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What does it take to change the relationship between the West and the Muslim World?

A public lecture with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

Presented by
The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre/UniSA International and The Migrant Resource Centre

Tuesday 12 July 2005


MS ELIZABETH HO: Well, that's a very nice hush. A moment perhaps to pause and think about this evening. We're very pleased to see you all here braving the cold. It's my job to welcome you and to get things underway today. My name is Liz Ho and I'm director of the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre. We are presenting tonight's occasion with the Migrant Resource Centre and also with the international office of the University of South Australia.

Can I first acknowledge that we are on Kaurna land, and perhaps tonight would be a special moment to think about the importance of virtue and the importance of our respect for Aboriginal people and we thank them for the opportunity to be here this evening. I also would like to acknowledge a few people. Firstly, Mr James Rundle, representing Minister Stephanie Key; the Labor member for Norwood, Vini Ciccarello; the Honourable Basil Hetzel, Hawke Centre Chair; Mr David Klingberg, Chancellor of the University of South Australia and Maggie Klingberg; Mr Marei Al-Nahdi, President of the Islamic Society of South Australia; Professor Lowitja O'Donoghue, Aboriginal Leader and Hawke Centre Patron; also, Linda Matthews, Commissioner for Equal Opportunity in South Australia.

We are co-presenting this lecture, as I said, with the Migrant Resource Centre and I'm very delighted to acknowledge the presence of Mr Rauf Soulio, Chairperson of the Centre. The Migrant Resource Centre supports new members of the South Australian community in many enriching and valuable ways. It also actively encourages respect for diversity, and indeed an excellent partner in tonight's presentation.

Can I just say that we were very honoured to be approached to assist with the visit to Australia by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf as part of the Adelaide of Festival of Ideas. The Hawke Centre and Uni of South Australia have a strong commitment to open debate and discussion within the community, especially where that discussion may help to shed light on matters that affect our social cohesion, and that is both a local issue, a national issue and a global issue.

Our esteemed speaker is highly qualified to illuminate our understanding and perceptions of the West in relation to Islam. He is the founder of the American Sufi Muslim Association and has dedicated his life to building bridges between Muslims and the West through programs in interface, culture, arts, academia and current affairs. Many of you may have had the privilege of hearing him address a number of issues at the Festival of Ideas. Some of you may know that he is the Imam of Masjid Al-Farah, a mosque in New York City, 12 blocks from Ground Zero, where he preaches a message of peace and understanding between people regardless of creed, nationality or political beliefs.

He has asked that we treat this evening in that very spirit of dialogue of a conversation between himself and between you. He will start with a short presentation and then we will move to questions and a discussion. So I invite you now to think about the questions that you would like to pose and to have those ready. To make them questions rather than very long comments so that we can include as many people as possible from the audience. And I hope at the end of the session that we will have a new perspective because I certainly felt, over the weekend, that the Imam had given me one, for which I'm personally grateful. As I said, we're honoured to have you with us and I would like to invite you to address the audience now. Thank you.


IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Thank you very much, Liz, for that very warm and very generous introduction. I would also like to extend my thanks to all of the hosts, the special guests and those who made this evening possible, and it seems that the Festival of Ideas, at least as far I'm concerned, hasn't quite ended yet. I gather, from the discussions we had outside, that a large number of you present here this evening were present during my presentation, at least one of them, during the long weekend when the Festival was on.

I just wish to do a synopsis of the points that I made and then, as Liz indicated, really engage in dialogue with you. My trip to Australia has been marked by a great learning on my part about what makes Australia so special and I'm very much impressed by how Australia has, in my mind, even overtaken the United States and parts of western Europe in terms of developing a multicultural sense of itself and identity. It's hard work indeed and I believe that the United States needs to reconsider considering Australia as "down under" in the sense that under the radar screen and really bring it up, bring it up above and learn from the examples that you have so well initiated and implemented in this great land.

My role as an American Muslim and a spokesman for Islam has involved a number of things. It has involved creating, participating and developing coalitions across the religious divide to address issues of common concern and also issues that have, on one hand, divided us and on another hand unite us. We are united with Christians and Jews in terms of our belief in one God. In the tradition of the prophets. In our tradition of scriptures. The Jewish prophets, Jesus Christ and John the Baptist and Mary are in fact religious personalities and prophets of the Islamic faith as well.

What divides us is less theology, to my mind, than history. History which has wound itself and gotten bound up in issues of politics and to some extent perceptions of economics and therefore we affirm the value of dialogue and especially religious dialogue in shaping what we have called shared convictions and for the action that we can and hope to accomplish together.

One of the challenges in engaging in this kind of debate in the public square in the West, the United States in particular, and perhaps more so in Europe, is the Western understanding, or perhaps misunderstanding in many quarters, of the separation of Church and State and what it actually means. It is my conviction that even the framing of this issue of Church State separation came about in the history of western Europe because of the need to allow a variety of religious voices in the public square in shaping the debate on how and what a good society would be.

From the point of view of Islamic theology, Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic history, the vast majority of Islamic history, it has been shaped or defined by a notion of multiculturalism and multireligiosity, if you might use that term. From the very beginning of Islamic history Islam created space for Christians of various persuasions, of Jews and even of Muslims of different schools of thought within the fabric of society.

Many are unaware that the Ottomans, the Ottoman Empire, ruled over a vast multicultural group of societies. The Ottomans ruled over not only Turks but Arabs and Greeks and Kurds and Armenians and a variety of different religions. It was actually the end of the Ottoman Empire and the end of what you might call multiculturalism within our own historical norms of Islam and the adoption of a Nation State paradigm and a nationalism which identified the nation and the national identity with one culture or one ethnicity or one language, and the rise of modern Turkey at the end of the Ottoman caliphate meant there was no more space for Greeks and Kurds and Armenians and Arabs.

The fomenting by the British of Arab Nationalism, in fact, at the end of the 19th Century contributed to some of the problems and friction between the Arabs and the Turks. For those of us who remember watching Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, that was one of the incidents of the chapters in breaking apart the Ottoman Empire by arousing or rousing the flames of Arab nationalism.

We adopted, other Muslims adopted, religious nationalisms. Something which, in my viewpoint, is fundamentally at odds and inconsistent with the principle of Islam as embodied in the verse of the Koran in which God says, to those of us who believe it is the word of God, where God says:

Indeed we have created you. All people, we have created you from one male and one female and fashioned you into various communities and tribes and nations in order that you may get to know each other.

The implication is not to hate each other on the basis of ethnic diversity.

The best of you -

the verse continues -

in the eyes of God are the most noble, and noblest of you in the eyes of God are those who are most pious, most devote. Those who evince or practice the highest form of ethics.

And thus the need to understand this history, to unpack the various strands of this history and to see how we can now restate, within the orthodoxy of Islamic thought, a road map and a vision for how we can cooperate together to move forward.

And thus a need for effective and articulate interlocutors. Those who understand both the nuance history, at such a level of nuance, both of the development of Western thought, enlightenment thought, its origins in Greek thought and the same on the Islamic side. To both understand the language of thought, the paradigms of history and then to take from such an analysis, to map out and chart the course for an effective future that will in fact be multicultural and multireligious.

A necessary part of this is to embrace and to welcome and to invite the religious voices in the public square, in the public debate, on how to build a good society. So multiculturalism, in my judgment, involves not only differences of culture and ethnicity but also multireligiosity, and that's where the challenge and the rub comes in for many because there is a perception that multireligiosity must mean the potential conflict between different religious voices in the public square.

I, for one, believe that that is not in fact the case. I believe that all Religions, all Religion in general, with a capital "R", consists of two components. One, how each religious tradition addresses the existential questions of why we are here as human beings, of the nature of being human and our relationship to the creator or to the absolute, by whatever name we choose to call it, God, Allah, the great unknown, brilliant darkness, whatever name you wish to attribute to the ultimate or the absolute truth, and how we are to relate to that absolute truth in an existential fashion.

And in that domain there is room for every individual or group of individuals to adopt its own ideas, and the Koran itself is quite explicit on that when it states:

There shall be no compulsion in religion.

Thus the need to create and allow the space for different religious opinions, in terms of what we call in Christianity, the vertical dimension or the first commandment of loving God. When it comes to the horizontal dimension, the dimension of loving our neighbour, almost all religions have pretty much the same basis of ethics. All religions condemn murder, condemn theft, condemn liable, condemn adultery, condemn all these ills of society.

All religions encourage the furtherance of the family and family bonds and family values, encourages the notion of being kind and generous to the stranger, of feeding the poor and helping the weak and not oppressing our fellow human beings. These are the principles on which the second commandment of: love thy neighbour, belongs. And as I pointed out in the session on liberating the law, Jesus Christ, after mentioning these two commandments as the major commandments, added the words:

Upon these two commandments hang all of the law and all of the prophets.

Which means that our law, our sense of justice, our articulation of justice, must flow from these two commandments of loving our God and loving our neighbour, and if we are not sure of how to articulate the love of God in the public square we certainly can allow each person and each group of each religious group to choose to love God in the vernacular and in the liturgy that it chooses and it prefers, but it gives us a broad basis of agreement on which we can love our fellow human beings and this, I suggest, is the mandate that lies before us today as we embark on this 21st Century and is the mandate and the homework assignment that lies ahead of us.

I would like to, with your permission, stop at this point and encourage a dialogue because I would like very much to learn from you as well. Thank you very much.


MS ELIZABETH HO: We have a microphone that we are going to bring to you. If you would like to just speak very clearly. We are recording today's session, so I would ask that you stand up. If you can't stand, at least speak very clearly and we will pass the microphone to you. Now, do we have any person out there willing to go first?


SPEAKER: I was very impressed with your opening address.


IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Thank you.


SPEAKER: The question I have, being Christian, and brought up a Christian but having a great tolerance of other religions, having been privileged to visit middle eastern countries and Africa and having been into mosques and understood Muslim people sharing with me their beliefs, all of that sits really well.

The issue that I don't know the answer to is that where in Islam there are fanatical people who teach their young people to do atrocities, like they have done, like our near neighbours and Jamia Islamia have done, and they do that in the name of Islam, they do it because they regard people like ourselves as infidels, etcetera, and they poison the minds of these young boys and girls to commit these atrocities in the name of Islam with a view to gaining eternal reward.

Why is it that the broader Muslim community, who we can co-exist very peacefully with great acceptance of one another's beliefs, why can't the broader community see that that sort of thing doesn't happen and control it and teach their young people that what those people are doing is really poisoning their minds and it is against their Islamic beliefs which you have alluded to earlier?


IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Thank you. That's a very important and excellent question. The answer is it is being done. The broader community is in fact criticising and condemning actions of terrorism that are being done in the name of Islam. I just came from a conference in Jordan, Amman where there were over 170 leading Muslim scholars from almost every part of the Muslim world, including some of the most important names like Sheikh Tantawi of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, who is the Chief Mufti of Egypt, the Chief Mufti of Jordan, the Sheikh Al-Qaradawi, who is a very very well known Islamic jurist, highly regarded all over the Muslim world. They included fatwas obtained from people like ..... Istani who could not attend but also issued a fatwa condemning acts of terrorism and stating that the attribution of infidel to others is not something that should be done and is outside of the ethics of Islam.

Islamic law, the text of Islam, the Koran is quite explicit on describing Christians and Jews as people of the book, and throughout Islamic history even Islamic scholars in India have actually included Hindus as being people of the book because Hindus were not yet involved - were not part of the society, of Arabic society, at the time of the prophet.

The complexity arises, sir, from the fact that - from political problems and the history of the politics between the West and the Muslim world. We tend to forget, in the West, that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al Qaida has on its hands of innocent non Muslims. You may remember that the US lead sanction against Iraq lead to the death of over half a million Iraqi children. This has been documented by the United Nations. And when Madeleine Albright, who has become a friend of mine over the last couple of years, when she was Secretary of State and was asked whether this was worth it, said it was worth it.

What complicates the discussion, intra-Islamically, is the fact that the West has not been cognisant and has not addressed the issues of its own contribution to much injustice in the Arab and Muslim world. It is a difficult subject to discuss with Western audiences but it is one that must be pointed out and must be raised.

How many of you have seen the documentary: Fahrenheit 911? The vast majority - at least half here. Do you remember the scene of the Iraqi woman whose house was bombed and she was just screaming, "What have they done." Now, I don't know, you don't know Arabic but in Arabic it was extremely powerful. Her house was gone. Her husband, I think, was killed. What wrong did he do? I found myself weeping when I watched that scene and I imagined myself if I were a 15-year old nephew of this deceased man, what would I have felt?

Collateral damage is a nice thing to put on a paper but when the collateral damage is your own uncle or cousin, what passions do these arouse? How do you negotiate? How do you tell people whose homes have been destroyed, whose lives have been destroyed, that this does not justify your actions of terrorism. It's hard. Yes, it is true that it does not justify the acts of bombing innocent civilians, that does not solve the problem, but after 50 years of, in many cases, oppression, of US support of authoritarian regimes that have violated human rights in the most heinous of ways, how else do people get attention?

So I'm not - I'm just providing you with the arguments that are happening intra Islamically by those who feel the emotion of pain. Half a million Iraqi - there's a sense in the Arab and Muslim world that the European world and Western world is just - does not care about our lives or human lives. There's a perception in much of the Arab world and the Muslim world that the issue is about race. That the Palestinian Israeli issue is less about religion than it is about race because about 25 per cent or more of the Palestinians or the Arabs are Christian. Many people in the West are unaware that Palestinians are not uniformally Muslim.

There is a large number of Arab Christians but they are not regarded as being equal. These issues have to be looked at, have to be recognised, have to be addressed and have to be solved. And this is why in our initiative we have urged a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict as being number one on the list of things that need to be done because you address this problem and a whole host of problems will be addressed automatically.

How many of you have read the book: The Tipping Point? Are you familiar with that book? It is a fascinating book. I strongly recommend it. It talks about, and a very lovely example, there are many examples that I don't remember, about crime in New York City and how just the removal of graffiti on the subways, New York City subways, reduced crime in New York City. Now, how would you argue the link between graffiti on the walls of the subway and crime? It's hard to determine but in fact it was proven to be so.

It is much more evident to many people what the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict will do, and as Tony Blair is urging, urging, the resolution of this crisis and the lethargy with which the Bush administration has been actually engaged in trying to resolve this crisis amplifies the perception, in the Arab and Muslim world, that our pain is not heard. Our anguish is not heard. And simple things like when President Bush went to Iraq on Thanksgiving to address the United States troops based in Iraq, he did not speak at all to the Iraqi people.

He could have left a taped message addressing the Iraqi street congratulating them on removing a tyrant that they all wanted to have removed, and saying, you know: I have asked Congress to allot 70 billion dollars of which I'm hoping to have so much for education. Speak to the people. He does this every year in the United States. Imagine if he came to this country and there were US troops stationed here, spoke to them, didn't speak to the Australian people. How would you feel?

How many of you have seen the documentary: The Fog of War? It is an important documentary in which Robert McNamara was interviewed and it's a documentary which is supported by 11 or 12 - I think 11 lessons, if I'm not mistaken - and the first lesson he points out is empathise with the other side. The number one thing that we need on the part of the West is to empathise. To see yourselves from the eyes of the other.

If it's a man who wants to have a wonderful relationship with a woman, you have to see how you look from the eyes of a woman. If you are a white man seeking to deal in Australia with the Aborigines, you have to learn to look at yourself from the eyes of the Aborigines, and you will see things that you cannot see otherwise. The West needs to begin to see themselves through the eyes of the Arab and Muslim world, and when you do you will see the predicament that exists within the Muslim community.

I'm not saying this to condone. Acts like the London bombing are completely against Islamic law. Suicide bombing, completely against Islamic law, completely, 100 per cent. But the facts of the matter is that people, I have discovered, are more motivated by emotion than by logic. If their emotions are in one place and their logic is behind, their emotions will drive their decisions more often than not, and therefore we need to address the emotional state of people and the extent to which those emotions are shaped by things that we can control and we can shape, this is how we will shape a better future. Is that hand still up there?


SPEAKER: Thank you very much. I was interested that your starting point this evening was that in the West there has been a misunderstanding of the concept of separating Church and State and I wanted to ask a question in relation to that. Western historiography generally argues that that separation of Church and State comes out of the 18th Century enlightenment and that that in turn was partly the consequence of the 17th Century Protestant reformation.

Now, what we have heard a lot of over the last couple of years, particularly from neo-conservative American commentators, is that Islam needs a comparable reformation. A reformation that will put the Koran into the vernacular instead of keeping it in a scholarly language and that will also allow Muslims to debate the scriptures in the Koran in the same way that Christians have engaged in very detailed exiguous and biblical criticism even to the point of, you know, many Christians now no longer believing that the Bible is the received word of God yet still identifying themselves as part of a Christian faith.

So what I'm interested in is your response to the idea of an Islamic reformation and also if you could explain a little bit more the significance of the Koran as a Holy object in itself, which is a part of Islam but I think many of us in the West find curious and need help with. Thank you.


IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Thank you very much. There was at least three questions that I heard you say, each of which could take a two-hour lecture. Very briefly, let me describe Church-State separation which has been a term of phrase which is not necessarily that which is expressed even in the American Constitutional document, the First Amendment, rather, which speaks about that the State shall not establish any religion.

England does not have separation of Church and State. The Archbishop of Canterbury is appointed by the Queen and any aspects of theology of the Church of England requires the tacit approval of Parliament. But what you do have in England is separation of religion and politics. Now, take the opposite example of India where you have a separation of temple and state but you don't have separation of religion and politics in India. It's almost impossible to have politics without - religion plays a very powerful role in politics in India. This is just two examples to highlight the difference between separation of Church and State and separation of religion and politics.

The United States is somewhat - we do have separation of Church and State but I would daresay that politics kind of like osmoses into religion. Also, it's very hard for people who are in, you know, the Congressmen or Senators, or like you have here, Members of Parliament, when they are making decisions to not have their decisions being formed by their ethical values and principles. And therefore their religion - whether their religion or whether their sense of ethics and ethical values comes from their professed religion or whether their religion is secularism and secular humanism, those values somehow percolate into the decisions that they make.

Most of the time it is not a problem but there will be issues on which their values intersect the decisions. A prime example, certainly in America today, and a very controversial one, is the abortion rate and the attempts by some people to overturn what is the historical Rowe v Wade US Supreme Court decision, I think in '73, on religious reasons, on principles of fundamental principles of belief. So those are the moments when what we normally attribute or point to and we call "Church-State separation" comes about.

Let me now just, with that very brief and rather incomplete description, just add to it that Church-State separation, as what we normally refer to it, is really intended to mean that, in its broadest terms and much more than that, that the state powers shall allow adherence of difference religious faith traditions an equal footing in society. That there will be no preference of one over another or the oppression of any religious society. That there shall in fact be no compulsion in religion and all religions shall be given an equal footing. This is the intent of the Church-State separation as it emanated in European history.

That particular aspect of allowing space in a society for different religious societies on an equal footing is something which, within the history of Islam, always existed. Was it perfect? Could it be made more perfect? Certainly it can be made more perfect, but by and large people of different religious traditions were allowed their religious freedoms from the very earliest times in Islamic history. Were there incidents where some rulers did not? Yes, but that is not the broad aspect of Islamic history that brought precedent nor is it the interpretation of the Muslim jurists.

On the issue of the reformation, in terms of what is again intended by it, Islam does not need a reformation. It needs just a going back to its basic principles of application. From the very beginning the prophet urged his followers to seek knowledge, even if they went as far as China. And Muslim scholars have interpreted that Hadith, or teaching of the prophet, to mean obviously they didn't go there to understand religion but it was to understand what we would call secular knowledge.

So the importance of knowledge was something which was very important to the Muslims of early times and within a couple of centuries the Muslim thinkers had absorbed all of the known thought, from Greek neo-Platonic and esoterian thought, to Hindu thought and mathematics, and they absorbed and translated all of those works into Arabic, which was the lingua franca, if you will, of the empire, and translated it and improved upon it and added upon it. So the notion of a reformation or an enlightenment to embrace knowledge from sources outside the traditional sources of religion, of what is called traditional religious sciences, was something that was part of Islamic tradition.

What has happened, paradoxically, is that the Muslim world has adopted the paradigms of thought and attitudes of pre-enlightenment Europe and somehow it is as if we bequeathed to Europe the enlightenment and we took from them the Dark Ages. And the parallels are very much there down to the attitudes that many Muslims have today and that is why people like Professor Ali Mazuri at the University of New York, Binghamton, who has pointed out these and described very well this notion of differentiation between Church-State separation and religion and politics in a very, very lovely paper that he delivered. Mentions also that Islam began as modernist, has now become pre modernist.

So now basically what is needed is not a reformation in the sense of something new and not done but really to go back to what we used to do before and that's an important - it may sound like just, you know, semantics, but it's more than just semantics because the way to convince Muslims is by using their own language. Islam is a religion of law, just like Judaism.

The way you approach Muslims is very much the way you approach a jury in a courtroom. You have a system of law that they operate under. They may not be very informed about it. It doesn't matter. If you inform them and educate them about the principles of jurisprudence, like a judge gives before a jury, and it is within a system of law, I don't know if the laws of South Australia are identical to the laws of Victoria or New South Wales, but I presume that in every State there is its own interpretation and precedents on certain issues.

We have the same in Islamic law. We have - not only do we have different schools of law within Sunni and Shia thinking, we have established precedents. So analogously to debate or to engage with the Muslim world, the way to do it is to engage within the thinking patterns that Muslims themselves engage in. So when you tell Muslims: what we need to do is to revert back to our own earlier history, that appeals to Muslims and it sounds like something from within the tradition rather than something without.

So if there is a reformation that is required it is not so much a reformation but as a reaffirmation of that which we used to do in the past when we absorbed the knowledge of other parts of the world and assimilated into our own. Was there a third part of your questions? The Koran as the


MS ELIZABETH HO: Do you want to repeat that part of your question on the Koran?


SPEAKER: As a Christian with a very wavering faith, the way I would try to explain how I understand how Muslims see the Koran is that it is in some ways similar to the way people of orthodox Christianity would view icons, religious icons. That it is an object that - the Koran is an object that is itself imbued with holiness. Is that right and is that what causes such distress to the Muslim world when events like the alleged flushing of pages of the Koran down a toilet in Guantanamo Bay causes extreme distress to many Muslims across the spectrum of belief, in a way that Christians wouldn't necessarily be as perturbed if such a thing were to happen to Christian holy scriptures.


IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Thank you, very good question. Well, the Koran is regarded by Muslims analogously to the person of Jesus Christ is regarded by Christians. Where Jesus Christ is the word of God that has descended onto earth, the word of God made flesh, so to speak, and the Koran is viewed by Muslims to be the literal word of God made sound. The Koran is defined as a recitation more than it is a book. It is primarily a recitation. It is therefore the sounds of the Koran which are important.

Naturally the pages itself of the Koran, to many Muslims, has a certain iconic value. It is considered the script, if you will, of the sacred sound and therefore there's a natural sense of respect that people give to it. The emotionality which Muslims feel upon the deliberate desecration of the Koran by those in Guantanamo would be - it's more an emotional thing. It's like, you know, if you're angry with someone and you just destroy something that they respect and love. That's a, you know: I'm angry with you so I take your beloved mother's picture and tear it apart, or let's say a husband and a wife having a spat and, you know, something that is a very valuable thing from your family, I just take it, a plate or something, destroy it.

It is destroying something which you respect, which you love. It's like, you know: I step upon you. I spit upon that which you respect. That is just emotional, pure emotional, you know, power expression over the other and it is more an emotional response, a psychological response, than it is an intellectually thought through response based upon issues of theology. It's about sensitivity to others and it's like what happened at Abu Ghraib, the deliberate humiliation of another human being, of subjugating them, of discounting their humanity and that which they value, and that is something which naturally arouses the deep discomfiture and nausea of anybody who believes in the importance of human beings respecting each other.


SPEAKER: Imam, I would like to make an observation and then ask you a question. I wouldn't want you to leave Adelaide without thinking that we're actually going some way towards getting better in our interaction with the Muslim faith and the Muslim world. I work in Carrington Street and there's a hotel there called the Saracen's Head. Until recently, I'm talking a couple of years ago, it used to depict on the front wall, just above the front door, the severed head of what was obviously a Muslim person. Fortunately, that sign has now been painted over but the name still remains. So I do think we are going some way towards learning to respect Muslim ideals in South Australia.

My question relates to the role of and rights accorded to women under Islam. There are many questions you could ask on this topic but really my limited reading of the Alkoran tends to suggest that the rights of and role of women as stated by the prophet are somewhat greater than the rights and roles accorded to women in some of the Islamic states which are close to Australia. I wonder if you would agree with that or disagree with that comment.


IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: I certainly most agree with you, very, very well. I thank you for both your comment and your question. It is in fact the case that the prophet was revolutionary in his time in according women parity and equality and he pushed the envelope as far as he could. There is a great body of law that states that the law, when it comes to areas of human affairs, this is where there is greater leeway, greater room for us to interpret the law and the intent of the law as well. Those who interpret that to mean that the intent of the law is parity, certainly have interpreted the rights of women in a much more equivalent manner.

Let me also add that what is perhaps of even more importance in gender relations, both within Islam and the non-Muslim world, has to do far more with culture than with religion itself. If one were to visit various parts of the Muslim world, from West Africa to Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Persia to Indonesia, you'll find a great variety of interpretations in the issue of the role of women. There have been five women Heads of State, for example, in Muslim countries; Turkey, Pakistan. Bangladesh today has its second woman Prime Minister. Indonesia has had - these are the among the nations which have had women Heads of State. The current Vice President of Iran - well, the recent one, I am sorry, before this last election, was a woman.

One cannot therefore unilaterally state that the role of women throughout the Muslim world is of, you know, of a different status. So whereas you have Turkey and Malaysia having women Heads of State and Indonesia having a woman president, women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. But these are cultural and these are bound to change and will change. We've seen the rights of women to vote now being given in Bahrain and I think they're just about to win or have just about won it in Kuwait and this is why I push for democracy in much of the Arab and Muslim world because democracy gives people - it creates constituencies.

When people have the right to vote, they began to vote for people who will address issues of importance to them. So with democracy and with suffrage given to women, within a matter of a generation or less, which is a very short time-span in the history of nations, we will see major improvement in this area. Theology will certainly match it but any student of law will tell you that law lags need. It is need which creates the laws and people's desires and objectives which then shapes the law and shapes - even shifts in our interpretations of law.


SPEAKER: I've compared the soiling of the Koran to the burning to the ground of the Vatican as that which would be the equivalent in emotional response in our world. The question is this. Can Sharon survive politically or physically the eviction from their holy ground of the people that he and his party gave it to?


IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: That is a question which is probably more correctly addressed to the Israeli community and to the Jewish community than to me. All I can say is that from my own communications with friends of mine who are Israelis and who are Rabbi's and who are actively involved in trying to effectively implement dialogue across the divide and create an Israel that would be part of the region, there is a lot going on in Israel. Israelis have moved beyond Zionism.

We now have post-Zionism movements in Israel. We have a very broad spectrum of people in Israel who regard Israel as a nation state, as a secular state, as a multicultural state. The very fabric and demographic, and I would say even identity, of Israel has shifted enormously in the last 60 years since its founding. There's always a danger. It only takes one individual to kill someone like Rabin. Rabin was assassinated by a fundamentalist, and there's no doubt that there are those who are against Sharon. But my sense, again from what I've learned, is that those who are supporting the withdrawal from the territories are in the minority - I am sorry, those who support the withdrawal are in the majority. If not, I don't think Sharon would have had the broadbase to do that.

The differences, perhaps, may lie on whether the solution lies in the two-state solution or in a one-state solution. I believe that you had someone here recently who spoke about having a one land and two people's solution to Israel. And I personally - my own personal analysis tells me that a one-state solution is a more coherent one than a two-state solution. But anyway it goes, there is no doubt in my mind that once there is peace, and there will have to be a peace in the region, the fallout of that will be enormously positive.

The result of that will be important bonds of trade between Israel and Palestine and Egypt and Jordan and Lebanon and Syria and with increasing trade relationships. Trade has a very bonding power indeed to many people. I even suggested, partly only tongue-in-cheek, that if the now approaching $200 billion that the United States expended in Iraq were to be spent in Israel it would have been the equivalent of about maybe $40,000 to every Israeli and every Palestinian in the region. And with that kind of funding you can transform a lot of people's hearts and minds. You know, a bumper sticker which says: $150,000 for a family of four, is quite appealing to many, especially if you add permanent residence to South Australia.


MR KRIS HANNA: Thank you. I'm Kris Hanna, one of the members of Parliament here. I therefore have a question which is political in its point but I want to throw in a second question first and it's about your answers to earlier questions. When people are asking you questions from an evidently Christian perspective, why do you not reflect back on Christian scripture and practice so that when you're asked about why in the Muslim world are young people not stopped from being terrorists, why do you not pose the question: why does a Christian nation elect a Government which avows it will go to war? And when you were asked about why people are upset about the Koran being defaced, why do you not pose a question: what would happen if a person looking like an Arab burnt a Christian Bible in our town square? Is it because you're too polite? That is one question.

But really the question I wanted to ask was: where do you go beyond the ecumenical message that you have? It's a message that I deeply appreciate but once we get to the point where we say: it's not really religious differences that divide Islam and the West, are you willing to say that we should be exposing an economic imperative on behalf of the ruling elites of Western nations and the resistance to it by those who would represent those wretchedly poor in Islamic areas of the world as the true basis for conflict between Islam and the West?


IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Thank you. On the first question I certainly agree with you that the analogies are very powerful in helping people understand it, which is why I used the example, you know, of Bush visiting Australia if there were US troops and not speaking to the Australians. I'm not always able to think of all things and I welcome your analogies, they are very helpful. But I have refrained from deliberately saying that: well, you know, the Bible also has things about killing the infidels and so forth, because that doesn't really help the issue.

The fact of the matter is I personally believe that two wrongs do not make a right. If someone does a wrong to me, my response should not be to do a wrong back. I can understand the emotionality behind doing the wrong but we would like to hope that we hold ourselves to higher standards, but I think it is important also to understand the power of emotion and politics. In studies that have been made by political historians of terrorism, defined as militancy against non-combatants and civilians, the point has been made by political historians that terrorism has been done ever since the beginning of time practically, since the time of the Romans for sure, and they were designed to achieve very specific target political objectives.

And when we observe terrorism, whether it was done by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or by al Qaida or whoever is behind the bombings in London or those in Madrid, we can see that they were target political objectives. So political objectives and economical objectives, in my mind, I agree with you, are the driving forces and then religion gets co opted along the way, or any ideology can very easily be co-opted or be the wrapping for such movements. And certainly what has happened in the Muslim world is that the secular liberation movements have failed.

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was unable to liberate Palestinians. Arab Nationalism has failed. Many of the non-religious attempts to provide, you know, the good society to the Muslim world has failed, and it becomes very easy to wrap liberation movements and issues of aspirations for social justice within the vocabulary of religion, especially a religion that is based upon law and for which justice and legal justice is very important and paramount.

So I certainly share your sentiment and I welcome your cooperation and thoughts on how to present the arguments more powerfully and this is what a coalition of like-minded people across the religious divide or whatever, is very helpful in helping us collectively make people understand the issues and how to address them because unless those underlying issues are addressed, you will have these symptoms repeating themselves again.


MR DENNIS VOIGT: Dennis Voigt, I'm the Refugee Project Worker with the State Council of Churches, so if people will permit me a theological musing for you. In Christianity the underpinning base is sin, fall, redemption, sacrifice, salvation. My understanding with Islam there is a saying in the Koran that God says for us to know that God is closer to us than our jugular vein. It is a very comforting, attractive thought to me as a non-Muslim to hear that.

When I bring Christians together, especially those who are involved with refugee work and interaction with people from the Middle East and they want to know more about Islam and we bring Islamic people together with the Christians, we have a lot in common. Yes, the oneness of God, the revelation, the prophets, many things to share. Even in some of our traditions; fasting, alms giving, abstinence, what have, you but the whole thing seems to come unstuck always with our fitting together of sin and the sense of the need of redemption.

So for a Christian, for example, increasingly it's almost impossible for theologians to justify execution, the death sentence, for example, because it denies the fact that a person can be redeemed, can be changed. So that concept of sin has a positive sort of outcome. Would you like to make some comment about these basic differences of - where does sin fit in Islam and salvation, I guess. Thank you, Imam.


IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: That's a very lovely question. Sin is part of the human condition. There's a Hadith, so-called the Hadith Goodseed, which means a teaching of the prophet in which God is speaking in the first person, in which God says:

If you were a people who did not sin, I would have replaced you with a people who did and who would then ask me for my forgiveness and I would then give it to them.

The picture that has been described by some Muslim thinkers is that the attribute that the creation of man as a creature that freely sins, is a requirement that comes from the attribute, the divine attribute of forgiver. For the attribute of forgiver to manifest, every attribute requires its correspondent. So God, as creator, has to create for his attribute of creator to be manifest.

The attribute of God as forgiver requires a free agent who freely choses to sin, feels remorse, asks God for forgiveness, turns to God and pleads with God for forgiveness and God then grants it to him or to her. So the picture of sin in Islam is fundamental and intrinsic to the human condition, but, however, the fault of human beings is to end there, to stop at the level of sin and not to seek to use sin as a launching pad for greater intimacy with God.

Coming at it from another angle, I'm reminded of a statement that Rabbi Hartman once mentioned at a panel I was in in Schtakwa Institution in New York State where someone asked him: would Jews feel better if Christians gave up the idea of Jesus Christ as being the son of God? He said, "I don't care what you believe about Jesus Christ as God or not God, as long as you don't eject me from the party on the basis of my disagreement with that principle." So at the end of the day you can believe what you want about my faith tradition. You can believe that my belief about, you know, God is absurd.

I am reminded once of someone who was in Malaysia, Indonesia, an Englishman, and said, "How could you, an educated person, believe that, you know, this tree is haunted? How could you believe in spirits? That's absurd." He said, "How could you, as an educated man, believe that God came down to earth and in the form of a man? That to me is even more absurd." So we are free to regard each other's beliefs as absurd but the point is not to make that a basis of excluding you from your rights in society. Not to exclude you from your participation in the two issues which people want participation in; power and economics.

If people have that, they don't care what else you think about their thoughts. You know, you may think that this an absurd attire. That Armani is not the right thing to wear, that, you know, Hugo Boss is better. But if you make that the basis of allowing people to participate in Parliament, or to, you know, enter college, then that becomes the basis of conflict.

In fact, I write about what I call the genesis of conflict in my book. You know, people will have a disagreement. Once they have a disagreement they look at what is different. So if it is a man and his wife has a disagreement

SOUND FAILURE

So men will say: women, you know, they're emotional, ..... whatever, whatever, and women will say: men, they're brutes, insensitive, etcetera, and you have the beginning of a gender conflict. If gender is not what distinguishes us we'll look at skin colouring and say: niggers or whities, or whatever, and we create an ethnic conflict. Or we look at whatever it is which differentiates it, and thus we have tribal problems in Rwanda between Hutus and Tutsis. We have conflicts in Ireland between Catholics and Protestants, but if you look at Protestant or Catholic theology you won't find the roots of the Irish conflict there. It lies in issues of politics and economics.

So the issue really, people fight over those issues and when a husband and wife fight over: should we get a yellow rug or a blue rug or, you know, any kind of a disagreement, it is really about power. It's about who gets to decide what about what. So conflicts are almost always really about issues of power and economics. Now, belief enters it because belief is an asset so people will kill each other over issues of belief when that belief becomes a threatening thing.

So if, for example, the Department of Biology, the head of the Department believes in the theory of evolution and you do not, you will not get tenure. You will risk the danger of not getting tenure because you're a threat to the system. So belief becomes a factor when it plays into issues of power or issues of economics, as I see it, and therefore an understanding of the genesis of conflict and how it comes about.

So the Israeli conflict, in my opinion, is not about theology, it's about land and it's about the acquisition of that land and how it was acquired. That is the aetiology of this particular conflict. So if we address the underlying issue, if we figure out a way to create condominiums, to condominiamise Israel and Palestine so you have two peoples co-existing on one state, then we have a different paradigm which will allow us to move forward.


SPEAKER: I was just wondering, I've heard what I am sure is nothing other than a rumour, something along the lines of that Muslim men are told things like: when you go to heaven there will be a thousand virgins waiting for you, and that's why they're so - I mean, I think it stems from the belief that there is something in the Koran or something in Muslim religion or culture that makes them more willing to go off and commit, you know, be suicide bombers or more willing to go off and fight in the Holy War. I understood what you said about you thinking it was more driven by emotion than religion. I just wondered if there was anything at all? I certainly hear things like that and can't help but wonder if there is something about their religion or their culture that makes them more prepared to go off and die in the belief that they will be closer to God or that, you know, it's such an amazing act, that's maybe different for Christians or people of other religions.


IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: That's a very common question. In fact, just about two months ago I was interviewed by Barbara Walters, who is doing a special on heaven and she's interviewed suicide bombers who are expecting the embraces of 72 virgins in paradise, and she asked me do women get the same privilege as well, and I answered her telling her: well, the Koran says you shall have whatever your heart desires. And after that interview I was rushed over to the synagogue, a reformed synagogue in which the Rabbi, who was a woman, introduced me to couple of ladies in her association and I just repeated what happened with Barbara Walters. One of the ladies says, "I don't want those 72 virgins, I want the guy after he's done with the 72 virgins." A day in the life if an Imam, I suppose.

Look, there have been people who have been encouraged to become suicide people. The kamikaze pilots in World War II, for instance. I mentioned earlier the Sri Lankan Tigers who commit suicide. Suicide is, again, suicide - people commit suicide for political purposes, for militaristic purposes, that usually happens by people when they don't have other means or they're losing the battle or they don't have parity in military hardware. It's very easy to find people who will give up their lives. I mean, it's not hard.

In other contexts, I've taken a poll of people, and let me ask a question: how many people in this audience have at some point in their life thought about taking their own lives? See. I've found that roughly about 20 per cent of the audience answers that. So there is always, at any given point in time, people who are in a sort of depression, who are upset about something in their lives, who are prepared, almost on the verge of taking their own lives. Give them a little bit of an incentive. You know, if you put an advertisement on the wall saying: if you're willing to give up your life we will give $100,000 to anyone you love or your family. There will be takers in Adelaide.

So it does not take very much. The notion of making it even nicer on the other side by quoting such things, you know, that paradise - well, yes, there is a description of paradise in Islam. Paradise is where you will have your heart's desires. Most things are granted. Both men and women. Great companionship. Sexual companionship to your heart's content. We are promised wines of greatest vintages, although we are prohibited from having wine in this life we are promised great wines in Islamic version of paradise. Gardens.

But it is not only the satisfaction of the physical senses, of the emotional senses and the spiritual senses as well. In fact the last Hadith of ..... says that God will ask in the heavens of paradise: are you satisfied? They'll say: yes, you've forgiven our sins, you've admitted us into paradise and we are comfortable, we have all the things and comforts of life. Is there anything else you want? Anything else I can do for you? And they'll say: we can't think of anything. And then the Hadith says:

God will unveil the veil on his countenance and the inhabitants of paradise will swoon with ecstasy, where they will know no joy greater than gazing upon the face of God.

But what makes people, in my opinion, commit suicide for political reasons have their origins in politics and political objectives and worldly objectives rather than other worldly objectives. But the psychology of human beings and the brittleness of the human condition and how many of us have thought about taking our own lives, we may be jilted, had a bad relationship, you know, didn't get tenure at the university, failed an important course, there's a host of reason why people feel so depressed with themselves that they are willing to contemplate ending their own lives. And if you can access those individuals and deploy them for your own worldly objectives, this is exactly what has happened in much of the Muslim world. Thank you for your question.


MS ELIZABETH HO: That brings our questions to a close. I'm just going to invite the Imam to perhaps take a seat for a minute. I want to just comment that I think that once again, and I have to say the program for the Imam has been punishing since last week. He's been at the Festival of Ideas, he's been in Sydney, he's been back here again. So once again, on behalf of everybody here, we would like to thank you for the energy that you've given us tonight, but especially I'd like to say: the ripples on the pools of our complacency in encouraging virtue are in the way that we look at our brothers and sisters. I want to call on Rauf Soulio, the Chairman of the Migrant Resource Centre, to deliver a vote of thanks. Thank you.


MR RAUF SOULIO: Thank you, Liz. On behalf of the Migrant Resource Centre, I'd like to thank Liz Ho and the Hawke Centre and the University of South Australia and also Kim and Kelly for their efforts in having the Imam come to visit us, for giving up a New York summer for a South Australian winter, and we are constantly reminded by world events of the importance of and the need for his ideas and his work and I can do no better than to quote the Imam from: What's Right with Islam, when he said:

Interfaith dialogue sincerely conducted has the power to reveal the fundamental truth that all human beings share a great deal in common at their deepest spiritual level.

Thank you, Imam, for your visit here.


MS ELIZABETH HO: Can I just note that on the Hawke Centre website we will include a transcript of tonight's proceedings but it is also being recorded, I think, by Radio Adelaide, and I'd also like to note for those of you who have an interest in this particular topic that a few years ago we were addressed by a wonderful woman from Malaysia, Zuriah Aljeffri, who spoke on the status of women in Islam and her address is also on our website, and the details are out in the foyer. So if you would like to keep in contact with this subject, I encourage you to have a look at those papers. Once again, thank you all for being here tonight and thank you, Imam.
 

This is a verbatim transcript and may contain grammatical and spelling errors
 

Rauf Soulio, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Elizabeth Ho

 

 

Chairman of the Migrant Resource Centre, Mr Rauf Soulio and Ms Elizabeth Ho, Director of the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre, with the Imam at his Hawke Centre address in Adelaide

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