Last Monday, the Archbishop of Sydney, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP responded to the weekend’s terrorist attacks with a homily for the victims, where he preached ‘… change is possible, in individual human hearts, until person by person, whole empires are converted from conquest to peace, from hate to love, from violence to respect’. Archbishop Fisher’s words were not wishful thinking. If we look at history, we can see that such change is indeed possible.
Who would have thought in the late 19th century that the anarchist movement would disappear by the early 20th century, or that the Germany of the 1930s and 1940s would 80 years later become the European country most willing to welcome refugees from Syria in such numbers and with such generosity.
From the time in 1881 when Russia’s Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by an anarchist until the beginning of World War I, anarchists of various kinds routinely engaged in acts of terror.
The people they killed included the President of the United States, Andrew McKinley, Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Canovas de Castillo and King Carlos I of Portugal.
In 1893 a Spanish anarchist threw two bombs into the orchestra pit of a Barcelona theatre killing 20 people and injuring many others.
For more than 30 years during the late 19th and early 20th centuries anarchist and other radical movements waged a campaign of terror around the world that looks very similar to the terrorism we see today. In particular, the willingness to murder innocent people was just as prevalent then as it is now.
In the 1970s and 1980s European terrorist groups included the Italian Red Brigade, German Bader Meinhof group and the Irish Republican Army, all of which killed innocent people in the name of their cause. Just as anarchists did in the late 19th century, today a tiny minority of people seek to impose their ideology and lifestyle on the rest of the world and do so in the name of Islam.
It’s self evidently true that the overwhelming majority of Muslims and non-Muslims around the world have nothing to do with the terrorists or their beliefs.
And yet for Muslims, there appears to be a growing expectation that they justify themselves and their faith because of the actions of a few terrorists with whom they have no connection or sympathy.
Expecting Muslims to apologise for something they don’t control or support is neither fair nor reasonable.
While clearly a minority, it is also true that terrorists acting in the name of Islam continue to wreak havoc around the world. David Brooks in the New York Times cites 664 jihadist attacks in 14 countries in November 2014 and says that 1.5 million Christians have been killed by Islamist militias in Sudan.
While debate and action does and should continue to stop these ongoing atrocities it’s perhaps too easy to drift into a singular view about both the cause and how to end this horrific wave of terrorism.
In Australia we know our governments and security services are working hard to protect us from the serious threat posed by a terrorist movement so mobile and fluid.
Academics, commentators, religious leaders and the broader community are all involved in an ongoing discussion about how best to protect each other and our freedoms, including our religious freedoms.
We know that wise heads and evidence based strategies will save lives where hate and hysteria will reinforce irrational views, fuel conflict and marginalise the innocent.
In Australia, we can see what is before our very eyes which is a rich and diverse culture where people live in religious and cultural harmony.
This is the very time when acknowledging what is good and nourishing our connections and diversity will give us the best chance of protecting ourselves and each other.