Christian-Muslim Relations:
Are we missing the real story?

  Thomas Michel, S.J.

 

 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 after the terrorist attack on the foreign compound on 16 May. A second story related the terrorist attacks in Morocco that occurred three days later. As the news commentators speculated how more “Islamic terrorist attacks” might be expected in reaction to the Iraq war, the television images showed long rows of men in oriental dress at prayer in an outdoor mosque.

The message conveyed to viewers was that Islam is a violent religion and a dangerous threat 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 needs to be questioned. Did most of those seen at prayer support violent political activity, only the occasional exception, or perhaps no one of them? 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?

     Celebrating the birthday of Muhammad

I wonder whether we are perhaps missing the real story of what is going on in the Muslim world. Let me begin with a recent personal experience. This past April, I was invited to address 4,000 Muslim youths in Istanbul on the occasion the birthday of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. It is significant that they had invited a Catholic priest to speak on the prophets as a blessing of God to humankind. I was enthusiastically welcomed before and after my talk. After I finished speaking, the program continued with a young Turkish poet reading his own compositions in honor of Muhammad, and a folk singer who, accompanied by an electric guitar, sang hymns in praise of God in soft-rock style.

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 elsewhere. The only visible mark of their Islamic faith was the headscarf worn by the young women. I discovered that the students were not mainly 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, secretaries, travel agents, and those engaged in driving delivery trucks and in construction.

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 festive atmosphere featured no harangues or protests, but rather a desire to thank God for what they had received as Muslims through the message of the prophets.
My question is, who is more representative of Muslims, these young people 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.

     Has God desired enmity between Christians and Muslims?

When Muslims seek to identify their natural allies in affirming divine values in the modern world, it is often sincere, believing Christians who come to the fore. The roots of the 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, urged Christians and Muslims to move beyond the suspicions and conflicts of the past in order to work together to carry out a common mandate: “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 those who failed to live according to the 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.

     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.

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 the Middle East, two Lebanese universities offer advanced degree programs to train Muslims and Christians in an understanding of each other’s faiths.

In Asia, the Asian Muslim Action Network, a progressive movement of Muslims in twelve 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.

Rather than dividing Muslims and Christians, the tragic events since 11 September have 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. Last March, an interreligious delegation of Indonesian religious leaders, led by the Cardinal Archbishop of Jakarta and 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.

These few examples must suffice to show that many Christians and Muslims are refusing to accept that history’s sad record of conflict between the two communities is what God desires. One might say that Muslim-Christian dialogue is both the need of our day and an idea whose time has come.


 

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