In the lead-up to the recent Victoria, Australia, election, Premier Daniel Andrews announced grants of more than $8 million to the Victoria Islamic community. A social media video posted by his office celebrated this news in a way that can only be described as joyful. In the video, Andrews stated that $3 million will fund education to tackle Islamophobia. He also declared that Victoria will be funding Muslims to spread the word of Islam:
We think it is important, as part of an education process, that everyone across our state knows about the works of the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him. It's very important that his teachings, his life, his journey, is understood by so many people. That's why we will provide a $500,000 grant to the Islamic Museum in partnership with the Board of Imams and also the Islamic Council of Victoria to develop a program to educate, to share those teachings, that wisdom. This is part of a comprehensive plan to do what matters.
This sounds awfully like state-funded proselytism.
Of course it is important that people know about Muhammad's deeds, teachings, and life. However, we can expect that the information made available to Victorians through this largess will be more promotional than informative. It will urge Victorians not only to respect but also to believe in the message and mission of Muhammad.
The figure of Muhammad is complex, contradictory, and controversial. At times, he advocated for what today would be recognised as justice – for example, caring for widows and orphans. At the same time, Muhammad's works and words stand behind the many strict restrictions and punishments applied by Islamic legal codes. The Afghan Taliban has forbidden car drivers, restaurants, and public media from playing music, based on Muhammad. Qatar banned alcohol from the FIFA World Cup and bans homosexual acts, based on Muhammad. Saudi Arabia applies the penalties of amputation for theft and cross-amputation for moharebeh, based on Muhammad. Indonesia has recently banned sex outside marriage, reflecting religious beliefs based on Muhammad. Similar bans are in place in other Muslim-majority nations, including Pakistan, Qatar, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan.
Andrews' enthusiastic praise for Muhammad, and his glowing praise of the Muslim community – including a declaration that he will always 'stand' with them – contrast starkly with his recent vilification of conservative Melbourne Anglicans for their views on abortion and same-sex marriage. He called their views 'intolerance', 'hatred', 'bigotry', and 'absolutely appalling'. Ironically, Andrews was castigating Victorian Christians for holding views that very many Victorian Muslims also hold.
Our culture manifests two opposite, extreme approaches to religion, both flawed. One is to treat religion as something that is merely a part of culture, perhaps at times rather odd, but essentially of secondary importance. In a sense, this is what Andrews has done with Muhammad, for his glowing praise is vacuous and treats with dismissive contempt the actual content of Muhammad's words and deeds. It is as if the profound impact of Muhammad on millions of men's, women's, and children's lives is irrelevant and deserves no critical reflection.
The other extreme response to religion is to vilify and demonise. Andrews' response to the beliefs of some Victorian Anglicans about abortion and marriage was an example.
Religion is too important to be abused in these ways. The American journalist Andrew Breitbart observed that 'politics is downstream from culture'. And culture is downstream from religion. Over time, religions have tremendous power to shape cultures and, through them, politics and law, both for good and for evil.
In our religiously diverse society, the worst thing to do with religious differences is to manipulate extreme simplifications and stereotypes for crude political gain. We need political leaders who can forge a better religious policy path than this.
Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.