Religion and politics: The (not so) great divide
Muslims and Christians: Where do we Stand? 2003 Jesuit Seminar
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.