1. There must be a better choice
Between crying out “Islamophobia!” to silence the discussion, and to inhibit all responsible and legitimate public consideration, of Islam as a religion and of its civilizational inheritance, on the one hand;
and having to allow and admit Gert Wilders to voice, and to be widely acclaimed and lionized for advancing, certain “broad-brush” typifications of Islam that —— however substantial or limited their veracity —— must in practice prove extremely unhelpful to interfaith conciliation within the mandate of Australian social pluralism and principled multiculturalism:
Between these two extremes there must be a better choice.
What is it? How is it to be found and exercised?
2. Do we have a problem to address?
Do we often have a problem in Australian society in managing the local “fall-out” or implications of relations between the “majority culture” that operates upon interfaith conciliation and intercultural accommodation, on the one hand, and some elements within the immigrant Muslim minority? Do some, indeed perhaps many, Muslims have genuine problems in assuring themselves of the full enjoyment of their citizenship rights within Australian society?
The answer, we must concede, is clearly yes.
3. Is the problem simply “Islamophobia”?
Is “Islamophobia” the cause of our difficulties, or the key to overcoming them?
4. Is “Islamophobia” a “myth”?
That is not my position, but it is a label or characterization of my views and position that certain journalists have offered.
Less than a “myth”, the term “Islamophobia” is a misnomer.
It is an unhelpful, misplaced identification of a problem, or set of issues, that we need to address.
It misrecognizes, or wrongly identifies, the nature of the problem that we face.
No adequate response to any problem can follow from misrecognizing it at the outset.
5. Why not “Islamophobia”?
A “phobia” is an illness, a medical term. Yet whatever the problem that we face here, it is clearly not a medical one. It is not medical in nature nor is it in any way amenable to any kind of medical management or treatment.
We all know that. So why misidentify it?
Because it suits certain people, it is “serviceable” to them, to characterize it in this way.
It is helpful to fashion it as a rhetorical device, a “moral bludgeon”, to silence necessary, responsible public discussion of some important issues.
The term “Islamophobia” is made to serve as a silencing device, and barrier to necessary public democratic discussion, because, once you term it a “phobia”, then those at whom its use is directed, together with their views as well as their basic motivation and intentions, are simply “sick”. And you can treat them that way.
That is the term’s implication. And if they are sick, morally sick, you don’t have to deal with them.
You may ignore them.
Even better, you can make political capital, to advance you own cause, on the basis of their imputed moral unacceptability, their evil character.
You don’t ever have to argue your own case and position. You just declare and brand your adversaries morally “benighted”. Economically. With one powerful word or slogan.
6. A “phobia”
A phobia is an irrational, insistent, baseless, ungrounded, obsessive fear. A pathology.
Is this what we are dealing with here?
Is there often fear, on both sides, between Muslims and non-Muslims in many “Western” societies, including our own?
Clearly there is.
But if this fear is not a phobia, a pathology, what are its sources?
The cause and the key is not in the term “Islamophobia” and what it seeks to suggest. It lies elsewhere, as we ought to expect, in our complex history.
For problems of this kind there is no medicine, no simply pill or treatment.
The only thing that can help here is the effort to understand.
And this requires open minds and also open, honest discussion.
7. Fear and Mistrust: An Historical Legacy
Between people formed within “Western culture” and those in “the world of Islam” there is and has long been much fear, mistrust, anxiety and resentment —— some of it born of incomprehension (and therefore “remediable” simply by the provision of facts, mere information), and some, even much, of it born not so much of an ignorance (that simple facts can dispel) as a vague memory of an adversarial relation, even of hostilities.
On both sides, non-Muslim and Muslim alike are heirs, although differently, to a long history of historical rivalry for world ascendancy between civilizations representing the second and third “successor” variants of the unfolding Abrahamic faith tradition of ethical prophetic monotheism.
For a thousand years these two rivals, these two candidate dispensations or organizing frameworks for world order, faced each other across the Mediterranean —— and for much of that time the world of Islam was the more powerful, far-reaching and culturally accomplished.
We are, on both sides heirs to that history, and captives, often unaware and unknowing, of the still-potent passions and attitudes generated by that deep and long-lasting civilizational rivalry. A deep seated amalgam of fear, mistrust, anxiety and resentment born of that rivalry is our living legacy of that history.
We will only ever deal with those fears, and enable ourselves to engage unburdened with one another, by acknowledging, addressing and exploring their origins and nature —— not by silencing all such discussion, by banishing necessary consideration of the continuing effects of that history from public culture with bludgeoning cries of “Islamophobia!”
For much of that period, the world of Islam was the more powerful of the two, and it came to feel comfortable in and entitled to that ascendancy.
Indeed, the primacy of Islam long seemed, or was understood by most thoughtful Muslims, to be divinely vouchsafed, guaranteed. Islam was the completion of Abrahamic monotheism: the final, definitive and uncorrupted version.
The self-defined doctrinal, or religious, superiority of this revelation and its human community seemed, to most leading adherents of this most worldly of faiths, to entail a divine guarantee of worldly success and political ascendancy —— over both the followers of other, non-monotheistic faith traditions, and over the earlier but inherently flawed and now superseded or abrogated Abrahamic revelations, Judaism and Christianity, and the human communities of their followers.
This began to change when the unitary world order of Western Christendom began to fragment. Its breakdown gave rise to the intellectual and scientific revolutions, to the Enlightenment and the Era of Emancipation, then to the world of modern industrial, technological, economic, social, cultural, administrative and military power.
That is, European Christendom was reborn, or reconfigured itself as, “The West”. In essence (and this again is how many Muslims saw it) the now ascendant West was simply “post-Christian Christendom”.
It was this powerful new world that, for two centuries (from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth centuries) established its dominance upon most of the non-Western world: and notably upon the world of Islam, not just across the Mediterranean but far further.
Long confident of its own primacy —— of its ability and entitlement “to live in the world on its own terms” and to make its own history according to its own script —— the world of Islam was now subject to the indignity and humiliation of being made subordinate to non-Muslims and made to live in the world according to an historical script not of its own making. More, it now also needed to explain to itself how this terrible reversal, not only of its own fortunes but also of what had long seemed the divine historical blueprint guaranteeing their own civilizational ascendancy, had come about.
Theirs was a now humiliated, wounded and “disoriented” civilization. The contrast between the realities of their new historical situation and what had long seemed its divine assurance of enduring historical primacy generated a huge “cognitive dissonance”, a basic existential bewilderment throughout Islamic culture and society worldwide: this is the so-called “crisis of modern Islam”, of “Islam in the modern world”.
During its period of domination in modern times, there developed in the West a similar attitude (but no longer one that was primarily religiously-based) of cultural superiority, an entitlement to continuing domination.
But the rise of non-Western powers, non-Muslim and also Muslim, over the last half-century has already forced some revision of, and retreat from, those ideas born of the era of “imperial domination and colonial rule”.
Many, beyond the world of Islam and also within it, are now making “polite” but tough and entirely justifiable criticism of the age of Western domination, of the “Western arrogance of power”.
Others are making far less polite criticism and are rejecting the West far more emphatically and forcefully.
This latter group includes many who feel marginalized and disconnected, both within the “Islamic heartlands” with their majority Muslim populations and also the disaffected and alienated elements within the “Islamic diaspora” —— among the minority Muslim communities living amidst non-Muslim majority populations in the West.
To these disaffected Muslims the ideas of radical Islam, and engagement in militant political action to express and advance them, exert a huge appeal.
These ideas serve to articulate a profound sense of rage at displacement and disorientation. They also promote the deep and emphatic conviction that the forces which produced the great dislocation and disruption of the Islamic world lying at the source of their resentments are fundamentally illegitimate; and that the nations and states that have emerged or benefited from that devastating upheaval and from the overturning of the former Islamic ascendancy are an affront not just to them but against God himself and the Divine Plan of History. Such views justify, so some people may easily come to feel, any and all kinds of extreme, radical action.
Hence the “rage against the West”. Not just against the West but against History itself. Against history, for having “gone wrong”, taken a different path, abandoned the Community of the Faithful. For cutting them loose in a world, in a stream of unfolding human events, that were not of their own making, not according to their own “in-house” script, not —— by what had long ben thought a divinely vouchsafed entitlement —— in accordance with their own preferred, familiar terms.
There is a problem, however, in ideologically “isolating” these militants and acting simply against them and their convictions, in a precisely targeted and specific fashion.
This is because the ideas that frame their worldview and inform their actions are not really peculiar to, distinctive of or unique to them. Rather, they are the general views held by many, probably the great majority, of socially and doctrinally “mainstream”, “conventional” and “traditional” Muslims.
The great difference, rather, is that radical Muslims take certain ideas that are basic to mainstream Islam very seriously, give them primacy, a special importance and meaning. More “committed” than the radicals, the militants not only take those ideas supremely seriously but also affirm them by offering themselves as ready “exemplars” of the seriousness with which they hold them —— by insisting that those ideas be implemented, put in to action, even violently —— or by “grooming” others to do so. The militants are personally prepared to take responsibility, and the initiative, for the bold and decisive enactment of radical Islamist ideas.
That is, the militants are ready to do what the radicals take very seriously. And what the radicals take seriously most Muslims also, with greater or less passion, also routinely affirm.
The ideas promoted by the radicals and militants are not exactly alien to or markedly different from what most in the mainstream hold and adhere to as basic matters of Islamic faith and identity.
That is why there needs to be some open and honest discussion, some responsible public consideration, of those ideas —— and of their origins, development and place within mainstream Islam, as a religion and more broadly as a religiously-based civilization, as it has evolved throughout its history.
8. What are the implications of this?
This history of civilizational rivalry and antagonism, and of the deep fear and mistrust thereby generated, between Islam and the West have profound and far-reaching implications, on both sides.
If we are all to move forward, one cannot simply turn one’s back on that —— on both sides —— historically formative antagonism, rivalry, fear and mistrust. One will get nowhere by simply denying and refusing to consider them. Or by pre-empting and precluding all possibility of their serious consideration by protective recourse to the catchcry “Islamophobia!”
Those on the side of “the West” explore them endlessly —— sometimes well, sometimes badly —— in history books, literature, films and popular culture, and in our diverse media and sites of cultural communication.
The need to consider its effects and impact within the world of Islam is no less great —— nor any less legitimate.
But legitimate public discussion of these issues is all too often, indeed routinely, silenced by uttering the catchcry, by wielding the “moral bludgeon”, of “Islamophobia!”
9. Some basic issues that need to be acknowledged and honestly discussed: (i) “Supersessionism”.
We speak, both non-Muslims and Muslims, of the Abrahamic faith tradition: a family, or a succession, of faith communities based upon the shared idea of ethical, prophetic monotheisms going back to a common ancestral religious figure, the patriarch Abraham.
The first of these faiths was Judaism. It came into the world conceiving of itself not as “Judaism” but simply as a unique monotheisms: as a solitary island, the sole exemplar, of monotheism —— a thoroughgoing and consistent belief in the supremacy of the one God —— in a world or ocean of pagans, idol-worshippers, animists and the like.
The second of these was Christianity. It emerged within and gradually detached itself from Judaism. Christianity began within Judaism, and together with all the first Christians, Jesus was a Jew. He was the leader or focus of one of many radical salvationary movements that emerged within Judaism under the rigours of Roman rule in Judea.
It was only later, particularly with the growing conversion into the Christian community in Asia Minor, of many non-Jews (converts from other peoples, or in Latin gens, and hence later known as Gentiles) that Christianity came first to detach itself socially and then doctrinally, to move towards independence. The key issue here now —— as it had never been for Jesus and his companions and contemporaries in and around Jerusalem ——was whether one had first to become a Jew to become a Christian.
Did one have to submit to Jewish law including the strict Jewish dietary prohibitions and the requirements of circumcision? The pragmatics of rapid faith group expansion dictated a negative answer.
Over time, as Christianity evolved, it became not only independent of Judaism but it adopted the view that it was the complement or completion of Judaism,. Hence the Hebrew Bible as now seen as the “Old” Testament, while the Christian Gospels and texts were the “New” Testament.
Increasingly, after his own time, Christianity became Christ-centred. The doctrine of his divine nature, as one-third of the Holy Trinity —— as God embodied and walking in human form among humans —— and as the personal saviour of all who believed in him took shape.
Hence those who rejected Jesus, including those Jews who opted to remain Jewish, were now “Christ rejecters”. The view took shape that those who repudiate Christ rebelled and sinned against God. God’s salvation was now available only through, and through personal belief in the divinity of, Jesus.
Those who remained Jews therefore came to be deemed as having forfeited God’s love, His special Covenant, any special connection with or claim to favour from Him. That special love had now been transferred to the true believers, the new believers, the Christians.
By the time of Aquinas (c13) the doctrine was explicit: the Church and Christianity were now Israel verus, the true Israel.
All that was good and right in Judaism and the Old Testament now lived, and thrived, and stood clean and pure in the New dispensation. All that Christianity did not take over from, incorporate and subsume from historical Judaism was wrong, inauthentic or superseded.
Hence the notion of “supersessionism”. Christianity improved upon, completed and (literally) “sat on top” of and so displaced and replaced.“Judaism”. For that reason “supersessionism” is also known technically by the name “Replacement Theology”.
In that way, while Judaism does not, could not and cannot have any sacred textual or scripturally “in-built” stance towards Christianity, Christianity came to have a theologically central and highly developed “supersessionist” view of and stance towards Judaism —— although this was far more the result of subsequent historical developments than of any primarily sacred textual position in the Gospels.
Islam as developed by the Prophet Muhammad in turn came to see itself as within, and emphatically as the completed and undistorted culmination of, the Abrahamic faith tradition. For it, Jews and Christians are “people of the book”, genuinely scriptural peoples (even if their scriptures are incomplete and, in their human transmission, corrupted).
At the outset of his career in pagan Mecca, Muhammad knew of and had contact with Jews and Christians, certainly with Jewish and Christian ideas of monotheism. He claimed to be in that tradition, it successor and in fact its restorer. He had his own profound intuition and experience of the power of God, of the irresistibility of monotheism, and at first appealed to Jews and Christians, if they were really sincere in their belief in the one supreme God, to join him and his new faith community,. He evidently had strong hopes that they would. The ides should make as much sens to them, to others, he felt, as it did to himself. In the event it did not.
The early sura, or sections, of the Quran from the Meccan period, are characterized by this emphasis on the unity and continuity of the Abrahamic tradition, by appeals to Jews and Christians for unity with Muhammad in the name of the one God.
By the time Muhammad fled to and established his own community in Madinah, things began to change. There were powerful Jewish tribes there. They were reluctant to accept his leadership, political and certainly religious. They saw no need to follow Muhammad in order to become good monotheists; they were so already, they felt.
So contention with the Jews, and inveighing against them, became characteristic of the Madinah period of the Prophet’s life and of the Quranic sura associated with that phase of his career.
Close reading of the Quran suggest that Muhammad encountered and knew far fewer Christians than Jews; that he had quite ample and increasingly unhappy relations with Jews in the latter stages of his career; and that many of his views of Jewish doctrines and religious developments were substantially drawn from and influenced by early Christian “supersessionist” characterizations of Judaism.
At all events, Islam is in its own self-understanding, going back to the revolutionary career of Muhammad himself, explicitly and emphatically supersessionist. Islam declares itself the completion of the Abrahamic faith. Judaism and Christianity were just earlier, incomplete, and subsequently distorted and corrupted forms of the one great monotheistic revelation.
To borrow the language of the financial press, the original “company”, or form of the Abrahamic monotheistic revelations, has in history been subsequently, and successfully, made the target and subject of two (if not “hostile” then at last “uninvited” and non-consensual) “revere take-over bids”.
In this way Christianity “gazumped” Judaism, so to speak, but like Judaism it remained unattuned to the possibility that it too might in turn similarly “gazumped”. But it was. Both Judaism and Christianity were, together, in turn “gazumped” by Islam, which “subsumed” and “incorporated” them both.
Then, doctrinally, Islam took one further crucial step. It made, or sought to make, itself “un-gazumpable”, “gazump-proof”. It did so, very successfully, with the claim or doctrine that Muhammad was the “Seal of Prophecy”. After me, no more prophets, no new dispensations, no modifying or improving or reforming or cleansing or clarifying revelations. This is the Last Word. Our way is the final on, for ever, for all time and for all people.
This has a profound consequence, one that presents an enormous challenge to all modern and contemporary Muslims:
how are they to live, in societies such as Australia, with the fact that Islam —— which insists upon the finality and accuracy and inerrancy of the Quranic scripture down to every last word and syllable —— has an adverse “inbuilt” stance or religious/doctrinal position towards both Judaism and Christianity, whose fusion or combination has provided so much of the religious outlook of “the West”?
How are modern and contemporary Muslims to construe and act upon the view that all that is good in Judaism and Christianity now lives on, improved and enshrined, within Islam; that Islam took over and incorporated into itself all that is good and true in Judaism and Christianity; and conversely, that what Islam did not take over from them is either inherently wrong or else historically damaged though corruption by its historic human custodians over the ages; that historical Judaism and Christianity are therefore abrogated revelations and now divinely repudiated faiths; that the Jews and Christians in today’s world live on in human communities and forms of faith that are nothing more than surviving relics of earlier human religious history, broken shards, mere empty husks and not continuing repositories of genuine faith?
Nothing can be done to change sacred texts. They are what they are. The crucial question is how modern people choose to live with and construe them, how they understand and work with them as modern people, how they apply that understanding to the modern world around them and to their engagement with it.
Everybody thinks that their religion is best and uniquely true. That is given, nobody is asked for forgo that personal conviction.
But others do not have what Islam has: the in-built, explicit and defining supersessionist denial of veracity and dignity to other major faiths.
Yet in a faith community where there is great scope for flexible reinterpretation of the sacred word (which is to day in faith communities that have experienced and been greatly transformed by the intellectual impact of “modernity”, which is not true of the Islam), these things are more easily handled. But in the case of Islam things are not so easy.
Islam, in its own self-understanding and in its central doctrinal formulations of its position, combines the holding of such deprecatory views as a core feature of sacred doctrine, together with an absolutist position of “scriptural inerrancy” (that every word and syllable is divine, perfect, literally true, unalterable, and was even there in the mind of God before the world was cratered from that same template or blueprint).
In such a religious tradition, one founded on that kind of doctrinal basis, there is a real problem. It is one that all Muslims, wherever they reside in today’s globalized world, must face.
How, one asks, do and will Australian Muslims as citizens of a democratic, religiously pluralistic, multicultural society address these dilemmas and challenges?
How they do so is a matter of concern not only for them, amongst themselves —— and therefore something to be settled quietly “behind closed doors”. There needs to be serious and honest public engagement with non-Muslims of all kinds, but especially non-Muslims of other faiths, on these issues.
Unless and until there is a clear readiness to address these questions, there will be a wariness among religiously and historically knowledgeable Australians about Islam, about some aspects of Islam. A justifiable wariness.
What is involved here is not just “Islamophobia”.
How is this to be done? Is there a model or precedent? Here one can only note briefly how a great part of the Christian faith community, the Catholic church and its peoples in a variety of places and ultimately within the Vatican, addressed the very raw problem of Christian supersessionism.
For centuries official Catholic doctrine had depicted the Jews as depraved rejecters of Christ, even as his betrayers and killers. All manner of brutalization against Jews was justified on supposedly sound religious grounds: to punish the Jews for their continuing wilful rejection of Christian salvation or to force them to accept it.
Finally, with much patience and effort —— and also much goodwill and honesty and humility —— the Pope and Vatican issued their great papal encyclical Nostra Aetate.
This declaration, and the papal amplifications that followed, withdrew and recanted those adverse typifications, and in their place formally recognized Judaism and the Jews as Christianity’s and the Church’s “elder brother” in faith.
It is a long journey. It was not an easy one for the Vatican and its followers. But the journey was started and undertaken —— not just “in-house” but through deep and expanding, and mutually enriching, dialogue between the two sides.
The world of Islam —— not least in its own interests, as part of global humankind —— needs to initiate a similar process of reflection upon of it core, in-built stance and attitudes towards its elder brothers in monotheism: towards Judaism and Christianity, whose outlook have come so deeply and extensively top pervade modern Western culture, its historical understandings and moral sensibilities.
Unless and until that journey is begun, openly and in honesty, there will be unending tension in the West for both non-Muslims and Muslims. The long-standing fear and mistrust between them, born of their long history of civilizational rivalry and contentions, will continue. Ill-will will fester and suspicions will remain unresolved.
No amount of “moral bludgeoning” with cries of “Islamophobia” will help us in the slightest to remove the barriers that separate us.
It is no solution whatsoever —— but a terrible evasion of responsibilities, by both scholars and politicians —— to pretend that there are no barriers, and to impugn the motives, moral character and intellectual competence as well as bona fides of those who know that those barriers are there and ask others to see and help dismantle them.
10. Some basic issues that need to be acknowledged and honestly discussed: (ii) Religion and State power —— Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The legacy of history. Is the faith community in principle also political regime —— at one with or an aspect of state power? Does religious tradition carry with it an expectation that it will be enforced by state power?
Strange historical vicissitudes in the experience of the faith communities of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. How is Islam different here from Judaism and Christianity?
What does this mean today? In the Islamic heartlands? In the communities of “diasporic” Muslim minorities, especially in Western countries?
11. Some basic issues that need to be acknowledged and honestly discussed: (iii) Religious Community and World History —— or, “the Governmentalist-Majoritarian” Outlook of Islamic Civilization, and how that same outlook continues, inappropriately, to “frame” the perceptions and responses of many “diasporic” Muslims.
Australian Muslims: a religious minority with a continuing “majoritarian” outlook and values?
12. Some basic issues that need to be acknowledged and honestly discussed: (ii) Comparative Religion —— Where the Sacred meets the Profane.
Where the sacred meets the profane in Islam —— the basis of the enormous Muslim sensitivity and “protectiveness” towards the Prophet Muhammad; why they find any adverse mention or representation of the Prophet Muhammad deeply wounding; and why they find all such mention unwelcome and meriting suppression. And what we all might do about it .. ..
In Judaism the sacred meets the profane in the Covenantal Encounter —— ultimately symbolized and embodied in the Ten Commandments —— between the the One God and (as it wa was then) the One People or human community that recognized and affirmed his Supreme Oneness.
(Judaism “came into the world” and human history seeing and understanding itself not as Judaism but simply as monotheism. The people’s acceptance of this responsibility was symbolized when —— after Moses had received the original, divinely engraved Ten Commandments and then smashed the two tablets containing them when he saw his people worshipping the Golden Calf —— he himself carved a second set of tablets, a mere replica of the originals: a humanly-produced artefact that became the sacred contents in the people’s focal shrine, the mobile Ark of the Covenant that later became the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple).
In Christianity the sacred meets the profane in the person of Jesus: in the transcendental mystery and paradox of a God who —— or one aspect of whom —— walks among humans in human forms and lives a human life with them, in their midst.
And who, for those who can fathom and accept this mystery of a human incarnation or embodiment of the Divine, has salvationary power, who may save and redeem ordinary mortal humans from their sins and so inaugurate them into Eternal Life.
In Islam the sacred is the work of God, the Quran: the divine blueprint that was “in the mind of God” (so to speak) event before the Creation of the profane, of the physical world and which, preceding it, was its sacred template and blueprint.
A blueprint, embodied in words of sacred majesty, that was later launched into the realm of the profane, into human history, by its piecemeal but nonetheless perfect and cumulatively complete revelation to the Prophet Muhammad: he not a “godling” nor an angel (though he communicated with one, Gabriel, to receive the Holy Word) nor a saint but merely a human being, though an exemplary one; a model moral human agent and subject of God who served as the uncontaminated and uncontaminating means, or vessel, for the injection of the Divine Word into the human world and into the stream of events of human history.
So, while conventionally Judaism has its founding prophet-leader Moses, Christianity its prophet-leader Jesus and Islam, similarly, its prophet-leader Muhammad,
that formulaic statement obscures at least as much as it helpfully summarized and explains.
The status of Muhammad in Islam as the conceptual mediator and historic human broker —— unimpeachably uncontaminated and uncontaminating —— between the sacred or holy and the profane or humanly mundane is akin more, in Christianity, to that of the Virgin Mary than to that of Jesus.
Each delivered the divine into the human world, and was able to do so because as the instrument of divinely appointed connection and transmission —— of the Divine Person, Jesus, and then the Divine Wiord, the words of the Holy Quran —— they were themselves clean, uncontaminated and therefore could in no way have contaminated or corrupted what they, as pure intermediaries, delivered into the world.
Had they been in any way unclear, contaminated, rendered imperfect by any kind of pollution or corruption, then what they delivered could not have been incontestably holy, sacred, and hence obligatory beyond all dispute.
Any suggestion of impurity and imperfection in the status or role of Mary or Jesus can, at the underlying conceptual or doctrinal level, cause the entire religious dispensation to collapse. Disruption of those essential presuppositions can compromise, even impugn, the veracity and authenticity of the revelation, of the doctrinal system of faith built upon it, and of the human faith community that upholds and champions that revelation.
That is why, as the familiar Islamic saying has it, one must always “Be Careful with Muhammad!”
Yet that is what, historically, was always “at issue” in the “intellectual polemics” that accompanied the long millennium-long civilizational contestation between Christendom and the world of Islam. As Christendom affirmed its own religious and worldly adequacy —— and hence insisted upon the non-necessity of Islam as any kind of “improvement” upon an “imperfect” or “corrupted” Christianity, and hence too upon the non-authenticity, or less politely the “falsehood” as Christians saw it, of the Prophet Muhammad and his “completing revelation” —— that is precisely what became the focus of bitter contestation between the two contending civilizational forces. Muhammad: Prophet or Fraud, True Messenger of the One True God or Scoundrel? From medieval polemics to the controversy in our own time over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, that has been (on both sides, each in its own way) the raw insult, the ancient wound, the centre of embittered disputation.
All those deep complications and considerations are brought into play, and soon “turbo-charge” the rage of the “defenders of the dignity of the Prophet Muhammad”, whenever a displeasing novel or history-book is written; whenever some caustic and disrespectful cartoons are published; and whenever any filmic presentation is offered:
any filmic presentation whatsoever, be it noted —— from a thematically unobjectionable, even favourable, account of the life of the Prophet and the early history of Islam that nevertheless offends by offering what purports to be a “depiction” of the Prophet’s face and appearance, to (far worse!) the kind of abominable, vulgar and crude iconography of the recent “innocence of Muslims” trailer film.
It would be naive to think that, with its centuries-long history behind it which is our burdensome legacy on all sides, controversy around this sore point of interfaith and intercivilizational contention will soon simply die off.
The question, rather is to devise ways, an to work together towards devising ways, of handling the problem.
Ten first step towards handling and managing it is simply to understand it, in its complexity, and to accept all the difficulties that it presents: to understand how they have arisen in history and how, too, they may at very shirt notice arise again, often prompted by some unintended and poorly grasped catalyst, in out midst.
Professor Clive S. Kessler is Professor of Sociology at the University of New South Wales. His main work is in the culture, society, religion and politics of the Malay world, especially Malaysia. He also pursues research into the social, historical and civilizational relations between the faith communities of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His more general work centres on the question of modernity and its varying cultural forms and diverse civilizational expressions.