I am attending the International Council of Christians and Jews in Sydney, Australia, July 8 – 12 on behalf of the Lutheran church and Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio where I serve as liaison to the Jewish community. I work regularly in the area of Jewish-Christian relations, interfaith relations, and Holocaust education.
The opening ceremony is conducted by the Aboriginal dancers on whose land we find ourselves since they were the original inhabitants of this territory. They are dressed in traditional outfits, which means they are not wearing very much. Their presentation is very deliberate and rhythmic using sticks to create a slow beat. It is backed by a gutteral pipe sound that is created by one of the dancer – musicians.
The international president, Fr. John Pawlikowski is welcomed and he makes his opening remarks. He calls Australia a land of dreams and to gather here is the fulfillment of a dream. The Australian Council of Christians and Jews has a strong reputation of working together and setting a high standard for what we need to do as an international interfaith gathering.
Professor Bashir is the first woman Governor of NSW. She is native Lebanese and a medical doctor, a specialist in psychiatry. She deals with problems facing society such as youth depression and adolescent health. She is a very distinguished person who feels the importance of healing the earth through the collaboration of the interfaith community. She notes the work of religious groups on human rights. Christian and Jewish people have been committed to work for the betterment of life in Australia. But colonisation has been very damaging to the indigenous people, the Aboriginals who have suffered especially because of the European pathogens that were brought as part of the colonisation process.
Spirituality has been very important for looking at and addressing the lives of people who have suffered trauma such as the Holocaust, for example. In high school Prof. Bashir was in the company of many Holocaust survivors, an experience which impacted her and her outlook significantly. From that experience she recognised the need for the exercise of compassion being of critical importance for people who have suffered so. Her core message for the people gathered is the importance of compassion as a natural outcome of spirituality. That is a particular gift that the faith community can bring to the world today.
Dialogue and healing is a critical piece of what needs to be done, and this conference must carry on this tradition, as children of Abraham, we are charged with this task. With that, she declares that this 2007 conference of Christians and Jews is now open.
Chairman of the Australian Council, Henry Mendelson notes and welcomes the number of Muslims who are also here to participate and observe. They are welcomed enthusiastically.
There are delegates here from all around the world, 165 total, but that includes 30-40 youth — college age delegates from Australia and New Zealand. They are Jewish, Muslim and Christian, a very lively group.
About the youth delegates — they are a lot of fun, very engaged, asking great questions, ‘hanging out’ with one another. This is a great model, sponsoring young adults to attend an event such as this.
There is much to report in terms of specific programs, ideas shared, presenters etc. But, for now, I will make
A few random overview notes.
Lutherans are making a good showing here. Frank Sherman, retired from the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Muhlenberg College did a fine workshop presentation on the ELCA’s work on repudiating Luther’s diatribe against the Jews. It was very well received and prompted a lot of conversation and further interest even outside the workshop. The feeling on the part of many delegates seems to be that Lutherans have made the most consistent effort to heal relations and work constructively on fostering good relations with the Jewish community. That is after the Roman Catholics, of course, who lead the way in this regard.
Islam — there are a number of delegates here from the Muslim community. Most impressive is Rehanna Ali from Wellington, New Zealand. She stepped in at the last minute to fill in for a speaker who did not arrive and addressed very powerfully the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rehanna is a specialist in Sharia law and English common law having received her law degree in London.
Later she was one of 3 speakers on Islamaphobia. Amazing! I took extensive notes on her talk. She is matter of fact, straightforward and very well informed. She would be a great speaker in some place like Columbus, OH for addressing the issues, real and imagined around Islam. A lot of it is imagined, which she documents quite well. She draws from the Koran as one of the sources for her presentation.
Jewish delegates and the local Jewish community — Many of the Jews here are forthrightly and unapologetically liberal and progressive in their outlook. There are quite a few Rabbis participating, especially from Australia and NZ. We visited The Great Synagogue, sort of the mother house of Judaism around here. It dates back to the 1800, located in downtown Sydney. Here is their web page http://www.greatsynagogue.org.au/. Jews have been in Australia since the 1780’s, and have done very well here, encountering little if any antisemitism.
|Rabbi Brian Fox, above, listening to a reading of Islamic material
|Rehanna Ali, Wellington, New Zealand
Both were presenters in the workshop addressing misconceptions about and fears of Islam.
This is one of the workshops that reflects the ICCJ desire to become more inclusive and appreciative of the other Abrahamic faith, Islam. Three speakers made the case for gaining a deeper understanding of Islam, overcoming mythology and misperceptions and recognizing the significance of Islam. More importantly, they were concerned that we move away from the tendency to indict all of Islam because of the small segment of Islam that engages in terrorism. All three speakers made significant contributions, but the Muslim woman from New Zealand provided the most thorough overview of concerns about Islam. Following are a few comments from each of the speakers.
Rabbi Brian Fox, Menorah Synagogue, Manchester, England — The first speaker, Rabbi Fox, is from Australia, but now resides and serves in England. Racism, he says, is very limited in contemporary Australia. He experienced very little, if any racism or anti-semitism while in Australia. His experience is dramatically different in England where irrational hatred toward Muslims is widespread. There is great fear and hatred of Muslims everywhere because of the incidents of terrorism. But, it is important to recognize, he says, that 99% of Muslims have an equal, or even more intense revulsion toward terrorism. One problem, says Rabbi Fox, is the failure to recognize that while there may be sources in the Koran that are untenable, there is in the community what he calls the practice of interpretive fluidity toward the sacred texts. Reading of texts within the Halachia process is approached with the law of interpretative fluidity which allows an open interpretation of some texts that are initially untenable. We do not accord the same freedom of practice to Islam and problematic texts. We automatically assume the worst regarding texts that are problematic.
Only 1 – 2 percent of Islam is a problem. With the rest of Islam we must seek dialogue, and strive to reach and support the moderates.
Golam Dastagir – teaches world religions in a college in Bangladesh http://www.dastagir.info/ He is Sunni Muslim. Golam makes a number of distinctive points that are important to recall. Islam, Jews and Christians, he says, are all people of the book. The Koran is clear that non-Muslims are blessed by God. Terrorism is an abuse of the Koranic text. The Koran also gives the commandment not to kill. Likewise, many Muslims oppose the aggressive approach to the war on terror, feeling that it is an artificial war. More important is to break the cycle of violence. Terrorism and violence are not Islam, but specific Muslims that must be dealt with since terrorism does not lie in Islam but in the mind of the terrorist.
Rehanna Ali – a Muslim from Wellington, NZ. Her background is Fiji and Dutch (and something else, but did not get it written down). She is a specialist in Sharia law and British Common Law and has a law degree from university in Britain. She is very impressive in her style of presentation. The term ‘Islamaphobia’ she says, was first coined in 1991 as part of the Runnymede Brief dealing with religious discrimination. Dealing with terrorism cannot accurately address the problem by simply indicting all of Islam. The term is too broad and too general encompassing potentially all of Islam. Think of the David Koresh event, for example. He was a conservative Christian, somewhat cultish, charismatic and fundamentalist. He was a Christian, but, it is not possible to indict all Christians who were anywhere in the vicinity of Waco. That is illogical thinking. But, if he had been Muslim, that likely would have happened as Koresh would have been identified as the archetype Muslim and his behavior would have been generalized to all of Islam. He was a Christian, so we don’t generalize the indictment.
Overall, this was an excellent set of presentations, very provocative and challenging, and helpful at putting Islam in a different light that we typically get from the current discussion.