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Obligation to respect, not share, our faiths

Date

Joseph Wakim

A man sits inside the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, ahead of Christmas in Bethlehem.

A man sits inside the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, ahead of Christmas in Bethlehem. Photo: Ammar Awad

Each Christmas, my family receives more greetings and gifts from my Muslim friends than from fellow Christians. We treasure many handmade cards by Muslim children who do not celebrate Christmas. We cannot trivialise these efforts as tokenistic as they are annual and original. They are well-worded messages of peace in English and Arabic. I only wish we took the time to reciprocate this goodwill gesture at the two Islamic Eids each year.

Throughout my childhood, we would be visited by Lebanese Muslim friends laden with gifts. This did not mean they suddenly elevated the prophet Issa to Jesus the son of God. Their faith was not compromised. As I write this article, there is a knock on the door as Ahmad, my late father's carer during his disabling Alzheimer's, arrives looking like a bearded, smiling Santa bearing gifts. When asked, ''You do this but you are a Muslim?'', he replies, ''I do this because I am a Muslim''.

Twice this year, Australian Muslim leaders were swift to disown rather than explain behaviour that was both un-Islamic and un-Australian.

A general view of Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

A general view of Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Photo: Ammar Awad

Before the unauthorised and short-lived Facebook fatwa on Christmas greetings, there was September protest that was notorious for its ''behead all those who insult the prophet'' placard. On both occasions, leaders were swift to extinguish the flames, learning from past experiences that a flame can quickly morph into an international inferno through modern media.

The leaders need to be congratulated for their damage control and their voice of reason. The Facebook post was promptly removed and their Christmas greeting was written high in the sky - literally.

The Grand Mufti of Australia, Ibrahim Abu Mohammad, wisely provided perspective and disarmed the stone throwers with the comments that ''there is difference between showing respect for someone's belief and sharing those beliefs'' and that the ''foundations of Islam were peace, co-operation, respect and holding others in esteem''.

This contrasts with the temporary message that was posted on the Lebanese Muslim Association Facebook page, which was borrowed verbatim from an international website. The Fatwa section at Islamweb.net was asked if it was haraam, or sinful, for Muslims to celebrate or congratulate Christians during Christmas. Its response was: ''The disbelievers spare no efforts to draw the Muslims away from the straight path … celebrating such feasts is actually imitating disbelievers … whoever imitates a nation is one of them … a Muslim is neither allowed to celebrate the Christmas Day nor is he allowed to congratulate them.'' It's a view not shared by Australian Muslim leaders, a diversity that is not unusual in all religious teachings.

Islamweb is ''designed to enrich the viewer's knowledge and appreciation of Islam … [among] Muslims and non-Muslims alike about the mission of Islam'' by adopting ''balanced and moderate views, devoid of bias and extremism''. But this all needs to be put into perspective before being imported into the Australian context, highlighting the growing dangers of the instant, borderless, copy-paste, digital age.

Let any Australian religious order that has never innocently copy-pasted from a global site throw the first stone. Even from church pulpits, our priests have been critical of non-Christian practices, cautioning about staying on the straight path, avoiding the consumer culture of Christmas celebrations, and putting Christ back into Xmas, literally.

When I greet my Muslim friends for Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, it does not mean I share in the celebration or I am losing my religion. I am merely extending goodwill and am happy that they are happy.

This is not the first time Australian Muslims have copy-pasted concepts from abroad and inadvertently caused controversy for failing to consider the context of Australia. Only 18 months ago, the Islamic evangelical initiative MyPeace mounted billboards stating ''Islam: Got questions? Get answers'', followed by ''Jesus Prophet of Islam'', which provoked outrage and vandalism. The posters were adopted directly from the Chicago-based GainPeace, which was keen to demonstrate that ''Islam is not synonymous with terrorism''.

The public relations damage to the Muslim community is difficult to undo. Which is why all responsible leaders need to think twice before borrowing from overseas contexts. They may be copy-pasting a viral problem, not a safe solution.

>> Joseph Wakim, a Sydney writer, is a founder of Australian Arabic Council.

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