Reform Update December 1997

A PHOBIA is an irrational fear. I know about this because I have a phobia for spiders – witness the considerable shock I got the other day when the little star-shaped bit from the top of a tomato suffered a case of mistaken identity. In Australia, however, a fear of spiders would be both rational and useful, given that the bite of the funnel-web is lethal to primates. (Oddly enough, cats are immune.)

The reason for mentioning this is that we are told there is an attitude prevalent in this country today which should be termed ‘Islamophobia’ – a fear of Muslims and Islam, which spills over into prejudicial actions. However, the question which needs to be put is whether even a phobic reaction may be justified in some circumstances. The events at the Luxor Temple in Egypt on the 18 November this year suggest our response to Islam is one of those cases.

The face of five-year-old Shaunnah Turner looking at us from the front pages of the newspapers carried grim echoes of Dunblane. The knowledge that her mother and grandmother had also died made the story almost worse. And the accounts of her killers dancing and singing as they shot and knifed their victims perhaps evoked the same question we felt in relation to Thomas Hamilton – what goes on in the mind of someone who carries out such an action?

Of course, our horror needs to be tempered with sobriety. First, many Egyptian people, who are no doubt also Muslims, risked their own lives to save other tourists in the area. Second, even some Muslim groups who could be described as ‘extremist’, such as Hezbollah, condemned the action. Third, we are all capable of despicable actions, given the right circumstances.

Nevertheless, we need to ask, and perhaps the Muslim community needs to ask, why massacres and violence seem to be so frequently associated with Islamic groups. It is certainly worth asking when (as in Islam) a community divides the whole world into its own ‘House’ on the one hand and the ‘House of War’ on the other whether this is an attitude conducive to the kind aggression we saw at Luxor.

There is no doubt in my mind that religious affiliation tempers or exacerbates human actions. Who can be anything but grateful, for example, that the IRA come from a Roman Catholic rather than an Islamic community?

The question of whether Islam is true or false cannot be settled entirely by an examination of the consequences of Islamic faith, any more than would be the case with Christianity. Nevertheless, the consequences of a faith must be seen as revealing its real nature. In circumstances where Islamic groups feel they are wrongfully denied their ‘dues’ the result has been violence, often of an appalling character. And yet in countries where Islam has the upper hand, the result has often been disappointing to Muslims themselves – witness the fact that so many will claim there is no truly Islamic society in the world today.

If Islam has an ineradicable streak of violence that is something that Muslims need to rectify – unless they are to assert that violence of the sort seen at Luxor is an appropriate manifestation (albeit perhaps a distorted example in that case) of the qualities God would want to see in his creatures. If that is the case, I am not sure that a fear of Islam is a phobia.