As the Abbott government tries to overcome its declining popularity, it has placed increased emphasis upon military adventures and national security issues. This has apparently worked quite well in the eastern states and within the ranks of the Liberal senators and MPs.

The Reclaim Australia rallies of 4 April, addressed by such luminaries as Pauline Hanson and Danny Nalliah and attended by people with swastika tattoos, were a direct result of this attempt to increase hysteria. Halal food has been made a major issue by the anti-Muslim bigots and we even have one Tasmanian senator, Jacqui Lambie, proclaiming a party to oppose “shari” law. The bigotry started with demonization of asylum seekers and claimed to be only concerned with combating “extremism” amongst Muslims, but is now focusing on Islam as such. Hence the opposition to the non-existent “shariah law,” halal certification and “Islamization” which no-one else has noticed. Nothing about tax avoidance by multinational corporations!

We are hearing more each day about rising Islamophobia in Europe and in the USA. Not mentioned, but noticeable, is that much of this is occurring in countries which either gave rise to Nazism or collaborated with it like Austria, the Netherlands and France. To the credit of Germany, Chancellor Merkel has strongly denounced Pegida, [Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West] the anti-Muslim organization in Europe. In contrast to this principled stand, we have noticed the deafening silence of the Abbott government and the muted response of the ALP Leader, Shorten, to the Reclaim rallies in Australia.

Demonisation of a community can be a foreword to attempted destruction

In Germany in the recent past there has been a lot of publicity about the murder of 8 Turks by a secretive neo-Nazi group with apparent links to German Intelligence. An intelligence operative with right-wing views was even present at one murder. This adds to the sad history of recent European Islamophobic murders in Norway and of course the Serbian murder of 200,000 Bosniaks in the 1990s. Not long ago three Muslim students in the USA were killed in a hate crime outside their apartment.

Perhaps we should not be too surprised at such hatred and bigotry, as religious tolerance is but a relatively recent feature of western thinking.. It may not yet be part of the deep culture and under the stress of economic decline, we may witness a return to the culture’s pagan Roman roots.

The Rev. Dr Susan Ritchie in her paper ‘The Pasha of Buda and the Edict of Torda’, traces the roots of religious tolerance in Europe to the Kingdom of Transylvania, ruled by John Sigismund, the only Unitarian king in modern history. The 1568 Edict of Torda was, according to Ritchie, ‘the first European policy of expansive religious toleration’.

Europe at that time was a religiously and scientifically backward place where unorthodox ideas could get one burnt alive for heresy. Protestant rebels against the Roman pope were regularly exterminated by Catholic governments and thinkers with radical ideas were usually killed by Protestant governments.

Why was Transylvania different?

The role of Islamic ideas in the evolution of our modern culture has been neglected and even deliberately hidden by nationalist and bigoted writers. In contrast to this, Professor Ritchie argues that there is “a direct relationship between Ottoman rule and culture, Islamic theological commitments and the development of the Unitarian articulation of religious tolerance.”

The Edict of Torda, as the first step towards religious tolerance in Europe, is rooted in the example of the Ottomans in Hungary.

The Catholic Hapsburg Monarchy targeted Hungary for annexation in 1540 but the claims of the then baby, John Sigismund, to part of his lands, was supported by the Ottomans. They asserted control over Hungary but Transylvania was ruled independently by John Sigismund, under Ottoman protection from Hapsburg annexation.

Ritchie points out that the Ottoman lands were open to different religions and that non-orthodox Christians and Jews found a haven from persecution under Muslim rule. Salo Baron, the leading Jewish historian of the 20th century, describes the learned Jewish community of the Ottoman Empire in the 1500s as enjoying one of Judaism’s Golden Ages. Unitarians, hunted down in all of Europe, were free to study and preach in Ottoman lands.

Christians living in Ottoman lands were not necessarily as tolerant as their Muslim compatriots. On August 24 1548, a Hungarian Protestant pastor, Imre Szigeti, was accused of heresy by the Catholic authorities in the Hungarian town of Tolna. They demanded of the Pasha of Buda that he be either exiled or killed for his heresy.

An Edict of Toleration

The Pasha reacted by issuing an Edict of Toleration in 1548, declaring that “preachers of the faith invented by Luther should be allowed to preach the Gospel everywhere to everybody…freely and without fear..” The Edict of Torda of 1568 similarly asserted the freedom of the individual conscience “because faith is a gift of God, it springs from listening, which listening forwards to the word of God.”

The court preacher of King John Sigismund, Ference David, had studied in Wittenberg as had Imre Szigeti, the cause of the 1548 Edict. In the year of the edict, both Imre Szigeti and David were serving in Lutheran churches in Hungary and David was elected superintendent of Magyar Lutheran churches in 1557, so he must have been well aware of the edict under which he operated.

The Edict of the Pasha of Buda may not only have influenced the Edict of Torda. Professor Ritchie points to the likelihood that the English philosopher John Locke, whose 1689 “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” which had a great impact upon religious thinking in Britain, was directly influenced by the Edict of Torda and Unitarian thinking of the period. His library contained many works from this school of thought and he held discussions with Transylvanian and other Unitarians. England was at the same time, under the influence of the “Protestant Mahometans” whose ideas guided the revolutionary changes occurring in that country.

It would seem that the very notion of religious toleration in England, and eventually all of Protestant Europe, was rooted in the Unitarian Edict of Torda, which itself was based on Islamic religious inclusion, as exemplified by the 1548 Edict. Toleration did not immediately spread across the country, as the English Test and Corporation Acts were not repealed until 1828, requiring non-Anglican Protestants to take Anglican communion annually if they wanted to hold public office. Roman Catholics were excluded from public office until the Catholic Relief Act of 1829.

The drift back towards the attitudes of the years before religious toleration was accepted can be sensed from the hysterical campaign of the bigots and the ultra-right against “halal certification”, the introduction of “shariah law” and “Islamization.” Certainly in the VCAT court case on vilification in Victoria, the legal team for Catch the Fire, the organization of Danny Nalliah who was main speaker at the Reclaim rally in Melbourne, argued that Islam should not be legal in Australia. “Islam was an illegal religion because the Koran preached violence against Christians and Jews, a Christian group told a judge yesterday.” [20 February 2004 The Age]

As Muslims, our emphasis upon the human rights explicitly established in Islam, will become even more important as respect for these rights declines in our country. Those who claim to speak for Islam and who denounce freedom of religion, and preach intolerance, demonstrate that they out of touch with the Message and are of another way.