Islam and its Catholic connection – opinion

© The Sydney Morning Herald  |  Article link

May 4, 2007

In Federal Parliament last year, Senator John Faulkner argued there was once a minority religion in Australia that threatened the fabric of our society, whose members bred faster than the rest of “us” and whose poor and uneducated were taught weird beliefs in their own schools. They were called Catholics.

Today, they seem to be everywhere, having taken over the joint.

Growing up, many were educated by women who wore hijabs and long black dresses down to their ankles and prayed to statues of another woman in a similar outfit. They were called nuns. Today, the dresses are shorter, the headdress has gone and you can tell them only by a cross on the blouse lapel.

In Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong, there are churches where preaching regularly occurs in a Mediterranean language, and church schools insist on keeping this language alive. It’s called the Greek Orthodox Church.

And in Sydney there’s a religion which has a set of religious laws for its faithful, running parallel to state law, and encourages its young to do civil and military service in a Middle Eastern country. It’s called Judaism.

Many of the things thrown at Australian Muslims in the past five years – bundled together as “un-Australian” – are features of other religions in our multicultural society: they’re breeding “us” out; their women are oppressed; the imams speak in Arabic; their sharia law is weird; their links are to Middle
Eastern lands.

Even Sheik Taj el-Din al Hilaly’s comments about women as meat, while silly and offensive, are not that different to the kind of comments you will hear from pulpits or law benches or sent up at the Ernie Awards once a year.

A calm assessment of the Muslim contribution to Australian life would focus not on these alleged differences but on the criteria used with Catholic, Anglican, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu and Uniting churches, synagogues and temples. This assessment would ask questions such as: what contribution are its leaders making to the national debates of our time? What kind of citizens are being produced by
its schools? Are leading members of its faith making new and interesting contributions to our institutions? And what role is it playing on the world stage of its religion?

These questions make two assumptions: one, that Islam ceases to be hammered by politicians and the media and feels free to emerge from its state of siege; and, two, that it gets its act together to become truly Australian.

What would an Australian Islam look like? A way of getting an answer might be to look at how Catholicism in Australia has become Australian. From a religion under siege, it has melded into Australian culture, both defining the culture and being defined by it.

Australian Catholicism now is not Irish, Roman, South American or American Catholicism. It is the pragmatic, unevangelical version that Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell hates so much.

In a sin city such as Sydney, Pell is an odd fit. At a recent national Catholic education conference he decried the fact that in a recent survey only 10 per cent of young Catholics believed “only one religion is true” and that 75 per cent of them thought they could “pick and choose beliefs” from various religions. Very Sydney.

Australian values are not defined by John Howard and they are not imposed by governments, no matter how many flagpoles are compulsorily saluted at schools. They secrete into the bloodstream of religions such as Catholicism or Islam over time.

Islam in Turkey (not the state religion) is not Islam in Iran (where it is enshrined in law). Islam in Saudi Arabia (Wahabbist) is vastly different from Islam in Indonesia.

The key principles of Islam, so similar to the other Abrahamic religions Judaism and Christianity, will not change. But cultural influences – and geography -will demand significant changes at the edges.

Take “modesty” for men and women. What is “modest” in Australia? How can a Muslim man or woman go swimming while maintaining a key demand of the faith? The “burkini” is a first step.

Take women’s rights in public life. Islam in Australia might look more to Islam in Indonesia, where Megawati Soekarnoputri reached the presidency (higher than any Australian woman), rather than examples from the Middle East, from where most Muslims (and imams) in Australia come.

Take the organisation of the Australian “umma” (Muslim community). It may need to be restructured to be more democratic, more able to make a quick decision and more responsive to media demands for authority figures who can speak on behalf of the community, and in clear, articulate English. And to do all this without adopting, as they detest, the traditional hierarchical structures of the Christian churches.

The quicker a recognisably Australian Islam – with Australian-born and Australian-trained imams with broad Aussie accents – comes into being the better for everyone.

Welcome inside the tent.


A former ABC journalist, Peter Manning is the author of Us and Them: a Journalist’s Investigation of Media, Muslims and the Middle East (Random House, 2006) and a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney.