Islam and Christianity

2007-11-29 00:00

Most would agree that there are at the moment serious difficulties in the relationship between what might be broadly called the Muslim world and what might be even more broadly called (in view of the amount of secularism) the Christian world.

This relationship has been often tense, and at certain crucial moments belligerent, in the 1 300 years of its existence. There have however been a number of periods where co-existence has been peaceful. But in the last few centuries the technological superiority of the West, and the imperialistic attitudes which have often accompanied this superiority, have tended to cast Muslim nations, and indeed many other nations, in the role of subjects. Many Muslims seem to feel misunderstood and undervalued by the West. This feeling, combined with a rejection of what is felt to be godless western materialism, has produced in a fanatical minority of Muslims a violent hatred of the “Christian” West.

A somewhat similar dynamic seems to have been at work within the West, more particularly within certain sections of American Christianity.

A fanatical minority, alarmed at some aspects of what they see as both godless materialism and unholy secularism, yet still apparently believing that it is the role of the United States to impose its particular form of salvation upon the world, have opted for a militant political stance.

It would be a mistake to see Muslim fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism as echoing each other exactly. Muslims have no doubt suffered more, but the largely indiscriminate murderousness of suicide bombers is uniquely outrageous. The U.S. response to the 9/11 atrocity, however, partly backed by right-wing Christians, particularly the illegal and inadequately motivated invasion of Iraq, has demonstrated a willingness to use available force in a manner not wholly dissimilar to that displayed by the suicide bombers.

Both Christianity and Islam have chequered histories. Both have in the past used force in ways that very many of their adherents would now consider unacceptable. Essentially they are both, and have in fact usually been, religions of peace. And it seems certain that the overwhelming majority of Muslims and Christians today are people of peace, people who believe that their deepest religious beliefs and values are expressed in generosity rather than in bellicosity.

Many people are well aware of this. But many others are not. I think it is incumbent on the devout, reasonable and sensitive leaders of the mainstream sectors of each religion to make their point-of-view completely clear. Helpful statements and gestures have been made, but they seem to be insufficient.

To take Christians first. The views of some of the leaders are well known. The Pope, for example, has made clear his church’s disapproval of the Iraq invasion, and, after a well-publicised blunder, has sought a closer relationship with Muslim leaders. The difficult issue of abortion has complicated the issue for him, however: many of those Catholics who support him most strongly on abortion are also political right-wingers, and he seems to have been reluctant to condemn those who are his allies on some issues. A further twist is that his stand on abortion brings him closer to many Muslims.

The worldwide Muslim community has been criticised by a fair number of people for not speaking out more firmly on the callous killings that are being performed in the name of Islam and the prophet. One had assumed that the reason for this comparative silence was not only that earnest Muslims hesitate to criticise their fellow believers but that Islam does not really have clearly representative leaders like the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. But a statement issued about six weeks ago, an open letter to Christian leaders, suggests that mainstream Islam has found a way of articulating its views. The letter comes from 138 prominent Muslims, both Sunni and Shi-ite, including imams, ayatollahs, grand muftis, sheikhs and scholars. Its message is simple and admirable. “The future of the world depends on peace between Christians and Muslims”. (Adherents of these two faiths make up more than 50% of the world’s population.) In analysing crucial similarities between the Qur’an and the New Testament, the statement goes on: “The basis for this peace and understanding already exists — love of the one God and love of the neighbour”. At one point in the letter there is a significant specifically political reference: “We say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them — so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes”.

This statement seems to me to be of immense importance, and one wonders whether the Christian community shouldn’t get its act together and issue a similar combined statement. But the Muslim open letter seems to have made curiously little impact on the global scene. Why is this so? Should it have been aimed at Western political leaders as well as at leaders of the Christian communities? Have the media been remiss in not highlighting it sufficiently? (Or is there some truth in the suspicion that the media prefer signs of conflict to gestures of peace?) Or does everyone suppose that radical Islamists are simply impervious to initiatives of reconciliation?

My sense is that if the committed, serious, reasonable faithful of the two religions — the vast majority — could get their views and attitudes properly known, the fanatics on both sides would find themselves isolated and marginalised. And it might then be easier to work towards a sane peace.

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