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This page last updated 4 June 2006  

A conversation shared with Anglicans Online

A dialog between a Christian and a Muslim in Australia
by Mac Robb and a Muslim friend, April 2006

M. Hi, Z. We are charged with discussing Islam and Christianity, I being a somewhat observant Christian, you being a somewhat observant Muslim, both of us being reasonably literate amateurs.
Well, I am an Anglican: I go to church on Sunday; I raised my children with a consciousness of the liturgical year; I used to read them Bible stories — my younger son used to talk about 'Shadrach, Meshach and Abednago' to some excess... well, they are so resounding on the ear!; indeed, I had some anxiety about one of my children taking it all considerably more seriously than I would have been entirely comfortable with. He hero-worshipped the rector of the church I played the organ in and who became an archbishop in due course. I rather thought I would like my children to be religiously aware and literate, but I didn't want them to be maniacs about it!

Z. Hi, M. Welcome to the club. Yes, as you say, I am a somewhat observant Muslim. I fast during Ramzan; I make the socially necessary observances; I pray according to the required prescriptions but I admit I don't do it five times a day. And I don't really plan to go to Mecca for the Hajj in the immediate future, though sooner or later I certainly will.
And I am studying Arabic with all my heart so I can read the Haditha in the original and make a sensible response when 'fundamentalists' — sorry, I know you tell me that that term only applies to Presbyterians, but we have appropriated it! — say outrageous things.
Indeed, it should be said that my Mum flew into a panic when she thought I was 'getting religion' and pointed out the healthful advantages of a moderate intake of red wine! Till then I had occasionally thought I might volunteer to take her on the Hajj but on second thought, I guess not. Particularly when I inadvertently barged in on her during what I thought was on of her five-daily prayer sessions, which is what had prompted me to offer to take her to Mecca, only to discover that where she had repaired to was where she keeps her cache of vodka!

M. I confess that I somewhat guiltily thought of you and what you might have thought of me a couple of nights ago. My wife was overseas on business and I had Indian friends to dinner — one of them a rather bigoted Anglican; the other a magnificently easy-going Muslim. We cooked a fish, one of whose bones promptly got stuck in my voice box. Needless to say the two excitable Indians got VERY excited and insisted I go to Emergency.
Everything turned out well, but in the meantime a bunch of to me — well, not to put too fine a point on it — rather primitive-looking people came in: men in long gowns with topis on their heads and hennaed beards, women in burqas. This particular brand of exotic, I have to admit, irrational though it is, always somewhat gives me the willies, but my Muslim friend looked at me with an expression of delight: 'Ah! They're Muslims!' I can never quite figure out the attitude that pertains there: his wife wears miniskirts, but when I once mentioned that women in burqas make my hair stand on end, he was extremely puzzled: 'But why?!'

Z. Oh don't worry about it. Veiled women give me the creeps as well. However, it's the hijab variety (the headdress tucking the hair out of sight, but the face visible) which spooks me completely. Totally veiled women belong to another era and are likely to be veiled more out of custom than rational thought. The hijab variety have usually thought it through (if that is indeed possible) and wear it out of choice. Incidentally, they are lovingly known as 'ninjas' by the liberal press here. Did you know, by the way, that women Members of Parliament in Pakistan are forbidden to wear veils on the floor of the House?

M. Well, easy enough for you to say. We have to deal with political correctness! And me — well, I am far from immune to it myself, hospitable-to-a-fault as I am to people even more exotic than I. I am, after all, a Canadian in Australia, and in Australia 'exotic' has a rather wider ambit than in the UK, Canada and the USA, notwithstanding the locals' quaint perception that places like Brisbane are the 21st-century's answer to Habsburg Vienna. My Jewish wife, of course — and Hindu and Christian visitors from places like Malaysia just like her, be it said — is enraged to the point of barely being able to contain her violence at Malay girls here from Malaysia covering themselves up, and, in her perception, impliedly suggesting, 'The men here just cannot be trusted not to make unwelcome overtures! And the women here — shameless hussies! Whereas look at me: I am religious!' Well, I have to admit that I am mildly prey to the same feeling. Irrational, unpleasant, but there you go.

Z. Yes, that is irrational and unpleasant. Try and get over it, will you? That being said, let me tell you about a recent series of job interviews I had to conduct. I advertised for a salaried lawyer. The two best candidates were women, one in hijab, one in western dress. When all was said and done, the woman in hijab was far-and-away the better qualified so I hired her. I was, though, nervous about the implications of her attire and I asked her, 'Do you have to wear that thing on your head?"
She patiently explained that yes, it was indeed a tenet of her perception of Islam that she wear hijab. Please don't allow your political correctness to daunt you about this sort of thing — ask. I certainly do, and no one can accuse me of being prejudiced against Muslims!
All very well, but when push came to shove she refused to participate in the necessary promotional activities for the firm, which involved socializing with men. I of course had to fire her and I then hired the woman who had presented herself in western dress. I did try. I guess I have to admit that I may be almost as antsy as you, when it comes right down to it, regarding hijab; I can't help it either. But probably they don't want to have anything to do with me so it's not too hard to do the right thing. Moving right along, your Indian and Arab friends S and N have surely invited you to come with them to Friday Namaaz, haven't they? Have you taken them up on the invitation?

M. Certainly not the Muslim Arab, at least, who is from Dubai and who is Wahabi. My Arab friends are mostly Christian. The Dubai contingent probably regard my easy-going Muslim Indian and Pakistani friends as total infidels! But yes, sure, my Indian and Pakistani friends have indeed invited me to come to Friday Namaaz with them. I confess that I haven't actually taken them up on it. I've been to Namaaz in Pakistan and — well, once is enough, eh?

Z. Oh all right. Fair enough. If you've been once — well, if you're not participating — then, yes, it's much the same. For an infidel. (I am of course teasing. You appreciate this, I trust. As I have told you, as far as I am concerned Christians are fellow People of the Book.) But have you invited your Indian and Pakistani Muslim friends to come with you to Sunday Anglican services? I am, as you know, a Fellow of [an English college] and, Muslim though I am, Mattins, Evensong and Sunday Eucharist — and certainly the Christmas Nine Lessons and Carols — are to me an extremely uplifting experience, there at least.

M. Well, funny you should ask. My Muslim friends have been harassing me about taking them to church. They have been to Oriental Orthodox Qurbana in Bombay and needless to say, the Indian Orthodox Christians put on a very fine display indeed: a full house is obviously required, and a congregation that carries on the congregational parts of the service with — well, be it said, with more than Anglican competence. I think that from my point of view — defensive as I am about the Anglican Communion — it needs to be a Sunday when there will be a decent show of participants. Christmas or Easter, I think. So I took them to the Easter Vigil at a local high church Anglican parish. It was pretty splendid by way of incense and gloriously robed clergy poncing about in the sanctuary insofar as Australian standards go, but they found it a bit dull.

Z. You are indeed mildly defensive. Perhaps you should be! We South Asians know how to put on a show of that kind! Have you been to a Sufi pilgrimage? Yes of course you have. But the Anglican Church in Pakistan is generally regarded as pretty marginal, I'm afraid. The Archbishop of Canterbury was here a while back and there wasn't even a blip on the media radar, though the British High Commissioner and his wife were busy with him. I suppose they took a policy decision to keep it as low key as possible. I gather that the Archbishop is in favour of conversation among different faiths. What IS interesting is the venue: Saudi-funded and therefore a bastion of Wahabi thought. It does however, at the same time, manage to produce among the best law graduates in the country — and not all are 'fundamentalists.'

M. Leaving the 'fundamentalist' thing aside (this medium has its limitations, eh), Christians — marginal yes of course, at least numerically. But also perhaps in terms of significance?

Z. That, too. I don't of course buy into that, and obviously I certainly don't buy into bombing them as some do. In fairness, the unpleasant people who bomb Anglicans also bomb Muslims whom they perceive to be the wrong sort of Muslim. I only speak so boldly, of course, because you have invited it. Christians in Pakistan are generally assumed 'really' to be low caste Hindus who judged the Partition of India in 1947 extremely badly and got caught on the wrong side of the line of Partition.

M. It may well not be entirely inaccurate that that's what many of them indeed were, though I wouldn't myself regard it as anything to be embarrassed about. Certainly I'd far rather be a Christian than a low caste Hindu. And that's the slur that 'Brahmin' Syrian Orthodox Indians cast at Catholics and Protestants too. Easy for me to say, of course. Fortunately there's not any bombing of Muslim places of worship in Western countries, that I know of — anglophone ones, anyway: the racial and religious vilification laws, not to speak of a general civility, at least on the surface, make that extremely unlikely. A more appropriate comparison would be a Papua New Guinean diplomat friend of mine who met Muslims while visiting my house in Australia and thought them entirely delightful (as of course they were, or they wouldn't have been invited to my house, obviously). So he decided to investigate the largely African and Malaysian mosque when he got home to Port Moresby: word quickly got around and he found himself being stoned when he emerged!

Z. Yes, I agree: That's a better, and fairer, parallel to the occasional outrages here in Pakistan. Not very flattering to Pakistan in some ways, be it said, but let's face it.

M. Your earlier point — you've also said that Christians in Pakistan are flooding out to Canada and other western countries — and one might have thought that if they are so welcome in the West, the loss of their gifts must be rather grievous to Pakistan.

Z. Precisely. You of course know our star cricketers Christian heroes of Pakistan, don't you know! — or, being Canadian, perhaps you don't.
You were mentioning the tricky business of raising children to have a proper awareness of religion without them 'getting religion,' so to speak. Middle class Pakistanis manage that by having the mullah come to the house to give their children religious instruction, where it can be closely monitored. There is also generally a mild degree of anxiety about clergy having too close proximity to children: the recent unhappiness in the American Catholic church regarding moral lapses among the clergy is something we Muslims are all too familiar with ourselves, though it is too nervous-making to cast aspersions on religion for us to discuss it openly.

M. Not only in the American Roman Catholic church, I'm afraid. Litigation in respect of clergy abuse has come close to bankrupting the Anglican Church of Canada and the problem is far from unknown here in Australia. So much for the proposition that allowing priests to marry would eliminate that problem: Anglican clergy of course are free to do so; indeed, in North America, the British Isles and Australasia they are free to be female.

Z. Oh really. Yes, so much for that solution. Marriage is of course socially de rigeur in South Asian society but generally an exception is made for Muslim clergy: they are not necessarily expected to remain bachelors like Catholic priests, but if they don't marry it's the one role in life where it's considered acceptable. And yes, there is a certain degree of anxiety about them having unsupervised access to children. Again, we are far too discreet to mention it out loud but it's certainly there.
Aren't we telling tales out of school, you and I!

M. We certainly are, but for both of our cultures and religions in their perennial mutual misunderstanding, the truth shall make you free, to misuse a generally misused scriptural reference.

Z. Amen to that. You were mentioning seeing a woman wearing a shalwar-qamiz in church a while back. Did you get up the nerve to go and say hello? You should. Mention that you have one of your own, and the reason for it! Your story about the Pakistani farmers asking you, regarding your modest western attire, 'Why are you wearing those strange clothes?' It's a good ice-breaker!

M. I haven't, and yes, I should. Did I tell you what became of the shalwar-qamiz that we searched so long and hard for in Pakistan for my Tamil Anglican friend? He gave it to an Indian Jewish friend of his!
But yes, as to the gal in the shalwar-qamiz in church hereabouts. I shall. Particularly given that my Indian friends hereabouts report a certain amount of unhappy encounter with racism from the white locals. Not often; it's not a major problem — Australians' reputation for hospitality is generally well deserved — but when it happens it is so unexpected, their guard is so down, that it is totally shattering.

Z. Yes, it would be. There's a complete double standard, of course. Here in Pakistan and India we are disgustingly straightforward about these things — ethnic, religious, sectarian intolerance — and as you know it's somewhat the same in Malaysia and Singapore. So we do, as you say, keep our guard up. And when we are in the West we tend to relax. And then get all indignant when we encounter the sort of racism in the West that we subject people to all the time at home!
Human nature being what it is, one shouldn't. But one does and, yes, encountering racism directed at oneself when visiting Western countries is totally shattering.

M. Of course my friend F, who is a Muslim woman from Bombay, is one tough cookie and NOTHING fazes her. She is working for the time being in a credit-card call centre, that time-honoured refuge for Indians in need of employment, and was telling us about a debtor who asked her, 'Are you calling from India? I want to speak with an Australian!'; she fired right back, 'No, I'm calling from Australia and you are a damn racist and if you think that makes me more sympathetic to you, think again!' She is also one of the ones who urged me to take her to church — and actually she said exactly what my Mum would have said: 'The music was lovely and the sermon was sensible but the smoke! Sheesh, the smoke!' And, apart from her oft-stated view that anyone who doesn't convert to Islam must be out of their mind, she is herself devoid of prejudice.

Z. Good for her! A woman after my own heart.. Meanwhile, even more so, do go up to the woman in the shalwar-qamiz at church and say hello!

M. Yup. I will.

Z. But no, actually, come to think of it. That is too easy. She's obviously an Anglican. Do that by all means. But next time you see a woman dressed like that on the street, look her in the eye and say 'Hi.'

M. Ummm... a bit trickier. I'll try.

Z. Yes, do, Just as tricky for me. I will, too. Let's report back on how we do!