When he was sworn in as a Parliamentary Secretary this week, Western Sydney MP Ed Husic became the first Australian Federal Member of Parliament to take his ministerial oath on the Koran. Although the Governor General, his fellow parliamentarians and most sectors of the community celebrated this event as a sign of the success of Australia as a multicultural community, Mr Husic also became a target of abuse on social media.
I was glad to join the Rev Glenda Blakefield (the National Director responsible for the Uniting Church’s relations with other faiths) in making a public statement calling on all Australians to respect each other’s faith. As Glenda said, “God delights in diversity and seeks unity from us, which is why we work towards creating relationships with other faiths as an important part of our ministry.”
Respect the faith of others as you would want them to respect your faith. In the context of the flaming of Ed Husic on social media, I think this is a fair rendering of Jesus’ command in Mathew 7:12.
And as it happens we are about to have an excellent opportunity to respect the faith of Muslims as you would want Muslims to respect your faith.
Ramadan begins next Tuesday, the 9th of July. It is a month in the Muslim calendar devoted to prayer and fasting. Potentially, nearly 480,000 Australians will be observing Ramadan this year. So in all likelihood most of us will know or have dealings with Muslim Australians engaged in the observance of Ramadan. Here are three ways to show some respect.
First, welcome Ramadan as an opportunity to make friends with your Muslim neighbours. The thing is, while Ramadan is all about fasting, it is also all about feasting. The fast is kept between sunrise and sunset. Naturally the pre-dawn meal, Suhoor, is a modest affair – just for the household and as likely as not to be leftovers from the night before. But the fast-breaking evening meal, Iftar, is quite a celebration and often brings families, friends and neighbours together. That’s your chance! During Ramadan there are generally several opportunities for non-Muslims to join in an Iftar. You might be invited by a workmate or neighbour. Or it might be held as a public event. These meals are a great opportunity to meet and begin to make friends with your Muslim neighbours. And the food is fantastic!
Second, look at Ramadan as an opportunity to learn something more about fasting – how to do it and get the most out of it. I’m thinking here especially of Uniting Church readers. Early next year we’re going to hold a week of prayer and fasting for justice for Indigenous Australians. There’ll be more about that in future blogs, but I thought it was worth signalling here too. While prayer and fasting is one of the most ancient and core Christian spiritual disciplines – even in the Protestant traditions – it has been badly neglected in much of the mainstream of the Uniting Church. We’ve got some learning to do. We have things to learn from our Tongan and Korean members – who have been sustained and matured in that great Christian tradition of prayer and fasting. But we can also learn from our Muslim neighbours about how to integrate the spiritual discipline of prayer and fasting into the ordinary day and the ordinary working week. I have been moved to hear Muslim children and young people talk about how Ramadan observance has brought their family together and reconnected all the generations to the core of their identity.
Third, Ramadan is a sharp reminder that every taxi ride is potentially an occasion for interfaith dialogue. That’s my experience, anyway. In a trip of any length – more than 15 minutes – you’re inevitably asked, “What do you do?” My answer to that question brings the beautiful ecumenical, multi-faith character of Australian society to the surface. I’ve had long, frank, searching conversations not only with Christians, atheists and agnostics of every stripe but also with Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim drivers. On one occasion I needed to stop at my hotel to check in before going on to the church where I was to speak. The taxi driver asked if I minded if he came into the hotel for a coffee and something small to eat because it was Ramadan and just dark, and he was very hungry. That was fine, of course, and in the 40 minute drive that followed our pit stop he talked about studying the Koran in Mecca, the Muslim community he was part of in Sydney compared to his home community in Melbourne and… the Trinity! Because, obviously enough, he was a man fully formed in his faith who was genuinely interested in the faith of his fellow Australians.
Now I’ve had this kind of conversation with people of many faiths, but in Ramadan our Muslim neighbours are particularly focussed on their faith. They want to talk about it. And they’d love to talk about it with you.
So this is a comment for my Christian readers:
We all need to be able to say what the Christian faith is. We are representatives of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church when the taxi driver, or play group Mum, or colleague in the lunch room asks about the Trinity. We need to know the tradition we have inherited and be able to explain it to our neighbour who does not share our faith. And we need to be able to say what the Christian faith means to me and how I practice it. Our neighbours who are not Christian understand that there is a difference between the faith and my faith. It’s true for their faith too. And I need to be ready to explain what being Christian means in the day to day living of my life.
Respect the faith of others as you would want them to respect your faith. Ramadan is an excellent opportunity to respect the faith of Muslims as you would want Muslims to respect your faith.