Is Islam a religion of tolerance – or one of discord and prejudice?
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Is Islam a religion of tolerance – or one of discord and prejudice?

If the Charlie Hebdo shooting has done anything, it has convinced many in the media that they should no longer self-censor and should openly discuss difficult issues.

For some time I've considered writing a column on terrorism, but worried that any publicity might only add to fears in the Muslim community, or provide ammunition for anti-Muslim campaigners.

Tributes of drawings, flowers, pens and candles are left in front of the Charlie Hebdo offices following the attack.

Tributes of drawings, flowers, pens and candles are left in front of the Charlie Hebdo offices following the attack.Credit:Aurelien Meunier

But there are troubling issues that often seem to be glossed over and which must be openly debated.

Leading Muslim representatives around the world condemned the attack, some saying that Muslims killing innocent people in the name of Islam was much more offensive than any cartoon.

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In Australia leaders such as Ghaith Krayem, president of the Islamic Council of Victoria, have condemned the criminal behaviour of Lindt cafe hostage-taker Man Haron Monis.

Australian Federation of Islamic Councils president Hafez Kassem has spoken out against IS, saying that it is in violation of Islamic laws, adding that the militant group had nothing to do with Islam and its principles, which called for justice, kindness, fairness, freedom of faith and co-existence.

But if Islam does stand for freedom of faith and coexistence, why is it that so many people who call themselves Muslims are in so much conflict, not just with non-Muslims, but also with other people who call themselves Muslim?

Muslims of one sort or another are in conflict with Hindus in India, Buddhists in Thailand, Christians in the Western world and the Philippines, atheists and Orthodox Christians in the territories of the old Soviet Union and Buddhists and communists in China.

But most noticeably they are in conflict with each other – Shia and Sunni in Iraq and Iran, Alawites and Sunni in Syria, Kurds and Turks in Turkey.

Not only are there wars, there are many horrific incidents.

The media is so full of the killings in Paris that it's easy to forget the massacre in Peshawar, Pakistan, in mid-December, when 141 people, mostly schoolchildren, were killed.

In Northern Nigeria, Boko Haram is reported to have killed over 500 people a fortnight ago and used a 10-year-old girl to detonate a bomb at a market, killing at least 10 people and seriously injuring others.

Outspoken former Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali says that to understand the violence we must recognise that Islam is not only a religion.

"The important part, the most important part, of Islam is politics."

She also maintains that there is a schizophrenia within Islam.

"If you believe that Muhammad is your moral guide, then you have to accept that there was a peaceful character in Muhammad and that there is a warlord, a military man, a beheader, a man who sold people into slaves," she says.

Islam is an individualistic religion. Anyone can become a Muslim by sincerely reciting the Shahada, translated as: "There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the messenger of Allah."

The lack of a recognised hierarchy makes it impossible to direct Muslims.

The uneducated disaffected youth who recites the Shahada may consider himself just as much a Muslim as anyone else.

He need not feel the need to heed scholars.

At the same time, money has an influence.

The Salafi or Wahhabist movement coming out of Saudi Arabia has played a major part in driving global terrorism. Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab may have been an 18th century preacher, but his intolerant views live on today.

While the Western world now largely accepts a live-and-let-live ideology, it was not that long ago that religious intolerance was our norm, too.

Not only did we have the medieval Crusades but we also had the confessional wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Intolerance lived on in the 20th century in my birthplace of Ireland, where extremists like the late Ian Paisley denounced the Pope as the Antichrist as late as 1988.

Today, most Western Christians either ignore or reject the Old Testament's eye-for-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth creed and promote the New Testament's turn-the-other-cheek calling.

Liberals promote the right to live and let live, and value diversity.

We saw the best of this in the #I'llridewithyou Twitter movement.

After the Lindt cafe killings, people actively supported the right of Muslim Australians to travel freely and do and wear what they liked.

Equally commendable was the restraint shown in Australian after the two Bali bombings that killed 202, including 88 Australians, and the 2004 Australian embassy bombing in Jakarta that killed nine people.

No Indonesians or Muslims were killed in revenge attacks in Australia.

But a little over a year later we had the Cronulla riot. Disgusting as this event was, no-one was killed or seriously injured and police action was admirable.

But many self-appointed Islamic spokesmen give no credit to this liberal tradition.

Wissam Haddad, who grew up in Bankstown and was manager of the Al Risalah Islamic bookstore until it closed last year, told the SBS Insight program last August that Muslims were sick of turning the (other) cheek.

Muslims were "forced" to implement democracy, he said.

"What about the atrocities being committed by Christians?

Take a look at Spain … Take a look at Gaza; take a look at Burma; take a look at the Muslims in China?"

There seems to be one common denominator with such disaffected youth – they are ignorant of the wider world.

Haddad apparently thinks, for example, that Burma and China are Christian countries.

As he spoke, he would have been well aware of the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Between July 8 and August 27 last year, more than 2100 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip, along with 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians.

Hamas, which is financially supported by Saudi Arabian interests, instigated this flare-up but achieved nothing positive from its attack.

The grossly disproportionate Israeli government response only added to Palestinian grievances.

The North African and Middle Eastern region's colonial past and the illegal Iraq war, launched by the Bush and Blair governments with the support of John Howard, makes it difficult to convince the Arab and Muslim worlds that the West is committed to justice.

But if there is to be any hope for us all, Muslims must learn to live not only with us, but with each other.

They can't rally to the cause of other Muslims when they are under challenge from the West and define these very same people as infidels or apostate when they are the tribe next door.

They have to accept that at times we all say and do things that insult or are offensive.

We all just have to get over it.

Paul Malone is a former political reporter and columnist for The Sunday Canberra Times.

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