Hope for Muslim-Christian Relations
A year after September 11, concerns continue over whether Islam and Western Christianity are gripped in a “clash of civilizations,” as Harvard University scholar Samuel Huntington has styled it. Is “clash” an accurate description of the encounter between Christian, if not Western, and Islamic culture today? What are the prospects for Muslim-Christian relations in the next decade in places like Indonesia, Africa, and the Middle East? What developments give hope for better understanding? What offer reason for concern? Those and other questions aired at a Woodstock forum last spring, which featured three keen observers in the field: Professor Yvonne Yasbeck Haddad, Father Thomas Michel, S.J., and Professor Ali A. Mazrui (fuller biographical notes follow). Following is an edited transcript of the May 2 forum, which was moderated by Woodstock senior fellow, Father James D. Redington, S.J., and co-sponsored by Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
MUSLIMS AND THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
Yvonne Yasbeck Haddad is Professor in the History Department, the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, and the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown. Among the many books she has authored, co-authored, or edited are: Muslims on the Americanization Path?; Islam, Gender and Social Change; Contemporary Islam and the Challenge of History; and, last year, Daughters of Abraham: Feminist thought in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
I know this is after-dinner hour and all of you want to go to sleep, so I’m going to be very provocative to keep you awake. I’m going to talk about relations between Christians and Muslims in the United States. Muslims started coming to the United States over 100 years ago in the 1870s. They were migrant laborers. They came in. They went all over the United States. We have early records of them going as far as Washington state to work on railroads and mines. A lot of them lived in or congregated around Dearborn, Michigan, working for the Ford factory. We have records of them fighting in WWI, WWII, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War. And in Dearborn, there’s a chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars that’s only for Arabs and Muslims.
Since 1965, when the United States revoked the Asia Exclusion Act, we have had a different kind of Muslim come in. Usually, they were part of the brain drain. They were doctors and engineers, university professors. We have one mosque in San Jose that had 325 MAs and PhDs in computer science. In upstate New York, the whole staff of the Medical Center for Cancer Research is Pakistani. There are thousands of Pakistani doctors and Arab doctors who are working throughout the United States, mostly in areas where American-born doctors don’t want to go. So they’re spread out; they’re part of America; they’re ministering to America. They’ve had some kind of contact with their Christian neighbors. It varies from place to place. There were some official efforts of Christian-Muslim dialogue. That was started by the National Council of Churches, which has been declining in the last few years, basically because the mainline Protestant Churches are receding in number.
Just before 9/11, the Council’s Office for Dialogue between Muslims and Christians shut down. The only official kind of Christian-Muslim dialogue going on is between the Catholic Church and the Muslims. And that’s run by John Borelli from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference. They’ve had some very successful programs. They’ve worked together on joint policies on abortion and interfaith marriage and other matters of concern.
And so, dialogue goes on. I know that since 9/11, there has been a great deal of effort by the Muslims to open up their mosques and invite the Christians to come and see that there are no guns in the mosques, that they weren’t training for terrorism. And they’d like people to know more about Islam. There are some people now who are trying to see if they could get some churches who’ve gone out to visit Muslims, to open up the churches and invite Muslims to come in. And they’re working on it.
One of the things that is interesting is that Muslims tend to be socially conservative, and they have more in common with the Christian right on issues of gay marriages, on abortion, extramarital sex, and so on. But the Christian right will have absolutely nothing to do with them because they have decided that they are evil incarnate.
American Muslims, Post-9/11. And so, since 9/11, we have had a major divide, although at the beginning, there was this what I call Islam 101 on television. Everybody was trying to learn what is Islam. Who are these people? People were buying Korans, the books on Islam were selling. In fact, I saw one headline in one newspaper, “A lot of Christians are converting to Islam.” So in one way, you could look at it and say 9/11 opened America to Islam.
At the same time, what has happened is really a backlash, a major backlash. I’ve been documenting the history of Muslims in the United States for about 35 years. And during that time, I’ve been looking at them in the trajectory of “Here comes another religion, which is alien to the Pilgrim fathers, and eventually it will make a space for itself in America.” Our Pilgrim fathers did not like the Catholics; they didn’t like the Jews; they didn’t like Presbyterians like me either. But eventually all these groups carved a space in the United States and created an America that is sort of compatible – people living together, working together. And when the Muslims came, they had the option of either becoming like the Mennonites, dress differently, live differently in little enclaves, and separate yourself from the main life of the United States, or the Jewish option, in which you are a small minority of about 2 percent, but you are involved in American public life. And by 1990, after the Gulf War, they started looking very seriously at getting involved in the main life of the United States. By the year 2000, they were participating in the election, and they had opted for a total Jewish model, if you will.
After 9/11, that model doesn’t work anymore. Now we have to look at the treatment of Muslims from a totally different vantage point – and compare them to how America treated the Germans during WWI and the Japanese during WWII, and to the McCarthy era. At the present time, there are over 5,000 Muslims and Arabs incarcerated under the Patriot Act, which allows the Government to imprison a Muslim or an Arab with no indictment at all. You don’t need any kind of evidence. This is different from the previous act, the Anti-Terrorism Act, which was initiated and voted in right after the Oklahoma City bombing. Under that law, the government could arrest somebody, put him in jail on secret evidence. Now, it’s no evidence. All you have to do is be a Muslim or an Arab, and they can put you in jail.
The other thing that the American Government has done is that it has raided the homes and offices of the leadership of the Muslim community in Northern Virginia. Among the places that were raided was the school that prepared chaplains for the Armed Services. This is the group that sort of issues fatwahs (opinions) that the government wants. The government had recognized these people as the leadership and then it went in and demolished them. Nobody knows why their houses have been raided, why their computers have been gutted out, why all their papers and their books have been taken away, including a list of people invited to a wedding. And the people who have looked up to them for leadership are wondering: Are we next? That is the way Muslims are living in part of America today.
The Palestinian Question. I just want to talk about one other thing that is really the dividing line right now that is causing a lot of concern. And that is the issue of Palestine. I know it’s easier not to talk about it, but it is a very important issue. Our president has called Sharon, the Man of Peace. Now, for a lot of Christians in the Middle East – I’m a Christian from the Middle East – for us, a man of peace is Jesus. And somehow Sharon and Jesus don’t fit together in that definition, OK? But for us to say that Sharon and what he has done on the West Bank is an act of peace is very hard to swallow. It’s hard to swallow for Christians. It’s hard to swallow for Muslims also. What kind of Christian peace are we preaching? And why have we conflated Al Qaeda and the attack on the World Trade Center with the resistance movement in Palestine?
The thing that bothered me most was the report or the transcript I read that Congressman Dick Armey gave yesterday on MSNBC. I know that Congressman Tom DeLay said that the entire West Bank belongs to Israel. But Dick Armey yesterday said, and I am quoting: “I’m perfectly content to have a Palestinian State. I’m not content to give up any part of Israel for that purpose, for that state.” Then he said, “I’m content to have Israel grab the entire West Bank.” And then he said, “There are many Arab nations that have many hundreds of thousands of acres of land and soil and property and opportunity to create a Palestinian state. “We,” he said, “are not willing to sacrifice Israel for the notion of a Palestinian homeland. The Palestinians should leave.” This is ethnic cleansing. And it is being supported by a nation that calls itself a Judeo-Christian nation. There were several of us who were disturbed by it, and we started writing letters to him. And we were going to suggest to him, “There are many acres, hundreds of thousands of acres of land, and soil, and property and opportunity to create a Palestinian state in Texas.” Will you join me?
TERROR AND HOPE IN INDONESIA
Fr. Thomas Michel, S.J., a St. Louis native who belongs to the Indonesian Jesuit Province, is Secretary of Interreligious Dialogue for the Society of Jesus in Rome. In Bangkok, Thailand, he also serves as Secretary for Ecumenism of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. A Ph.D. in Arabic language and Islamic religion from the University of Chicago, Father Michel teaches regularly in Turkey, Indonesia, and the Philippines. In 1998 he gave the Martin D’Arcy Lectures at Oxford University on Muslim-Christian encounters in history.
I want to talk about Indonesia. It’s the country with the most Muslims in the world, perhaps – well certainly over 200 million, so that would make it number one. It also has a significant Christian minority – about 15 million people, perhaps 11 million Protestants, about 4 million Catholics – and sizeable numbers of Hindus and Buddhists.
Indonesia has long had a reputation for having really good relations between people of different religions, a country of harmony where people really manage to live all together. But for those of you who’ve been following the news in recent years, you’ve seen that we’ve had quite a bit of confessional difficulty, conflict, even warfare in recent years. The new millennium might be a place to start. It began very badly for us in Indonesia. I was at a Bishops Conference Meeting that began on January 2, 2000, in Manila. We had the bishops from Indonesia and elsewhere there. And we were only in session for one day when the news came from Jakarta that a massacre had occurred in the Moluccas; between 240-250 Muslims had been massacred by Christian troops there. And the bishops were saying, “Should we go back? What should we do?” Muslims are certainly not going to take this quietly, and they didn’t. A group of very militant Muslims, called Laskar Jihad, from other islands, mostly from Java, went and carried out a number of big massacres against Christians.
In addition to this and other big conflicts, we’ve had isolated incidents of bombs. There was a bomb placed in the main mosque of Indonesia, the Istikal Mosque of Jakarta. There was a bomb placed on Christmas in the cathedral of Jakarta as well. A number of churches were burned, over 300 of them. I don’t know the exact number of mosques. The question is what went wrong? How did a country that was known for people living together well, how did it devolve into violence and uproar? Well, I think there are several factors. One is the economic disaster after 1997. In the disaster, the Indonesia rupiah lost 84 percent of its value so that money failed, big projects failed, and also people’s home savings failed. People had to take their children out of schools since economic projects were failing, tremendous unemployment, tremendous frustration, a lot of anger.
At the same time, the Suharto government was failing. And people lost respect for authority as it became clear just how much Suharto and his associates had stolen from the people. You could hear people saying – and I was there to hear it – people saying, “They’ve lied to us for 30 years; they’ve stolen from us for 30 years.” There was a real anger there. There was also this feeling that since the government had controlled the newspapers, had controlled the television, whom could you believe? You couldn’t believe any of the official sources, you might believe the people who were standing out in front of the mosque after the prayers on Friday, or out in front of church after prayers on Sunday.
The Search for Scapegoats. So a feeling of anger, frustration, worry about the future, people looking for scapegoats. And who do you find as scapegoats? Generally you found people who were a different ethnic group, different race sometimes, or different religion. And so apparently the incident that led to tremendous killings – burnings of whole villages of Madurese – started with something simple. A Madurese Muslim man got on the bus, was accused of not paying by the man collecting his fares; he was a Dyak. Other Madurese supported this man, the Madurese man. The Dyaks supported the Dyak and within hours villages were burned.
Maybe this wouldn’t have erupted into violence except for one factor – that’s the role of outside agitators. Most Indonesians, whether they are Muslim, Christian, or whatever, feel that most of these incidents have not been spontaneous. They’ve been organized. Most people feel that it’s certain elements within the military, who want to prove the need for the military in Indonesian society by keeping the pot boiling, by keeping groups, ethnic groups or religious groups at each other’s throats, and I think they are right. We have enough evidence of people showing up with truckloads of jerry cans and ready to go to work. We have confessions of some people after the Jakarta riots, that they were paid in order to do this.
This leads to the first of my six points and observations: the conflicts were not generally spontaneous outbreaks, but were orchestrated, politically manipulated to play upon the general discontent in the economic depression and fear for the future. Second, Christian-Muslim relations don’t exist in a vacuum; they depend on many variables, diverse and even conflicting factors. Christians in Indonesia feel nervous, and sometimes envious, resentful towards Muslims, because Muslims have the political power. Muslims feel resentful towards Christians because they have more economic power. You have both groups feeling at a disadvantage towards one another. Power imbalances make the group feel insecure. Very often, the question is: Who gets the jobs? Who gets the housing?
My third point is, you can’t speak of Christian-Muslim relations in Indonesia; it’s too big a country. If you were to superimpose Indonesia on a map of Europe, it would extend from Ireland to the Caspian Sea. So Christian-Muslim relations aren’t duplicated from one place to another.
And so, my fourth point: Christian and Muslim communities in any given region are not monolithic. There’s really a wide variety of attitudes to other religions due to local histories and ethnic identification. Some Batak people are Christians, some are Muslim, some are Protestant, and some are Catholic. The important thing for them is that they’re Batak; their clan really demands a lot of commitment to them and a lot of support. And religion as an element of identity is really secondary. In many Javanese families, you’ll have Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim traditions of religion in the same household. This is a good tie. It binds people together. When they think of Muslims, if they’re Christians, they might think of their grandmother, or their uncle with whom they live. And so that’s something that brings people together. Then there are friendships, ideological agreements, and alliances.
Muslims in the Choir. The recent alliance between the Ulema, the traditional Islamic group, and the Catholic group has really been a noted element of Indonesian life. I was just there two months ago, and a bishop came from the United States, so they got a choir and we were having a special Mass. And the bishop was celebrating the Mass. They asked me if I would accompany the bishop because he was doing it in English and so he didn’t know Indonesian. The choir was singing. He said, “This choir is excellent.” And afterwards, he wanted to talk to the choir and asked the leader to come up and the bishop was talking to him, and he said, “Are you a member of the parish here?” And the young fellow said, “No, I’m a Muslim.” He asked, “You’re a Muslim? You’re the leader of the choir?” And he kind of turned to me. I said, “Well, half the choir is Muslim.” And it was. And in Yogyakarta, nobody would really think twice about this. It would really be a very normal thing, the sort of thing you would expect. My point is, you can’t over-simplify and say: Christian-Muslim relations in Indonesia are like this. It depends on the area, and also you have different and opposing things going on in the same place at the same time. While some people feel suspicious towards one another, other people will feel really close.
Fifth point: Relationships between Christians and Muslims are really fragile. You can’t ever take them for granted. You have to constantly be working in every new generation and every place has to work anew. People ask, “Well, are the relationships between Christians and Muslims improving or getting worse?” And I’m always stopped with that question because we hope they’re improving if we keep working to improve them, but sometimes they’re getting worse at the same time that they’re improving elsewhere.
Finally, theological positions, I think, are very secondary in determining peoples’ relationship to each other. But, on the other hand, one’s views of the other can determine our theological positions. Christians who primarily view Muslims with envy or anger or fear will tend to say things like Muslims have a different god from Christians because they don’t accept Jesus as son of God, or they don’t consider the Holy Spirit to be divine. But Christians who are committed to working together to build a pluralist society in Indonesia would certainly say that, yes, Muslims and Christians have the same God. We share many points in common, far more important than whatever we would feel differently. The same with Muslims. I notice when I’m in groups with Muslims who are very critical of Christians, they might say, “Oh my, these Christians have three gods. They’re not really monotheists.” But Muslims who really want to work together with Christians will affirm very quickly that Christians are monotheists and fellow children of Abraham.
So I think that in general, our theological attitudes towards the others come from the basic attitude we have. So what we do most of the time in Indonesia is work together. In the Catholic Bishops Conference there is a crisis center and the staff has Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims on it. We also have the educational center, which sends out teams of Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims. For our training programs, we would never do it one group alone. They could be seen as biased. Every group goes out as an interreligious group.
ISLAM, CHRISTIANITY, AND THE WEST
Ali A. Mazrui, of Mombasa, Kenya, is Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities and Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Oxford Doctor Mazrui is perhaps most widely known for his BBC television series with accompanying book, The Africans: A Triple Heritage. But his more than twenty books explore many issues of language, politics and culture, in Africa and the world, including prominently his own Islamic culture, and Christian culture.
Well, we need to distinguish cultures in which the paramount political value is liberty, from cultures in which the paramount political value is dignity. Such cultural differences need not lead to a clash of civilizations, but they can and do. Bedouin culture in the history of the Arabs had a highly developed mythology and nexus of dignity and honor. These dignitarian concepts penetrated the wider culture of the Arabs and had enormous consequences on a variety of issues, including war and peace, honor in war, and relationships between men and women. Arab culture had considerable influence on the religion of Islam.
Harvard professor Sam Huntington has argued that there are more violent situations involving Muslims in the world than situations involving members of any other civilization. Huntington does not distinguish between situations where Muslims are primarily victims as in Chechnya, Kashmir, and Palestine, and situations in which Muslims may be primarily perpetrators, as in Sudan. In most cases in which Muslims are in rebellion against the status quo, a substantial cultural reason for the rebellion is perceived collective dignity. This is true of rebellions of Muslims in Chechnya, Palestine, Macedonia, Kashmir, Kosovo, and even Nigeria.
So a clash of cultures did occur when President George W. Bush called upon the Taliban to surrender followers of Osama bin Laden, members of Al Qaeda. Just hand them over. There’s no talking. So putting it in terms of an ultimatum immediately poses the issue in terms of dignity and honor. It’s almost as if George W. Bush didn’t want to allow the Taliban any line of dignified retreat. His father did the same with Saddam Hussein. Get out of Kuwait. There’s nothing to talk about, and we will unleash a desert storm. So from the American side, there is an issue of macho. From the other side is the point of view of dignity. And unfortunately in that kind of clash, many innocent lives were lost because there was a stalemate.
Muslim Women: Less Freedom, More Dignity. The issue of dignity has consequences for gender relations. By the 20th century, women in the Muslim world were accorded more dignity and less liberty than women in the West. And women in the West were correspondingly accorded more liberty and less dignity than women in the Muslim world. In the Muslim world, there was far less prostitution than in the West, far less use of female sex appeal to sell commercial products. In the Muslim world, there were almost no beauty competitions with female display of bodies and there was far too much protection, of course, of women from the rat race of the marketplace.
Very often, the dignity factor was carried too far. But in general, it pervaded all notions of whether women can work in the marketplace and can reveal enough of their bodies. Sons in the Muslim world respect their mothers more than sons in the West because Muslim mothers are accorded higher dignity. But husbands in the Muslim world respect their wives less than husbands in the West because Muslim wives enjoy less liberty. So if the Western world has an excess of liberty, its center in the course of the 20th century became the United States. The Muslim world has always had an excess of dignity, and the center of the Muslim world has for centuries been the Middle East.
To add insult to injury, the West undertook to deprive Muslims of the center of that world and give it to Jews, not just Jews who are there, but Jews to be imported from different parts of the world. Dignity was further insulted by the military brilliance of Israel and its gross insensitivity to the sense of worth of other people.
An entirely different sub-theme of my presentation to you tonight is, “How significant is it that the terrorist targets on September 11, 2001, did not include a cathedral in New York or Washington, D.C.?” The planes of September 11th aimed for the World Trade Center, a symbol of American economic might. The terrorists aimed at the Pentagon, a symbol of American military might. The fourth airplane, which crashed in Pennsylvania, was probably intended for either the Congressional building or the White House, symbols of American political might. What was apparently missing was a desire to hit a symbol of American religious life. If there was a jihad in the house of the terrorists on September 11, it was a jihad against the West. It was not a jihad against Christianity. It was not a return to the crusade of religions at war. The West was not a religion.
Anti-Christian, or Anti-Western? At the global level, Islam’s confrontation is not, therefore, with its sister religion, Christianity. Islam’s confrontation is with the imperial might of the Western world. One can go further and say that since the end of World War II, the global situation is pulling Islam and mainstream Christianity closer together as allies in an increasingly irreligious world, in spite of what we have heard of clashes in individual countries. Since World War II, Islam and mainstream Christianity – but not all branches of Christianity – have been pulled closer together as allies in an increasingly irreligious world. On the other hand, even before World War II, but especially since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Islam and the Western World are in danger of being pulled further apart. At the global level, there’s a convergence of relations between Islam and mainstream Christianity as systems of sacred values, but there is a divergence of relations between Islam and the West as political forces on the world scene.
Within Muslim countries, local militants may not always know where to draw the line between being anti-Western and being anti-Christian. This may put a strain on Muslim-Christian relations. It may be a convergence of anti-Westernism with anti-Christianity or it may be the ethnicization of religious identity. But in general, the central point I’m making is that identifying major trends in the world, in spite of temporary evidence to the contrary, there is a Muslim-Christian convergence taking place simultaneously with a Muslim-Western divergence. So to take the Muslim-Christian convergence, Islam and Christianity are facing a shared threat from rising forces of Western secularism – television, cinema, press, and books. These can be perceived as threats to the values of both systems of sacred values.
Islam and Christianity are also facing a shared threat from rising forces of Western materialism, as distinct from just secularism – the rat race of the marketplace, acquisitiveness, and levels of consumption. Similarly, Islam and Christianity are facing a shared threat of rising forces of Western hedonism – love of pleasure: alcoholism, drugs, and narcotics, prostitution, and easy sex.
Finally, Islam and Christianity are facing a shared challenge of new social values: gay liberation, the ethics of abortion, and the ethics of cloning. Some of them are very confusing to these ancient sacred systems. On the other hand, the Western divergences include Western imperialism, Western racism, Western capitalism, and Western militarism. In fact, Western militarism is particularly worth noting. Western rhetoric about saving civilians in war has repeatedly been contradicted by Western practice in the conduct of war, including the war in Afghanistan.
Political ecumenicalism in the Muslim world is an aspect that has to be taken into account. There is an acceptance of upward social mobility of Christians in Muslim society that for the time being, the secular West has not matched in terms of religious affiliation. The rise of Boutros Boutros-Ghali in the Egyptian foreign service to become subsequently qualified to be Secretary General of the United Nations has no equivalent in the Christian world or Western world.
Tariq Aziz in Iraq was foreign minister of Saddam Hussein and deputy prime minister of Iraq. He is a Chaldean Christian in an overwhelming Muslim society. I’ve often referred to Leopold Senghor, a Catholic in Senegal. The percentage of Muslims in Senegal is higher than the percentage of Muslims in Egypt, because 94 percent of Senegalese are Muslims. And for 20 years, they had a Roman Catholic for president without jihad breaking out in the streets of Dakar. Following those 20 years, they had a president who had a Roman Catholic as first lady, whereas in this country we have never strayed beyond the Protestant fraternity, except once, and we have not even experimented with a Jewish president. Now there are as many Muslims as Jews in the United States. A Muslim president of the United States, I don’t think is going to happen during my grandchild’s time.
In general, I think there is optimism in my belief that there is convergence in the relations between mainstream Christianity and Islam, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest this is the case. Unfortunately, partly because of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the divergence between the West and the Muslim world is still ominous and frightening.