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On reclaiming Christianity from the West

By Irfan Yusuf - posted Thursday, 17 September 2009

Sitting near my keyboard is an iftar invitation. The word iftar is an Arabic word used to describe a gathering where people break their Ramadan fast. My invitation was to join friends and colleagues of Mr Issam Darwich, a religious scholar of Lebanese heritage. He lives and works in the south western Sydney suburb of Greenacre, home to a large Arabic-speaking population.

But this was no ordinary iftar invitation. Issam Darwich is the local Bishop of the Melkite Catholic Community. Yet if Bishop Darwich telephoned a talkback radio station and announced he was holding an iftar for Ramadan, what would listeners assume to be his religious affiliation?

And so we live in a country where the name of a Catholic bishop isn't readily identified as Christian. Aren't we a nation built upon a Christian ethic? Don't we have an established Christian heritage? Aren't Western culture and civilisation distinctly, uniquely and inherently Christian?


It isn't for me, a non-Christian, to be telling Christian readers how they should understand their faith. I have some exposure to Christianity, having spent a decade studying at Sydney's only Anglican Cathedral school. Then again, many Anglicans wouldn't accept exposure to the Sydney Diocese as counting for much.

The way mainstream Australia understands Christianity affects me as an Australian non-Christian. It also affects many Christians who don't meet the Christian stereotype. I often blame my stigmatisation and marginalisation on people stereotyping me on the basis of my faith. Yet the worst and most damaging stereotype of all is that of Christianity. And ironically, Christianity is subjected to inaccurate stereotypes allegedly for its own protection.

So I often put up with having Christianity rubbed in my face by politicians known for their Christian devotion. I'm not just talking about the likes of Peter Costello who spend so much time pleasing Pastor Danny Nalliah at my expense. I'm also talking about Tony Abbott, one of the few Howard Government ministers who openly supported multiculturalism and refused to use Australia's “Christian heritage” to wedge out non-Christians from the mainstream.

During an episode of ABC TV's Q&A on August 27, Mr Abbott claimed, “I think everyone who has grown up in a western country is profoundly shaped and formed by the New Testament, because this is the core document of our civilisation”. In other words, he linked being Christian with being Western.

He went on to make both Jews and Muslims feel somewhat left out of the “western civilisation equation” when he described the Koran as “the Old Testament on steroids”.

As a South Asian Muslim, I'd like to think many Christian believers would be as incensed by attempts to treat Christianity as a uniquely Western phenomenon as I am when Islam is treated as a uniquely Arab phenomenon. Talking about monolithic and mutually exclusive Christian and Muslim “civilisations” and “countries” is nonsense.


This fixation with Christianity as a Western faith defies Christian reality. We often forget that Dili and Manila have probably a higher proportion of their populations Catholic than most Australian cities.

I wonder how many Catholics often associate the skin tones, exotic culture and poverty of the world's largest Catholic continent with Catholicism. How many Australian Catholics would recognise the popular beliefs and practices (such as adorning churches with a dark-skinned Jesus) of their Latin American co-religionists?

Naturally if I were to make an ambit criticism of Christianity based on the extreme poverty and draconian politics of Latin America, Catholics would be justified in poking their fingers at me and ridiculing my simplistic reasoning.

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First published in on September 14, 2009.

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About the Author

Irfan Yusuf is a New South Wales-based lawyer with a practice focusing on workplace relations and commercial dispute resolution. Irfan is also a regular media commentator on a variety of social, political, human rights, media and cultural issues. Irfan Yusuf's book, Once Were Radicals: My Years As A Teenage Islamo-Fascist, was published in May 2009 by Allen & Unwin.

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