January 12, 2005 | Graham

Tsunami relief – tiptoeing across the waters

Abu Bakar Bashir, spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiyah is being more honest, and more strategic, than Jamie Isbister, project manager with Catholic welfare agency Caritas, or Father Chris Riley, head of Youth off the Streets.
Bashir says that “he is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of Aceh’s tsunami survivors because of the humanitarian assistance from Australian and US military forces”.
Isbister and Riley say that Christian aid workers will not be seeking to convert Indonesians to Christianity. In truth both western secular and religious aid efforts are at least in part attempts to proselytise. That their primary intent is to help, not to preach, makes them even more potent.
Christians are called upon to bear witness to Christ. That doesn’t necessarily mean preaching the gospel to people, but showing the Christian way in how they live their lives. If Christian aid workers go to Aceh, they will be witnessing, and the result of their witness will be some converts. Isbister and Riley are being jesuitical – their workers may not be bearing the bible, but they will be bearing habits and attitudes to life that are antithetical to those that Bashir represents.
Radical Islamists attempt to define their struggle in religious terms. If they don’t, then they will most probably lose. If the battle is baldly defined as being between free and open societies, and totalitarian and closed ones, then how many will freely rally to their cause?
Yet part of what defines the nature of our western societies is our Christian heritage. Even though we are secular societies those Christian values are deeply embedded in our habits and attitudes. So in a way, the Islamists are right – modernity, the state against which they really fight, is partly a religious product, so the battle is partly religious.
And they are wrong as it is also secular. Hence the “witness” of our military forces will probably be more potent than the Christian aid workers’. Not only will they be more visible and numerous, but it demonstrates that this is not a battle of religions, but of views of the nature of man. That these views come not just from our secular heritage such as Athenian Greece, but also from our Christian heritage as embodied in the parable of the Good Samaritan, will merely rub salt into the wounds for Abu Bakar Bashir.
It also demonstrates that our best defence against radical Islam is not with gun in hand, but just by being ourselves – no need to preach, or attack, just to be.

Posted by Graham at 9:47 am | Comments (3) |


  1. Your analysis and presuppositions here are a bit simplistic Graham.
    Aceh has long been the most fervently Islamic part of modern day Indonesia and the people that currently inhabit the region (who refer to the region as the Minangkabau – “Victorious Cow”) have historically been a very proud, resilient and tough people. Also, it would be a mistake to associate the Free Aceh movement – which is essentially a nationalist movement – with radical Islam. Moreover, charity and good works are as much a part of the mainline Islamic traditions (cf. the concept of zakat) as they are a part of the Christian tradition.
    Prior to the tsunami, the Acehnese beef was with the Javanese Indonesian government rather than the West per se. Most of the Acehnese population are unfortunately less educated than their Javanese brethren and would have only tangential interest in the Iraq war at best. I think that most Acehnese (I think rightly too) would view the fact that the international community is going into these disaster regions to rebuild and reconstruct whole communities as a humanitarian mission completely separate from the larger “War on Terror”.
    Sometimes people altruistically help others just because it is the right thing to do not because of the supposed Christian foundations of western society!

    Comment by Antonio — January 12, 2005 @ 12:56 pm

  2. Graham is 100% correct. We in the Angle-Irish tradition have been motivated and ruled by Judeo-Christian concepts for so long that even people who wouldn’t be seen dead in a church [no pun intended] have absorbed enough Christian principles to make a difference. Our generous response to the Indonesian and other victims of the tsunami is based on kindness and goodwill, and translated into practical help in the fields of medicine and reconstruction.
    Antonio claims that the Muslims have a similar concept in “Zakat”. Where is the equally generous response from the other Islamic [oil-rich] countries,such as Saudi Arabia and Iran?
    We have set a magnificent example of humanitarianism towards victims regardless of race or creed. Good Example is a most pwerful influence on children, and people in general. I have always believed that “an ounce of Good Example is worth a ton of talk”.
    Yet what thanks have we received from the Indonesian Government? You’ve got 3 months and then you have to get out! Such ingratitude! They can’t possibly fix up this mess in that time, and their own people will suffer and maybe die because of it. They had a chance to stand up to Bashir’s J.I. extremists, but they have chosen to cave into them instead.
    One day they will find out that it doesn’t pay to insult and reject your true “friends in need” like Australia and the U.S. and kow-tow to your enemies. How do Muslims explain this act of ingratitude?

    Comment by Big Al 30 — January 15, 2005 @ 7:16 pm

  3. Big Al,
    Your equation of Judeo-Christian values with kindness and goodwill is a strawman. EVERY world religion holds those values. Atheists, agnostics and humanists hold those values. Our secular taxation system rewards those values.
    My point was not that autocratic Arab and “Muslim” governments have not given much money to the relief efforts. I have no idea how much they have given nor I think given the lack of transparency and accountability in those governments do I think that anyone will ever know.
    My point was that Graham misunderstood the situation in Aceh. Aceh is not a hotbead of Islamic fundamentalism. Certainly the Acehnese are proud and religious muslims but their war against the Indonesian government is a successionist war based on Minangkabau nationalism.
    Big Al, by international standards, Indonesia is a moderate muslim nation. The majority of it’s citizens practice a more syncretistic form of Islam they refer to as Kebatinan. To essentialise Islam and Muslims as you appear to be doing only inflames the very fundamentalists who you think these acts of conspicuous compassion will sideline.
    Moreover, the current Indonesian government is a secular one. Most of their ministers are Muslims but there are also Christians and Hindus in the government. Fundamentalist Islamic politik is not a part of the political mainstream in Indonesia.
    Finally, the more the average muslim Indonesian hears about how wonderfully conspicuously compassionate, self-righteous and kind Christians are in the West; the more they will feel alienated by such cold war style rhetoric.
    I think most Australians support the aid effort because of our deep kinship to our fellow human beings rather than our personal commitment to a particular view of Christianity. One needs only peruse a copy of recent censuses to see that Christianity is on a (terminal?) decline in our country.

    Comment by Antonio — January 17, 2005 @ 2:06 am

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