Thomas Michel, S.J. (Islamic Office of the Council for Inter-religious / The Vatican)

Never before has the issue of Christian-Muslim relations been brought into sharper focus than in the period after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States of America. Thomas Michel, S.J., director of the Islamic Office of the Vatican's Council for Inter-religious, reflects in this article -- drawing upon his deep and wide experiences -- on Christian-Muslim relations from a very broad and analytical perspective. (ORIGINAL: JCTR Bulletin, Jesuit Center fot Theological reflection, Lusaka: Zambia, Number 57, 2003)

Recently on Italian television, the daily news report was much concerned with the Muslim world. One story noted the closure of the American Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, after the attack on the foreign compound on 16 May. A second story related the terrorist attacks in Casablanca, Morocco, that occurred three days later. A third story recounted how in Ankara, Turkey, a would-be suicide bomber belonging to a radical leftist group was killed when her bomb exploded prematurely in a restaurant rest room.
As the news commentators speculated how more "Islamic terrorist attacks" might be expected in reaction to the Anglo-American war on Iraq, the television images showed rows of men in flowing robes and turbans in prayer at an outdoor mosque.

The message conveyed to the viewers was that Islam is a violent religion (talk of terrorism superimposed on images of men at prayer), and the white robes and turbans of the worshipers reinforced the impression of many that Islam is both culturally alien and opposed to modern life. Islam and its followers were clearly depicted as a dangerous threat not only to Europeans, but also to all who cherish modern values.
While the facts presented in this typical newscast cannot be denied -- the terrorist attacks did occur, and many Muslims do gather for prayer in traditional dress -- the alleged connection between these facts can and needs to be questioned. For example, since the Ankara terrorist was a member of an anti-religious Maoist political movement, in what way could her actions be construed as Islamic?
A more basic question is whether any of the men shown at prayer actually engage in or approve of violence, and if so, how many? Did most of the worshipers seen in this broadcast support violent political activity, only the occasional exception, or perhaps no one of them? In short, should violence and terrorism be seen as an inherent characteristic of Islamic faith, a typical response of Muslims to modernity, or rather as an aberration from the teachings of Islam engaged in by very few Moslems?

I wonder whether in our -- by which I mean non-Muslim, Western, modern -- focus on terrorism we are perhaps missing the real story of much of what is going on in the Muslim world. I should explain the basis from which I will present my views. For the past 30 years, I have been living and teaching in Muslim countries. In Indonesia as a member of the Indonesian province of the Society of Jesus, in Lebanon and Egypt where I did Arabic and Islamic studies, and most recently in Turkey where I regularly teach courses on Christian theology in faculties of Islamic theology.
As director of the Islamic office of the Vatican's Council for Inter-religious Dialogue for 13 years, I have spent time in almost every Muslim-majority nation and spent hours in long discussions with many Muslim scholars, religious leaders, politicians, students and ordinary believers.
My conclusion after all this time is that what most Muslims are really concerned about is very different from anything to do with terrorism or violence, both of which are strongly rejected and opposed by the vast majority of Muslim believers. Let me begin with a recent personal experience. This past April (2003), I was in Turkey to lecture at the university theological faculty in eastern Anatolia and to deliver public talks in nearby cities. I was asked to give an additional talk in Istanbul on my return trip to Rome.
Thus, on Easter Monday, I found myself talking to more than 4,000 Muslim youths gathered in a large theatre auditorium. The occasion was the celebration of birthday of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. It is significant that this year they had invited a Catholic priest to speak on the prophet as a blessing of God to humankind. I was enthusiastically welcomed with rousing applause before and after my talk. After I finished speaking, the programme continued with a young Turkish poet reading his own poetic compositions in honour of Muhammad, and then a folk singer who, accompanied by an electric guitar, sang hymns in praise of God in the soft-rock style we associate with contemporary Gospel music.
What was going on here? The cheerful young men and women, mainly dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and running shoes, obviously share many elements of contemporary youth culture with people their age in Italy, Holland or the United States. The only visible mark of their Islamic faith was the headscarf worn by the young women.
In talking with them, I discovered that the students were not primarily engaged in religious studies, but were following courses in secular fields like computer science, medicine and mechanical engineering. Many others were not students, but workers - clerks and secretaries, travel agents, drivers of delivery trucks and workers in construction.
In short, they represented a cross section of the modern urban youth of Istanbul whose common bond was their Islamic faith. Their delight and enthusiasm in welcoming a Christian speaker was undeniably sincere, as was their appreciation for the contemporary styles of praising God and honouring their prophet Muhammad in song and poetry. War had been recently raging in neighboring Iraq, but the talk that evening was not about geo-politics. The festive atmosphere included no harangues or protests, but rather expressed a desire to thank God for all that they had received as Muslims through the message of the prophets.
My question is, who is more representative of the Muslim world today, these young people in Istanbul for whom Islam is fundamentally a religious faith, a path to approach God in worship and a project for doing God's will in daily life, or those who kill and destroy in the name of God? I am convinced that the vast majority of Muslims around the world would agree that these deeply committed, open minded, modern believers whom I met in Istanbul, and those like them in other countries, are the true hope of the future, rather than the terrorists whom they openly condemn.
My experiences in Indonesia, Egypt, Malaysia, Iran and Bosnia also lead me to believe that the young Muslims themselves in those countries would find far greater affinity with their Turkish contemporaries than they would with violent extremists.
All of this does not deny that problems, ideological conflicts, hypocrisy and manipulation of religious identity abound in the modern Muslim world. Although one might well ask whether or not such human weaknesses and vices are more prevalent among Muslims than in Europe and North America.
The most serious problems faced by the Muslim world today are analogous to those found in non-Muslim societies of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The question asked by Muslims and interested observers is whether Islam is part of the problem, or can offer sound guidance and inspiration for pressing issues.
Good Governance: Issues of justice and good governance are central today in Muslim nations, as they are elsewhere. The need for effective, representative, democratic government is felt everywhere. The preponderance of corrupt regimes that appear to serve mainly the interests of the ruling elite, who too often have attained power by sophisticated security systems and alliances with the Great Powers, have created a lack of confidence in political systems and leadership.
Political Islam: Efforts of concerned Muslim groups to correct abuses and establish more democratically based regimes are hampered by the convictions of Western nations that any connection between religion and politics is anathema. Some of the earlier experiments in Islamic governments, for example, Iran, Pakistan and Sudan have raised serious questions about whether consciously Islamic regimes can succeed in respecting human and civil rights, particularly those of religious, ethnic and gender minorities.
What needs to be recognized is that Muslim approaches to politics and government display a wide variety of political ideology, social vision and interpretation of Islamic resources. One can only speculate on the kind of state that would have been set up by FIS in Algeria if its electoral victory in 1991 had not been avoided by a military coup d'etat. It is too early to evaluate the application of the professed libertarian principles of the faith-based party, which took power in democratic elections in Turkey in early 2003.
However, should the new Turkish government prove successful in managing the economy, reducing corruption, protecting the civil rights of its citizens and finding non-violent ways to resolve regional tensions, it could offer the Muslim world a new model of religiously-based yet pluralist democracy.

Economic roots of anger: The economic effects on ordinary citizens of neo-liberal market policies, for which globalization has become the code word, are a cause of anger and unrest. Unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity has produced angry, frustrated masses that see no hope of betterment in structures of the status quo.
There is a broadly-based perception that at the root of these societal ills lays a neo-colonial American hegemony in which small groups of money-managers driven by the profit motive in New York or London make financial decisions which affect adversely the lives of millions of people elsewhere.
Supporting Dictatorships: There is a belief that the US government supports monarchies and dictatorships so long as they allow market freedom to foreign businesses and vote correctly in the United Nations. But is ready to wage war to destroy those who stand in the way of America's economic and military aims.
In this perception, the Muslim world is no different from other parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. There is probably no greater cause of anti-Western and particularly anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world than the support given by Western governments to corrupt and repressive regimes.
Conflicting perceptions of violence: The image that many in the West have of Muslims is that they are violence-prone. One remembers Samuel Huntington's famous phrase: "Islam has bloody borders." However, Muslims see themselves primarily as victims, rather than perpetrators of violence, whether the oppressors be the local Muslim political and military elites or as in the case of Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, Kosovo and the Philippines, non-Muslim governments and armies. Statistically, there is no doubt that the number of Muslims who are victims of politically motivated violence greatly exceeds that of non-Muslims who suffer from violence at the hands of Muslims.
Combating terrorism: No increase in international security systems will be able to put an end to terrorism so long as the root causes of anger and frustration are not faced and resolved. Destructive weapons today are so easily available that any group with a cause can either purchase them or make their own.
Focusing almost exclusively on Muslims, as politicians and the news media seem to be doing, fails to recognize the disquieting fact that acts of mass violence have become an inescapable reality of modern life. The necessary technology is well known and waiting to be used.
Today it may be Al-Qa'ida, but tomorrow it will be some other group of another region, of another religion or of no religion, that will undertake terrorist acts in support of their political cause. So long as the consumers in a few highly industrialized nations continue to control and utilize for their own benefit an outrageously disproportionate share of the world's resources, the world will not be safe from terrorism.

Many Muslims, including the great majority who do not approve of violence and terrorism, have religiously-based objections to the dominant ideology promoted by the West, and particularly by the United States. They regard modernist ideology as materialist, relegating God and His will to the margins -- at best -- of social, economic and political life.
They see modernism as profit-oriented and consumerist, implying that a person's worth is measured by economic status, social prestige and power to achieve one's goals. They see the dominant ideology as dividing the world into winners and losers. The winners drive good cars, have Gold Credit Cards, eat well, and vacation in exotic places, while the losers are expected to work hard at insecure jobs in order to survive and to accept their lot peacefully. Their views are discounted or ignored and their voices are not heard in the councils of the mighty.
To Muslims, these are not the values by which God intends that people live. Islam, like Christian faith, teaches that the purpose of human life is to know, worship and obey God, to love and serve others, and to hope for the day when those who remain faithful to God will be rewarded with eternal life in His presence. Thus, the values, which should characterize human societies, are solidarity, mutual assistance, concern for the poor, and constant recollection of God's greatness, gentleness and compassion. The God-centered society they seek to build should be one of peace (salam). Peace with God by living in accord with His will, peace in fellowship among the various sectors of society, and peace among nations.
In articles, speeches, and the private discussions I have had with Muslims since the tragic events of 11 September 2001, I see a great emphasis placed on Islam as a religion of peace and the duty of Muslims to work with others to build world peace. How is this to be explained? I think that many Muslims had always regarded Islam as naturally a religion of peace, a fact so evident that it did not require explanation or defense.
The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the subsequent war on terrorism convinced many Muslims of two things: that Islam's reputation among non-Muslims was not that of a religion of peace but rather one of violence, and that Muslims need to work together with like-thinking believers of other religions if they are to counter the generally negative impression others have of Islam and to actually build peace in this world. In short, Muslims can no longer assume Islam's peace-oriented nature as self-evident, and Muslims could no longer try to "go it alone" in today's world.
When Muslims look around to identify their natural allies in affirming divine values in the modern world, it is often sincere, believing Christians who come to the fore. Already at the beginning of the 20th Century, some forward-looking Muslims like the Turkish scholar Said Nursi saw "real Christians" as the natural co-workers of Muslims in upholding the prerogatives of God in modern life.
The roots of this natural affinity that should exist between Muslims and Christians go back to the very Scriptural origins of Islam, where the Qur'an states: "The closest in affection to [Muslims] are those who say: 'We are Christians', for among them are priests and monks and they are not arrogant" (Qur'an 5:82).
This perception of divinely-willed friendship and cooperation between Muslims and Christians was expressed on the Christian side when the Catholic Church, in the Second Vatican Council decree Nostra Aetate, urged Christians and Muslims to move beyond the suspicions and conflicts of the past in order to work together to carry out a common mandate from the one God whom both groups do worship. "For the benefit of all", the decree states, "let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice, and moral values" (Nostra Aetate, 3).
In this perspective, the long history of conflict, oppression, violence and war between Christians and Muslims must be understood as acts committed by Muslims and Christians who failed to live according to the genuine teaching of their respective faiths or else the misguided actions of those whose theological vision was too narrow to recognize God's work of grace within the other community. In short, the history of conflict and war has not been prescribed by either religion, but is a deviation, due to human weakness, from the mutual love and support desired by God.
What can be said today is that many Muslims and Christians throughout the world have become involved in working together "for the benefit of all". This cooperation takes many forms.
To take the southern Philippines region, as an example, we could mention the human development and anti-poverty work of Muslim-Christian Agency of Rural Development (MUCARD), an umbrella group of people's organizations in 120 villages; the work for justice of Zamboangas Islamic-Christian Urban Poor Association; the work for peace of Peace Associates of Zamboanga (PAZ); that of reconciliation carried out by the Muslim-Christian Interfaith Conference and the Moro-Christian People's Alliance; and the efforts of the Silsilah group at mutual understanding and education for dialogue.
Said Nursi's early teaching on the need for Muslim-Christian cooperation in faith values has been taken up by many movements formed by his thought, especially in the educational efforts inspired by the charismatic Turkish leader Fethullah Gulen. Gulen's movement runs almost 300 schools in almost 30 countries, mainly in those of the former Soviet Union, dedicated to offering education of high quality with particular attention to character building and moral values.
Through its Zaman newspaper, its Samanyolu television station, and its dialogue organization, the movement has undertaken many initiatives to promote mutual respect and esteem. The movement strongly affirms the need for mutual respect and cooperation among Jews, Christians and Muslims.
In the USA, the American Society of Muslims, former Black Muslims, and the Catholic Focolare Movement cooperate in organizing seminars on "the art of loving", seeking together to instill spiritual values in a modern, secularized society. In Washington, D.C., the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding of the Jesuits' Georgetown University has a first-class faculty composed of Muslim and Christian scholars that offers exemplary academic training in the issues that have long divided the Christian and Muslim worlds.
In the Middle East, two of Lebanon's Christian universities train both Muslims and Christians in an understanding of each other's faiths. In Tripoli, the University of Balamand, established by the Orthodox Church, at its Center for Christian-Muslim Studies, and in Beirut, the Jesuit's University of St. Joseph, at its Institute of Islamic-Christian Studies, offer academic preparation for those who seek to promote Christian-Muslim dialogue and understanding. In the Gulf region, Bahrain's Tenth Islamic-Christian Dialogue Conference, which brings together Muslim and Christian scholars from many Arab-speaking nations, was held in October 2002, to explore ways that Christian-Muslim cooperation might be fostered in the region.
In Asia, the Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN), a progressive Muslim movement in more than twelve Asian countries, is jointly organizing peace seminars and workshops together with the offices of the Catholic Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences and the Christian Conference in Asia. They are working together to build a common "peace curriculum" that can be offered to imams, religion teachers, seminarians and catechists.

The sad turn of events after 11 September, rather than dividing the Islamic and Christian communities from one another, has in many cases spawned new initiatives for peace. The consistent message of Pope John Paul II over the past twenty-five years has attested that recent political and military conflicts are not instances of "Christians against Muslims". Joint statements against the Iraq war were issued by the National Council of Churches, Bishops' Conferences and Islamic organizations in many countries, including Great Britain and the U.S.A.

In March of this year, an inter-religious delegation of Indonesian religious leaders, led by the Cardinal Archbishop of Jakarta with the heads of Indonesia's major Islamic organizations, traveled to Rome and Brussels to meet with the Pope and the European Union in a common appeal for peace.
I could go on and on, but these few examples will have to suffice to show that throughout the world many Christians and Muslims are refusing to accept that history's sad record of conflict between the two communities is what God desires. They are putting their convictions in concrete programmes and reaching broad constituencies. One might say that Christian-Muslim dialogue is both the need of our day and an idea whose time has come.
This shared vision is not utopian. Christians and Muslims in dialogue must recognize that the problems of our world are of such complexity that the two communities are often pitted one against the other and, moreover, that many of the troubles arise not from external factors but rather from those who identify themselves as Muslims or Christians. What has become clear is that Christian-Muslim dialogue is not something that can wait until easy relationships characterize the two communities around the world, but a need, which must be pursued in the midst of and despite the tensions and conflicts of our time.
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