If nothing’s sacred then we are in trouble
- by: ANGELA SHANAHAN
- From:The Australian
- September 29, 201212:00AM
IN June I had the privilege of moderating the 10th Abrahamic faiths conference in Sydney. The theme of the conference was the family. We were a pretty mixed lot of Jews, Christians and Muslims, and, interestingly, all the speakers were women.
Naturally, as mothers and grandmothers we found some very strong unifying ideals. We all acknowledged the social function of the family; but because this was a conference based on our common faith heritage, we also strongly confirmed that for Christians, Muslims and Jews alike the family belongs not just in the realm of the everyday but in the realm of the sacred. It is the image of the eternal bond between God the Father and man, his creature.
One of the most moving and strongly expressed addresses on this topic came from the keynote speaker, Maha Abdo, a highly respected Muslim female activist and executive officer of the United Muslim Women Association.
Thinking back on the conference, I realised that perhaps one of the worst aspects of what occurred in Sydney and across the world in the past few weeks is the loss of respect for decent, ordinary people.
In the rush to condemn the violence and analyse its causes, not only have we ignored many of the things we have in common with Australians of the Islamic faith but some of the opinionated have started to condemn all faiths. Atheists and the superficial secularists have seen an opportunity to weigh in and condemn all religion, and particularly what sparked all this: the idea of blasphemy.
We in Australia are used to ignorance about religion, but this reaction is almost as extreme as that of the Muslims in Hyde Park. It is a kind of reverse intolerance. It declares, by some perverse logic, such as that of US political scientist Emanuele Ottolenghi, that the shocking Muslim reaction to blasphemy justifies further trampling on the intimation of the sacred, an intimation that all religions, not just Muslims, have in common.
Accordingly we get the puerile and quite revolting notion that pornographic images and blasphemy are equated with freedom of speech. Liberty is not merely being unconstrained by blasphemy laws, as in Australia, but we must deliberately go out of our way to insult, to commit blasphemy, so that, to quote one correspondent, Islamists can “catch up with the rest of the world on freedom of speech and freedom of religion”.
Does one need further proof that some commentators simply don’t get the problem Islam has with the West at all?
Another aspect of the fallout from the riots in Sydney is that although it has complex origins, we have fallen into two glib camps. You are either a proponent of “Western values” and secular “freedom” or else you are naively on the side of the “mad Islamists”, a victim of “moral relativism”.
By what right have the super-secularist opinion makers, who despise the sense of sacredness common to all religious people, elevated themselves to be the only spokespeople for “Western values”? Meanwhile, the religious traditions that attempt to put themselves into the public square on social issues with coherent, ancient, common philosophies are derided as irrelevant and narrowly religious.
Our understanding of our origins, particularly of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, is so pathetically weak. How can we attempt to combat the real clash of cultures that Islamo-fascism presents to the West when we don’t really understand or respect our own tradition? Hence we have no real yardstick to judge freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
Blasphemy? Who cares? That is the message from those for whom religion, the numinous, the spiritual in general, is a no-go area in the great democratic-values free-for-all. And what values would those be, exactly? The values that allow 100,000 abortions every year, the values that try to equate any sexual relationship with the sacred relationship that can of itself generate children, the very nucleus of the family? And what about that “value” of free speech? A great value, to be sure – unless you are Cory Bernardi.
And where do these values come from? The opinionistas usually identify them with great pomposity and certitude as Enlightenment values. Was that the Enlightenment that produced the United States of America, or the Enlightenment that produced the Terror and then the Directoire? What of the values that produced the Decalogue? They are beyond the ken of many of the opinionists.
We will never understand the human in each other unless we understand what other human beings hold sacred. What is more, we cannot understand others’ sense of the sacred unless we take the time and make the effort to understand what we should hold sacred.
The problem is we have lost that sense. We are completely cut off from our Judeo-Christian roots, so we know nothing about how to argue about religion. What relevance can Pakistani blasphemy laws have for us, even if they are abhorrent? We point the finger at others but it is partly an attempt to compensate for our own intolerances. Anti-blasphemy laws make more sense than the “hate speech” laws we have at present, which can cause a person to be quite arbitrarily hauled up before “human rights” tribunals, the secular equivalent of blasphemy tribunals.
I, for one, am fed up with having to put up with anti-Christian blasphemy. I can’t see how Enlightenment values are helped by this. Paul Kelly touched on this; it stems from the notion that there are no sacred domains.
Today’s secularism is merely disdain for religion. In fact, there is a growing body of opinion that religion is dangerous. The voices of religion do have to compete in the same arena as every other idea – no matter how lacking in philosophical depth – but respect all around, especially for dearly held beliefs, is not such a bad thing.
I have lived among Jews in the eastern suburbs and Muslims in southwest Sydney. I have often sat with Muslims and Jews, intelligent people with strong religious and secular ideals, keen to co-operate with and understand one another. It is very wrong to characterise all Muslims as nutters.
However, as some imams have pointed out, there are plenty of ignorant ones, and there are plenty of young and unemployed ones. The mean Muslim birthrate is four times the national average and, especially in southwest Sydney, Muslim unemployment rates are more than double the average.
Surely this combination, as the English experience shows, leads to a drift towards crazy fundamentalist do-it-yourself garage mosques. Whether the drift continues is partly up to us.
The marginalisation of young Muslims is not the reason for the recent outbreak. It is being fomented by extremists taking advantage of the large numbers of Muslim youth. But neither is marginalising them the answer.
We can’t trivialise, insult and stamp on things that people hold sacred and, at the same time, expect to have our own vague ideas held sacred.
The only answer to this is for all the people who do still have some reverence for real values, not just of the Enlightenment but perhaps those contained in the Decalogue that preceded it by thousands of years, to speak out.