Dialogue with extremists -- what are the boundaries?
By Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden
Sept. 15, 2016
How do we as Christians relate to and dialogue with those who are overwhelmingly seen as Islamic Extremists by many Muslims and non-Muslims?
Our approach should be primarily based on the biblical injunction to peace making and the theological understanding of the church's reconciling ministry. Facing religious extremism it must also draw on scripture's prophetic tradition that is willing to confront ungodliness and evil. The Bible calls us to confront, not reconcile with evil.
In following the Christian calling of peace making, will informed Christians in the UK come to the same conclusion as Lambeth Palace: that even the two Pakistani clerics, Muhammad Naqib ur Rehman and Hassan Haseeb ur Rehman who hailed the murderer of Salman Taseer as an Islamic Martyr, should be welcomed to Lambeth and treated as religious leaders?
Mr Taseer, assassinated in 2011, was Governor of the Punjab and criticised Pakistan's anti-blasphemy laws. The two clerics praised Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed for his murder in January 2016, and called on Muslims to attend his funeral "to defend the Honour of the Prophet".
They also defend the "blasphemy law" (Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code). Currently Asia Bibi languishes on death row, falsely accused under this law. The Archbishop's welcome to those who argue for the law's continuation is likely to continue pressure on Christians and others who have been unjustly accused and face death under that law.
Christians need to consider some questions very carefully.
In Western Europe polarization is increasing over the presence and growth of Islam. Studies confirm that for third generation British Muslim youth and possibly similar groups in Europe, religion is the main and even unique marker of identity.
The challenge of Islamic radicalization among young people is urgent. How then does Archbishop Welby's public welcome of the two religious leaders ( as opposed to politicians) speak to the process of radicalization? Understandably, it seems to address the need to tackle polarising attitudes to Islam in Britain by moving in the pathway of peace building. The Lambeth Palace spokesman said: "The Archbishop received a first-hand account of the situation in Pakistan, which is a highly significant country for faith relationships in the UK." Was the Archbishop briefed by Church of Pakistan Bishops, or by at least a neutral source or a moderate Muslim? Some spokespersons for Islam are no friends of Christianity and information from them must be assessed carefully.
But while Christians must always extend the hand of peace, should they not also be clear that there are some whose actions and attitudes need to be publicly condemned? Not just acts but the people who applaud such acts must be exposed and called to renounce them. Without that, extending any hand of peace can be seen as a sign of weakness and naivety.
Can reconciliation occur if the other still wants to kill you? Or does it start with a change of attitude i.e. mutual acceptance? Ezekiel condemned those who said "Peace, peace" when there is no peace.
Any Christian gesture of peacemaking must also consider that we are a global Christian family. Anglicans, as a Global Communion, stress that significantly. Will Pakistani Christian brothers and sisters support such an action? How do they feel when they see people welcomed to Lambeth Palace who, if they had their way, would exterminate them? Many Muslims in Pakistan are also appalled at the valorization of Taseer's assassin.
Was the strategy to open a dialogue about religious extremism, about which the British Government is seeking to take steps? Meeting 'men of violence' is nothing new for British politicians. Tony Blair met with Jerry Adams and Martin McGuinness five months after becoming Prime Minister in October 1997. The issue was political, the goal was an end to the 'troubles' and the venue was in Belfast, not Number 10. The Lambeth Palace meeting was 'faith relationships in the UK'.
If politics was the agenda, why not meet on neutral ground or at the Foreign Office? An official welcome to Lambeth is a propaganda coup for Islamists because they can argue that western Christian leaders in receiving them have no problem with the status that these leaders give Christians in Pakistan as second class citizens.
The welcome also raises the question about the definition that Church of England leadership might give to religious extremism. The Lambeth Palace meeting might suggest that community harmony in the UK is the absolute priority. For the UK Government Counter-Extremism Strategy (2015) such harmony appears to be secured at the price of religious freedom. What line must be crossed before behaviour is counted as intolerable in civilized society?
Are there any boundaries in the search for reconciliation? Is there to be no evaluation of behaviour? Few religious leaders are so saintly as to be able to pursue such a course. Are unacceptable public positions to be met with silence in order not to offend another community? It is public knowledge that honour killings, female genital mutilation, and cousin marriages are 'winked at' by some British institutions for fear of triggering hostile reactions from some communities.
More study and reflection is clearly needed on what counts as religious extremism, how Christians should counter it, and how to evaluate religion in the light of politics and politics in the light of religion.
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