Dialogic Islam

Can the new century look forward to a dialogic Islam centred on a radical Christian-Islamic, or other, interfaith dialogue which goes below surface hospitality and encounter, exploring and comparing divergent theologies in an atmosphere of mutual trust and absence of recrimination over past wrongs and hostilities?146 The semiotics of such a putative scenario are often difficult to read.147

At the end of his book Muslims in Western Europe,148 J0rgen Nielsen wrote a final chapter entitled 'European Muslims in a New Europe?' The question mark is significant. The mutual adjustments necessary for a successful integration or assimilation of large bodies of Muslim migrants in Europe have not been easy. The multicultural ethos to which all Europeans are supposed to subscribe in such matters as religion may be more optimism than reality.149 This was particularly obvious in the 2003 decision by France to ban the wearing of hijab in its state schools, under a more general ban on the public display of ostentatious religious symbols in such schools.150

The 1985 British Swann Report denied that Europe was 'multicultural in the sense which is usually intended'.151 The later report by the Runnymede Trust into Islamophobia in Britain appeared to confirm this.152 Professor Nielsen makes a highly significant point: 'When the talk is of integration or assimilation, it is applied to the minority group - it is not the Swiss, Dutch or German who is going to integrate with the minority'.153 Indeed, that minority may be perceived as a real threat to the very nationhood of the host country, as the intemperate outbursts by the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Bologna, Giacomo Biffi, in 2000 and 2001 against Muslim immigration into Italy demonstrated.154 Such remarks only served to reinforce the sense of 'foreignness' and 'otherness' among both newly arrived and more established Muslims and Muslim communities in Europe. and elsewhere.155 Academic journals such as Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (JICMR), Islamochristiana and Encounter156 have striven for an eirenic and dialogic position; but, as the Rushdie Affair showed157 the omens on the ground for even a 'dialogue of charity' have not always been good.

Nielsen reminds us that 'differences and plurality, especially of a religious kind, have historically been more destructive than constructive'.158 This was painfully obvious beyond the immediate frontiers of Europe at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries: an Islamic desire to build a mosque with a tall minaret next to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth in 1999 sparked widespread Christian-Muslim riots among a population estimated at 18,000 Christians and 42,000 Muslims.159 Reporting on the affair, the Times columnist Christopher Walker cited an Israeli journalist who wrote that, were the mosque plans to proceed, 'the Pope, when he comes in 2000, will see directly how Jesus of Nazareth has been humiliated by Muhammad and Shihab el-Din'.160

When the Israeli government decided to permit the building of the mosque, the Christian hierarchy announced that all churches and other religious sites would be closed for two days in November 1999 as a protest. In an effort to express their frustration, they had decided to target the Israeli tourist industry.161

Elsewhere in the Islamic world, things have been no more peaceful from the perspective of interfaith dialogue. Archaeology has assumed an unlikely - and probably unlooked for - religious role in the holy town of Ayodhya. Anubha Charon explains:

Never before in Indian history has a team of archaeologists been under such close scrutiny, or handled such a sensitive assignment, on whose conclusion rests not only the historical documentation of a nation, but also the scripting of its future. Ayodhya, in the Northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is a site holy to both Hindus and Muslims, and has been a constant source of religious clashes. Now the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), under directions of the High Court, is trying to settle the dispute over whether a Hindu temple once existed there. The disputed site houses the remains of the Babri Masjid, a sixteenth-century mosque built by Mir Baqi, commander to Mughal emperor Babar [sic] but destroyed by Hindu fundamentalists in 1992. Hindus believe that the mosque stood on the ruins of an earlier temple that once marked the birth-place of Lord Rama, one of the most revered deities in the Hindu pantheon.162

Elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent, Christians have suffered persecution in some areas of Pakistan, whose three-million-strong Christian community have a 'fragile place in a now volatile society'.163 It is alleged that 'across the Punjab, where the vast majority of Christians live, communities that had lived together for decades are now divided by religion'.164 The Catholic bishop of Faisalabad, Bishop John Joseph, who spearheaded an international campaign for the release of a Christian named Ayub Masih on death row in Sahiwal Central Jail, shot himself nine days after the death sentence had been passed on Ayub.165 At the beginning of the new millennium, Michael Binyon wrote that 'from Egypt to Indonesia, Nigeria to Lebanon, an upsurge in intercommunal violence has already marked the new millennium as one of the worst periods of global conflict between Christianity and Islam for generations'.166 He calculated that in the Moluccas Islands capital, Ambon, over 1,500 Muslims and Christians had been killed in 1999, the horrific, escalating result of a quarrel between a drunk and a taxi-driver. He commented: 'The islands were once held up as a model of religious tolerance'.167

A final example of fragile interfaith relations must suffice: the visit by the Israeli Likud Party leader, Ariel Sharon, in October 2000 to Temple Mount in Jerusalem provoked widespread rioting and bloodshed between Israeli Jew and Palestinian Muslim; the episode came to be called 'the Jerusalem intifada'. This could just as easily be interpreted in terms of religious hegemony as the working out, and restating, of a territorial imperative.168 However one chooses to interpret this visit, it cannot be denied that it did not contribute to the cause of interfaith harmony.

Such events are far removed from the paradigmatic eirenicism espoused by the murdered Cistercian Prior of the Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas at Tibhirine, near Medea, in Algeria. His name was Dom Christian de Cherge. Abducted with six of his fellow Cistercian monks on the night of 26-7 March 1996, his dead body, together with those of his brethren, was finally found on 30 May 1996. In his testament, dated Algiers, 1 December 1993 and Tibhirine, 1 January 1994, Dom Christian foresaw his own death at the hands of fundamentalist Muslims and wrote:

I know the contempt that some people have for Algerians as a whole. I also know the caricatures of Islam that a certain (Islamist) ideology promotes. It is too easy for such people to dismiss, in good conscience, this religion as something hateful by associating it with violent extremists. For me, Algeria and

Islam are quite different from the commonly held opinion. They are body and soul. I have said enough, I believe, about all the good things I have received here, finding so often the meaning of the Gospels, running like some gold thread through my life, and which began first at my mother's knee, my very first church, here in Algeria, where I learned respect for the Muslims.169

He concludes with these words of love and forgiveness for his future killer:

And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too, I wish this thank-you, this 'A-Dieu', whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common Father. Amen! Insha Allah!170

Renaissance Islam

Our sixth and final scenario is this: could the Islam of the future be what might be termed 'Renaissance Islam' with the Ayatollah Khomeini cast in the role of a latter-day Luther?171 This 'elderly, irascible Muslim cleric'172 of popular mythology wrought a revolution in Iran so profound that its reverberations are still felt.173 As the Times leader starkly, if simplistically, put it in 1999:

No corner of the Islamic world was unaffected by the radical return to theological fundamentalism as a reassertion of Islamic identity and ideals. Two decades later, it still reverberates with the aftershocks of a convulsion comparable to that initiated by Martin Luther.174

It is, of course, true that diverse factors beyond the immediate charisma of the Ayatollah had paved the way for his return: there was the extraordinary arrogance of a Westernising Shah with his contempt for the role of traditional Islam; there was the corruption of an élite ruling class; there was the failure to see the danger of the developing equation between secularisation and modernisation; there was a profound underestimation of Islam's perceived role as the natural counterweight to an imposed Western tyranny.175 But none of these factors in themselves explains the almost preternatural appeal of Khomeini as man, Imam and Spiritual Leader. 'The force of Khomeini's preaching was its uncompromising rejection of everything secular and everything emanating from the West.'176 This rejection had a magnificently simple appeal for very large numbers among both the 'ulamâ' and the lower middle classes who, in various ways, had missed out on the prosperity brought to Iran under the Shah. However, the Times also concluded that 'twenty years on, Khomeini's shadow [inhibited] a necessary debate'.177 Writing of the extraordinary scenes of frenzy which surrounded the funeral of the Ayatollah, Baqer Moin concluded that, from whatever perspective we viewed the Imam, we could not describe him as 'an ordinary man'.178

This theme of Khomeini as 'Islam's Luther' is worth developing briefly a little further. Luther was a major factor in a Protestant Reformation whose consequences are very much apparent and with us today. Islam's retreat from secularism and its increasing unwillingness to tolerate at least a modus vivendi with the diverse aspects of modernity and modernism, much less integrate happily within multifaith or pluralistic societies, are similarly all too apparent, according to one world view.179 Theologically, Martin Luther too, retreated from secularism:

The life of the Christian - as forgiven sinner - embodies precepts of the law and promises of the gospel. The interplay of church and society (or state) generally follows Luther's teaching on the two realms: the realm on God's right, the church; and the realm on God's left, the state - both are accountable to God.180

Just as Khomeini made it clear that he abhorred innovation and corruption in state and religion,181 so too, in his different ways, did Martin Luther.182 Both suffered profoundly in consequence.183 Finally, both men needed, and sought, political influence if ever their theological world-views were to succeed. Khomeini's development of the doctrine of wilayat al-faqih ('government by the jurist') is too well known to require further elaboration here.184 Martin Luther, too, craved political support and power:

More difficult than doctrinal change and liturgical reform was the problem of organisation . Luther's teaching therefore preserved the medieval principle of the universal res publica Christiana, even if organised in separate entities; he had no time for sectarian notions which confined the true church to the self-known chosen of God. In addition, the question of public order was always very much in Luther's mind, as it was in that of the civil authorities with whom he had to deal. All this demanded uniformity - the existence of one organisation and general conformity to it. But in trying to secure this Luther was thrown back upon the territorial ruler who alone could support ecclesiastical discipline with physical power. When Frederick the Wise, never a Lutheran, was succeeded by the Elector John (1525-32), Luther had to hand a prince willing to follow his lead.185

If the Imam Khomeini is perceived in the fullness of time by future historians to have been Islam's Luther, will the twenty-first century of the Common Era produce a Counter-Reformation in Islam akin to that undertaken in Western Christian Europe by Pope Paul III (1468-1549; reg. 1534-49), the Council of Trent186 and such luminaries of the Western Counter-Reformation as St Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556),187 St Cajetan (1480-1547)188 and St Charles Borromeo (1538-84)?189 If it does, what form will Islam's Counter-Reformation take? Will it engage in definitive style with the twin spectres of modernism and secularism in a way acceptable to the whole of the Islamic umma?

The Power Of Charisma

The Power Of Charisma

You knowthere's something about you I like. I can't put my finger on it and it's not just the fact that you will download this ebook but there's something about you that makes you attractive.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment