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Religion and politics: The (not so) great divide

Muslims and Christians: Where do we Stand? 2003 Jesuit Seminar Series

Fr Dan Madigan SJ
Published at uniya.org, August 2003

An edited version of this paper appears in the September 2003 edition of Eureka Street (vol 13 no 7), the Jesuit magazine of public affairs, the arts and theology.

The cover of my colleague Abdullah Saeed’s recent book carries the photo of a very determined young women running with a football tucked under her arm. Nothing new there: we’ve got beyond thinking only males can play rugby. What strikes us as surprising about the scene, though, is the veil she and her pursuers are wearing. She’s challenging a stereotype. The photo reminds us that even something entitled “Islam in Australia” is not so much about a system of religious thought and practice but rather about people, about Muslims. When we ask ourselves where we stand we must first of all insist on speaking about Muslims and Christians – about people, about believers – rather than about Islam and Christianity, which after all are abstractions.

Much of the fear currently so evident in the West—and so expertly exploited for political advantage especially in the US and Australia—comes from the sense that we are confronted with a faceless and monolithic system that is of its nature inimical to us. We are offered visions of our world much like the multi-coloured maps of our school days in which the Commonwealth was shown in pink. That colouring disguised an extraordinary diversity. A very few of the people who lived in those pink countries were pink-skinned; the others were of every shade of skin colour imaginable. Some lived under dictatorships, some in republics, others under monarchies. Most lived in grinding poverty, some in middle-class comfort, a few in opulence. We were bound together by cricket, royal visits and tea.

Many of today’s politicians and commentators—Christians, Muslims and others—offer us a view of the world in the primary colours of kindergarten blocks. They are great big blocks, easy to grasp and hard to lose track of. They seem to make everything understandable, yet they actually obscure the complex truth of the matter. A view of the world suitable for ages 3-7.

No one could realistically deny that some Muslims are threatening the world’s peace in the name of what they consider to be Islam. However, even when we acknowledge that, many questions remain. How widespread actually is this violent movement? The authoritative historian of Islam Bernard Lewis is surely just stating the obvious when he points out that most Muslims are not fundamentalists and most fundamentalists are not terrorists. We need to ask whether those people who are trying to terrorize us are doing so primarily because they are Muslims or for other motives that have more to do with such elements as economics, ethnicity, tribal rivalries, nationalism or post-colonial politics. That is to say, to what extent is their adherence to the religion of Islam the origin of their violence? Or is it rather used to justify a violence provoked and chosen for other reasons? The answers to these questions require careful study of particular individuals and situations. The simple generalizations offered us by commentators, even if they contain an element of truth, are always in the end unhelpful.

Much of our incomprehension comes from the fact that we act as if all Muslims are the same, as if the title Muslim itself will give us some clear ideas about how a particular person will think and act. When the word Muslim comes to be associated with names and faces, friendships and relationships, then it has a very different feel. It becomes impossible for me to generalize because I know too many different people who are called by that title and each one is unique—as is each person of whatever religions or of none. We also have to ask ourselves to what extent the label is relevant. For example, is the behaviour of Lebanese gangs in Sydney due to the fact that they are principally Muslim? Or is it in spite of the fact that they are Muslim? It certainly appears that they have grown up in a culture of bitterness, arrogance and disrespect for the other, but is that to be interpreted as the true expression of Islam, or its failure? We can ask similar questions about the Serbian Orthodox in Bosnia, the Catholics among the Rwandan Hutus. Are they doing what they are doing because they are Christian or in spite of the fact that they are Christian?

Where do we stand with regard to one another historically?

One aspect of the Qur’ân and so of the faith of Muslims is a critique of what are seen as the exaggerations and errors of Christian faith.

The idea of the “Clash of Civilizations” enunciated ten years ago by Samuel P. Huntington, has become a commonplace of conventional wisdom and yet most people actually have only the sketchiest notion of the theory and know nothing of the caveats and qualifications that his article carried. The people of different civilizations, Huntington tells us, have different views on the relations between God and humanity, individual and group, citizen and state, parents and children, husband and wife. They also have differing views of the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy. That seems clear enough, but it glosses over the fact of the substantial differences among people within the same “civilization”? One is left with the question of how many Muslims actually belong to the Islamic civilization of Huntington’s nightmare of ceaseless conflict? If the puritanical and fanatical Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan’s warlords and Taliban belong to it, then how can an urbane and thoughtful university professor like Abdullah Saeed be said to belong? Huntington’s broad strokes and primary colours can be very misleading.

The message most people seem to have drawn from it is that throughout our 1400-year history Muslims and Christians have faced each other as two armed camps and are destined to do so indefinitely. The way some tell it, we stopped our centuries-old battle only to take on Communism. Now that that is over with, it’s back to the mutual bloodletting.

If one considers the history of warfare as a whole, the conflicts between Muslims and Christians pale into insignificance against the much bloodier conflicts waged between groups professing the same religion.

The history of the Muslim community has been marred since the beginning by internecine war – and continues to be so even up to our own times: East and West Pakistan; Iran and Iraq; Iraq and Kuwait; in Algeria, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Somalia, in Indonesia to name only the most striking examples.

Virtually all the European wars up until our own time have been fought between rival groups of Christians. And if we think we have left that bitter history behind, let us not forget the 800,000 Christians murdered by their fellow Christians in Rwanda, or the Christian Serbs and Croats who fought one another as well as Muslims in the former Yugoslavia.

Where do we stand with regard to one another politically?

The overwhelming majority of Muslims live in developing countries. Some of the poorest people on earth are Muslims, as are some of the most obscenely wealthy. We could say the same of Christians. However, what defines our political relationship is that the West, which presides over and hugely benefits from the world’s unjust economic structures, is seen as Christian, or as Christian and Jewish. Whilst that is not an accurate description of the world’s power structures, there are plenty of grounds on which an observer could be forgiven for making such an identification— “God Bless America.” It is not good enough for Christians to wash their hands of responsibility on the basis that because of a division between Church and state, the economic and political spheres are completely autonomous.

Much of the political anger that Muslims direct against the West (and, by albeit mistaken association, against Christians) is shared by others who live in the developing world. Among Muslims it joins with a nostalgia for past glories and an abiding sense that Islam itself is under attack politically, economically and culturally by the West. So if the political tensions are so great between such a large number of Muslims and the dominant political powers of the West, we must realize that, whatever religious rhetoric may be being used, the resolution of the tensions between us lies in addressing the economic and political injustices that give rise to them.

Religion and politics

It is commonly held that Muslims cannot or at least do not distinguish religion from politics, and that the greatness of the West is due to the fact that we have enshrined such a division in all modern systems of government. Neither of these assertions, it seems to me, stands up to scrutiny.

In the Muslim community there has certainly been a commitment to giving faith a political expression in the way society is shaped and governed. Yet at the same time there has been a rather pragmatic approach to leadership. Whilst it is true that the Prophet united in himself both political and religious authority, the practice of Sunni Islam since the time of his death has been to choose or recognize their leaders not on the basis of their piety but of their qualifications for leadership. What counted was seniority, tribal and clan affiliation, and military prowess, the ability to hold the community together and help it expand, to command the loyalty of the Muslim forces, and to do justice in society. Eventually in many cases the succession was merely dynastic. However, the longevity of the dynasty depended not on religious propriety so much as political and military acuity.

The present reality of politics in Muslim-majority countries gives us no more reason for believing that political and religious power are inseparable. Some of the rulers are dictators; others are the scions of a ruling dynasty. Some have been elected to their positions or have arrived there through military power. Only in the very particular case of Shi’ite Iran is religious expertise connected with political authority, yet even there one finds political pluralism, elections, opposition and protest.

Christians need to ask whether what we believe in is the separation of religion from politics or rather the separation of church from state? We have learned the hard way that positions of political authority are no place for the clergy. However, we must question the value of any faith that has no bearing on our politics, that is on how we organize our life together. What use is a religion that has nothing to offer on the subject of justice, rights and responsibilities? What does it profit us to have a religion with no realizable vision of human community?

Where do we stand with regard to one another theologically?

We share a certain amount in common but with some substantial differences that are not simply reducible by negotiations and adjustment. Though Muslims often find it hard to believe, and we certainly find it hard to explain, we Christians are indeed believers in only one God. The belief in the Trinity so strongly condemned by Muslims is not a watering-down of monotheism, but rather its radicalization—the refusal to explain any experience of the divine as deriving from any reality but the one God. The title “Allah” was used by Christians before Islam was preached and continues to be the word used for God by Christians who speak Arabic and other languages that draw from it. It is not the proper name of some God special to Muslims—it is just the title “God” in Arabic.

Islam does not present itself as a new religion, but rather as the reestablishment of the original religion that has existed from the beginning and of which Judaism and Christianity are examples—even if they may have needed to be purified of certain extraneous elements.

The most important common belief we share is that the Word of God— the eternal divine word that is of the very nature of God—has been spoken in our world. For the Muslim, God has spoken His word in Arabic in the Qur’ân – and indeed in the other earlier scriptures. For Christians on the other hand, God’s word is spoken not primarily in words but in the flesh—in “body language” as it were. The words of scripture are not simply the words of God, but words written by believers to put us in touch with the capital-w Word that they had experienced in the flesh. Scripture is not revelation itself. It is the witness to revelation.
Although Muslims see Jesus and the Gospel as being parallel to Muhammad and the Qur’ân, Christians do not see things this way. What Jesus is for the Christian, the Qur’ân (not Muhammad) is for Muslims. What Muhammad is for Muslims (the human channel through which the Word of God entered the world), Mary is for Christians. Of course, that Mary role does not exhaust the reality of who Muhammad is for Muslims. He is also a Moses figure in being the leader of the community and its lawgiver.

In the end, though, how much does it matter and how important are these theological differences in the present conflict? It seems unlikely that we will resolve them and even less likely that such a theological resolution would bring an end to existing conflicts. The very term “interreligious dialogue” can draw our attention away from the much more urgent questions that confront us. We stand together on the same planet confronted by intractable problems of poverty, hunger, disease, injustice and environmental degradation. Can we really afford to be divided over issues of belief or to spend our energies on theology?
So where do we stand? Where will we stand? Will we let our leaders enclose us in two armed fortresses, allowing fear and hatred to dominate our politics and public policy? Will we be satisfied with letting vague religious labels dictate our view of the world and society?

The title of the seminar also contains an individual challenge to every Christian and every Muslim. Each of us is confronted with the question “Where do I stand?” Will I just remain on the sidelines, waiting for the worst to happen, or will I play my part, however small and ordinary, in the improvement of relations between Christians and Muslims? Am I prepared to move beyond stereotypes and see the real person with whom I am confronted? What am I prepared to do to in order to put real names and faces to the terms Muslim and Christian? Am I prepared to encounter the other, prepared to learn, to respect, prepared to live and work together for the good of all humanity?

We stand together or we stand condemned.

Fr Dan Madigan SJ is founding director of the Department for the Study of Religions at the Gregorian University in Rome, where he is also a lecturer in Islamic studies, and is a former publisher of Eureka Street.