GREG RAY: A needless irritation and the divide widens

WHAT'S worse?

That some Islamic leaders at the Lakemba Mosque went out of their way to tell their followers that it is sinful to wish non-Muslims a merry Christmas?

Or that the story became front-page news in Sydney?

Both irritate me, in their own different ways.

Acknowledging Christmas, some of the Islamic teachers apparently believed, was tantamount to accepting some of its aspects, and therefore those who offered season's greetings to their fellow Australians were putting themselves at risk of excommunication.

That seems both daft and nasty to me.

But making it front-page news seems a bit iffy too, from at least some perspectives.

On one hand, it probably makes sense to draw attention to a piece of potentially divisive silliness in order to have its flaws exposed.

On the other hand, giving the issue the oversimplified front-page shouting treatment seems almost certain to make it even more divisive than it was already.

Elements of the story seemed so formulaic and predictable.

Grab hold of some anti-social extremist humbug from a Muslim source and amplify it.

Amplify, too, the guaranteed reaction of irritation and annoyance from non-Muslims who will take it as another piece of evidence that Islam is inherently intolerant and hostile.

Then follow up with forelock-tugging apologies from moderate Muslim sources, which makes it seem like they can barely prevail against the noisy extremists in their own ranks.

I work in the media, and I can see how and why the story got the prominence it did. It was always going to strike a nerve and get reaction. And if it was my job to be editor of a Sydney paper maybe I'd have made the same call.

But, rightly or wrongly, the story provided an unpleasant background to this year's Christmas for me.

Especially when it was juxtaposed with stories about Middle Eastern crime gangs in Sydney inspiring young admirers to get around the place dressed in T-shirts with crossed AK-47 assault rifles emblazoned on them like an ugly "up yours" to everybody else.

The icing on this unpleasant cake came when I read a feature story about Christmas in Bethlehem.

That's the village named by the Christian Bible as the birthplace of Jesus Christ - now administered by the Palestinian National Authority and ringed by Israeli settlements.

It's one of the holiest places on the Christian tourist itinerary, but the dwindling population of Christians there complained of feeling under constant siege from militant Israeli Jews and furious Islamic firebrands from various parts of besieged and occupied Palestine.

Another reminder of the mess in the Middle East that, thanks to geopolitics, oil and religion, threatens the peace and security of us all.

Another perplexing and frustrating instance of the bizarre inability of so-called "great" religions - each of which purport to want the best for humanity - to actually provide enough useful direction to their followers to bring about that goal.

And what are those noises from behind the screen?

The president of the United States, threatening the tottering leadership of conflict-torn Syria not to use chemical weapons against foreign-supported rebels, on pain of intervention. Sounds familiar.

The sound of 5000 "bunker-buster" bombs being loaded in America for their trip to Israel, an apparent fulfilment of a promise allegedly made in March, in return for Israel delaying plans to attack Iran until 2013.

Close to home and far away the sabres are rattling, the tribes are rallying to their respective flags and the dogs of war are being whistled by their cunning masters.

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