Authentic religion - and the adjective is necessary - needs resources of intelligent tolerance because religious men often show a culpable indifference and hostility to the beliefs and consciences of outsiders. And this despite the fact that the frontiers of faith could never seal so tightly that we fractured into many 'humanities'. There is only one race - the human race.
Where there is no agreement, passionate disagreement cannot build its nest. A partial unity of religious conviction is a necessary condition of religious conflict. But that which is in common need not unite. It usually prolongs and embitters the affair much as, in our personal lives, our most intense quarrels are with those with whom we proudly claim unity of purpose and familiarity of emotion.
Religious people are all in the same business; affinity breeds contempt. And much worse: Beirut, Sarajevo, Jerusalem, and Ayodhya are blood-stained landscapes.
How, then, do we introduce optimism here? It cheers us up to note that our capacity to be privately shocked by evil has not been drastically reduced by the decline of transcendent religion and the triumph of science. It is not true that ours is an age of widespread scepticism and incurable cynicism. It is true, however, that the capacity to be actively and publicly disturbed by injustice has declined in the face of secular comfort.
Our modern respect for agnosticism, rooted in the eclipse of exclusivist religious pride, is another ground for hope. Enlightened opinion among theists rejects the view that every theological controversy is due simply to someone's - usually someone else's - ignorance. Given the apparent silence of God, the deadlocks between faiths seem intractable.
Certainly, there may be a process transpiring beyond death in which the ambiguities and doctrinal stalemates of this life are resolved and broken just as the moral imbalance of our world will, according to ethical theism, be satisfactorily rectified in a future existence. But if death is the conclusive contention, that leaves problems for the living. Why does God allow large parts of mankind to remain in doubt, hesitation, or even error concerning matters of moment? It is theologically puzzling; we can sympathise with the agnostics.
We cannot, however, sympathise with wrong-doers, whatever their religious creed. As a Muslim, I have a scriptural warrant for engaging in dialogue with Jews and Christians. The Koran portrays them as scriptured societies of errant monotheists. But most modern Jews and Christians are unfaithful to their own dogmatic traditions. Many are secularised humane capitalists who accommodate rather than confront unjust secular and pseudo- religious powers and principalities. No authentic Muslim can believe that religion should be a form of private spiritual hygiene.
It is this disagreement that makes it difficult for a Muslim to engage in inter-faith dialogue, or trialogue. Much of this encounter consists of a handful of expensively educated, often maverick, figures out of touch with their community. Their polite conversation might lead one to mistake the proceedings for a tea-party. A few of the participants are sincere but misguided; most are insincere and misguided. Inter-faith dialogue, like modern optimism, often relies on unclear generalities.
As a Muslim, I wish to encourage my community to develop cordial relations with Jews, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and secular humanists. But Muslims would insist on the application of single standards of international justice. All of us should be under the same moral microscope.
Christians should not allow their faith to become just a reactionary defence against secular science or merely a religious legitimation of Western racial pride. If they prefer piety to patriotism, then let them condemn the unjust behaviour of white settler minorities. And if Serbian aggression be treasonable to the cause of Jesus of Nazareth, why does it take a Muslim to say it?
Again, Judaism the revealed faith is now polluted by the secular heresy of Zionism. Palestine was the first territory, beyond the Arabian Peninsula, to be taken by the Muslims in 638. Here was no crude colonialism. The Muslim rulers scrupulously guarded the sacred sites of all three Abrahamic faiths for over 1,200 years - the longest single political order in the history of Palestine.
In Israeli custody, no such courtesy has been shown to Muslim sanctities. Wherever the Zionist fantasy clashes with the facts of Arab demography, there is only forced exile, dispersion, dispossession, massacre, and brutality.
Readers committed to interfaith dialogue may find these remarks relentlessly accusatory. But lengthy and deliberate indignation at the delinquencies of our brothers is justified: failure to live up to someone else's ideal is not culpable, but failure to live up to one's own invites charges.
The doctrinal deadlocks between faiths are here to stay. But better issues engage us: exploitation, poverty, and the inveterate opposition to justice. Where poverty reigns, the quest for God takes a second place to the quest for the next meal. Theology is only a luxury. The Koran puts it wisely: 'Cultivate rivalry in good works]' In that way, we can dignify at least one rivalry while ensuring the cause.
Dr Shabbir Akhtar is the author of The Muslim Poetic Imagination (Scorpion Press, pounds 6) and is now working on a biography of Ayatollah Khomeini.Reuse content