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Seeds of Democracy: A Christian/Muslim Dialogue - by Peter Moore

Seeds of Democracy: A Christian/Muslim Dialogue

by Peter Moore

Danielle Pletka, in an article in the New York Times, 8/11/04, claims that “Arabs (are) on the Verge of Democracy.” She affirms this administration’s desire to “propagate democracy” in the Arab nations, even though the “Palestinian problem” remains unsolved. She also claims that “democracy is now at the center of debate in Arab capitals.” The following talk, given in late July, 2004, at the Chautauqua Institute, sketches some of the options for dialogue on democracy among Arabs (Muslims) and the West (Christians).

What I hope to do in this talk is begin with some preliminary remarks about the nature of interfaith dialogue, as I understand it, then proceed to talk about where such dialogue –- between Muslims and Christians -- might begin. I suggest that we might begin by each side talking about its historic failures, and some of its historic successes – stressing especially the failures. I then take a look at one possible topic for dialogue: our respective approaches to the issue of democracy. In doing so I try to dispel some myths about how Christianity and Islam have each related to governments over the centuries, and I cite some of the current obstacles that exist for each faith community to think together about this subject. Along the way I will have comments to make about our respective ideas about the place of law and war, and about how Muslims and Christians approach their Scriptures differently. I conclude by talking about some specific ways we can build bridges to one another, and why the issue of human rights must be on the agenda.

Let me begin, then, with a personal story.

I was walking through a particularly beautiful village in the mountains of Morocco, some years ago, and I was chatting with my twenty-something guide, a very talkative young man who seemed unusually eager to find out as much about me as he could.

“Are you American?” He asked, right off the bat. “Yes,” I said. “Are you Christian?” “Yes” again, I answered. “Are you Protestant?” Once again I said “Yes.”

“Wonderful,” he said. “We have these two English missionaries here in the village who are teaching us the Bible.”

I was surprised on a number of counts. First of all, I wasn’t aware that there were Christian missionaries in Morocco, nor that they could openly teach the Bible, nor that a bright, eager young man like this would be attracted, even if such were allowed. But this all happened in 1960, and a lot has changed in the world since then.

As we walked on, we continued talking. He began to reveal such enthusiasm for what he was learning, and such intellectual curiosity about Christianity, I asked him point blank if he were a Christian. “No,” he said. “Why not?” I asked. “You seem so interested in it.” All he answered me was: “My father is a Muslim.”

That conversation happened on the very first day I had set foot on the soil of an officially Muslim country, and I was at the time a graduate student in England – very green, somewhat naïve, and certainly not accustomed to what one might call interfaith dialogue.

Since then I have been to several Muslim countries, and have engaged in many conversations with Muslims – although I profess no special expertise on the subject of interfaith dialogue. Others here, I suspect, have had much more experience in formal inter-faith dialogues than I. I am a pastor and seminary educator with my own store of personal experiences in this fascinating world of interfaith dialogue – some more fruitful than others. I am also an Episcopalian, and an evangelical – a combination that might surprise some here who aren’t aware of the broad spectrum of views that go under the general rubric of Anglican.

Dialogue and mission

Being an evangelical means that I believe in mission. Therefore I believe in Christian missions in a Muslim context. If this disqualifies me, in your point of view, from saying anything useful on the subject of dialogue, so be it. But my point today is not to talk about mission. I take it as axiomatic that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – at least in its Old Testament context – are universalizing faiths, and hence all have a missionary vision. “I have set you to be a light to the nations,” says the Lord to Israel in Isaiah. 42:6. Judaism strongly attracted many Gentiles. The simple but majestic worship of one God, the lofty ethics, the generally high standards of family life, brought many, including people of rank, to the synagogues at the time the New Testament opens. A little later, by the time of Paul’s journeys, there were many Gentiles in synagogue attendance as ‘God-fearers’.

Interestingly, one of Britain’s leading Rabbis, who teaches at the University of Kent, argued that it’s pointless to tell Christians not to evangelize Jews, because it was in the nature of Christianity to share the Good News with everybody. “Just do it with sensitivity, and with respect, and with an appreciation of the heritage of those to whom you are speaking,” he asked. (Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Church Times, July 1991)

But interfaith dialogue is not evangelism. It may be the prelude to evangelism – on both sides. But it is not evangelism.

When I was a pastor in Toronto two young Somali men appeared in church one Sunday and afterwards asked if they could speak, as Muslims, to my congregation. I invited them to a mid-week Bible study, and said that if they would come and join us, I would give them equal time at the end of the study to share their own views.

They came, respectfully listened to our study, and then each spoke and answered questions. They began by saying that Islam had a more exalted view of Christ than any other religion in the world, which is quite true. The Qur’an speaks of Jesus as the “Son of Mary,” as born of a virgin, as “messiah”, as a prophet, as having power to cure the lepers, give sight to the blind, and bring the dead to life. Sufi Muslims take Jesus as a “rule of life.” Our people listened respectfully that evening, though a couple of our Pakistani immigrants urged me to be cautious. We pressed our Muslim visitors with questions, and they in turn asked us a few, and then left saying cordially that we understood more about Islam than they thought we would.

This is the sort of dialogue that I have in mind as I approach my subject today, not a formal interfaith consultation with experts lined up on each side. I am more interested in building bridges between ordinary believers of all faiths -- for several reasons.

Rationale for dialogue

First of all, not to convert – though that may be a long-term aim. Conversion is never the primary goal of dialogue. “Attention,” says M. Scott Peck, “is that form love takes in our modern fast-paced society.” When people are driven by a desire to convert they usually do not really pay attention, and hence they usually do not communicate love. Listening is an essential component in any genuine cross-cultural communication.

Nor, secondly, is dialogue aimed at conquest – as if the point were to prove the superiority of my culture, or my religion, or my ethics, or my world view. Even in Nigeria where Christians and Muslims are vying for political ascendancy, even on that very fault-line where the two cultures (the culture of the Muslim North and the Christian South) intersect, and even in a context where proselytization on both sides zealously takes place, it is possible for Christians and Muslims to sit down and talk with one another as friends.

Nor, I would add, is dialogue aimed at mere clarification – as if “understanding” were the essence of each religion. In the orthodox Christian tradition belief is often a prelude to understanding (“I do not understand that I might believe; but I believe that I might understand,” St. Anselm) (See. John: 7:17). Similarly, in Islam understanding is never to precede submission. The idea that understanding is somehow the essence of religion gets us closer to Gnosticism than it does to either Christianity or Islam.

The goal of dialogue, I believe, is to clear away misconceptions, and demolish stereotypes so that each member of the faith community can be free to be themselves: to be a “non anxious presence,” if you will, in one another’s company. When dialogue does not happen, the other remains a stranger, and hence under suspicion. Dialogue levels the playing field so that the game of communication can begin.

Persuasion and tolerance

And the goal of that game, as I see it, is persuasion. Persuasion is the ultimate aim of all rational discourse because if there is no point in talking, no aim, no ultimate goal towards which one wishes to move the other, then why bother to talk at all? Why make an effort to communicate?

But how does persuasion relate to tolerance? Persuasion and tolerance are never mutually exclusive. Tolerance will always be an important component of any interfaith dialogue, but it cannot be ultimate. Tolerance always plays a secondary role. After all, people don’t tolerate ideas with which they agree. They only tolerate ideas with which they disagree. By its very nature tolerance assumes difference, disagreement, and conflict. Tolerance is simply another way of speaking to the other with respect.

Furthermore, tolerance is only required when dialogue is assumed to be taking place on my turf. It’s when we make up the majority that dialogue is a test of our tolerance. But on those occasions when we are in the minority, tolerance becomes a test of our courage. Tolerance assumes that while I show respect, I claim the freedom to disagree. Hence, if we are to have a level playing field, the most fruitful dialogues will ideally take place on some neutral turf – which, for those of us living in the West, is frequently difficult to find.

But, let us assume for a moment that we are sitting on the deck of an ocean liner, or chatting on an airplane -- some neutral place -- across from a Muslim brother, or sister. Where might we fruitfully begin?

Since leading from weakness often elicits an honest reaction, I suggest that we begin by admitting some of our separate failures and some of our collective successes. Stereotypes flourish when we magnify another’s failures, and forget another’s successes. So, why not begin by a little bit of honesty?

Christian failures

Bernard Lewis, the Princeton professor who has become one of the foremost interpreters of Islam to the West, and vice versa, argues that viewed historically, Christianity has been more violent than Islam – a fact that might surprise us. He says that this is particularly true when one thinks of Christian on Christian violence: Protestant versus Catholic, Catholic versus Protestant. For centuries Europe was awash with Christian blood spilled by other Christians. Nothing, he says, like this is true of Muslims who historically have tolerated a variety of expressions of Islam, except when an expression is considered too far from the mainstream such as the Aga Kahn’s Ismaili Muslims, the Ba’hais and the Sufis, to name three that have all experienced persecution.

It must also be admitted that professing Christians have not always been tolerant of other religions: the Crusades are the prime example, still very fresh in Muslim minds. However much the Crusades were limited in their scope and a response to Muslim invasions of formerly Christian lands, the fact is that they are a blot on our historical record. There are other unfortunate examples. One thinks of Pizarro’s conquest of the Incas, and pogroms against the Jews. All these acts of violence paint a unflattering picture of the church when it held political power, or when one section of the church had political power over the others.

Viewed at historically, the church’s record in tolerating slavery, relegating women to second-class status, and mistreating homosexuals, has left a great deal to be desired – even though, to be fair, it has often been reformist Christians guided by fresh biblical insights who have caused the church to rethink its former harshness and alter its behavior.

And how well has Christianity fared in shaping personal morality, or redeeming the social order? Divorce is as common among church people as it is in the population as a whole. The same goes for pre-marital sex if the statistics we read are accurate. What of chemical dependencies? Suicide? Or what of broad social indicators like: Crime? Racism? Child abuse? Gambling? Corporate wrong doing? We could all come up with our own list. Has Christianity made the impact it should have in the West, given our numerical strength and majority status? Or have we succumbed to the ravages of secularism? To what extent do people’s beliefs truly shape their behavior?

So, to sum up so far, dialogue might begin with a frank admission of Christian failures. What about Muslim failures?

Muslim failures

Some would argue that it’s a lot easier for those of us in the West to confess our corporate sins than it is for those in the Muslim world to confess theirs. One finds many fewer voices of self-criticism in the Muslim world than one finds in the Judeo-Christian world. This, in part, is because of the cultural hegemony of the West, and because militant, political Islam feeds off of Western failures – both perceived and actual.

But occasionally one finds Muslims who are able to be honest about their own failures. When they do so, dialogue is greatly enhanced.

Is our Muslim friend, sitting beside us on the boat or the plane, willing to speak out against extremist tendencies within his own Muslim community? A group of Muslim scholars signed a statement following 9/11 that condemned the violence against innocent civilians. Would our friend be willing to echo those sentiments?

What about lamenting the decline of Islamic influence in Western culture, following its glory days in the Middle Ages. There was a time when Islamic scholars were in the forefront of scientific investigation and philosophical learning. “No people in the early Middle Ages contributed to human progress as much as did the Arabs,” wrote the historian Philip Hitti. (The Arabs, A Short History, Regnery, 1996, p.5) Today the whole Islamic world is in serious cultural decline. Take just the Arab world. The entire Arab world translates a little over 300 books into Arabic a year, one-fifth the number of Greece. This indicates a serious lack of cultural interaction. Bernard Lewis puts the issue even more strikingly: since the ninth century, the total number of books translated into Arabic is approximately 100,000. That’s the average that Spain translates into Spanish in a single year! (The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror) One Muslim scholar writes: “Islam is probably the only monotheistic religion in which scholarly exploration is systematically discouraged, if not forbidden, since rational analysis would not serve the purpose of the despots.” (Fatema Mernissi, Islam and Democracy, p.24) Would our Muslim friend admit that this was a problem?

What about the Islamic record on human rights, the treatment of women, the relegation of non-Muslims in Muslim lands to dhimmi or second-class status? What about the use of force to subjugate peoples and compel conversions to Islam? What about present day slavery in certain parts of the Muslim world? What about Muslim-inspired terrorism? Are any of these justified in his mind?

Unless there is a willingness to acknowledge some of these as problems, our chances of dialogue are slim. Fortunately, there are some Muslims who are willing to look critically at their own tradition and yet still speak from within it.

One such person is the Moroccan sociologist Fatema Mernissi who teaches at University Mohammed V in Rabat. She writes of several fears that she sees lying deep within the Muslim soul:

• First, fear of having a personal opinion. When Mohammed conquered Mecca, the Meccans renounced their freedom to think and to choose their gods. The 360 gods of the Ka’ba were dethroned. Since then, “under the terror of the sword,” Mernissi writes, “political despotism has obliged Muslims to [simply] defer discussion about responsibility, freedom to think, and the [dangers] of blind obedience.” (Islam and Democracy, p.19)

• Second, fear of the feminine. Mernissi points out that among the 360 gods of the Ka’ba which Islam replaced on the Arabian peninsula, the most powerful were goddesses. This, she says, is partly why the triumph of monotheism is so tied up in the Muslim mind with the invisibility of the feminine. Encouragingly, she argues that now women are challenging centuries of misogyny, insisting on regarding women as equals, and leaving many faithful baffled.

• Third, fear of modernity and all it promises. To understand this fear, Dr. Mernissi says, we have to try to understand the nature of the deep underlying anger towards the West among young, and especially poor, Muslims. [This anger] isn’t just a declaration of war against the wealthy Western world, and its allies in the Middle East. Rather, she says, it’s a deep anguish over being “forgotten in the great feast of knowledge which is the promise of modernity.” (p.88) She calls “the outcry [of these young] the plaint of the unloved child of the family cut off from modern knowledge and its sciences that promise work and dignity.” (p.88)

• Fourth, fear of individualism. Since “Supremacy, greatness, strength, and sheer power belong only to God,” says Mernissi, individualism is thought to lead to the elevation of some over against the many. So individualism is deeply suspect. Islam is one long “outcry against arrogant individualism.” When the Prophet Mohammed conquered the aristocratic Arabs, in the Seventh Century, he gained their undivided submission as the price [that must be paid] to build an egalitarian community. But did this annihilation of individuality before Allah ultimately bring the classless society Mohammed envisioned? And does the lingering fear that some new false prophet might elevate himself over against the multitude, justify the annihilation of individualism?

• Finally, fear of the West. Mernissi writes: “The powerful, monolithic West…(that) haunts our Arab imagination… is more fiction than fact…Torn by ethnic and regional rivalries…the West is disintegrating before our eyes. Nevertheless, for us Arabs this West, splintering into a myriad of conflicting interests, still has power over our daily lives. It crushes our potentialities and invades our lives with its imported products and televised movies that swamp [our] airwaves. Seen from the Arab side of the Mediterranean, the West (more exactly, Europe), however splintered and divided … is a power that crushes us, besieges our markets, and controls our merest resources, initiatives, and potentialities.”

Well, those are considerable admissions coming from the Muslim side. If our friend can echo some of those sentiments, we are beginning to establish a level playing field, by admitting some of our weaknesses and past misdeeds; and inviting him or her to share some reflections on Islamic weaknesses and mistakes through the centuries. We have begun building a bridge without condemnation or superiority.

Mutual successes

We might then proceed to talk about some mutual successes.

Both Islam and Christianity (as well as Judaism) acknowledge one another as “people of the book.” It is for this reason that Muslims grant Jews and Christians a privileged, although not equal, status within an Islamic society.

Both Islam and Christianity (as well as Judaism, of course) have sought to maintain a monotheistic faith in the midst of a pluralistic world – with some success.

Both Islam and Christianity (and Judaism once more) have spawned a cultural tradition that has altered and shaped the lives of millions – perhaps billions.

And, both have seen a recent revival of religious enthusiasm in the midst of an increasingly secularized world – some might say in reaction to secularization. Conservative Islam and conservative Christianity are both experiencing a remarkable resurgence at just the time when they were thought to have become passé.

However, the fact is that Muslims and Christians remain deeply suspicious of one another.

Years ago I was living in a high rise in Harlem and heard a knock at my door. My next-door neighbor stood there dressed in a tuxedo and wearing a very worried expression on his face. “My daughter is getting married, and the guests have all arrived;” he said, “but something has gone terribly wrong. The priest is not coming. Reverend Moore, would you be willing to marry them?”

I found out that he meant right now! After asking various questions such as: “Do they have a wedding license? Have they been married before? Are they members of a Christian church?” and receiving positive answers to all my questions, I agreed. Within minutes, I was in clericals, performing a wedding in the apartment right next door to my own.

After it was over, and photographs had been taken, I said my goodbyes and returned to my apartment. A couple of hours later, there was another knock on the door. This time it was the groom. “I’ve come to pay my debt,” he said, in a rather hostile voice. I said “Look, keep your money, I just want you and your wife to have a blessed marriage.” “It will be blessed,” he said, again with a strong note of hostility, “Because it will be lived under the universal spirit.” I’m not sure what made me ask him, but I then said: “Are you a Christian?” “No,” he said emphatically. “Are you a Muslim?” “Yes,” he said. “Is your wife a Muslim?” Again, “yes.”

“Well, you lied to me,” didn’t you,” I said. “You’ve gone against your own religion.” He had a curious reply: “We don’t believe in living in sin.” I guess he meant by that that lying to me was less of a sin than adultery or fornication. Therefore, getting married legally was an absolute necessity, and hence the wedding had to go on..

“Would you promise to come back and talk with me about this sometime?” I asked. He said he would; but never did.

This was a rare experience, to be sure. But it does underscore the fact of deep suspicions between Muslims and Christians, and the continuing tensions – I guess we should say the mounting tensions – between us.

How, then, do we continue to build bridges even in the midst of mutual suspicion and mounting tensions? This is a question that simply must be faced. So I asked myself, is there a subject that might bring more light that heat to an authentic Christian/Muslim dialogue – one that is relevant and where each side has something to contribute? And I came up with the subject of democracy. Most likely it’s those within the Muslim community who are most eager for democracy who will be most interested in dialogue. But here we face a paradox.

Islam and democracy

Bernard Lewis puts the paradox well in an article in the Atlantic Monthly:

On the one hand, from an historical perspective, of all the non-Western civilizations in the world Islam is closest to the West, because it shares so much of the Judeo-Christian as well as the Greco-Roman heritage that helped form our modern civilization. Therefore, we might assume a potential openness to democracy, which is the political fruit of that heritage.

But on the other hand, from a political perspective, Islam seems to offer the worst prospects for liberal democracy. “Of the forty-six sovereign states that make up the international Islamic Conference, only one, the Turkish Republic, can be really described as a democracy in Western terms. (March 16, 2004)

And yet, it is precisely those voices within the Islamic world that are calling for democracy that we need to dialogue with at this point in time. These Muslims are caught in a tension between two movements that are happening simultaneously: a religious resurgence on the one hand, and democratization on the other. As the authors of a recent book on Islam and Democracy put it: “In [some Muslim] areas, movements of religious revival coincide with and sometimes reinforce the formation of more democratic political systems. But in other areas, the two dynamics are in conflict. In the Muslim world, these issues are raised with special force because of the paradoxical strength of the Islamic resurgence on the one hand and the intensity of the demands in recent years for greater participation in the political process” on the other. (John L. Esposito, John O. Voll, Islam and Democracy, Oxford, New York, 1996, p. 3)

These authors, both Georgetown professors, are worried about the potential for a global confrontation that will no longer be between superpowers or nation-states, but between civilizations. (p.192) They find this to be all the more reason for us to talk to one another.

What, then, are the points of connection between Christianity and Islam on the subject of democracy?

Christianity and democracy

Today, in the West, Christianity is almost synonymous with democracy. The vast majority of Christians in the West would argue that a government that exists “of the people, and for the people, and by the people”, a government that respects the rule of law, recognizing itself to be in some sense “under God”, a government that embodies checks and balances against the emergence of absolutism, and a government that constitutionally guarantees basic human rights is about as compatible as anything we know with the faith we hold to be true. We may not go as far as Francis Fukuyama who argued that democracy was the “end of history”, that no better form of government now need be sought for. But as Ali Mazuri, a Muslim professor at Binghamton University, put it: “democracy is the most humane system of government that the human race has so far invented.” (Address: “Islam In Search of a Muslim Path to Democracy”)

However, we have to admit that Christianity has co-existed with a wide variety of political and economic systems. Over the years it has coexisted with absolute monarchies and constitutional monarchies, with dictatorships and oligarchies. It has coexisted with socialism and laissez-faire capitalism. It has coexisted with systems where racial minorities, ethnic minorities, and women have been relegated to second class-status. For not a few centuries it coexisted with the practice of slavery.

The coexistence Christianity has had with all these political systems does not mean that Christians have approved of all the practices in these systems. Sometimes Christians prophetically strove against many practices they considered to be evil, while at other times they acquiesced in them. This ambivalence perhaps comes from the Bible itself where two verses seem to be at odds. On the one hand is the word of Jesus: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Mt. 22:21) But then, then, there is St. Paul’s statement about the state being “God’s servant” and the civil authority “not bearing the sword in vain.” (Rom. 13:3,4) The Bible, then, makes room for a multitude of political systems within which the church can live, but at the same time upholds the sacred responsibility of government to be God’s instrument for justice and peace.

Islam and government

Similarly, Islam has also existed under a variety of political systems, and continues to do so today. It has co-existed with absolute monarchies, and constitutional monarchies. It has been a minority group within non-Muslim states, and as with Bosnians and Kazaks, it has existed under communist and socialist systems. Today it coexists in Turkey and perhaps Indonesia, with democracies.

But two things make it difficult for Islam to affirm the tolerant pluralism that Christians today assume to be of the essence of civilized society.

First, there is no such thing as separation of church and state within Islam. In fact, there is no “church” at all, if you mean an institutional apparatus with clergy and such as we know in the West. Islam in its pure Qur’anic form is co-terminus with the state. Religious authority and state authority go hand in hand. And concurrent with this is the assumption, indeed the mandate, that all Muslims live within a Muslim state. It is fascinating to see how that is being modified in recent years as increasing numbers of Muslims have chosen to immigrate to and live in the democratic West. But the original mandate was that Muslims live in a Muslim state, with Muslim laws, etc.

And second, there is no affirmation within the Qur’an that there can be peaceful co-existence and equality under the law between Muslims and non-Muslims within a Muslim state. It is true that in the beginning, when Mohammed fled to Medina in 622 AD and acquired temporal power, he established what is called the Constitution of Medina – a covenant with the people there, Jews especially, in which all the religious communities were put on an equal footing. There were other such constitutions and covenants. But as Islam spread, and became dominant in the region, a system was established where Christians and Jews were protected, on condition that they accepted second-class status. They were Dhimmi – a word meaning “responsibility”. The Muslims had responsibility towards those protected, and vice versa. But there was no equality.

What about Sharia?

Dr. Robert Carle, in a paper prepared for Columbia University Press, describes the rights of non-Muslims under Sharia. Sharia is the name given to the law of Islam, applied to every facet of life. It is based on the Qur’an, which is the revelation to the Prophet; but also on the Hadith, and the Sunnnah – the sayings and actions of the Prophet, recorded later. Under Sharia, hands and feet are to be cut off for various infractions, stoning and floggings are prescribed for others. Women as well as non-Muslims are second-class citizens. “Women can’t marry non-Muslims; and in a court of law a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s. A woman is allotted half the inheritance of her brother. Polygamy is permitted, as is the beating of disobedient wives. Christians and Jews are permitted to practice their religion, but they must pay a tributary tax (jizya). Until the 20th. Century, this tax was to be paid publicly, and with humiliation. (See Islam Unveiled, p.183) Non Muslims are not allowed to hold political office, serve in the military, or share their faith with Muslims. Pantheists, pagans and atheists have no rights at all.” (Paper: “Revealing and Concealing: Islamist Discourse on Human Rights.” Robert Carle)

Sharia was the standard rule within the Muslim lands up until the rise of nationalisms in the 20th. Century. Then with the rise of Turkish nationalism, and even Arab nationalism, Islam began to be understood as a subset of culture – an important and essential component, but not absolutely central. Sharia law was abandoned. Hence we have the Turkish experiment where Islam coexists (somewhat uneasily) with a secular democratic state. Interestingly, when a large number of the Islamic states wrote their constitutions in the 1940’s ‘50’s and 60’s, there were numerous Christians in each of these countries who made significant contributions to the political process. But then things began to change as nationalism receded and the Cold War came to an end. Increasingly, outspoken voices within the Islamic world began saying that the problems besetting the Arab and Islamic lands were the result of an abandonment of true Islam. And so the resurgence began.

Today throughout the Islamic world one finds the most prevalent view being that Islam (not nationalism) can provide all the answers for polity, for the economy, and for living together. One of the most vocal proponents of this was Sayyid Qutb (pronounced KUH-tahb), a brilliant Egyptian scholar who the New York Times cites as the intellectual father of Islamic radicalism. Qutb, who was executed by Nasser in ’66, believed that the fundamental problem in the world was traceable to the Christian separation of the sacred and the secular. By putting the spiritual world in one corner, and the secular in the other, Christianity opened up the way for the malaise of modernity where man is cut off from his true nature. Only the reinstitution of Sharia and the full conquest of Islam will correct this “hideous schizophrenia” of modern life. Qutb’s cry was that we must re-institute Sharia wherever possible, and millions of intelligent Muslims are now echoing his ideas.


Related to Sharia is the knotty problem of Jihad, which has two meanings in Islam. The Greater Jihad is a spiritual and ascetical struggle within the individual. It is a struggle to live a faithful and God-honoring life. The Lesser Jihad is war against the enemies of Islam. The Qur’an insists that Muslims “fight against the friends of Satan” (Sura 4:76) and “slay the idolaters wherever you find them.” (Sura 9:5) This fight can be waged with the weapons of apologetics and debate. But it can also involve the force of arms, and has often been understood that way. A number of Islamic commentators bent on portraying Islam as essentially peace-loving try to dispel the idea that this means taking up arms against anyone perceived to be opposing Islam. However, the more militant definition seems to be the common currency of the day within the Muslim world. The Qur’an does say that “there [must be] no compulsion in religion,” (Sura 2:256). However, historically Christians and Jews have frequently been presented with the stark option of conversion or the sword. You find nothing like Jesus’ words, “Turn the other cheek” or “Resist not evil” in Islamic theology.

The problem that the modern Muslim has with these elements in his or her heritage, indeed within the Qur’an itself, is that there is simply no acceptable way of re-interpreting these more stringent and more militant teachings of Islam. To be faithful means that one accepts them literally.

Interpreting Scriptures

What I mean is that there is no understanding in Islam of what Christians call “progressive revelation.” Take, for example, the way Christians read the more militant parts of the Old Testament. They are understood as sui generis – as pertaining to a previous time, and a previous moment in the history of redemption. The Hebrew conquest of Canaan and the punishments for various infractions of the biblical law, are like the dietary and ceremonial laws in the Bible. They have all been set aside by Christ, and are no longer applicable to Christians today. Jesus said, “You have heard, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth; but I say unto you, resist not evil.” Also, St. Paul said, “Christ is the end of the Law.” Therefore, while the moral law is still revered as eternal by Christians, the ceremonial and judicial laws of the Old Testament are no longer valid. Many Jews take a similar approach to Old Testament rules and regulations.

But within Islam there is no such progression. What was true then is true today. If macabre punishment is demanded for stealing, that has to be as true today as it was yesterday, or so say the most vocal exponents of Islam, those who want to reinstitute Sharia. Efforts to promote a more rational interpretation of the Qur’an have appeared among Muslims from time to time. And our hope is that those who strive for a more nuanced interpretation will win the day. But this is hard, given the Muslim insistence that the Qur’an is perfect, dictated to Mohammed by the Angel Gabriel. The Qur’an is not, like the Jewish or Christian Scriptures understood to be the Word of God filtered through the words of men. It is pure word of God. Indeed the Qur’an is actually more than even a revelation to Mohammed. The Qur’an is eternal, say orthodox Muslims. Hence it must be literally truthful in all its statements.

In the 8th and 9th. Centuries AD there was a movement aimed at tempering the aggressive understanding of the Qur’an. It swept through the Islamic world at the time. (The Mu’tazilites, “the Separated Ones”). A group of scholars were uncomfortable with the literal readings of the Qur’an, and they sought to bring respect for reason to bear on its interpretation. But there was an orthodox reaction, and the reaction led to a full-fledged inquisition. The movement was squashed. From then on even to say that the Qur’an was created became a crime punishable by death. This incident makes it all the more difficult for moderate Muslims today to update their approach to the Qur’an.

So, where does this leave us? What wiggle room do we and does our Muslim friend have, as we sit down next to each other on our boat or plane and discuss democracy. More than might appear.

Building bridges

We both know that there is a great debate within the Muslim world about whether Islam is compatible with democracy at all. Nevertheless, some – perhaps most – Islamic states want to justify their own systems by some appeal to democratic principles. Even within repressive Iran one will find functioning executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government. In Iran there is an elected president and a parliament that engages in lively debate. And within limits there is freedom to disagree with current leadership.

Turkey is, of course, both a fascination and a threat to the rest of the Islamic world. Even there, democracy is a work in progress.

In Algeria, to take a different example, democratic elections in 1990 and 1991 led to a victory by an overtly Islamic party, which was then squashed by the military. The military feared that democracy would be wiped out that Algeria would become the victim of: “One man, one vote, once.” That would be it. The 1991 repression in Algeria has led some to conclude that democracy cannot be thought to have arrived in any country until at least two successive free and peaceful elections have occurred.

In some other Muslim countries democracy is still a far off hope -- a thin veneer where there may be elections and representative assemblies, but one party rule is firmly and rigidly imposed.

Not surprisingly, many Muslims seem to misunderstand our Western forms of democracy. For example, a Muslim visiting the House of Commons in England was appalled at the bickering and bantering that was part of the political process. To him this was a sign of social instability, and a clear indication that Islam and the West have very different views of law. “You argue and debate with one another because you believe that laws are created by men. We Muslims do not behave like this because we believe that laws come from God.” How might you try to tell your Muslim friend that this is a sign of the strength of our systems, rather than of their weakness?

The fact is that there is more wiggle room on the subject of democracy within Islamic history and even within the Qur’an, than some hard-liners on both sides might think.

Seeds of democracy

There is the idea that the law, given by God, is transcendent and that rulers and politicians are to be judged by it. They cannot manipulate the law for their own ends.

There is the view that says that the Qur’an must be seen as a “constitution” for Muslim societies. Therefore, the idea of constitutional order, as opposed to authoritarianism, is rooted in the Islamic system.

There is the idea that consensus (ijma) and consultation (shurah) are both rooted in the Islamic tradition. The idea of disagreement (ikhtilaf) is also historically and explicitly allowed. All three of these concepts work against authoritarianism.

There is the fact that certain rights and roles of minorities within Islamic society are spelled out – especially for other “people of the book” – Jews and Christians. Dhimmi, while totally inadequate to our ears, is in fact the contract through which the Muslim community accords hospitality and protection to members of other religions. Might this be extended to genuine reciprocity? If Muslims can have a mosque in Sydney, why could Christians not have a church in Riyadh?

There is the place of legitimate differences within the Muslim community as reflected in the different strands of legal tradition. For example, within Sunni Islam there are four schools that understand the fundamentals of Islam differently. Therefore the idea that Sharia is a “given” that cannot be changed in any way, might yield to a more flexible approach.

There is a recognition of the right to form separate organizations that could restrain the functioning of rulers – a kind of nascent separation of powers. No Islamic state yet has a full separation of the political, legislative, and judicial branches of government. But historically Islam has allowed associations of learned people who were acknowledged as providing consensus and balance to the powers of the Caliphs.

Even the concept of Jihad may be capable of some fudging. What might come of a frank Christian/Muslim discussion of the virtues of Jihad over against the traditional Christian concept of the Just War?

Human rights

Finally, there is the issue of human rights – the stickiest issue of all. Clearly within the Islamic community one finds a great unease about this subject. Nearly all Muslim states signed the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. They had to do so to be seated in the United Nations as signatories to all the conventions. But since then, there have been two influential Islamic statements on Human Rights – the Universal Islamic Declaration on Human Rights, and the Cairo Declaration. Both these appear to follow the wording of the United Nations Declaration very carefully, but then both add amendments and reservations that according to Moroccan sociologist Fatema Mernissi “camouflage all the legal texts that come into conflict with obedience to Islamic authority.”

For example, women’s rights are not guaranteed in the Islamic statements on human rights. Nor is the freedom to practice and to change one’s religion. Apostates from Islam may be punished by losing hands and feet -- before being killed. Female apostates are to be imprisoned until they change their minds. The right to marry must be “in conformity with one’s religion.” In effect the Sharia law is given supremacy over the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Dr. Mernissi comments, the “rejection of the principle of equality is a grave malady the Arab states suffer from….For Arab countries, the United Nations, with its charter and conventions, is an arena for manipulation and hypocrisy.” Clearly this cannot be something with which the rest of the world, much less Christians or Jews, can be comfortable. And we must believe that many Muslims are not comfortable with it either.

So, while there definitely is wiggle room, there are problems to discuss.

What I think must be abandoned is the frequently heard idea that we in the West must persuade Muslims to adopt a post-modern pluralism that accords equal validity to all religions. This cherished secularized Western idea will not be acceptable to devout Muslims nor to traditional Christians for that matter. Neither group is likely to accept a bland kind of universalism that robs them of the fundamental missionary impulse that is inherent in both their faiths. But we can hope that despite disagreements, we can live together, listen to one another, and learn from one another.

How will we know when progress is being made? Obviously, the end of terrorism will be one huge sign. But another sign might be for both sides to have the ability to poke fun at our own inadequate expressions of democracy. We know that democracy in the West is imperfect. It is a “work in progress.” Democracy in any form for most of the Muslim world is still a frightening though fascinating possibility. It would be wonderful if we could hear that coming from them more. As one American commentator put it: On our side, “We need to promote the moderate interpretation of Islam by emboldening and empowering Islamic reformers to instigate a self-criticism within the Islamic world. We need to see an Islamic reformation.[And] how will we know there is a reformation? One very telling indicator will be the appearance [on TV] of… Muslim comedians.” (Bill Steigerwald, “How To Win The Terror War”, Pittsburgh Tribune Review)

Dr. Peter C. Moore is the fomer President of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. He is based in Sewickley, Pennsylvania


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