I felt my legs were praying
Thursday, 15 October 2015 | 2 Heshvan, 5776
I felt my legs were praying
Jonathan Swift once acerbically commented that “we have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” Looking around the world and the hateful violence of Islamic extremism, not to mention the rise of religious violence among Jews, Christians and even Buddhists (in Myanmar) his words are acutely apt today. Religion and especially Islamic fundamentalism certainly have a lot to answer for.
When I read this week’s Parasha – Noach and its bald statement that the “earth was filled with violent crime” (Gen 6:11) - the word for violent crime is interestingly “chamas” in Hebrew; when I read this week’s headlines in Australia about radicalised young Australians; when I get another text message alerting me to another stabbing or attack in Israel; I am filled with despair at the dark heart of humanity.
I wonder how Abraham would feel today about his children. Jews, Christians and Muslims all lay claim to Avraham, Abraham, Ibrahim as their father, yet they seem incapable of living together, let alone loving one another. More than enough religion to make us hate…
Yet for all this we dare not give in to despair or retreat into ourselves. These are dangerous and difficult times for the world but if we are capable of hating so much we are also capable of loving a lot more.
Over the past week I have attended several meetings with government agencies, Muslims and multi-faith groups. I have been to a meeting of a multi-cultural group at Police Head Quarters, attended a gathering of the Premier’s Multifaith Advisory Group at the new and cutting-edge Islamic Museum, been on a “Friendship Walk” in the city and a rally at Parliament House in Canberra.
From these interactions several trends are emerging:
1) Few are naïve about the real threat of Islamic extremism in Australia (not to mention the world)
2) We are all groping for answers to the radicalisation of Muslim teenagers and there is a consensus that there is no one silver-bullet solution.
3) The Muslim community itself is extremely diverse and divided. Like its community, Muslim leadership on the whole, is moderate and committed to the democratic ideals and principles of Australia. Australian Muslim leaders do speak out regularly, some with great passion, against Islamic extremism.
4) The Muslim population especially vulnerable youth - is susceptible to extremism. There are many reasons for this ranging from the economic (since 2007, the average wages of Muslims were much lower than the national average) to the social to the extremely powerful social media. In my mind, ideologically, the most violent and anti-Semitic form of Islam is spread by the internet and financed heavily by among others the Saudis. It’s confounding but unsurprising how the West continues to support the Saudi Regime which finances the toxic ideas of Wahabi Islam.
5) The young Muslims who are susceptible to extremism are, on the whole, estranged from the wider Muslim community. They don’t attend Islamic schools or mainstream mosques and are usually estranged from their parents and community. They find an exciting and inviting community online and the more we learn about the recruiters the more we realise just how savvy and sophisticated they are.
I am not a politician not an expert in extremism but I am a religious leader and passionately believe that while religion is definitely a fundamental part of the problem today, it is certainly a critical part of the solution.
That is why I am prepared to put time and energy into nurturing relationships with the Muslim community. Religious and communal leadership is however only a small element of the solution. The real changes will come when Australians across our continent reach out to the Muslim community and when we recognise that we are all influence-shapers and perception-makers. We Jews are especially experienced at communication and interacting with the wider community and small as we are we can make a big impact. This is not just a matter of self-interest and of combatting anti-Semitic stereotypes in the Muslim community (and especially among the migrants from Arab countries) but as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has asserted it’s part of our mission and our ethos as Jews. We are the first children of Abraham and Sarah, we gave birth to Christianity and Islam. We are half-brothers with Ishmael. We are especially good connectors and we know what it is to be scapegoated and marginalised.
When the great 20th century Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel returned from the Civil Rights March of Selma (where he walked alongside Martin Luther King) he remarked:
“Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling
And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
On our JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim) Friendship Walk on Sunday I too felt that my legs were praying. The spirit of relaxed camaraderie and unity as we did our church – synagogue – mosque walk was palpable. We joined together at the church, we danced in the synagogue, we listened and ate together at the mosque but the walk was where we truly prayed together. It was an opportunity for shared conversations and thoughts and it opened the eyes and hearts not only of the participants but also of the curious passers-by.
On this occasion we not only talked the talk, we surely and confidently walked the walk. It was a statement of hope and an affirmation that if religion is part of our problem today, it is also critical to our solution today. It was an assertion that we have got enough religion to help us stop hating and start loving…