Thursday, August 28, 2014

An interfaith gesture of support for Muslim Australians a Lakemba Mosque

Guest Post By Natasha Robinson

Photo by Damien Begovic
SOME wore a yarmulke, some a priest’s collar, and one an imam’s kaftan. And they all held hands in solidarity on the steps of Lakemba Mosque to spread a message of peace.

The priests, reverends, imams and a rabbi held a large banner of a mock-up newspaper masthead they dubbed “The Welcoming Australian”. “We’ll love Muslims 100 years,” the newspaper front page splash read. In an address on the steps of his mosque, imam Yahya Safi said that “the clear message of Islam is mercy”. 

“We need to clarify, to show the true message of Islam,” the imam said. “It is forbidden to consider acts that are evil. The true Muslim is the Muslim who will live in a safe way with others, and others will feel safe with him. We need to put our hands together in order to spread out mercy and respect.”

The gathering was a response to concern that publicity of the heinous acts of Australian-born terrorists Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed Elomar, fighters with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, had prompted “shrill and harsh” rhetoric towards ordinary Muslims in Australia and had fostered a negative perception of Islam.
Rabbi Zalman Kastel, CEO of the organisation Together for Humanity, said the expression of solidarity was timely as the prime minister continued to appeal to Muslims to join “Team Australia”. “We need to preserve our social cohesion,” Rabbi Kastel said. “This is a message to the Islamic community of solidarity: we value you, we respect you. “Let’s keep working at multiculturalism: we’ve got a good thing going, let’s keep it going.”

Sydney doctor Jamal Rifi appealed to the prime minister to show leadership as he consulted with Muslim groups over tougher counter-terrorism laws. “We need to be part of the team, but we want to be equal members of the team,” Dr Rifi said. “We feel we are close to the target. We want them to pass us the ball so we can score. We appeal to the captain and to the coach: show us your strategy.”

Canberra last week moved to address concerns among the Islamic community that the government was at war with it, with ASIO head David Irvine publicly declaring on the western Sydney-based Voice of Islam radio station that the counter-terrorism battle was being waged purely against terrorists, not a religion.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Words that Insult, Humiliate, Agitate, or Inspire Togetherness

Introduction: Dear Friends,

I am thinking about the importance of words at this time.  A lot of angry words are being spoken, many motivated by altruistic, passionate concern for the innocent and outrage over the loss of life and the violence. Some have been simply abusive words by ignorant and even drunk individuals. A man screamed “Allah Akbar” at me in the middle of Bankstown.

I write these words with the threat of renewed hostilities in the air. There are very small things I can do to try to prevent the on-going killing in the Middle East. I am doing these quietly. As Joe Wakim of the Arab Council said about another bridge builder, this “role is to prevent this kind of stone throwing, not engage in it”. This is a small meditation regarding words and people of different backgrounds getting along in Australia.

All the very best,


An example of the power of positive words.
The wonderful Paul Benett's book that I
launched. A real example of living
with light.
We saw a victory this week for collaborative efforts between communities. The Australian government accepted their joint calls against the humiliation of people on the basis of ethnicity or “race”.  

Yet a dark cloud hangs over community harmony in Australia. Yes, there is an elephant in the room that is a matter of life and death.  The burning question is how to stop the killing, violence and the suffering? This is a vital question that I care passionately about. Our tradition teaches that “to kill” is to diminish the “image” of the King, namely God, in whose image ALL humans are created (1). This question must be answered, in certain contexts, not by me in this public context. This is because I sincerely believe I might do more harm than good.  Every blame claim, justification, refutation and counter argument that  I can imagine, has already been shouted endlessly, motivated by a mix of anger, hatred, as well as sincere desires for justice and to protect the innocent.

Here is another question: What will be the impact of all this death and conflict here in Australia, where we Australians of Jewish, Arabic, Muslim, Sunni, Shia, Ukrainian and other backgrounds live?

An old Rabbi was attacked in Perth this week. School children were terrorized in Sydney. Shia Muslims have been copping it for many months, Muslims generally, for years. Less significantly, yesterday, I walked through a state school playground filled with Arabic teenagers. When they saw me, an identifiable Jew, they chanted at me: “Free, free, Palestine”.  A sheikh, who had been working with me and a group of students at the school, walked alongside me to support me as I walked quickly to my car. 

Students in Australia should be encouraged to care about the world they live in and engage with the pursuit of justice.  However, chanting at a Jewish man reflects a generalized hostility to the “Jewish people”, rather than advocacy for aggrieved Palestinians.  I don’t blame the kids. The distinction is not an easy one.  A Muslim who works with me, made the point that what I felt in that playground is very similar to how she feels when people shout out “terrorist” to her. “It has nothing to do with me,” she said.

Perhaps, of equal importance, was the raising of this very painful and difficult topic in our group that has been working together regularly from the beginning of this year. The question about the current situation was raised by a student in one word, “Palestine?” It was a useful conversation to have. At the same time it reflects a growing tendency to talk and think in slogans rather than fully developed ideas with any nuance. A lot of the “dialogue” about Gaza and Israel has been via Facebook and Twitter - images of dead children, other images with captions or slogans. 

I accept that, in some cases, one may insult, provoke, polarize, simplify and ridicule as part of agitating for change. The Biblical prophets resorted to exaggeration, simile and ridicule to argue for change. On the other hand, we need to get along in Australia. If we can’t do it here, where our lives are not under direct threat, how can the people who have lost relatives and their sense of security, not lose hope?! To some extent, hope has been another casualty of this terrible situation. It must be restored.

Words matter. According to the Jewish sages, humiliating another person to the point where the colour drains from his face is equivalent to spilling his blood. I think that is hyperbolic, but reflects the seriousness of the harm caused by denigrating speech, suggesting a psychological death. Perhaps, more to the point, if people with authority engage excessively in denigrating groups, younger people and less educated people will take that as a licence for violence and a signal that they have a right to be “bigots”.

I don’t have a formula for preventing murder, killing or war, but I know that listening from the heart, goodwill and nuanced conversation are part of the answer. Polarization is usually less helpful. We cannot banish darkness by beating it with sticks. We can only overcome it with light. I pray for the preservation of life, dignity, justice and peace. 

1      1) Mechilta