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We Needn’t Speak Arabic, But…

Tuesday, 3 May 2016  | John Kidson

In contributing to the complex and controversial issues around Islam in Australia, Christians could do well to consider an old letter referring to another branch of Abraham's family.

Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.

For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge; being ignorant of the righteousness of God, they seek to establish their own ...

they do not submit to God's righteousness. (Rom. 10:1-2)

Take away the 'zeal' and this truth brackets Islamists with most of humanity. Most people I know struggle as they try 'to do the right thing – most of the time'. And yet no one is righteous!

For the sake of our discussion, the following definitions may be useful:

  • Jihadist: one who fights in a (usually) foreign country in a perceived 'holy' war.
  • Terrorist: one who commits acts of violence against non-combatants for a perceived cause.
  • Foreign fighter: any non-national engaged in military activity.

I have no truck with any terrorist. I feel more than a passing admiration for some jihadists‘ willingness to lay down their lives. As for those who fight overseas in a conflict outside Australia's aegis, I positively admire such sacrifice. Currently at least one Australian belongs to each of these groups.

Fortunately law enforcement has kept the activities of terrorists and terror-like groups to a minimum on our home soil. For most of us our prime personal concern will be the inconvenience of repeated baggage checks. Presently in our 'lucky country' we may continue just shaking our head at tragic news telecasts from overseas and simply allow the authorities to deal with those arrested for suspicious activity here.

There is no way I can simply dismiss former suburban school student and would-be jihadist Abdullah Elmir. While most people have dismissed his posted views, his former schoolmates remain loyal. Is this indicating a scarcity of idealism among the mature? How is it that Elmir's sacrifice, determination and loyalty are so easily discounted - by his family, and by our political leaders?

No doubt idealism and inexperience go hand in hand, but one politician's comment suggesting that Elmir's brainpower could be contained in average size male appendages seems to be condemning all risk-taking behaviour. Encouragingly, successful calls for volunteers from humanitarian and mission organisations indicate that red-blooded youths can still make a contribution in our country.

Cases like Elmir's are often contrasted to the general absence of vitality in Christian youth work. People ask: why doesn't the Church have young people like Elmir? I, too, wonder what more we could do to make Christ's Church appear more attractive, less insipid. When will other 'keen as mustard' youths pour into our pews?

Then there is the so-called 'foreign fighter', the more mature Adam Brookman. This nurse and father of five travelled to Syria to do what he could for the injured. Years ago in Christian circles I was encouraged by similar 'sacrificial stories' that featured people like Hudson Taylor, Jim Elliot or Brother Andrew. Do these stories need a retelling? I can well understand Elmir and Brookman's attraction to stretching themselves in such enterprises.

Even without the lure of paradisal virgins, I was once attracted to the Scottish White Cockade fighters: my grandfather's stories of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Robert the Bruce and others aroused, if not an urge to enlist, then certainly a spirit of 'damn the English oppressors'. But then, generations have passed, and I have contented myself with the Skye Boat Song and tapping my foot to the occasional skirl of bagpipes. In different circumstances, had I brandished my dirk or broadsword, I doubt that I would have been branded a jihadist or forfeited the Australian component of my dual citizenship.

What is driving authoritative decision making today? Careful neutrality or complacency? Which new name should we give to political correctness?

How are things different for today's 'foreign fighters'? We certainly need to distinguish between them and all terrorists. I reckon Elmir, like most Australian young men, could be attracted by the lure of seductive fantasy-promises of 'paradisal virgins'. Of course this, with other grooming and radicalisation, needs a strong reality check. A careful teasing out of Elmir's serious intentions from his bravado is required: Did he really want to sever Tony Abbott's head? Or would he be content to shirtfront or at most squirrel-hold the ex-PM?

Is disenchantment the cause of the young wanting to throw in their lot with such violent groups? This wet-dream fodder of paradisal virgins in return for dying in combat is surely not the driving force. I struggle to understand the attraction. I am beyond dreams but still have visions! Perhaps my aging Christianity has given me a 'Nicodemus quality' and I just don't want to start again!

Noor Huda Ismail writes:

We must help these young people finding ways to contribute to the greater good in our own society, so that they feel included rather than excluded; that they see themselves as valued. (Sydney Morning Herald, 10th August 2015)

Adam Brookman claims to have offered his medical skills for the good of the Syrian people, but that he was forced to assist the IS. Now he's under arrest in Australia. Hopefully here at least he will be innocent until proved guilty and justice will be carried out.

Yet in some wistful way I identify with Elmir and Brookman in their apparent desire to assist in the emancipation of their ethnic cousins. They are not unlike the young men who joined the lauded coo-ee marches prior to WWI. Of course in every way my Scottish background and their Islamic heritage bear little resemblance - they are 'miles' and generations apart.

I'd wish to counsel both men to re-think their positions: Elmir's youthfulness and Brookman's parenting responsibilities should give each pause for re-consideration. Yet both of these men have ‘fire in their belly’: a quality we would welcome in the Christian community.

What does Christianity offer at the coalface of battle that these men have chosen? I say simply: look at Jesus. He not only teaches respect for females in the present, he also refrains from offering them as untouched prizes in the future. Rather, he invites both genders and all races to join with him to usher in peace and to 'overcome evil with good' (Rom. 12.21). He is the teacher/healer who reaches the 'unreachables', touches the 'untouchables', loves the 'unlovely'. He is the Superb ultimate Man for others.

And then, best of all, I would want to share my discovery that God loves me! In the 1950s this epiphany 'blew me apart', and slowly the reality of Christ's glory in loving me permeated my sin-encrusted heart. Again, slowly joy surprised me and, challenging my inner being, it introduced the warm encouragement of deep friendship. As C.S. Lewis explains in The Four Loves, I shared common failures with other strugglers.

For people like Elmir and Brookman, this is the stuff of my heart's desire. I dare to share these thoughts from a much earlier and martyred hero of mine, offered years ago to a fellow apprentice:

Don't let anyone poke fun at you, just because you are young. Set an example for other followers by what you say and do, by your love, faith, and purity. (1 Tim. 4:12)

Tough words? Sure! I doubt that I have ever lived up to them in my youth or since – but for anyone who's up for a challenge, the essential concept is worth attempting! The same mentor also wrote these encouraging words:

Now all we can see of God/Allah is like a cloudy picture in a mirror. Later we will see him face to face. We don't know everything, but then we will, just as he completely understands us. For now there are faith, hope, and love. But of these three, the greatest is love.’ (1 Cor 13:12-13)

My hope and prayer for Adam and Abdullah is: I thank God for his Spirit which encourages us to work for justice and peace; I confess my cowardly pursuit of safe responses like demonstrations; and I ask that God will so preserve Abdullah's and Adam's lives that the mirror will grow less cloudy for them, to ultimately reveal the sharp image of Jesus.

John Kidson is the former Chaplain at Southern Cross University, Lismore.

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