Sydney Morning Herald, Dec. 2, 2002
By Paul Sheehan
Spare some empathy for Abbas Aly, a good bloke with a bad sense of timing and an even worse sense of direction.
Mr Aly has had a head-on collision with something much bigger than most people realise. He’s trying to get a prayer hall built in Annangrove, a semi-rural area in Sydney’s prime middle-class growth belt. It’s the next suburb after Dural, Kenthurst and Kellyville. It’s a growing area. Abbas Aly wants to grow a Muslim community into the mix.
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Having stimulated some 8000 letters and calls of complaint, Mr Aly has learned three things the hard way. This is a community trying to keep the semi-rural feel by limiting commercial development. It is part of the closest thing Sydney has to a “bible belt”. And right now the word “Muslim” has the same effect on the Australian psyche as the tug of a riptide during a swim at the beach.
The Lebanese-Australian beauty Nicole Gazal had the misfortune to get too close to the hot zone when she went to Nigeria two weeks ago as Australia’s Miss World entrant and found herself under army protection while hundreds of people were murdered by Muslim mobs fired into action by mullahs. The mullahs didn’t like a newspaper column by a Nigerian journalist, Christian woman who had the gall to suggest that if the prophet Mohammed were around he might want to marry one of these Miss Worlds. The term bombshell was given new meaning.
Isioma Daniel has fled to the United States. Nicole Gazal and the other 89 Miss World aspirants have fled to London. And the world has been reminded, yet again, that Christianity and Islam are becoming an increasingly volatile mix. This latest sectarian carnage, far removed from the normalised anti-Semitism of the Arab world, should wake us up to the biggest demographic change in the world today. It is much bigger than the rise of militant Islam.
While understandably obsessed with the medieval barbarism coming out of Islamic fundamentalist sects, the secular West appears oblivious to the powerful impact that Islamic fundamentalism is having on Christianity, and the rise of fundamentalist Christianity itself. Philip Jenkins, the distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, believes the world is standing on a demographic and religious explosion on a scale not seen since the Reformation. He also believes Western society is informed by a media in large part dismissive, uninterested or hostile towards muscular Christianity.
His new book,
(Oxford), presents some explosive views. According to Professor Jenkins: “Across the regions of the world that will be the most populous in the 21st century, vast religious contests are already in progress, though so far they have impinged little on Western opinion. The most significant conflict is in Nigeria, a nation that by rights should be a major regional power in this century; but recent violence between Muslims and Christians raises the danger that Nigerian society might be brought to ruin by the clash of jihad and crusade. Muslims and Christians are at each other’s throats in Indonesia, the Philippines, Sudan, and a growing number of other African nations …”
The winners in this global struggle are those who are most uncompromising, most conservative and most combative, groups on both sides of the divide with what Jenkins calls “a strongly apocalyptic mind-set”: “Perhaps the most remarkable point about these potential conflicts is that the trends pointing toward them have registered so little on the consciousness of even well-informed Northern observers … I suspect that most see Christianity very much as it was a century ago – a predominantly European and North American faith.”
How outdated this view has become. The missionaries have won. Worldwide, Christianity is moving towards evangelism, supernaturalism and neo-orthodoxy, which dominates Christian beliefs in Africa (360 million adherents), Latin America (480 million), Asia (313 million) and the evangelistic branches of Christianity in North America and the West (200 million), who not only outnumber the non-evangelical Christians, but exceed the demographic scale of Islam.
In 1900, Africa had just 10 million Christians, about 9 per cent of the continent’s total population. Today there are 360 million African Christians, 42 per cent of Africa’s total population. They have exported their faith back to its colonial source. Half of all London churchgoers are now black. The annual baptism total for the Philippines is higher than the totals for Italy, France, Spain and Poland combined.
This global demographic change is not heading in the direction of gay rights, women priests and soft liberalism favoured by the Western churches. Professor Jenkins has no doubt where Christianity is going in global terms: “The denominations that are triumphing across the global South [Third World] – radical Protestant sects, either evangelical or Pentecostal, and Roman Catholicism of an orthodox kind – are stalwartly traditional or even reactionary by the stands of the economically advanced nations.”
The US President, George Bush, has a core constituency dominated by Christian conservatives, who have never been more numerous or more powerful. Australia is a far less religious country than America, but such trends co-exist here, largely ignored until someone like Abbas Aly trips over a fault-line.
On the global canvas, Philip Jenkins concludes: “As the media have striven in recent years to present Islam in a more sympathetic light, they have tended to suggest that Islam, not Christianity, is the rising faith of the world’s huddled masses. But Christianity is not only surviving in the global South, it is enjoying a radical revival, a return to scriptural roots. We are living in revolutionary times. But we aren’t participating in them. By any reasonable assessment of numbers, the most significant transformation of Christianity in the world today is not the liberal Reformation that is so much desired in the North. It is the Counter-Reformation coming in the global South. And it’s very likely that in a decade or two neither component of global Christianity will recognize its counterpart as fully or authentically Christian.”