Christians and Muslims: The Quest for Viable Dialogue

Posted in Broader Middle East | 03-Nov-05 | Author: Abbas Ali

Abbas J. Ali

Recent global crises and the apparent setback in humanity’s quest for a peaceful world accentuate the need for fruitful dialogue among adherents of the major religions. In particular, it has become evident in the last thirty years that a dialogue and understanding between the Christians and Muslims is vital for world peace and prosperity. Given the gravity of the current global crises, the necessity for a dialogue among Christians and Muslims takes on added value. Such dialogue could widen the arena of possibilities and permit responsible policy makers and intellectuals to formulate measures and indicators essential for careful assessment, thoughtful reflection, and rational policies. More importantly, familiarity with and sensitivity to on-going concerns would likely lead to better understanding, smoother transformation of knowledge and effective cooperation.

Over centuries, Christian and Muslim leaders have engaged in theological and spiritual dialogue. Their efforts have paved the path for peaceful coexistence and have probably averted possible tragedies. In the Middle East, the oldest living Christian communities in the world, the Assyrians and Chaldeans, have been instrumental in advancing Arab cultural revivalism. They have provided progressive and intellectual leaders, such as Fahid (Yuosef Sulman), the founder, in the region, of the largest and most influential political organization during the thirties; the Iraqi Communist Party.

The Roman and Orthodox Christians have disproportionably shaped the Arab contemporary popular political thought and orientation. Late in the thirties and early in the forties, they led the struggle against colonization and established the most influential Arab political organizations. Michael Aflaq established the Baath Socialist Party, which eventually came to power in Syria and Iraq. George Habish founded the Arab Nationalist Movement, which dominated the Arab political scenes for at least four decades and was the undisputed popular political movement in the Arab Gulf States and the rest of the Arab east. Antowan Saada established Syrian Nationalist Social Party. Faraj Allah el-Helo was the leader of Communist Party in Syria and Lebanon. Naief Hawatemah founded the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

In terms of ideology, the vital role that Christian individuals played in articulating Arab national vision was pivotal in the Arab renaissance and revivalism of Arab thinking. In fact, the writing of Constantine Zurayk, Elias Farah, Elias Murqus, Raif Khuri, among others, has influenced Arab thinking and still commands respect, despite the rising influence of the religious groups. Historians such as Geargi Zadian and Gorege Gerdag, played significant roles in recording Islamic history. The contributions of these Christian Arab thinkers have not only enriched the Arab thought, but also Islamic thinking. In fact, they were integral part of Islamic –Arab culture, regardless of their religious affiliation. Their existence and extraordinary ideological contribution is a testimony of an inclusive tolerance culture.

In recent years, the Vatican has been instrumental in pursuing a dialogue with Muslim groups, on formal and informal levels. The successful dialogue that the Roman Catholic Church and Muslim organizations initiated has been used as a model of civility and has been followed by other Churches such as the Anglicans and Methodists and several interfaith organizations. Their primary purpose has been to set the ground work for peaceful coexistence and common understanding.

On these pages (July 6, 2005) Mr. Michael Ashkenazi wrote a piece entitled, “Muslims and Christians: Some Questions to Abbas Ali” At first, I thought the comments were relevant to the subject and content of an article which I wrote, “Winning the Peace, Ending the Chaos.” In that article, I outlined steps necessary to end suffering and bridge the gap of misunderstanding between the people of the West and the Muslim countries. I considered that ending violence, destruction and bloodshed to be a noble endeavor.

However, the primary message in Mr. Ashkenazi’s article is not that of ending violence, but of perpetuating conflict by highlighting differences among Muslim countries and the West. He asserts that that there are “fundamental Islam/non-Islam issues that need to be addressed at the ideological, political, and legal levels.” Unfortunately, the provided list was a mere recycling of an old laundry list promoted by bad journalism and anti-reconciliation “scholars” with politically biased, if not hateful, ideology.

It is incomprehensible to suggest that the real problem has nothing to do with oppression, suppression, and bloodshed. In fact, there are some quarters in various parts of the world which view perpetual conflict and carnage as a necessary instrument to maintain their vested interest or their hateful pursuits. For example, Rabbi Firestone (2001) asserts that the western slogans of tolerance, democracy, freedom, and pluralism are vital contributions, but to the natives of many parts of the world they are meaningless. He states the Muslims in the Middle East, for example, view these contributions “as no more than slogans that attempt to hide the true intent of the West: political and religious domination and economic exploitation.” Ben-Aharon (2002), an Israeli civil rights expert, seems to agree. He, however, views the new development in the language of war as a serious threat to world stability and security. He states that the concept “of empire … is the in thing in the current political-diplomatic discourse. Peace, welfare, a law-abiding regime and international order will accrue to those who seek the protection of the global Western empire, while the language of force will be employed against those who reject this protection.”

Experts and international affairs observers argue that there are real grievances for the people living in developing countries that must be addressed to move forward. One of these grievances was vividly expressed by the Rabbinic Leader of the Temple of Universal Judaism, Dawn Rose (2001), when she stated “the implication is made that innocent lives are thus expendable-especially of those people who are not American, not Jewish or Christian, and not the family down the block.” Certainly, those who harbor this belief display an indifference to human suffering and bloodshed and probably have no interest in any thoughtful reflection to address these human tragedies.

It should be mentioned, before addressing the points which were outlined by Mr. Ashkenazi, that he used the term “west” alternately with Christianity. This is misleading. It is true that in the west most people espouse Christianity, but there are people in other parts of the world who observe and adhere to Christianity (Haiti, Nigeria, Congo, Philippine etc), as well. In the more tradition-based countries which adopted Christianity, people incorporated their tribal customs and beliefs into the new religion. In Nigeria, for example, the practice regarding wives and inheritance of a widow after the death of her husband may not correspond to the prevailing norm in the West. In addition, the term “West” as a concept, primarily denotes an outlook and orientation rather than a geographical space. The concept abhors absolutism and promotes individual rights and liberty.

Likewise, the term “Islamic World” is ill defined and refers to a collection of countries where the majority of the population happens to espouse Islam. For long centuries these countries have been under foreign occupation and oppression. They are fragmented and their people have experienced cultural discontinuity and cultural alienation. Their adherence to the Islamic faith does not necessary translate into a coherent religious or world political view. In fact, the current prevailing religious sentiment is only remotely connected to the genuine Islamic message of tolerance, openness, and inclusion. The latter is more in tune with the contemporary humanistic view.

In his commentary, Mr. Ashkenazi equated Islamic teaching with government regulations and laws. In the majority of the so called Muslim countries, civil law does not necessarily correspond to religious law. Furthermore, the widespread belief that in Islam the realm of religion and politics is the same may lead to inaccurate conclusion. Probably, this belief was true during the early years of Islam, 622-661. After this short period and until the establishment of the Iranian Islamic government in 1979, there was conspicuous separation between politics and religion. Successive governments, in many parts of the Muslim World, have been more interested in political control then the religious factor. In the case that a government utilized religion, it was done to consolidate its hold on power and seldom assumed religious authority.

Mr. Ashkenazi raised six questions; these questions are briefly addressed in their order. The purpose is not to refute his arguments, but to underscore fatal misconceptions.

1. Islam historically denies freedom of choice and violently imposes boundaries. Mr. Ashkenazi is right that some governments in Muslim countries limit freedom of choice in terms of religion and many other matters. These are done not to further the case of Islam but to solidify political and social control. Islam teaches tolerance, as the Quran commands believers: “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) and “To you be your religion and to me, mine” (109:6). In practice, however, it is not unusual for governments to violate the teaching of their officially espoused religions.

Before the age of the Enlightenment in Europe, both the Church and governments resorted to such an approach. Benjamin Kedar (1984) reports on the war against Muslims by Christian authorities during the formative years of Islam. He suggests that the Pope, about 650, attempted to convert Muslims to Christianity. A century later, Christian authorities considered the refusal of Muslims to convert “as justification for waging war on them.” He (p. 8) quoted an Irish scholar active at the Court of Charles the Bald that the Muslims of the south and the pagans of the north “will bend their necks in subjection; Christ will reign everywhere; all submit to both King and God.” The Economist (1999b) eloquently shows that the Crusaders inflicted untold suffering upon Muslims. It indicates that when the crusaders besieged Caesarea, two Muslim emissaries presented a query to the Patriarch as follows: “Why do you tell your people to invade our land and kill us, when your religion says no one must kill anyone made in the image of God?” The Patriarch‘s answer regarding killing was “whoever fights to destroy God’s law deserves that. Give up the land, and you can go unharmed with your goods. If not, the sword of the Lord will kill you.”

2. Islam denies equality to all citizens but Western thought does. Again, this confuses religion with government practices and the prevailing mind set. Equality was denied to people of color even in the United States for centuries. African - Americans were able to gain official equality only after the Civil Rights Movement led successful civil disobedience demonstrations during the 1960s. During the golden age of Islam, in the first five centuries, Christians and Jews were important figures in the court of the caliph. In fact, some Jews served as personal advisors and confidants to caliphs and on occasion assumed the position of the First Minister (prime minister). In recent decades, Christians have been the founders or leaders of the popular political organizations. Recently, in Palestine, Mohmood Abbas, a Bahai not a Muslim, was elected as the president of the Palestinian Authority.

Any sensible reflection on the issue of equality should focus on three levels: religion, government, and the social/individual.

a. Religion. One of the most misunderstood issues is related to the fact that theologically, Islam places considerable emphasis on equality and the necessity of diversity. It was reported that Omer, the second Caliph (634-44) saw an elderly Jewish man begging for help. After helping him he asked the treasurer to provide the man with assistance stating, “Help this person and those like him. I swear to God that we are not fair if we appreciated them during their years of youth but ignore them during their old age.” While the issue of equality was not clearly addressed in other monotheistic religions, and was only given priority after the French Revolution, Imam Ali, the fourth Caliph (656-661), in a letter to his governor of Egypt, around 660, succinctly stated the essence of equality when he wrote, “They [People] are either brothers in religion or counterparts in creation.” Therefore, he instructed his Governor to be kind and affectionate to everyone, irrespective of their ethnicity or religion.

b. Government. Most Muslim governments, a product of the colonial era, have enacted civil rather than religious law; the notable exception is Saudi Arabia and Iran (1979). The law, officially, guarantees equal treatment for all citizens. Most of the existing laws were inherited from the colonial era. As in most other countries, in practice, equality is often denied, especially for “prohibited” political activities or political affiliation. In the Arab East where there is a large segment of religious minorities, these minorities often get special treatment. In 1921 in Iraq for example, there was one Jewish minister, among nine ministers who represented the first Iraqi government. Members of minorities have served as prime minister, members of the Supreme Court, and head of universities. In contrast, in 2005, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that, for the first time in Israeli history, an Arab was appointed to a senior academic position, a vice president of a university.

c. Social/Individual Level. Most Muslim are inclusive and generally do not witness social segregation. Historically, minorities seldom reside in separate ghettos. Gertrude Bell, Oriental Secretary to the High Commissioner in Baghdad of the British occupying power of Iraq, found that Iraqi Jews in Basra were among the Muslim elite, but she was surprised to find that in the city of Mosul, even a Jew from Tunisia lived in an imposing house among noble Muslims. Personally, in Baghdad, during the early 1970s my immediate neighbors were a Jew and a Christian Armenian. Most of the people living in the area and adjacent neighborhoods were Christians. No one in the community ever bothered to ask about sectarian or religious affiliation. People, unlike these days, used to be identified by their political affiliations, either as progressives or reactionaries. The identification was almost always based political views.

3. Women are denied their basic legal rights by religious proscription. Despite equal rights for women advocated in the Quran, different interpretations exist. This situation applies to Christianity and Judaism. For example, the Israel newspaper Haaretz (October 28, 2005) reported that a young Jewish woman in Israel “was told to get off a bus she had boarded because of the simple fact that a man could not sit next to her” and on one occasion it was observed that the ultra-Orthodox driver would get of the bus to announce to the people waiting in line, “There is room for three men, no women.” Theologically, unlike Christianity and Judaism, Islam granted women rights for education, inheritance, and power early in its inception. The Quran instructs believers that men and women are equal. The Quran (3:195) states, “I do not neglect anyone’s work, be they male or female: ye are members, one of another” and “If any do deeds of righteousness, be they male or female and have faith, they will enter heaven, and not the least injustice will be done to them.” Surprisingly, it is not in the United States but in Muslim countries that women have assumed the position of heads of the state (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Turkey, & Pakistan). In many countries, civil law, rather than religious law governs personal and family matters.

4. Sovereignty of God. In this context Mr. Ashkenazi appears to confuse the issue and attempts to judge Islam not in terms of theological outlook relative to other religions but in terms of contemporary political thought. He fails to notice that the three monotheistic religions-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam- share in common the belief that God Almighty is the All- Powerful, the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Eternal. However, while acknowledging that God is the Creator of all, they differ in their interpretation of the capacity of human beings and the nature of their free will. Unlike Judaism and Christianity, in Islam a person is born free of sin. Indeed, the absence of priesthood and the emphasis on personal responsibility, along with ability to perform prayer duties individually and at any comfortable place distinguish Islam from the other two monotheistic religions. The Quran states (17:15) “Whoever receives guidance receives it for his own benefit: who goes astray does so to his own loss” and (17:84) “Everyone does as he wants. Your Lord knows who has the right guidance.” Indeed, the Quran clearly articulates the belief that each individual is responsible for his/her action; (6:164) “No soul earneth (any) but against itself; and no bearer of burden shall bear the burden of another.”

In Judaism, Rabbi Olan (1964, p. 173) argues that “The temptation to sin is real, and the desire on man’s part to follow it stronger than his desire to choose good. Indeed, evil is part of God’s creation and is therefore endowed with purpose . . .. There is strong indication that the yetzer ra, the inclination toward sin, is a necessary ingredient in life.” Nevertheless, Olan (pp. 174-5) believes that man’s life is mostly predestined. He states that much of “man’s life is predestined; it is decreed at birth whether he will be strong or weak, wise or foolish, rich or poor. But in the matter of morality he is master and must choose and take the consequences.” Similarly, in Christianity the belief is that all human beings are born with a sinful nature. Like Judaism, Christianity strongly believes that the human “capacity for evil is not only a fact, but a shocking fact” (Lowry, 1998, p.2). The Judaism and Christian belief system, therefore, is based on a doctrine that although man is created in the “image of God,” every human being is inclined to evil. The propensity for evil, though“not ultimately the stronger, is by far the more clamorous. The evil tendency is like a mighty king who lays siege to a city, says the Talmud, and the good inclination is like a meek man inside the besieged city” (Lowry, 1998, p.3).

5. Fatwa or a religious opinion. Recently, Reverend Pat Robinson issued a fatwa to assassinate the president of Venezuela. Similarly, Rabbis issue fatwa on many matters; religious or otherwise. Their fatwas reflect their personal opinion. Whether or not people follow their edict is a matter of debate. During and before the preparation to invade Iraq, the Pope and other mainstream Christian churches issued a decree or a fatwa against the invasion of Iraq and raised serious concerns about the legitimacy of pre-emptive war. Neither Tony Blair nor George Bush, who both professed to follow Christian teaching heed the call. Both follow their own calling. According to Islamic tradition, fatwa in Islam should not be taken lightly and only learned religious figures can issue them. Most people, however, disregard them as there is no legal authority to enforce them and as there is a separation between the secular governments and religious institutions; except in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

6. Freedom of expression and accompanying mortal sanctions. Treating illusion as a reality is a fatal mistake. To insist, however, on mistakes is a dangerous pursuit. Unconsciously misleading the reader is common, but a conscious intention to mislead is a tragedy. In reading the reasoning for question number six and the question itself, I regret that Mr. Ashkenazi is not only deliberately smearing religion, but also steers the discourse away from the underline problems and the events that led to current world tragedies.

Freedom of expression has evolved over centuries. In the Western World, it is the legacy of the Enlightenment era and the rise of liberalism. It took Europe centuries of rethinking and reflection to appreciate the meaning and necessity of freedom and liberty. In Muslim societies, freedom is a sought and desired goal for the majority of the ordinary people. The progress is slow and often obstructed. A promising development is that some intellectuals have taken the matter into their own hands. They are determined to promote and underline the essence of freedom using passages from the Quran to support their position. Indeed, Islam sanctions the freedom of expression arguing that different positions need to be listened to in a respectful manner. Furthermore, the Prophet Mohamed himself stated that “Differences in opinion is a virtue.” Further, he declared, “He who arrives at the right opinion receives two rewards and he who errs receives one.” Consequently, differences in interpretations, outlook, and civility in discourse are valued highly and sanctioned. Precisely, what led to the golden era of Islam was the existence rather than the absence of tolerance, openness, and inclusion. The decline of such spirit is closely linked to the ascendancy of totalitarianism and foreign occupation.

Differences in outlook among the three monotheistic religions do exist. Primarily, they differ on issues related to human nature, nature of authority, and pre-emptive war. The first is philosophic with some implications for personal conduct. The other issues are substantive and directly tackle matters linked to political philosophy and the welfare of people. Nevertheless, the three religions call for peace on earth and understand that serving mankind is the fundamental purpose.

Regrettably, the issues that were raised by Mr. Ashkenazi sent a wrong message for those who are interested in viable and vibrant discourse and seek to strengthen democratic transformation and openness. The focus of any responsible dialogue should be on bridging the gap of misunderstanding and on promoting the goal of a world free of terror and abuses. The calamity and suffering that people in many parts of the world face and experience on a daily basis requires moral clarity and an unconditional condemnation of all forms of violence and terrorism, including war, invasion, and suicide bombing.

The current tragic events in Iraq, for example, should be a lesson for all citizens. Many people, in the States and abroad hoped that a different and bright outcome would result from this tragic war. But their hopes sadly have slowly vanished as Iraq has been transformed into a slaughter house for Iraqis. The Washington Post (October 22, 2005) quoted a State Department officer stating that about 300,000 Iraqis died during Saddam Hussein‘s 24 years in office. However, the conservative columnist, Paul Roberts, reported recently that more than 150,000 innocent Iraqis have been killed in just two years since the invasion. The destruction in both cases is saddening. This rate of killing will not serve Iraqi society or the declared purpose of liberating Iraq.

Indeed, the promise of liberty and freedom for Iraqis is difficult to keep and, certainly, it is not the Iraqis who brought the calamity on themselves. Observers of international affairs bring to mind that it was Washington which brought the Baath Party to power. In its editorial, the US Today (April 2, 2003) stated, “In 1963, the CIA intervened in Iraqi politics to help Saddam’s branch of the Baath Party seize power. A violent purge followed.” Writing in the Jewish World Review (March 7, 2003), Jeff Jacoby, reasoned that the invasion of Iraq was imperative as “America played a role in entrenching Saddam’s dictatorship, isn’t that all the more reason for it now to take the lead in toppling that dictatorship?”

Any responsible dialogue must tackle the issues that prevent people from doing their normal business activities, harm, and change their way of life and cherished culture, and those issues that alleviate suffering and hardship. Rom Landau, an eminent Western scholar, noted in 1938 that the financial downfall of the Middle East, for example, was inevitable because of the domination of the West, and that “western greed, disguised as superiority, spread the rumor that without Western administration and financial advisors the Orient was doomed to failure.” Landau argued that Western powers appointed corrupt indigenous individuals as political leaders to destroy the morale of the people in colonized lands. The American Conservative reported (October 24, 2005) that the American occupational authority in Iraq in April 2004, gave $1.5 billion in cash to a Kurdish warlord in the city of Erbil. In addition, it is reported that most of the senior staff of the occupational authority (e.g., Simone Ledeen, Michael Fleischer, Don Senor, etc.) were not qualified to assume political and administrative affairs and had no reasonable experience in business or international affairs. These appointments may lead to serious corruption and fraud. In fact, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported (June 3, 2005) that the occupational authority has institutionalized corruption in Iraq. The corruption has paralyzed the economy and fostered the creation of dysfunctional institutions.

In short, the Muslim societies have their own ills and in recent years have been the source of extremism. This applies too to the West where uncompromising ideologies such as communism, fascism, and neo-conservatism took root. Perhaps, the conflict in this century is between civilization and uncompromising ideologies. These ideologies are not the exclusive right of any particular civilization. The only responsible and sensible way to defeat absolutism is to continue open and sound discourse. In fact, any discourse that reaffirms prejudices against any civilization is destined to lead to a gloomy future.

Additional reading:

Ben-Aharon, Yeshayahu (2002). Riding on the Back of the American Tiger. Haaretz. (October 22) Available: www.haaretzdaily.com.

The Economist (1999). Enter the Crusaders.. (December 23). Available: www.economist.com.

Firestone, R. (2001). Islam Hijacked. Available: www.shma.com.

Jacoby, Jeff. (2003). Liberate Iraq – Even with Unclean Hands. Jewish World Review. (March 7).

Kedar, Benjamin Z. (1984). Crusade and Mission. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Landau, Rom. (1938). Search for Tomorrow. London: Nicholson and Watson.

Lowry, R. (1998). The Dark Side of the Soul: Human Nature and the Problem of Evil in Jewish and Christian Traditions. Journal of Ecumenical Studies. 35(1), p. 2.

Olan, (1964). The Nature of Man. In Abraham E. Millgram (ed.). Great Jewish Ideas. B’nai B’rith Department of Adult Jewish Education. Washington, D.C., pp. 173-175.

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