Islam and the West: Working Towards a New Relationship
10 October 2006

The heated exchanges that followed the Pope’s remarks on Islam have further widened the rift between Islam and the West. The numerous defensive reactions in the Muslim world elicited ironic comments from some western intellectuals, on ‘those who, in order to prove how outrageous it was to call them fanatics, started burning down churches’. At the same time, the Pope came under fire as well – I am quoting from the same editorial: ‘Hearing the head of a Church which launched, among other things, the crusades, the Inquisition and the fight against democracy, call for peace and reason was a bit like imagining the owner of a distillery claiming to be the head of an anti-alcoholic league.’ A French philosophy professor took the opportunity to launch a violent attack against Islam and its prophet. Predictably, he was condemned by a fatwa and now lives hidden under Police protection. He had reached what must have been his goal: to become a new Salman Rushdie, and pose as a martyr of freedom of expression while deepening the hostility towards Islam.

Why is there a particularly hateful attitude of some in the West towards Islam, and why is the Muslim world so extremely sensitive to any critical thought or attitude?

An endless source of misunderstandings is the habit on both sides of cultivating their own tailor-made vision of History. Each maintains self-righteously his bitterness and resentment, judging to be much more the victim than the perpetrator of past and present conflicts. In his landmark book Crusades through Arab eyes, Lebanese author Amin Maalouf had the immense merit of opening the eyes of the Western reader to the Oriental point of view. Reading this book, now a classic, you realise the magnitude of the trauma: perjuries, massacres (of Muslim, Jewish and Christian populations), cannibalism (reported by Muslim as well as Christian witnesses). Frankish barbarity remains proverbial to this day in the Middle-East. This important viewpoint nevertheless needs to be complemented by others. One frightening thought is what has happened to the many Christian communities, so numerous at that time. For example the Armenians who at the time of the Crusades play such a prominent role in areas more than 1000 kilometres away from present day Armenia. Several Balkan countries have now adopted a joint history book, based on first-hand documents (and a lot of work) in order to address their past with objectivity and avoid sliding back into narrow nationalism or ideology, be it Christian, Muslim or socialist. This initiative would need to be widened to other areas.

The peaceful coexistence of different religions in the same geographical areas has always been tricky in the European experience. In the 19th century, the living together of Protestant and Catholic, of Jews and others was very much an issue. In the countryside, the story was told that the “other” had goat feet, a sign of his diabolic allegiance. We might smile if there had not been since then a mass crime called the holocaust. Today, other stories are told, not necessarily much better ones.

How to avoid going down the negative spiral of blame and resentment that seems to grow? One path is to multiply the opportunities of meeting in open-hearted dialogue with the ‘other’. A group called ‘initiative-dialogue’ has started this process in various Parisian suburbs. One of the organisers reports that the results are beyond all expectations. At the end of a meeting, an old man from North Africa came up to him and kissed him on the cheeks in the traditional manner, and told him ‘I have always dreamt of seeing our children talk with Christians. Now I can die in peace.’ A young woman came home and told her parents ‘Not everybody hates us.’ But there is much more to do. Another participant stated that she was disturbed to see that her identity was a cause of fear in others.

Many more initiatives and many more dialogues will be needed in order to have an impact on society and break clean of a centuries-long tradition of violence, scorn and abuse. That may be costly and even at times be felt as humiliating. In the process, we will need to admit that Christian as well as Muslim clergy have supported a similar concept of holy war or just war. We will need to see that the heroes of our History are sometimes the anti-heroes of the “others’ ” History. It is unpleasant for instance that Godefroy de Bouillon was very much the butcher of Jerusalem and that Haroun Al-Rashid was the first to force the Jews to wear a distinctive sign, an idea picked up later by the medieval Catholic Church and by the Nazis.

But we will also see that the monotheist religions all imply a duty of tolerance and respect. We will also see that the first demand of Faith is to fight Evil in ourselves. This is the spiritual meaning attached to Jihad as well as the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount. All believers and non-believers will need to see that their joint responsibility is to heal relationships and to build trust here and now.

There is a growing network ready to multiply such initiatives, but it needs many more supporters – and practitioners.


"In the process, we will need to admit that Christian as well as Muslim clergy have supported a similar concept of holy war or just war"

While this is true, the fact remains that these christians were the exception rather than the rule - whereas islam has had Jihad as real war since Mohammed.

Only a tiny % of christians worldwide today would support a Jihad style holy war - whereas it is still mainstream muslim thought.

Mohammed was a military leader - Jesus not.
Mohammed was a political leader - Jesus not.
The Quar'an talks about fighting the infidel throughout - Jesus talked about loving your enemy
Mohammed personally was involved in violence; such as the murdering of prisoners - and the taking of widows created this way as wives.
Mohammed's Qu'anic statements about the inequality of women, and of non-muslims are the reason why in the lst 2 years Muslim nations refused to accept the international convention on Human Rights, but instead create their own 'Cairo convention' which enshrines these inequalities.

Sadly, the violence that Mohammed encouraged means that it is very hard for moderate muslim voices to be heard - they are threatened and silenced ultimately with murder.
david smith, 27 November 2006

Thank you for your comments. Your reaction is in itself an example of the bias I was referring to. Whatever Jesus did better than other founders of great religions, do not overlook the fact that Christians have been violent, with religious motives, throughout history. The reason is simple and can be traced back to the Doctors of the Church, and specifically to Saint Augustine. He wrote in no uncertain terms about the duty to fight Pagans should they persist in not seeing the beauties and truths of Christianity; this theory of the just war can be found in The City of God (full title: The City of God Against the Pagans); it is based on a commentary of Luke chapter 14, verse 23 "Compel them to come in, that my house may be filled."

We are far away from the idealistic views of Jesus on love or on turning the other cheek. No need to say that it is the view of Saint Augustine, not of Jesus, that had the greatest success with princes of the world, as it squelched conscience issues with campaigns that had often much more to do with political agendas than with real religious convictions.

In France, the equivalent of Holy war stopped only in the 19th century. My grandfather knew people who remembered the Terreur Blanche of 1815, when Protestants were once more victims of religious violence. The last pogrom in Poland was after WW II. In the ethical field, the notion that war could be challenged has dawned on us in the West only in the late 19th century in view of the carnage of the Crimean war; then WW I brought many people to the view that respect for life should become a core value of civilisation (it was particularly Albert Schweitzer's view). Before that, Christians did not question war, just as Muslims did not, especially not when it was condoned by religious and moral authorities.

My point about religious leaders and theologian of all faiths is that their common responsibility is to steer humanity out of violence into mutual respect and hopefully eventually love. It starts with resisting the temptation to bless the guns. In 2003, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention issued an open letter to President Bush to endorse the war in Iraq. While as citizens the members of this commission were entitled to any view, they tragically misread their duty and responsibility as religious leaders.

It is not a question of being a moderate. You can hardly be moderate about your faith, be it Christian or Muslim. I f you believe in something, you believe with all your being and you make your best efforts to apply the teachings of your faith. That is why religious leaders are so important. In Islam, the Hadith (prophet's traditions) complement the Quran, and the Doctors of theology also provide the explanations and interpretations necessary to the believers' daily life. They can, and most of them do encourage responsible behaviour by believers.

The same applies to Christian theologians and church leaders. There are certain responsibilities of both religions in the past. There are certain responsibilities of both religions for the future. With the recognition of these responsibilities comes hope. Initiatives like interreligious meetings in Assisi, common actions for peace, initiatives like those reported on our Initiatives of Change site are concrete steps in the direction of reconciliation and peace.
Antoine Jaulmes, 28 November 2006

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