This is an insightful, rational, and educated discussion on the real contrasts between Christianity & Islam. You’ve heard what the mainstream media tell you, now hear some balanced facts which should enlighten you to the fact that not all religions, creeds and ideologies are equal and positive; not all progress, reformation, and evolution is positive; and that leaving well enough alone is a recipe for disaster. Moderation is not all good. Extremism is not all bad. Think for yourself. Political correctness and cultural relativism are actually dangerous lies and Truth is revolutionary & incendiary.
This is an interview on the ABC’s Radio National program, Counterpoint, by Michael Duffy of Mark Durie. Mark Durie is a theologian, human rights activist and pastor of an Anglican church. He has published many articles and books on the language and culture of the Acehnese, Christian-Muslim relations and religious freedom. A graduate of the Australian National University and the Australian College of Theology, he has held visiting appointments at the University of Leiden, MIT, UCLA and Stanford, and was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1992. The interview was broadcast Monday, 4 April, 2011. You can find it online by clicking here, but it’s so important that you invest the 20 minutes to listen to this, I’ve added the audio file and transcript on this blog as well.
Michael Duffy: Mark Durie is vicar of Saint Mary’s Anglican Church in Melbourne and a human rights activist. He has a particular interest in something we don’t hear a lot about, the persecution of Christian minorities in Islamic countries. Mark has been a senior academic in the field of linguistics and language studies and a Harkness Fellow, and is the author of many books, including most recently The Third Choice which is about Islam and freedom. Mark, welcome to the program.
Mark Durie: Thanks Michael, great to be with you today.
Michael Duffy: Can you give us some overview idea of the extent of the persecution of Christian minorities?
Mark Durie: I think a recent study suggested that two-thirds of people who are persecuted for their faith in the world today are Christians. There are about 60 countries in which Christians could be considered to be persecuted, and there are estimates of as much as tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands that are losing their lives in recent years, so it’s an extremely serious issue. Some countries that persecute Christians are communist or former communist countries such as Vietnam and China, Laos, even mainly Christian states such as Ethiopia, but the greater majority of states that persecute Christians are Islamic majority states.
Michael Duffy: Yes, it’s interesting we don’t hear much about it. Some of it is quite close to home, isn’t it, for example, in Indonesia.
Mark Durie: Yes, indeed. About ten years ago there were 500 internally displaced Christians from the activities of the Laskar Jihad, a jihadi group there. Journalists in Australia or in the west often refer to these events as sectarian conflict. So we minimise and avoid engaging with what’s really happening on the ground by speaking about it as if it’s an argument between different groups. I think that’s a gross disservice really to the victims of the contexts of those attacks.
Michael Duffy: What are some of the other countries with particular problems? Egypt has got a bit of a record, hasn’t it?
Mark Durie: Yes, Egypt has a very poor record. In the last four months there has been a whole string of attacks on Copts. Just some weeks ago a church was burnt down and the radicals that had burnt down the church pulled down the cross and used the bones of the martyrs as a football, and turned the church into a mosque. So that’s bad news. Saudi Arabia has more than half a million Christians living there, and there is not a single place of worship, it is illegal even to meet as Christians in private and pray together there. Many countries unfortunately in the Middle East are really bad news for Christians.
Michael Duffy: Is it possible to generalise where this happens in Islamic countries and say what the attitude of the authorities is? Are they involved in the persecution? Are they opposed to it?
Mark Durie: Sometimes they protect Christians and sometimes they take part as well. It’s very complex. Just recently the army soldiers opened fire on Copts in Egypt and killed a number of them when they were demonstrating. And then at almost the same time they went back to that church I spoke of that had been bombed and burnt down and offered to rebuild it for the Christians, so it is very conflicting. Interestingly some of the long-term dictators who have tried to balance different groups have been better for Christians.
Saddam Hussein was pretty positive for the Christians in Iraq but now they are being completely decimated and more than half of them have fled and they are being killed and driven out in large numbers. Hosni Mubarak relied on Christians for support because they were frightened of the radical Muslims that were his enemy as well, but at the same time the state systematically discriminates against Christians. It’s actually a very, very complex situation.
One of the problems underpinning that is there are certain principles in Islamic law that make it quite hard for Christians to get justice when they are attacked, and they become deeply embedded in culture and the states tends to take on those cultural characteristics as well.
Michael Duffy: I suppose one of the issues here is that the church and state are not separated in these Islamic countries the way they are in the West.
Mark Durie: Yes, that is a problem. Muhammad combined all sorts of power in one person, whether being a general or a leader of the faithful or Chief Justice and king of the state. So Islam tends to follow his example and combine all forms of power, and in fact Islamic theologians have criticised Christians for making that distinction, going back even to mediaeval times. But the problem for non-Muslims in an Islamic state is particularly acute because they get excluded from political and social processes because of that distinction. So you will see many countries with Muslim majorities have written Sharia into their constitution, for example in Egypt or the new constitutions in Afghanistan and Iraq. And once you declare the laws of the country to be based on Sharia law, that immediately puts non-Muslims in a disadvantaged and inferior position.
Michael Duffy: What is the position of Muslims who choose to live in the West where of course there is this separation? Are there any philosophical or other problems for them given that Sharia law doesn’t operate?
Mark Durie: There is a very important debate going on, it’s been going on for decades. The International Islamic Fiqh Academy, which is a peak body set up to make rulings for Muslims around the world, considered the question in the early ’80s of whether it is lawful for a Muslim to be a citizen of a democratic state at all. The traditional Islamic view was that you couldn’t live in the lands of the infidel for more than a few nights, and you had to flee to an Islamic state if you could. This created a huge problem with all the immigration, a theological problem, and interestingly many of the rulings that they collected…they never published a final statement, but many of the rulings they collected said it was illegal for Muslims to be citizens of democratic states unless they are fleeing persecution or unless they are there to spread Islam.
I think those positions are beginning to shift, and Muslims are being in a way forced to develop a theology of the common brotherhood of humanity or the quality of people, but it’s not easy, it goes against the grain, and there is certainly a very well articulated view that Muslims shouldn’t live in states that are not Islamic states. Sometimes you even see strange things happening like leading Muslims in the US declaring that America is a better Islamic state than many Muslim states, and that helps them get around the problem of saying we’re living in the lands of the infidel.
Michael Duffy: I was going to ask you about that. I mean, is there an issue here with the loyalty of Muslims living in western states? But from what you’ve said I suppose there’s just a great variety of attitudes, is there?
Mark Durie: There is a great variety. I think if you ask many Christians they would say their primary loyalty is to God, but they don’t see the conflict in the way that some Muslims do, they see their primary loyalty to the ummah, this is the family of the Islamic community, one nation. The Qur’an speaks of Muslims, it says you’re the best nation that has been raised up for humanity. And if that identity is very strong and it overrides national loyalty, it can create really big conflicts. So Major Nidal Hasan in the Fort Hood massacre, he was conflicted between his loyalty to America and his loyalty to the ummah and to his theological principles. And it was the second that won out and caused him to, according to his own testimony really, choose to fight against fellow American soldiers. So for some it can produce quite extreme consequences.
Michael Duffy: Mark, we are always told there is a great diversity of belief among Muslims, and that extremists and the beliefs that sustain them are rare. Is that true?
Mark Durie: I don’t think that’s a fair description, I think it depends which country you are looking at. The Pew Forum has done a number of polls in Western and in Islamic states and found very high levels of what we might regard as extreme beliefs. Hundreds of thousands of British citizens supported the 7/7 bombing and felt it was a good thing in surveys, and the majority of citizens in Egypt want Sharia law. So there is quite a strong conservatism in the Islamic world. I think we make a mistake by saying that extremism is the problem. I think Islam has a core, and it’s a fairly clear core based on the life of Muhammad and his teaching, and those who adhere closely to that core shouldn’t be called extremists but the problem is their beliefs would, from a Western secular point of view, be thought of as extreme. That is that Allah should rule and the land should follow the laws that Muhammad gave down 14 centuries ago.
Michael Duffy: And what do those core beliefs have to say about violence, the use of violence?
Mark Durie: There’s a range of different beliefs. Muhammad went through different stages, and early on in his career God told him to forgive and overlook the unbelievers, but later he was told to fight in defence, and then later to fight against non-believers in general. And so Islam supports, in the classical view, both defensive Jihad against attackers, but also expansionary Jihad to implement an advance of the Islamic state in order to pave the way for the propagation of Islam throughout the world. So that has been a fairly mainstream view.
Today many Muslims living in the West understandably have backed away from the idea of expansionary Jihad, but it’s still very widely adhered to across the Muslim world. Al-Azhar University or the supreme religious leaders have not renounced this idea. Islam I believe is really unique amongst the major religions of the world in having a fairly well articulated view that violence in the path of Allah or for the sake of Allah is a good thing. In fact there is a view in Islam that every war should be religious war and that it is a sin to fight a war except for Allah. And so normally Islamic states, if their soldiers die in the war they are always regarded as martyrs. Both Iraqi and Iran celebrate their casualties as martyrs, the Turks in the First World War, those that died were martyrs. It’s a standard view that if you are fighting for your country and you die you are a religious martyr. So religion and warfare are very intimately entwined in the Islamic consciousness.
Michael Duffy: Some people have suggested the same thing is applied in the West in regard to the Bible. Do you think that is true or at least true to the same extent?
Mark Durie: I don’t think it’s true to the same extent. Let me put it this way, in the first three centuries Christianity was a minority faith and it didn’t have a theology of violence for the sake of the faith. It was Theodicean and some of the Christian Roman empires later on who developed the idea of the use of compulsion to enforce Christianity. And then, I believe in part in reaction to the Jihad which, for example, in Spain went on for eight centuries or so, those Christians developed almost like a Christian Jihad, the idea of holy war, if you died in a holy war you’d be a martyr. And so the Spanish developed this in a big way and they took it to South America and wreaked havoc with a view that if they died in their battles they’d go to paradise.
But there is no serious Christian that I know in the world today that holds that theology anymore. It was developed in a period of time that is well past. You can’t defend it from Jesus’ teachings, he did not give any clear basis for supporting an idea of religious warfare, quite the contrary. So when Christians fight or do violence in the name of God, they are going against Jesus, but when Muslims use violence in the name of Allah they may well be and often believe that they are acting in accordance with Muhammad’s instructions.
Michael Duffy: Yes, that’s the situation today, isn’t it. I suppose in a sense Christianity has moved on from that earlier position and Islam hasn’t.
Mark Durie: That is true, and it was not the first position of Christianity, it’s not the core position of Jesus’ teachings, and that is why I have a problem with the idea that this is natural evolution that happens, that we all move on in the end. I think if you try and reform Islam by going back to the example and teaching of Muhammad, and you really have to do it that way to be coherent and have integrity from religious perspective, you’ll go back to the fact that he himself was a warrior and called for warfare. And so that keeps coming back, whereas if you want to reform Christianity by going back to Jesus you will produce a more peaceful faith because Jesus was a man of peace, not a man of war.
Michael Duffy: Is that to some extent what happened in the Reformation?
Mark Durie: Yes, the Reformation definitely from a Christian point of view was a going back to the teachings of Jesus. A good example of a Catholic reformer was St Francis who read that Jesus said you should sell what you have and give it away to the poor, so he did it. Luther spoke about the freedom of the German nobility, he quoted St Paul, for freedom Christ has set us free. So people looked to the New Testament and found principles that enabled change by going backwards, and you could think of it as a regressive movement, it went back to Jesus. Some of the values of this movement did happen to go hand-in-glove with the Renaissance and other principles that were influencing people in Europe, and it didn’t cause backwardness, if you like. But the difference really with Islam is that a reformation has been going on in Islam, and as Waleed Aly said, the result of it is Al Qaeda, and that’s a really disturbing problem of the world today.
Michael Duffy: Really, is that right, so Al Qaeda is Islam’s reformation?
Mark Durie: That’s right, they looked at Muhammad, and what will it be like to do exactly what he did and to follow his principles, and this is what was produced.
Michael Duffy: What would Muhammad do, yes.
Mark Durie: That’s the question; what would Jesus do, what would Muhammad do? Both followers ask that question.
Michael Duffy: And I guess what you’re saying is that they’d probably do something quite different, even despite this widespread notion we often have in the West that all gods are the same.
Mark Durie: They would do something very different, and I think gods are sometimes more different then we…we’re uncomfortable about that idea but really there are millions of gods in the world and, believe me, they’re not all the same, they require different sacrifices, different values. I think the secular West has really wanted to protect itself from having to engage with faith and to make distinctions, and it’s not helping us at the moment in dealing with a century in which religion will be the most important ideological issue. So we’re ill-equipped for the challenge ahead of us but we have to engage.
Michael Duffy: Many Christians seem reluctant to defend their own tradition in case they are accused of hypocrisy, and the example of the Crusades is often brought up. Do you think Christians should regret the Crusades?
Mark Durie: I think they should acknowledge that Crusaders did some things that were reprehensible and wrong. I think some of the motivations of the Crusades, which was to intervene in an environment where Christians were being severely persecuted in lands which had been Islamic lands only a few centuries and Christian before that, was not unjustified. It was a war that in its goals I believe were just in many cases, but some of the things that happened were appalling.
I think the Crusades have become like a stereotype of religious evil in the minds of people today, and you need a much more nuanced, careful look at what actually was happening and the reasons for it, and the constant Jihad that the orthodox Christians in the east had been facing for centuries, inexorable assaults and taking of slaves and attacks.
So it was actually just one phase in more than 1,000 years of warfare, and for various reasons, cultural and historical reasons, it has become a kind of iconic part of that tradition in the Western mind. But in my mind it’s just one phase in a very long battle that more or less in many ways the Islamic Jihad proved successful. In the end Constantinople was defeated, and what they had feared when they asked to help from the West actually came about.
Michael Duffy: Mark, you’ve got a very interesting blog and we’ll put a link to it up on the Counterpoint website, and one of the things that listeners will find if they go there is…I think you’ve got a list of a number of very bad ideas. I just thought I’d finished by asking you about two of them. The first is the claim that we often hear these days that extremism is always wrong and that moderation is usually preferable, indeed it’s the answer to so many of our problems. What do you think of that?
Mark Durie: Yes, it’s a really bad idea. It’s the idea that if the world is flat and if you go too close to the edge you’ll fall off, so just stay in the middle and you’ll be fine, so you shouldn’t believe anything too strongly, just be a moderate, in-the-middle person. Now, if you are looking for a good surgeon you wouldn’t say, ‘Look, are you a moderate surgeon, you’re not too strict about hygiene and everything? I’d like someone who doesn’t take their job too seriously.’ You wouldn’t choose a doctor on that basis. It really lets us off the hook from having to make decisions and to make value judgements between competing ideologies and beliefs.
There was a book written by Eric Hoffer called The True Believer in the ’50s and he argued that basically people just follow ideologies, but it’s their extreme personalities that is the cause. Someone who is a Communist might be a fascist tomorrow. And that sort of outlook has made us unwilling to look at the actual ideas, and you need to actually ask is this a good idea or a bad idea. And if it’s a good idea, be strong about it, don’t be embarrassed. So the language of extremism has been very disempowering and debilitating in terms of analysing and being able to respond to ideas.
Michael Duffy: And finally, Mark, what’s your idea on progress? In general, do things usually get better?
Mark Durie: No, they don’t, they go backwards and forwards, up and down. People thought the 20th century would usher in this wonderful century of social progress, but then you had Nazi Germany. The Communists believed that history is moving forward and they produced tens of millions of casualties of terrible regimes. We still seem wedded to this idea of progress, that things will inevitably get better. They don’t.
Human nature is very flawed, and if we have a Utopian view that history is evolving and change is always going to be better, we will be blind to a lot of the threats and challenges that are faced. Sometimes things in the past were better, sometimes they weren’t. We can’t assume that if you just leave religions alone they will all just become calm and moderate and beautiful. Politics doesn’t work like that, religion doesn’t work like that, humanity is not as naively blundering its way into a utopia as we tend to assume in the West today.
Michael Duffy: I think that’s a good warning, Mark, we’ll leave it there. Thanks for your time.
Mark Durie: Thanks Michael, it’s been a pleasure.
Michael Duffy: Mark Durie is the vicar of Saint Mary’s Anglican Church in Melbourne and a human rights activist. His most recent book is The Third Choice which is about Islam and freedom.