Faith and Reason: There is no need for an Enemy: Islam has much to teach the West about how to escape the constraints of consumerist culture, if only Christians would take the time to find out, writes Martin Palmer.

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN 1236, the magnificent mosque in Cordoba was converted to a church as part of the Christian conquest of Moorish Spain.

In 1453, at the other end of the Mediterranean in Istanbul, Agios Sophia, the greatest church of Byzantium if not of the whole Christian world, became a mosque following the conquest of Constantinople by the Muslim Ottomans.

The fate of these two great buildings forms a focus for certain issues in Christian-Muslim relationships. It reminds us, first of all, that Islam has long been a European faith. This confronts 'Western' Christians with a reality about Islam that few find comfortable. It is so much easier to view Muslims as 'other than us', as 'the Middle East' or 'the Enemy'. But once we acknowledge that Islam is also a European faith, then certain stereotypes start crumbling. Part of Western Europe's ambiguity over Bosnia is the mental and emotional difficulty of accepting the possibility of a Muslim-orientated state in Europe.

Conversely, to most Muslims, Christianity and 'the West' are synonymous. Perhaps the two buildings can remind them that 'the West', or at least Europe, is not a monolithic Christian power. When I am with Muslims, whether in Europe or in the Middle East, I constantly find that they equate all the actions of the largely secular, consumerist 'West' with Christianity. When I point out that many Christians in such societies are at odds with these values, most Muslims are genuinely surprised.

Recently I have become alarmed by what I see as the hardening of attitudes on both sides, arising for a host of different reasons. For certain Christians of the West, there is a need for an Enemy. Much of Christianity has developed a dualism which is not found in the Gospel accounts of Jesus or in the Hebrew Bible. Dualism divides the world into the good guys and the bad guys. Such a theology places Christianity as on the side of good and then needs an enemy to be on the side of evil - Ronald Reagan's 'Evil Empire'.

With the collapse of 'the Evil Empire' of Communism, this dualistic drive has sought a new Enemy - and the choice has fallen on Islam. While it is American 'dollar missionaries' who are most openly vehement about this, the idea is also entering much of the vocabulary and mindset of other Christians and of secular leaders in the West.

The Enemy mentality is also powerfully at work in Islam. But whereas it is over 300 years since the West had to confront a Muslim invasion, the West has invaded Islam for the last 300 years or more. It has sometimes been done by military force, such as in Indonesia or most of the Middle East countries. More recently, the invasion has been by economic and cultural forces such as the world banking system, Western television and values. The sense of being under siege is very real and has considerable justification.

As in all situations where people feel threatened by vast forces beyond their control, some hit out in exasperation, seeking to hurt others as they have been hurt. This is what the West often calls 'terrorism'. But such a label owes more to Western perceptions of Islam as the Enemy than to any objective assessment.

I do not condone such actions. Far from it. But I can understand them. What is one to make of a situation like that in Algeria? The West praises democracy as its highest value. Yet when it looks as if Islamic parties will win a democratic election, the West condones the suspension of democracy. When the rules keep changing, even moderates become angry.

Muslims should recall that they have lived side by side with Christians since the time of the Prophet, and in most places they lived according to the duty of Dhimma - the protection of the ways of life of non-Muslim communities in Muslim societies.

The two buildings at either end of the Mediterranean, stand as reminders of the difficulty of living according to Dhimma. In medieval Spain, this duty was often fulfilled, producing a society of remarkable tolerance and co-operation. Sadly it fell to an intolerant expression of Christianity. In Byzantine/Ottoman lands, the reverse was true: a frequently tolerant and co-operative form of Christianity - Orthodoxy - was replaced by a intolerant form of Islam which regularly abused the notion of Dhimma.

However, the hallmark of most Muslim societies towards their Christian compatriots has been tolerance shaped by the duty of Dhimma, and Muslims need to regain this ideal. That would mean an end to attacks and pressure upon the now beleaguered ancient Christian communities of the Middle East. There are some encouraging signs, such as the project to rebuild the ancient Christian monastery of Tell Ada in Syria as a centre for Christian monasticism and Muslim-Christian dialogue - a project supported by all communities in Syria.

Christians too need to develop their own version of Dhimma. We need to do more than just encourage secular notions of tolerance or race relations. We need to work out a theological basis for Dhimma - the idea that we have a duty to help other faiths live their lives faithfully.

Muslims need to stop decrying and distorting Christianity and its role. Yes, much of Western society comes from Christian roots. And yes, some aspects of this are profoundly destructive to Islam. But Christianity is not Western culture, so don't throw the faith- brother baby out with the secular bath water. Christians need to learn not to fear Islam. If we tackle the poison of dualism and remove the need for an Enemy, Islam will be seen in a very different light.

Finally, Christians must come to accept that in a world largely promoting one dominant Western model of society, driven by economics, secularism and consumerism, which devours not only the poor but nature itself, we urgently need new models. Christians, over one and a half times as populous as Muslims, are now found mostly in the Third World, many of them living below the poverty level. Many Christians are engaged in seeking new economic, social and environmental models. Islam offers some radical alternatives in these areas, and perhaps we should try to understand them better. As a Christian, I find I have more in common with Islamic notions of society than with the McDonald's/ Pepsi culture we so often seem to be defending.

Martin Palmer is Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture, and co-author with Joanne O'Brien of The State of Religion Atlas (Simon & Schuster, pounds 9.99)

Comments