Chirstian - Muslim Relations: Are We Missing the Real Story?

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By Thomas Michel, S.J.

Thomas Michel, S.J. belongs to the Indonesian Province of the Jesuits. He was director of the Islamic Office of the Vatican’s Council for Interreligious Dialogue for 13 years. Currently, he is serving as Secretary for Interreligious Dialogue for the Society of Jesus and as Ecumenical Secretary for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. He regularly conducts seminars on Christian-Muslim relations in Indonesia, the Philippines and in Malaysia.

Linking Islam with Terrorism

Recently on Italian television, the daily news report was much concerned with the Muslim world. One story noted the closure of the American Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, after the terrorist attack on the foreign compound on May 16. A second story related the terrorist attacks in Casablanca, Morocco, that occurred three days later. A third story recounted how in Ankara, Turkey, a would-be suicide bomber belonging to a radical leftist group was killed when her bomb exploded prematurely in a restaurant rest room. As the news commentators speculated how more "Islamic terrorist attacks" might be expected in reaction to the American-English war on Iraq, the television images showed long rows of men in oriental dress at prayer in an outdoor mosque.

The message (intended or unintended, I can’t say) conveyed to the viewers was that Islam is a violent religion (talk of terrorism superimposed on images of men at prayer), and the flowing robes and turbans of the worshipers reinforced the impression of many that Islam is both culturally alien and opposed to modern life. Islam and its followers were clearly depicted as a dangerous threat both to Europeans as well as to all who cherish modern values.

While the facts presented in this typical newscast cannot be denied—the terrorist attacks did occur, and many Muslims do gather for prayer in traditional dress—the presumed connection between these facts can and needs to be questioned. For example, since the Ankara terrorist was a member of an anti-religious Maoist political movement, in what way could her actions be construed as Islamic? More broadly, did any of the men seen at prayer engage in or approve of violence and if so, how many? Did most of the worshipers support violent political activity, only the occasional exception, or perhaps none of them? In short, should violence and terrorism be seen as an inherent characteristic of Islamic faith, a typical response of Muslims to modernity, or rather as an aberration from the teachings of Islam engaged in by very few Muslims?

I wonder whether in our—by which I mean non-Muslim, modern—preoccupation with terrorism we are perhaps missing the real story of what is going on in the Muslim world. I should explain the basis from which I will present my views. For the past 30 years, I have been living and teaching in Muslim countries: in Indonesia as a member of the Indonesian province of the Society of Jesus, in Lebanon and Egypt where I did Arabic and Islamic studies, and most recently in Turkey where I regularly teach courses on Christian theology in Islamic theology faculties. As director of the Islamic office of the Vatican Council for Interreligious Dialogue for 13 years, I have spent some time in almost every Muslim-majority nation and spent hours in long discussions with many Muslim scholars, religious leaders, politicians, students, and countless ordinary Muslim believers.

Celebrating the Birthday of Muhammad

My conclusion after all this time is that what Muslims are really concerned about is very different from anything to do with terrorism or violence, both of which are strongly rejected and opposed by the vast majority of Muslim believers. Let me begin with a recent personal experience. This past April, I was in Turkey to lecture at the university theological faculty in Urfa in eastern Anatolia and to deliver public talks in the nearby cities of Birecik and Gaziantep. I was asked to give an additional talk in Istanbul on my return trip to Rome. Thus, on Easter Monday I found myself talking to over 4,000 Muslim youths gathered in a large auditorium. The occasion was the celebration of the birthday of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. It is significant that this year, they had invited a Catholic priest to speak on the prophets as a blessing of God to humankind.

I was enthusiastically greeted with rousing applause before and after my talk. After I finished speaking, the program continued with a young Turkish poet reading his own poetic compositions in honor of Muhammad, and then a folk singer who, accompanied by an electric guitar, sang hymns in praise of God in the soft-rock style we associate with contemporary Gospel music.

What was going on here? The cheerful young men and women, mainly dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and running shoes, were obviously modern young people who share many elements of contemporary youth culture with people their age in Italy, Brazil, or the United States. The only visible mark of their Islamic faith was the headscarf worn by the young women. In talking with the youths before the celebration, I discovered that the students were not primarily engaged in religious studies, but were following courses in secular fields like computer science, medicine, and mechanical engineering. Others were not students, but workers—clerks and secretaries, travel agents, and those engaged in driving delivery trucks and in construction work.

In short, they represented a cross section of the modern urban youth of Istanbul whose common bond was their Islamic faith. Their delight and enthusiasm in welcoming a Christian speaker was undeniably sincere, as was their appreciation for the contemporary styles of praising God and honoring their prophet Muhammad in song and poetry. War had been recently raging in neighboring Iraq, but the talk that evening was not about geo-politics. The celebration featured no harangues or protests, but rather a desire to thank God for all that they had received as Muslims through the message of the prophets.

My question is, who is more representative of the Muslim world today, these young people in Istanbul for whom Islam is fundamentally a religious faith, a path to approach God in worship and a project for doing God’s will in daily life, or those who want to kill and destroy in the name of God? I am convinced that the vast majority of Muslims around the world would agree that these deeply committed, open-minded, modern believers, and those like them in other countries, are the true hope of the future, rather than the terrorists whom they openly condemn. My experiences in Indonesia, Egypt, Malaysia, Iran, and Bosnia lead me to believe also that the young Muslims themselves in those countries would find far greater affinity with their Turkish contemporaries than they would with violent extremists.

Problems in Muslim Societies

All of this does not deny that problems, ideological conflicts, hypocrisy, and manipulation of religious identity abound in the modern Muslim world, although one might well ask whether such human vices and weaknesses are more prevalent among Muslims than in predominantly Christian societies. Issues of justice and good governance are central today in Muslim nations, as they are elsewhere. The need for effective, representative, democratic government is felt everywhere. The preponderance of corrupt regimes that appear to serve mainly the interests of the ruling elite, who too often have attained power through dynastic succession or military coup d’états and who remain in power by sophisticated security systems and alliances with the Great Powers, have created a lack of confidence in political systems and leadership.

The economic effects on ordinary citizens of neo-liberal market policies, for which globalization has become the code-word, are a cause of anger and unrest. Unequal distribution of wealth and opportunities for advancement have produced angry and frustrated masses who see no hope of betterment in structures of the status quo. There is a broadly-based perception that at the root of these societal ills lies a neo-colonial American hegemony in which small groups of money-managers in New York and London make, on the sole basis of profit, financial decisions which affect adversely the lives of millions of people elsewhere. There is a belief that the American government supports monarchies and dictatorships so long as they allow market freedom to foreign businesses and vote correctly in the United Nations but is ready to wage war to destroy those who stand in the way of America’s economic and military aims. In this perception, the Muslim world is no different from other parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Muslims often see themselves primarily as victims, rather than perpetrators of violence, whether the oppressors be the local Muslim elites or, as in the case of Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, Kosovo, and the Philippines, non-Muslim governments and armies.

No increase in international security systems will be able to put an end to terrorism so long as the root causes of anger and frustration are not faced and resolved. The availability of destructive weapons today is such that any group with a cause can either purchase them or make their own. Focusing almost exclusively on Muslims, as politicians and the news media seem to be doing, fails to recognize the disquieting fact that acts of mass violence have become an inescapable reality in modern life. The necessary technology is well known and waiting to be used. Today it may be Al-Qa’ida, but tomorrow it will be some other group of another region, of another religion or of no religion, that will undertake terrorist acts in support of their political cause. So long as the peoples of a few highly industrialized nations continue to control and utilize for their own benefit an outrageously disproportionate share of the world’s resources, the world will not be safe from terrorism.

Islamic Values

Many Muslims, including the great majority who do not approve of violence and terrorism, have religiously based objections to the dominant ideology promoted by the West, and particularly by the United States. They regard modernist ideology as materialist, relegating God and God’s will to the margins—at best—of social, economic, and political life. They see modernism as profit-oriented and consumerist, implying that a person’s worth is measured by his economic status, social prestige, and power to achieve one’s goals. They see the dominant ideology as dividing the world into winners and losers. The winners drive good cars, carry Gold Bank Cards, eat well, and vacation in exotic places, while the losers are expected to work hard in difficult or insecure jobs in order to survive and to accept their lot peacefully. Their views are discounted or ignored and their voices are not heard in the councils of the mighty.

To Muslims, these are not the values by which God intends people to live. Islam, like Christian faith, teaches that the purpose of human life is to know, worship, and obey God, to love and serve others, and to hope for the day when those who remain faithful to God will be rewarded with eternal life in God’s presence. Thus, the values which should characterize human societies are solidarity, mutual assistance, concern for the poor, and constant recollection of God’s greatness, gentleness, and compassion. The God-centered society seek to build should be one of peace (salam): peace with God by living in accord with God’s will, peace in fellowship among the various sectors of society, and peace among nations.

In articles, speeches, and the private discussions I have had with Muslims since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, I see a great emphasis placed on Islam as a religion of peace and the duty of Muslims to work with others to build world peace. How is this to be explained? I think that many Muslims had regarded the nature of Islam as a religion of peace as a fact so evident that it did not require explanation or defense. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the subsequent war on terrorism convinced many Muslims of two things: that Islam’s reputation among non-Muslims was not that of a religion of peace but rather one of violence, and that Muslims needed to work together with like-thinking believers of other religions if they were to counter the generally negative impression others have of Islam and to actually build peace in this world. In short, Muslims could no longer assume Islam’s peace-oriented nature as self-evident, and Muslims could no longer try to "go it alone" in today’s world.

Has God Desired Enmity between Christians and Muslims?

When Muslims look around to identify their natural allies in affirming divine values in the modern world, it is often sincere, believing Christians who come to the fore. Already at the beginning of the 20th century, some forward-looking Muslims like the Turkish scholar Said Nursi saw "real Christians" as the natural co-workers of Muslims in upholding the prerogatives of God in modern life. The roots of this natural affinity that should exist between Muslims and Christians go back to the very scriptural origins of Islam, where the Qur’an states: "The closest in affection to [Muslims] are those who say: ‘We are Christians,’ for among them are priests and monks and they are not arrogant’" (Qur’an 5:82).

This perception of divinely willed friendship and cooperation between Muslims and Christians was expressed on the Christian side when the Catholic Church, in the Second Vatican Council decree Nostra Aetate, pleaded with Christians and Muslims to move beyond the suspicions and conflicts of the past in order to work together to carry out a common mandate from the one God whom both groups worship. "For the benefit of all," the decree states, "Let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice, and moral values" (Nostra Aetate, 3).

In this perspective, the long history of conflict, oppression, violence, and war between Christians and Muslims must be understood as acts perpetrated by Muslims and Christians who failed to live according to the genuine teaching of their respective faiths or else the misguided actions of those whose theological vision was too narrow to recognize God’s work of grace within the other community. In other words, the history of conflict and war has not been prescribed by either religion, but is a deviation, due to human weakness, from the mutual love and support desired by God.

Muslim-Christian Cooperation "for the Benefit of All"

What can be said today is that many Muslims and Christians throughout the world have become involved in working together "for the benefit of all." This cooperation takes many forms. To take one region, the southern Philippines, as an example, we could mention the human development and anti-poverty work of MUCARD (Muslim-Christian Agency of Rural Development), an umbrella group of people’s organizations in 120 villages; the work for justice of Zamboanga’s Islamic-Christian Urban Poor Association; the work for peace of PAZ (Peace Associates of Zamboanga); that of reconciliation carried out by the Muslim-Christian Interfaith Conference and the Moro-Christian People’s Alliance; and the efforts of the Silsilah group at mutual understanding and education for dialogue.

Said Nursi’s early teaching on the need for Muslim-Christian cooperation in faith values has been taken up by many movements formed by his thought, especially in the educational efforts inspired by the charismatic Turkish leader Fethullah Gülen. Gülen’s movement runs almost 300 schools in almost 30 countries, mainly those of the former Soviet Union, dedicated to offering education of high quality with particular attention to character building and moral values. Through its Zaman newspaper, its Samanyolu television station, and its dialogue organization, the movement has undertaken many initiatives to promote mutual respect and esteem.

In the U.S.A., the American Society of Muslims and the Catholic Focolare Movement cooperate in organizing seminars on "the art of loving," seeking together to instill spiritual values in a modern, secularized society. In Washington, D.C., the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding of the Jesuits’ Georgetown University has a first-class faculty composed of Muslim and Christian scholars that offers exemplary academic training in the issues that have long divided the Christian and Muslim worlds.

In the Middle East, two of Lebanon’s Christian universities train both Muslims and Christians in an understanding of each other’s faiths. In Tripoli, the University of Balamand, established by the Orthodox Church, at its Center for Christian-Muslim Studies, and in Beirut, the Jesuits’ University of St. Joseph, at its Institute of Islamic-Christian Studies, offer academic preparation for those who seek to promote Muslim-Christian dialogue and understanding. In the Gulf region, Bahrain’s Tenth Islamic-Christian Dialogue Conference, which brings together Muslim and Christian scholars from many Arab-speaking nations, was held in October 2002, to explore ways that Christian-Muslim cooperation might be fostered in the region.

In Asia, the Asian Muslim Action Network, a progressive Muslim movement in more than 12 Asian countries, is jointly organizing peace seminars and workshops together with the offices of the Catholic Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences and the Christian Conference of Asia. They are working together to build a common "peace curriculum" that can be offered to imams, religion teachers, seminarians, and catechists.

The sad turn of events since September 11, rather than dividing the Islamic and Christian communities from one another, has in many cases spawned new initiatives for peace. The consistent message of Pope John Paul II over the past 25 years has shown Muslims that recent political and military conflicts are not instances of "Christian against Muslim." Joint statements against the Iraq war were issued by National Councils of Churches, Bishops’ Conferences, and Islamic organizations, including those of Great Britain and the U.S.A. In March of this year, an interreligious delegation of Indonesian religious leaders, led by the Cardinal Archbishop of Jakarta with the heads of Indonesia’s major Islamic organizations, traveled to Rome and Brussels to meet with the Pope and the European Union in a common appeal for peace.

I could go on and on, but these few examples will have to suffice to show that throughout the world many Christians and Muslims are refusing to accept that history’s sad record of conflict between the two communities is what God desires. They are putting their convictions into concrete programs and reaching broad constituencies. One might say that Muslim-Christian dialogue is both the need of our day and an idea whose time has come.

This shared vision is not utopian. Christians and Muslims in dialogue must recognize that the problems of our world are of such complexity that the two communities are often pitted one against the other and, moreover, that many of the troubles arise not from external factors but rather from those who identify themselves as Muslims or Christians. What has become clear is that Christian-Muslim dialogue is not something that can wait until easy relationships characterize the two communities around the world, but a need that must be pursued in the midst of and despite the tensions and conflicts of our time.