“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)
YESTERDAY IN Sydney armed man Haron Monis, carrying an Islamic flag, took hostages in a Sydney café in a siege that captured the attention of the world. Less than a day later, it was over, and Monis, along with two members of the public, lay dead. There will be some who, I suspect, over and above mourning the loss of innocent life, use this event to reinforce their view that religion is uniquely dangerous. My heart sank as the story broke, both because of the horror faced by the poor victims, but also because of the inevitable backlash against Muslims in general that we may be about to see. This has nothing to do with what I think of Islam. I am hardly an advocate. But it has everything to do with the excuses we sometimes make to overlook the ways in which we fail to love others.
It pays to take note of the fact that back in 2008, six years ago, there was a call for Monis to be investigated. That call came from The Shia Muslim community.
While this fearful scene was unfolding, another was about to begin in Philadelphia. As I write this, 35-year-old Bradley Stone has shot and killed six people and wounded another. Stone’s religion is, as far as I know, unknown, and more to the point it has not been identified as a factor of any relevance. I didn’t go looking for this story, it was right there on the front page of leading news websites. A few days ago in my home city of Wellington there was a violent axe attack in which a woman was killed and two other people injured. Although what happened to those poor people in Sydney just hours ago is simply awful and must never be downplayed, in 2013 there were 430 homicide victims and 158 attempted murder victims in Australia. In how many of those cases was religion a factor at all, let alone a motivating force? In truth I have no idea, but my guess is that you and I both believe the number is close to zero if it isn’t zero. Let’s keep things in perspective.
The narrative that this thing called “religion” is uniquely dangerous is useful to some people, ironically, because it helps to advance their own hate. The belief reaches the heights of idiocy when people say things like “for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Well, or tragedy that sends them over the edge. Or political ideology and brainwashing. Or mental unwellness (as was probably the case here and is the case in Philadelphia). Or pent-up frustration with authorities. Or a whole lot of possible things.
As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again – there is no one thing called “religion.” “Religion” is not one unified worldview any more than “unbelief” is a unified worldview. The differences between some religions is as great as the difference between Christianity and atheism. The differences between different varieties of the same religion can be striking enough. My intention is not to engage in “bashing,” but as I noted back in April 2012, nearly all terrorism deaths associated with religion are inflicted by Sunni Muslims. Yes, some were inflicted by Christian extremists, but comparatively very few indeed. More than six times that many are carried out by people in the name of secular political causes. Referring indiscriminately to the harm wreaked by this thing called “religion” then is simplistic and often self-defeating in context. Should we cast aspersion on secular politics since people die because of it?
You might be one of those who takes the tough, “honest” approach: “Look Glenn, I’m sure you mean well, but let’s face reality. As geniuses like Sam Harris and Bill Maher say, it’s a dangerous religion. Don’t try to be so politically correct about it.” As much as I respect the idea of facing the unpopular truth, you’d be missing the point if you go down that path with this. Globally, that may even be true, and it is certainly more true in some places than in others. But get your head into the “right now.” Right now there are Muslim people in Australia who – whether you think it’s consistent with your understanding of Islam or not – genuinely want peace and freedom. Right now many of these people are having to look over their shoulder, are at greater risk than you, are in fear and are under constant scrutiny and suspicion. Giving them Harris’s pearls of wisdom about how dangerous their religion really is will probably not do anybody any good.
Cool heads, people. Just as a pretty cold week last week doesn’t prove or disprove anything about climate change, actions like these do not offer any meaningful insight on “religion.” For what it’s worth, why not throw your name being the #Illridewithyou campaign on Twitter and Facebook? While we’re letting each other know that not all Muslims are the same, let’s make sure they know that we’re not all the same. That some around us may be showing less love to Muslims is reason for us to show more.