Our Muslim Neighbours

by Phil Pennington

KABUL, 5.3.97, Reuter - Afghanistan's purist Islamic Taliban said on Wednesday the militia would start punishing men who had trimmed their beards.

RENGASDENGKLOK, 31.1.97, Reuter - A mob of Muslims burned and wrecked churches and temples east of Jakarta, Indonesia, today after reports that a Christian had insulted Muslims, officials and eyewitnesses said.

CAIRO, 6.1.97, Reuter - Egyptian Muslim militants on Monday chanted in celebration as a Supreme State Security Court judge ratifed death sentences for five of them . . . on charges that included killing 10 policemen and 10 civilians. "I'm happy. I have won martyrdom," said Mostafa Mohammed Mahmoud Issa, 26.

KARACHI, 31.12.96, AFP - Several Pakistani religous groups today warned revellers against participating in New Year parties, calling them unIslamic practices.

DUBAI, 19.11.96, Reuter - The United Arab Emirates plans to ban its men from marrying non-Arab women to shield society from the "negative influences of mixed marriages," an official said on Tuesday . . . . Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have in recent years imposed similar restrictions.

TEHRAN, 6.11.96, Reuter - An Iranian man convicted 12 times of stealing was punished by having the four fingers of his right hand cut off, a newspaper said on Wednesday.

PARIS, 6.11.96, Reuter - Muslim fundamentalists slaughtered 31 people in an attack on an Algerian village between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning . . . the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) dismissed Algerian outrage at the deaths of civilians.

MOGADISHU, 15.9.96, AP - The Islamic court that sets the moral tone in the northern half of the divided Somali capital has banned pornographic films and traditional dancing, and warned clean-shaven men to grow beards. "Those who shave like Elvis Presley, Sylvester Stallone and the US Marines will not go unpunished," said Sheik Ali Sheik Mohamud.1

 

For the most part reports about Muslims in the news make grim - sometimes outlandish - reading. As inevitably as a car crash wrenches eyes off a sunset, so the media tells New Zealanders about fundamentalists forcing an Egyptian woman to divorce her husband because a court found his writings insulted Islam.2

But not about the father of six in a Central Asian town who grabbed the detonator his son was playing with and stifled the blast with his body to save his family (he survived, though scarred).3 Nor about the millions of Muslim parents, grandmothers, teachers, taxi drivers and even MPs who contribute to their societies in much less dramatic ways.

It's as if, says Wellington Muslim Rehanna Ali, "you were someone who knew nothing about Christianity and all you heard was about David Koresh and Waco and the IRA." Or as if neighbours judged your home group from reports about people bombing US abortion clinics or wackos blowing up Muslims "because they rejected Christianity."4 (And then those neighbours walked by on Sunday to hear you singing Onward Christian Soldiers.)

Good neighbourliness, let alone the loving kind, requires poking your nose over the neighbour's fence not just when there's a dust-up in the yard or their dog has bitten your kid. New Zealanders, however, are woefully prepared for advancing understanding, let alone empathy, towards Muslims when news stories are their only source of information concerning the billion-plus adherents of Islam worldwide (and the estimated 13,000 Muslims5 living, working, worshipping - and no doubt evangelising - in this country).

If dialogue is to increase, Christians could be at the forefront. Listening to what Muslims say about themselves is a beginning. Arguably no one is better placed than Christians to relate to Muslims, also devoted monotheists whose religion "belongs to the Western side of any East-West division of human history."6

 

The attitude to local Muslims turned particularly septic last September after an extremist militia called the Taliban took control of Afghanistan's capital Kabul. Wellington office workers were heard expressing disbelief at stories of Taliban fighters whipping men with radio antennaes for not attending Friday prayers at the mosque. TV, card playing and all but religious music were banned. The Dominion newspaper ran a typical feature beginning, "After centuries the tide of Islam is reversing the gains of Western civilisation in Central Asia."7

Meanwhile, the United Nations and Amnesty International condemned the Taliban for forcing women home from work and closing girls' schools.

By February, the Taliban (a name which means 'religious students') were in control of Kabul and two-thirds of Afghanistan, and only women health workers had been allowed back to their jobs. Crime was down, though: thieves were having their hands cut off by streetside butchers. Today the situation is much the same.

Rehanna Ali, from the Wellington suburb of Brooklyn, said she felt like cringing at the reports. She recalled how at another intense time, during the 1991 Gulf War, someone had daubed "Go home" on the Islamic Centre in Newtown. "This is our home," she protests. She said she was ashamed such damage was being done by the Taliban in the name of Islam - and perhaps, behind her extremely competent posture, she also felt a little unsafe.

"You cannot identify us with what some other Muslims do, just as you cannot identify all Jews with what the Israeli Government does or all Christians with what America does or what the Pope does," says Ali, a member of the Islamic Women's Council in New Zealand.

"To have the Taliban come and say we have interpreted Islam in such a way is most distressing, because I do not believe that is in accordance with either the precepts of Islam or the spirit of Islam."

Ali, who is half Fijian Indian and half Dutch, is a graduate in British common law and Islamic Shari'ah law from the International University in Kuala Lumpur, and an operations manager implementing World Bank and other development projects overseas.

Kilbirnie doctor Khalid Sandhu, past president of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand,8 settled in New Zealand with his family from Pakistan 25 years ago. Both he and Ali say they have found little or no support among Wellington's 1000 Muslims for what the Taliban are doing.

"Having come here and lived here we feel a part of the society like anybody else," Sandhu says, "and with our beliefs in fairness, justice and equity, and our practice of such - as in our daily rituals and prayers and our concepts of equity among women and children - I don't see how we could be counterproductive to the society in New Zealand in any way . . .

"But the Muslim world is in turmoil - it is in the process of change. And we are confident that despite the negativism that goes on like the Taliban, the general thrust of change is positive, albeit slowly."

A group like the Taliban can arise and impose its own very strict version of Islamic Shari'ah law on a society in large part because in Islam there is ideally no separation between politics and religion. The aim is not just a religious community but a "religio-political nation-state".9

This has dangers. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that "since the claims of religion are more absolute than those of any secular culture, the danger of sharpening the selfwill of nations through religion is correspondingly greater."10 He warned against patriotic religion - and for Niebuhr's religious nationalism you could as well read religious factionalism, such as in Afghanistan. "The nation is always endowed with an aura of the sacred which is one reason why religions, which claim universality, are so easily captured and tamed by national sentiment, religion and patriotism merging in the process."11

Rehanna Ali points to factionalism as well as growing defensiveness among Muslims against the West and its prejudices as contributing to the rise of the Taliban. Sandhu says centuries of autocratic rule in the Muslim world have produced fertile ground for liberation movements both bad and good (Sandhu and Ali say the good include Iran's 1979 revolution which overthrew the Shah, and moderate Islamists who won elections in Algeria in 1993 but were usurped by the military, and then outflanked by much more violent Muslim rebels).

The Taliban, and Algeria's GIA which says "religious proofs" justify its murder of hundreds of civilians by cutting their throats,12 are groups at the extreme edge opposite the likes of Sandhu and Ali. Ironically, they are on a common search for a way ahead for Muslims.

"The problem is we haven't had an Islamic system for centuries, so we need to find out how to implement [it] today, in modern times," Ali says. "An Islamic system has to be current. You can't take something that happened in the seventh century [when Muhammad founded Islam] and transpose it fullscale on to this century. Islam is basically a framework, guidelines, stepping stones." The Taliban would disagree: their vision of Shari'ah means transposing fullscale the Prophet's legacy from then till now - based, of course, on their own mullahs' hermeneutics.

 

There are parallels with this debate - if not the intensity of conflict - in debates between Christians. What's happening in the mosque provides lessons for the church.

For instance, reconstructionists like American Dennis Peacocke13 emphasise the moral requirements of the law and say Christians should rule the nations. Centrist evangelicals and leftwingers tend towards political pluralism and consensus lawmaking.

For many, the suggestion of ruling over others rankles. New Zealand voters don't seem too chuffed with the idea of overt religious influence in politics either, if the Christian Coalition's polling last October is anything to go by.

The lessons from the mosque are about religious as well as political institutions. They are about the conflagrational nature of extremism, sectarianism and rhetoric, and the need to develop Christ-like attitudes and actions individually and institutionally amid conflict.

Religion that is more zealous in banning the bad than propagating the good; holiness perceived as absence of evil rather than robust presence of life14 . . . if reports of misguided zeal within Islam scare Christians, think what perceptions of the same within Christianity do for New Zealand neighbours.

And it's not as if Christians haven't already been down the path of atrocity. During the Crusades and the Inquisition they shed blood with as much prayer and passion as the Taliban are doing now. The lineage that issues in countless violent devotees, like the hungry-eyed Muslim student from a refugee camp in Pakistan, also includes the Spanish conquistador who worshipped beneath a cross, of whom Waldo Frank wrote: "Without the mystic guidance of the church, he must have sunk in the first jungle and gone no farther. Only a man who believes can do what he did. He has seen cheap wine turn to the blood of Christ; now he can understand how his own bestialities are transfigured into acts which build the Church of Rome. Within his cruelties is the intuition of his destiny as an agent of the divine."15

If conquerors get carried away, so do defenders of church and mosque. As Dr Sandhu says to bring us up-to-date, "People who wouldn't have been extreme become extreme reacting against secularisation and post-modernism."

Christians experience similar tensions to Muslims. An instance is the issue of adaptation, which bubbled over in Britain recently when the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Runcie warned against "clappy and happy, huggy and feely" services and rave parties spiked with the gospel, to a rejoinder from Archdeacon of York George Austin that it was Runcie's "effete, liberal elitism" that had proved more of a threat to the Anglican church in Britain in the 1980s.16

 

When Dr Sandhu and Rehanna Ali talk of a good revolution in Islam, they like to call it a renaissance. They believe that in the Koran and the example of the Prophet Muhammad they have the basis for realising a truly godly society (the Koran and Muhammad's model, together with the interpretations of scholars, are the basis for Islamic Shari'ah law).

They repeat terms like 'social justice' and 'equity', buzzwords of human rights campaigners and activist Catholics. They say a tide of progressive Islam has been gathering since the 1970s in many parts of the world, and that in its vanguard are advocates for women's rights.

"There are regimes all around the world, many in Muslim countries, which are oppressive of women and which many women today are trying to fight using Islam as a justification. Because Islam is not oppressive of women, it is not restrictive," Ali says.

"Islam brought rights to women in the seventh century that Western women weren't granted until the late 1800s - the right to vote, the right to take part in political presentations, own property, keep your name after marriage, divorce, the right to choose whom you would marry . . . but all of these things that were granted to women have been over the centuries whittled away by cultures, by societies, by individuals."

Sandhu says that "if fundamentalism means going back to the Koran, then you need to know what the Koran says about women . . . It's liberal . . . I have become more liberal because I understand the Koran better than I did 20 years ago."

Professor Kenneth Cragg, in his classic study of Christianity's interaction with Islam, Call of the Minaret, says that Christians' desire for communication with Muslims "must reckon with the fact that Islam itself is undergoing a process of redefinition. There is bewilderment in some circles, assertiveness and extravagant claims in others. We must be ready sympathetically to hear Islam equated with true democracy, perfect socialism, innocuous capitalism and abiding peace."17

Ali says she finds her faith releases her to obey only God's rules, not men's whims. It's those divine rules, however, that are proving so divisive and problematic for Islam. A senior Taliban mullah or scholar, Syed Ghiasuddin, said last October "what we are doing is all based on Islamic Shari'ah law including amputating hands, executing and ordering people to the mosque five times a day."18 A cleric from Iran, from Islam's main Shia branch rather than the Taliban's Sunni branch, responded that the group was defaming Islam by imposing "fossilised" policies.19

Rehanna Ali believes Islam can provide for today just and effective legal, economic, social and governmental systems. But the gulf between 622 AD and 1997, between the Koran and genetic engineering, seems wide and the possibilities for distortion many. "Such an implementation [of Shari'ah law] cannot be left to the interpretation of a few people," she says.

Sandhu says the likes of the Taliban lack the depth - the historians, philosophers, geopoliticists - to govern well. That's not the fault of Shari'ah law, he says, which he defends as workable underpinning a fair society - "but if you start to pluck from here and there what suits you, you are really being autocratic."

Ali says: "It's a complete system. You cannot, for example, prescribe the maximum penalty for theft, which is the cutting off of the hand, if you have not first provided every person with enough food to eat. You cannot prescribe the punishment for rape unless you remove all pornographic literature depicting violence against women in your society. It has a start and a finish.

"What many Muslim societies have done in order to keep Muslim activists quiet is to implement the last part, which is usually a form of punishment, but they have not implemented anything that precedes it."

Sandhu: "You give them justice, economic equity, opportunities, then you come to punishments . . . . But when you're told in Pakistan today, by the elite, that you should start the punishments first so that you'll fix society, who are you helping? You're helping the haves, not the have-nots. So the very law which is designed to fix the society destroys it."

Ali: "In that sense Shari'ah is used to perpetuate an oppressive system . . . . In Pakistan they have so confused the law of rape that a woman who has been raped, and is a victim, can be put in jail if she does not have four witnesses to the crime."

 

The Taliban appeal to religion when they oppress people. An identical appeal is made by those opposed to them. "The fact is that religion is probably the only thing that can oppose them because religion, particularly Islam, denounces what the Taliban in many respects are doing," says Rehanna Ali.

The IRA claims God is on their side; Ulster "loyalists" say God's on theirs. An American preacher, Pastor Laurence Haygood of Alabama, tells an annual meeting of the US Christian Coalition before last year's presidential election that God has commanded them to penetrate the soul of America and destroy the welfare state.20 Others would say a social welfare net is God-given.

People get tired of this, and it shows. Algerians last November overwhelmingly endorsed constitutional changes banning Islamic political parties. The BBC World Service reported in February from Islamic Sudan that it's "the exploitation of religious beliefs for political ends that people wish they were rid of."21

But how to judge the fine line between being exploited externally and being motivated internally by religious conviction to political action? When the conflicts pile up, Christians looking for a way through will - if not waylaid by a fudged apolitical ethic - look to Jesus. Muslims will look to Muhammad. And there is the crucial difference, because the historical figures of the two men are so different.

"The Prophet of Islam as a founder, as a spiritual leader, as a prophet, as a general, as an administrator, did the lot, the model is there," Khalid Sandhu says. He and Ali insist Islam is not expansionist, that its wars were all defensive or liberating for oppressed people (history is more equivocal), but still that figure of Muhammad the conquering general and legislating leader looms large.

Cragg writes: " . . . the Prophet's biography is finally the story of a crucial choice, no less crucial than that implicit in the contrasted Gospel saying: 'The cup that my Father has given me, shall I not drink it?' It is the decision arising from the question: 'How should prophethood succeed?' What is the final relationship of the messenger of God to those to whom he is sent when they refuse to hear?

"The Muhammadan decision here is formative of all else in Islam. It was a decision for community, for resistance, for external victory, for pacification and rule. The decision for the Cross - no less conscious, no less formative, no less inclusive - was the contrary decision."22

This is a core issue raised in connecting with Muslims. If Muhammad, as Cragg says, chose a religious authority "armed with the sinews of war and means of government", then what type of authority did Jesus choose? And can his community today dare to choose any differently?

In politics and probably elsewhere, it could be as Ruth Smithies, director of the Catholic Archdiocesan Office for Justice, Peace and Development in the Wellington region, suggested when commenting on the rise of the Christian Coalition in New Zealand last year. "The problem I have with any party that calls itself Christian is that the Christian faith never imposes, it only proposes."23

Professor Cragg again: "Some Muslims today are by no means as confident as their forebears that the right way to serve the unlimited demands of religious law is by the unlimited enforcement of religious sanctions. Christianity agrees that the claims of God are total and that nothing is exempt from their relevance. It does not agree that they can be met in a religio-political order externally established."24

 

The Taliban imposes its version of Shari'ah law relentlessly, a hardline approach in a war-hardened country. The softer attitude of New Zealand Muslims undoubtedly results in part from the softer environment. Rehanna Ali, while stressing Muslims would not seek to impose Shari'ah law on this country, says Muslims here want to contribute "in every way to a country which is ours".

Dr Sandhu says Islam and the West together have a lot to offer the planet, and as part of that New Zealand should look to develop good ties with Muslim countries, especially Indonesia and Malaysia which are significant trading partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (and increasingly hard to avoid anyway: Indonesia named its 200 millionth citizen, a baby boy, on February 5, 1997, and is swelling by an average 8778 people every day).25 "We have values that are as good as those of any other bloke in the country . . . and we may have a role to play to enhance the understanding of civilisations, particularly when you see New Zealand coming near Asean," Sandhu says.

"We hope to bring some of the good things of our faith to bear within society, as do the other groups within New Zealand," says Ali.

 

NOTES

1. Reports from news services Reuter, Agence France-Presse (AFP), Associated Press (AP).

2. AP report headed "Islamic Divorce Case Called Blow to Egyptian Freedom", 6.8.96.

3. 30 Days Muslim Prayer Focus, 1996 (a booklet without page numbers - report under Day 23 heading), Ashgrove, Queensland.

4. Dominion newspaper, Wellington, p4, 7.1.97. A Reuter report from South Africa said a previously unknown extreme-right group had claimed responsibility for bomb attacks on Muslims that had killed four people "in the name of Christianity". Analysts were reported elsewhere saying the group was right on the fringe with no major influence.

5. The NZ Yearbook from Statistics NZ does not have an identified category of "Muslim" in its lists of numbers of adherents to religions, but. according to a report on page 2 of the 18-2-97 Evening Post, there are 13,000 Muslims living in New Zealand, 8000 of them in Auckland.

6. Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, London: Collins, 1956 and 1986, p174.

7. Dominion, 16.10.96, report from The Times (London).

8. A story based on this interview with Rehanna Ali and Khalid Sandhu ran in the Evening Post newspaper, Wellington, p5, 30.10.96. Ali was keen for material from it to be expanded on in Reality magazine.

9. Cragg, Minaret, p7.

10. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, London: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933, p66.

11. ibid, p96-97.

12. Reuter report headed "Guerrillas Slay 31 Civilians in Algerian Village", 6.11.96. GIA leader Antar el Zouabri is quoted as saying: "The GIA forbids daughters and Muslim women to leave their homes uncovered. No work or studies for women; those who refuse to obey must be killed. Everyone must accomplish the prayer [duty] and those who refuse will be killed, murder being the punishment of apostates."

13. Dennis Peacocke, Winning the Battle for the Minds of Men, Santa Rosa, California: Alive and Free, 1987.

14. This is not to say that Islam is automatically characterised by reactionary attitudes over the initiatory. In various ages its history is of richness, diversity and vibrant culture.

15. Waldo Frank, America Hispana, p49, quoted by Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man, p65.

16. AAP report headed "Church Split On Way Forward", 10.2.97.

17. Cragg, Minaret, p192.

18. Reuter report headed "Taliban Reinforce Islamic Law", 4.10.96.

19. ibid.

20. Reuter report headed "Christian Coalition Blasts Clinton's Character", 13.9.96.

21. BBC World Service radio report about unrest in Sudan, 2.2.97.

22. Cragg, Minaret, p84-85.

23. Evening Post report headed "Campaigning in the Name of Christ", p5, 10.9.96.

24. Cragg, Minaret, p298.

25. Reuter report headed "President Suharto names 200 Millionth Indonesian", 5.2.97.

 

Phil Pennington (nephew Thomas snuck into the photo) is a journalist who lives in Pomare, Lower Hutt. He has a young son in Bangkok and is part of Avalon Baptist.


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