre in Christchurch.

When I was a child growing up in New Zealand, the only divide that I was aware of a religious nature was between Catholics and Protestants. I only really understood Judaism when I was grown up and I vaguely knew of Islam in the sense that there had been conflicts long ago between Christians and people of the Middle East who had another religion. Of course, people living in other countries will have very different stories.

Over the years as I have studied other religions, I started to learn more about Islam but not that much. Countries like France with large numbers of immigrants coming from countries where Islam is the main religion, have probably had more interaction going on.

But for many Westerners, the date that they reconnected to our true awareness of Islam existing was September 11, 2001. On that date as terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Centre and killed over 3000 people, the incident was linked to an extremist group of Muslims in Afghanistan and then the war against the Taliban began. Many of my Muslim friends do not accept Al Qaeda or Isis or the terrorists of September 11 as Muslims and I appreciate what they are saying. For my friends, they compare their own practice of Islam with these actions of the terrorists and for them such actions are totally contrary to their beliefs as Muslim people.

The problem though is that we are not just talking about Muslims and how they view the practice of other people in terms of their religion. We are also talking about Westerners and their perceptions of Islam. The terrorists who carried out the actions of September 11 did so in the name of Islam and quoted various parts of the Koran to justify their violence. So, while all these terrorists belong to extremist groups claiming to be Muslim, being not accepted as genuine Muslims by other Muslims, Westerners tend to see such people as another faction of Islam. The same is generally true with Christians. Some Pentecostal Christians believe abortion is so wrong that they have blown up abortion clinics and killed people. However, when these actions occur, rather than saying such people are not Christian, other Christians will label them as extremist and violent and not a good reflection of the peaceful life reflected in Jesus. So, they will be perceived as a lousy example of Christianity and probably seen as violating many aspects of Christianity. But the fact that they base their actions on other parts of the Bible makes it that they are Christian.

Since the 50 Muslims died in Christchurch, about 500 Christians have died in massacres in Africa carried out by various extremist Muslim groups. A friend in Australia said something like ‘if the Christians went to protect the Muslims in Christchurch, why aren’t the Muslims doing the same for Christians in Africa?’ I consider this to be a good starting question to examine the different situation in the world of Islam and Christianity. The places in Africa where the Christians have been massacred are parts of Nigeria and Kenya. What becomes obvious upon exploring the topic in more depth, is that the people living in these regions are very remote, the areas are poor, security is limited, and the religious difference is also linked to ethnic differences and divisions and ongoing tensions. Not so easy to bring that situation under control. And not so easy in those situations for different groups to come to each other’s aid. But it is certainly something that needs to occur.

Another friend said to me that she just wished more Muslims would speak out against various terrorist events perpetrated by extremists in the name of Islam. I told her that I shared her feeling too. But I also explained that having spent time in Morocco in 2017 and 2018, I had a better idea of how things operate in many countries where Islam is the main religion.

In 2017 as Trump had gained office and Islamophobia was growing rapidly, I thought what can I do to bridge the gap between Muslim people and Western people. I was in the Dominican Republic at the time planning to return to Australia to do more teaching, I had discovered that flying back to Australia through the United States was very expensive and that flying back to Australia via Europe and Asia would be cheaper. And then I had this great idea. I had always wanted to travel across the Mediterranean from Spain to Morocco, from Europe to Africa, from the West to the Muslim world. And now I realised this would be a good opportunity while travelling back through Europe. So, for me the answer to the question how can I bridge the gap was go to visit a Muslim country! And so, to Morocco I travelled. I really loved Morocco. People were friendly. Food was fantastic. There was much generosity and kindness. It was a beautiful country and I have returned twice since then. When I arrived there I was looking as a Westerner with the question what makes the Muslim world different? And what came to me as a key idea or insight was the essence of conflict or divergent ideas which emerged in Europe because of Martin Luther. Because someone stood up to the power of the Catholic Church, something began to change in Europe. A new kind of freedom. The permission to discuss and critique and question and push towards difference in the allowing of difference. To me that is the essence of the best in Western culture.

Spending time with friends in Morocco, what became apparent was that many people fear their King. So, democracy is absent and human rights are restricted even in Morocco which is one of the freer countries in the Muslim world. Then we look at so many other Muslim majority countries and human rights are seriously restricted. How free are citizens to question their leaders and their actions? How often are elections held? Which groups within the society are free and which are persecuted? What is the relationship of women to men in decision-making both in the home and in the society? Are women free to walk the streets just like men?

And then we look at gay rights. The countries in the world that execute gay people are mostly Muslim majority countries. Other countries that have long prison sentences for gay sex are generally ex-British colonies with Christian religion. So, Christianity and British sexual repression has certainly done a lot of damage to people expressing themselves freely. But Islam as practiced by many, does not tolerate gay sex and in fact in many nations believes in killing people for such activity.

So all of this is a bit of a hornet’s nest. It does need to be talked about but in a reasonable manner. To not talk about these topics means that we put various minorities in a situation of potential risk. The history of women’s rights and gay rights are still unfolding in many Western countries. There are still many Westerners who are not accepting of equality between men and women and consider gay sex wrong. But societies of the Western world are generally taking a position that we need to protect the freedom of minorities and allow people to choose for themselves. These are recent achievements in Western countries and are still not solidified and can easily be wound back. We must not take these achievements for granted. Many people including many women and many gay men and lesbians have died in protests and other forms of resistance to ensure our freedoms today.

We must not allow such freedoms to be restricted by another minority group who believes in different roles between men and women or that gay people should have no rights.

This is the tricky territory about immigration as well. To some degree most people believe that if a person moves to a new country, they must adapt to the culture and practices of the new country. But of course, such an idea is a little bit too simplistic. Whether it is culture or the doctrines in the Koran, many Muslims if not most believe in different positions for men and women and do not support the rights of gay people. So, is this belief part of being a Muslim or is it part of the culture of the country that a person has come from? If it is the country, then the person can adapt to the new culture. But it if it is enshrined in their religion, whichever country they go to such ideas will continue. And when such people become citizens, which politicians and parties will they support? Will they support political parties that support gay rights and women’s equality, or will they support parties that suppress these rights? Complicated issues that need to be talked about.

And thinking along this line of argument, is it that we should accept other people's rules and regulations because we are in their country? So, because it is illegal to be gay in Morocco or in many other Muslim nations, does that mean that when gay people go to those countries, they should accept that they must be a monk during such a visit? And what of people who live in such countries? The Taliban had used a soccer stadium in Kabul for executions. The goal posts had served as a device for executing gay men. What do we say in the face of such horror? And what do we say as the Sultan of Brunei decrees death by stoning for anyone caught engaged in gay sex? And what of the people who live in those countries who are gay?

There are no simple answers to this complication.

Learning of other countries and how they do different things, what they believe is the right way to deal with different situations, these are good things to do. But at the end of the day maybe what is needed more than anything else is dialogue.

At this point I could moralise. And maybe what I would say is to the leaders of the Muslim majority nations who attended the recent meeting in Turkey on combating Islamophobia, for your next meeting lets all talk about combating homophobia!

Before September 11 happened, an assassination occurred in the Netherlands where an anti-immigration activist was killed. At the time many wrote him off as a simple xenophobic racist, but I remember thinking that this conversation had two sides to it, and that nothing absolute on the topic makes sense. This politician was speaking about his concern of protecting the achievements of women’s rights and gay freedoms in the Netherlands from pressure by a large immigrant population of Muslims. It’s easy to see how his words would be seen as excluding and racist. But he was a gay man and to me that makes the situation different. He was concerned that one minority not be able to threaten another minority. And that’s what we have to think about too.

In conclusion, this is a complex topic. Most people of the world are not violent and want to live in peace. All religions are generally like this. All it takes is a few people of different groups and ideologies to carry out terror actions and amplify the distrust and separation between different groups. I think the different groups need to acknowledge their differences, put their cards on the table and have more honest open dialogue.

But unlike the disaster in Australia, the conversation needs to occur with the goal of bringing people together in an honest way that will protect and guarantee safety to all sections of the population.

This experience of most Muslims living under various dictators and kings makes for compliant populations. I believe that there is peace and serenity in how Islam is practiced more so than in Christian practice. But I also believe the price is paid for the surrendering to the higher power. I believe that the serenity also creates passivity and a population that can be very compliant and vulnerable to brutal leaders.

Therefore, it becomes difficult to get groups of Muslims to speak against terror actions by other Muslims. Standing up and taking leadership is more common amongst Westerners I believe, than in many Muslim countries. And that’s what makes many Westerners form an impression that maybe Muslims are not really concerned with the safety of Westerners.

We must also remember that the West, whether rightly or wrongly, has been seen as profiteers of war, invading many countries especially Muslim countries. There is a sense for many Muslims in the world that their countries are attacked by the West and exploited by the West. And while these actions are not carried out by all Westerners per se, and while profits from such exploits tend to benefit a small elite, they still carry a perception for many Muslims that they are being attacked by the West.

This is why education that is lacking amongst Westerners is equally lacking with Muslims. Sending a child to school all day to study the Bible or the Koran is not going to give a child a proper education. All people need to realise that children need a full rounded education including history and knowledge of all the places around the world and an understanding of various historical events such as slavery which have helped create today’s wealth inequalities across the globe. And we need to learn about the divide between Islam & the West. And we need projects to bring us together.

And we need an end to all violence.

I dedicate this blog-article to the memory of my facebook friend Andy, all the Muslim people in Christchurch so senselessly slaughtered and all other victims of hate crimes. Let’s stop the divisions. Let’s learn about each other and ensure protection for all people no matter their religion, nation, sexuality or any other difference. No more violence. No more war. No more hate.

 


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