Religious Affinities or Animosities?
By Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui
How did an average Muslim perceive the United States of America in the pre-September 11 period? A country to envy and despise? A bulwark of Christianity? A sworn enemy of Islam? Undisputed leader of the West on a collision course with the Ummah?
The answer to all such questions is in the negative. Despite many misgivings about US foreign policy and Washington’s ambivalent posture on crucial issues such as Palestine and Kashmir, Muslims have been generally appreciative of America - a country on the march.
I have vivid recollections of my childhood impressions of the United States. The stagecoach winding its way on a dusty trail, eager prospectors panning for gold, the rush for California, and entrancing characters - Buffalo Bill, Daniel Defoe, Kit Carson, Monte Hale, Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Lash Larue, Rocky Lane, bounty hunters et al. - stalking the ‘Wild West’.
With time, I came to identify the US as the epitome of anything and everything quintessential with its glittering Ivy colleges that were soon to be the focus of all our pursuits. Not many of us could make it to Cornell or Harvard. But the unrivalled excellence of American institutions continued to exercise a magnetic pull on professionals, including the men in the khaki, who were keen to avail of an opportunity to train at Fort Benning or West Point. A closer exposure to American academics and Nobel Laureates had a singularly beneficent influence on my formative years. Professors Hans Bethe, Michael Moravscik,Octave du Temple, Donald Glaser, Nicholas Negroponte, Hofstadter, et al. were fine human beings and outstanding achievers. Their wives seemed to complement their values and attainments.
Come September 11 and the scene dramatically alters. The media churns out story after story to suggest that Islam and the West are on a collision course! There is a concerted effort to lend credence to Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations.’ A negative perception of Islam is aired day in and day out through newspapers, TV, radio, and films. We are more than familiar with the ridicule that Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington and a host of others hurl on the Muslim world without the slightest call of compunction.
Which brings us to the oft-debated debate: Are Islam and the West on a collision course? Professor Ralph Braibanti, an eminent scholar who has been on the faculty of Duke University since 1953, makes the incisive point in his illuminating essay “Islam and the West: Common Cause or Clash?” published by the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University. An excerpt:
“The ecumenical decree of Vatican Council II, Nostra Aetate (In Our Times) 1965 was a stunning repudiation of an attitude towards Islam regnant for more than half a millennium. It erased in a few poetically elegant sentences the imagery in Dante’s characterization of Mohammed as seminator di scandalo e di scima. Its newly sensitive appraisal of Islam eclipsed the somewhat less felicitous but more potentially powerful final sentence of paragraph 3: ‘On behalf of all mankind, let them [Muslims and Christians] make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace and freedom [et pro omnibus hominibus justiciam socialem, bona moralia necnon pacem et libertatem communiter tueuntur et promoveant].’
“This is clearly an exhortation to act. The errors of the past were acknowledged, animosities were to be forgotten, and points of agreement between the two religions were portrayed without animus or condescension,” writes the erudite professor.
Nostra Aetate unequivocally spelled out the religious affinity between Muslims and Christians: “Upon the Muslims, too, the Church looks with esteem [respicit]. They adore [adorant] one God, living and enduring, merciful and all-powerful, Maker of Heaven and earth and Speaker to men. They strive to submit wholeheartedly even to His inscrutable decrees, just as did Abraham, with whom the Islamic faith is pleased to associate itself. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere [venerantur] him as prophet. They also honor [honorant] Mary, his virgin mother; at times they call on her, too, with devotion. In addition they await the day of judgment when God will give each man his due after raising him up… Although in the course of the centuries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this most sacred Synod urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding. On behalf of all mankind, let them make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace and freedom.”
Viewed in this context, the visit of Pope John Paul to the Ommayad Mosque in Damascus on May 6, 2001, was an event of singular importance. He was the first Pope to set foot on a mosque and his message on the momentous day was truly befitting for the occasion: religious conviction was never a justification for violence. The Pontiff who gave a new dimension to Judeo-Christian ties with his visit to Rome’s synagogue in 1985, said it was time to open a new chapter in relations with the Muslims. “For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and to offer each other forgiveness…Better understanding will surely lead to a new way of presenting our two religions, not in opposition as has happened too often in the past, but in partnership for the good of the human family.”
Another news story emanating from the Vatican a few years later appeared equally heart-warming: Pope Benedict XVI expressed unreserved admiration for Muslims and Islam and called for freedom of religion and faith that rejects all forms of violence.
Returning from a four-day visit to Turkey that included an unscheduled stopover at Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, the Pope discussed his trip during his weekly audience at the Vatican. “On one side, it is necessary to rediscover the reality of God and public importance of religious faith, on the other to assure that the expression of faith is free, devoid of fundamentalist degeneration, capable of firmly repudiating any form of violence. I, therefore, was given the propitious occasion to renew my sentiments of esteem for Muslims and the Islamic civilization … At the same time I was able to insist on the importance that Christians and Muslims work together for mankind, for life, for peace and for justice.”
The Pope described his visit to the mosque as “a gesture that was not initially planned but that turned out to have great significance. During a few minutes of reflection in that place of worship I turned to the only God of Heaven and earth … May all believers see themselves as his creatures and bear witness of true brotherhood.” Towards the end of his visit to the Blue Mosque, the Pope stood shoulder to shoulder with Istanbul’s Grand Mufti Mustafa Cagrici for about a minute. He kept his arms crossed at his waist. His lips could be seen moving silently. Grand Mufti Mustafa Cagrici prayed aloud and touched his face in the traditional Islamic gesture at the end of the prayer. The Pope nodded and the two exchanged gifts.
The Pope’s visit and observations should prompt the moderate-majority among the Muslims and the Christians to be seized of their responsibility – to be conscious of religious affinities and to shun age-old animosities. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are three Abrahamic religions whose followers have a lot in common and they ought to work for a common cause rather than be launched unwarrantedly on a collision course.
Blissfully, there are several shining examples of Muslim and Christian communities demonstrating a spirit of co-existence and mutual accommodation. The Christian population in Jordan, for example, barely makes up three percent of the country’s total, yet it has been treated with love and respect by the Muslim majority. The late King Hussain and Crown Prince Hassan bin Talal made sustained strivings to ensure a spirit of harmony to bring the believers of the two faiths closer. The Royal Institute of Inter-Faith Studies established in 1994 has hosted several conferences and published insightful books, including Prince Hassan’s ‘Christianity in the Arab World.’
The year 1995 saw the establishment of the largest mosque in Europe in close proximity of the Vatican as a testimony of an attitudinal change between followers of the world’s two major faiths. Another significant event took place on September 12, 1997, when the Supreme Pontiff and Prince Sultan, the Second Deputy Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, met in Rome.
Quite a few other developments testify to the wholesome change that is taking place to ensure the well-being of Christian, Muslim, Jews and other communities so that they could live like friends rather than adversaries. The establishment of the Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations of Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham, England; the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding of Georgetown and publication of its journal ‘Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations’; the publication of ‘Islamochristiana’ by the Vatican’s Pontificio Istituto di Saudi Arabia; the strivings of UMA, AMA, CAIR, ISNA, and ISOC, recent PBS documentaries ‘Islam: Empire of Faith’ and ‘Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet’ provide fresh proof of this trend.
The Oxford lecture by the Prince of Wales in 1993 was also vividly indicative of the wholesome change. Prince Charles affirmed, “Islam can teach us to day a way of understanding and living in the world which Christianity itself is poorer for having lost.” Two years later, the Prince reaffirmed this view in a televised comment when he said that he would prefer to have the Crown’s title “Defender of the Faith” changed to “Defender of Faith.” He specifically mentioned Islam as one of the faiths of Britain.
In one of his Iftar party addresses at the White House, President Bush rightly remarked: “Islam is a religion that brings hope and comfort to more than a billion people around the world. It has made brothers and sisters of every race. It has given birth to a rich culture of learning and literature and science. Tonight we honor the traditions of a great faith by hosting this Iftaar at the White House…We see in Islam a religion that traces its origins back to God’s call on Abraham. We share your belief in God’s justice, and your insistence on man’s moral responsibility. We thank the many Muslim nations who stand with us against terror. Nations that are often victims of terror, themselves…”
Muslims, Christians, Jews and followers of other faiths, have to act in unison to arrest the current decline of civilization to make the world a more livable place. Islam and the West are on a coalition course and any suggestions of collision are simply misleading. Let’s be seized of our religious affinities and spurn unwarranted animosities.