I am a Samoan Christian. There are very few Muslims in my country. I have been in Australia for the almost 4 years completing a PhD on public theology and land issues in my homeland.
Encouraged by my supervisor Professor Clive Pearson and Associate Professor Mehmet Ozalp, I attended the graduation ceremony of ISRA students on Saturday 11 December 2021 at Sydney Olympic Park.
I was interested in taking the opportunity to first hand witness and experience how my Muslim brothers and sisters professed their faith.
Let me give some perspective.
I come from a Christian background and recently, my home country Samoa declared itself to be a Christian nation through the amendment to the Constitution by the former government.
Ever since it became independent Samoa reckoned itself to be a nation founded on God. This amendment qualified God by inserting references to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – hence the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
This amendment is at odds with the intention of those who framed the Constitution in the first place. They made an open declaration in favour of the principle of the freedom of religion.
Their wording was one of Samoa is founded on God. Expressed in this way the reference to God was not specific and not potentially exclusive.
When the Bill to change the Constitution was tabled in Parliament to this more explicit Christian understanding, the National Council of Churches welcomed and applauded the government.
They reflected an understanding of Islam which comes through sensational news coverage. Without any personal experience of knowing a Muslim they assumed (wrongly) that Muslims are terrorists and should not be accepted in Samoa.
When I studied for my Master’s degree in Fiji in 2011-2012, this was the first time I was introduced to the studies of different religions. I came across different kinds of religion which included Islam.
We went for a visit and tried to understand the basis of Islamic beliefs but I must confess – I was not much interested because I was trapped with this understanding that Islam is not a true religion.
When I arrived in Australia to take up my studies for my PhD degree, I came across the importance of interfaith dialogue. It has been an eye-opener for me. I have become aware of how Muslims also seek to nurture a good society.
The Graduation Ceremony
When we arrived at the venue of the ISRA/Charles Sturt University graduation ceremony on the day, I experienced meeting a different crowd of people.
Their appearances were unique and different to what I usually see in my familiar environment. I began to feel nervous because I am a Christian among the Muslims audience.
While waiting for the start of the event, I was greeted by a member of the Muslim community, who set me at ease. He asked me who is graduating that leads to me being present.
- I responded I was accompanying my supervisor to the event since he was one of the guests for the day. He started to talk about how he appreciated the work of my supervisor in working with the Muslim community.
In the midst of the conversation, I said to him, ‘sorry, I am a Christian.’ He replied ‘no worries, you are most welcome .’ He talked with me about the importance of working together no matter how we worship and whichever God we believed in. The main task for us is to provide comfort for our community.
During the presentation of degrees, I was impressed by how the graduands addressed the gathering. Each graduand received his/her awards took turn in delivering a short speech.
They acknowledged those who have contributed during their journey, their parents, husbands, wives, children, their community and the their lecturers. They also reflected on the importance of continuing to search for wisdom. Frequently they testified to the help they had received from Allah.
There were a number of things that jumped out at me during the speeches, some of the things they said echoed my own Christian experience:
- Most reflected upon the word mercy. Verses of the Quran from Surah Al-Alaq 1-19 were recited as a guiding theme of the graduation. The emphasis was on ‘In the name of God the entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful. This struck me. It reminds me of the nature of God that Christians believe in. He is a loving, generous, and merciful God.
- Some of the graduands reflected on the issue of ‘minority’. They were thankful to the ISRA (Islamic Sciences and Research Academy) and the CISAC (Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation) for taking the lead in pursuing their faith tradition to exist in this multi-faith context which allows the believers to have a chance to explore and keep their faith tradition alive in a strange land.
- One of the essential highlights that I witnessed on the day is the number of women who graduated. The majority were women.
Islam in my country is a minority. In our 2016 census Islam is not listed as a particular religion and included under ‘others’.
I would say that I now see how the Christian religion has dominated this minority group.
The title I selected for this article suggests that it is time for my fellow Christians in my homeland to accept other religions and note how we share some common values.
I now find myself wondering how helpful it is that change to the Constitution of Samoa and why it is important for us to consider and value that principle of freedom of religious expression.