In recent years the king of Saudi Arabia has won plaudits around the world for promoting interfaith dialogs. Those efforts recently received a dramatic setback when the top religious official in Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa earlier this month calling on the faithful to destroy all churches in the Arabian peninsula.
The ruling came in response to a request from a Kuwaiti legislator who wanted to know if under Islamic principles the government of Kuwait could ban church construction in the country. Citing what is said to be a deathbed request by the Prophet Mohammed as the basis for his ruling, the senior cleric in the Saudi religious hierarchy (Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh) found that under Islamic principles, not only should all new church construction be banned, existing churches should be destroyed.
This is not news in one sense; official Saudi policy has long banned the open practice of non-Islamic religion in the Kingdom. Other governments on the peninsula have other policies, and the small sheikhdoms are often more tolerant on a range of issues than the puritanical Saudis. The ruling has no legal force in these other countries, and their religious authorities often disagree with Saudi clerics on various points.
Nevertheless, after Christian websites reported a story which received little attention in the secular press, European religious leaders engaged in various high level exchanges with their Islamic counterparts spoke up. It has long been a sore point in these conversations that while predominantly Christian countries offer Muslim immigrants and visitors full rights of religious expression, including the freedom to build mosques, there is no reciprocity. Christians are widely persecuted and discriminated against across the Islamic world, and mob violence and murder is depressingly common in some countries. Other minorities are also routinely and systematically persecuted and mistreated. Members of the Bahai faith are frequently subject to persecution, and there are many Sunni countries that discriminate against Shiites.
While courageous voices do speak out against these practices, some religious leaders and political movements claiming to represent religious ideals aggressively promote discrimination and persecution as core Islamic values with deep roots in orthodox Muslim doctrine and practice going back to the times of the Prophet Mohammed.
It was not all that long ago in historical terms that many Christian religious leaders, including a long series of popes, taught that persecution of religious minorities and “holy war” was a religious duty. Even in the twentieth century a number of governments in Europe and Latin America restricted non-Catholic faiths in various ways with the Vatican’s overt or tacit endorsement. It was only with the Second Vatican Council that the Catholic Church accepted the concept of religious freedom as a positive right.
Not all Christian groups today are comfortable with full freedom of religion. Whether openly or behind the scenes, some churches (like the Russian Orthodox) have lobbied for laws that place various disabilities on aggressive, proselytizing forms of Christianity whose competition they fear. But despite a certain amount of chicanery and hedging in some quarters, broadly speaking the world of Christianity is more open to and accepting of other religions and the lack of all religion than ever before in its past.
Many and quite possibly most interfaith conversations are pretty mealy-mouthed and essentially useless. People engaged in these conversations often represent the more liberal wing of their respective religious traditions and they walk on eggshells in these conversations, working so hard not to say anything offensive that sometimes they don’t succeed in saying anything at all.
I’m not sure if this will contribute to interfaith harmony or not, but over the years I’ve had the opportunity to meet a great many religious leaders and serious thinkers in both communities and while they may not say these things out loud or on the record, this is what, as far as I can tell, what many people (not all) in the two communities actually think.
Christians, especially in countries like the United States where the ideal of religious liberty has been an important element of Christian teaching for centuries, believe that the rise of religious tolerance in the Christian world is one of the signs that Christianity is true: believers are becoming more like Christ in his infinite compassion and profound respect and love of every human soul despite error and sin. Moreover they see the spread of tolerance and the repudiation of false ideals like “holy wars” (such as the Crusades, fought not only against Muslims but against heretics inside the Christian world) as signs that God is working in human history to bring us to a greater light and deeper understanding.
For many Muslims, however, the rise of tolerance in Christianity looks less like maturity and self confidence than like the senescence of a religion in decline. Christianity, these critics say, is losing its hold on the western mind. The rise in religious tolerance is the result of necessity — the churches are weak, the believers indifferent, and so Christians no longer have the inner conviction to stand up for their faith. Just as Christian countries tolerate a range of vices and practices that in the past, when their faith was stronger, they opposed (homosexuality, abortion, sexual immorality of all kinds, blasphemy and obscenity), so now they also don’t care very much about what religion people profess because their own faith doesn’t mean all that much to the shrinking minority that still has one.
Islam, these Muslims say, is a stronger faith, less subject to erosion by the forces of modernity and the neo-paganism of consumer culture. Islamic intolerance of religious error reflects a faith that feels itself to be true and is not ashamed or embarrassed to insist on its core values and its historic ideas.
Don’t hold up your flabby faith and your immoral, secular societies to us as examples to imitate, these Muslim critics say. You are tolerant because you are decadent, open because you have lost the will and the strength to defend yourselves and your ideas.
Christians tend to respond with the observation that Islamic societies have been less influenced by modernity because they are “primitive” and “backward.” Modernity originated in the Christian world because Christianity, much more than Islam, was open to science, free inquiry and free commerce than the traditionalist obscurantists of the contemporary Muslim world. (Protestants will often engage in a bit of intramural snarking here, alleging that Catholic Europe and Latin America got to modernity behind the Protestants because the Protestants were better at this stuff than the “superstitious” and “priest-ridden” Catholics. Much bickering then ensues, which we will ignore to get back to Christian-Muslim debate.)
Muslims often bridle here, pointing to the glorious traditions of Islamic scholarship and high culture at a historical period when literacy largely disappeared from the Christian west. Christians retort with the observation that this was a very long time ago, and the point about Islamic civilization is that it declined and didn’t recover — often because as they grew increasingly powerful and numerous, the Muslims suppressed exactly the Jewish and Christian element in their society that helped provide the stimulus for rich cultural life and intellectual exchange.
Muslims reply to this by pointing to the devastating Mongol invasions which destroyed the flourishing high cultures of the Islamic world even as the Crusades from the west brought unparalleled brutality and destruction to the Mediterranean coast. Christians say the Muslims know nothing about the consequences of religious war and barbarian conquest: the successive waves of barbarians who destroyed the Roman empire and its Carolingian successor states were more devastating and longer lasting. Christianity has absorbed harder blows than Islam, they say, survived more invasions and more disruptive ones over a long time period and doesn’t whine about them today. Islam took a softer punch and went down for the count.
As for religious wars of aggression, the Crusades were an episode; Islamic wars of conquest against Christianity, Christians say, didn’t end until the late 17th century when the Ottoman Turks were finally stopped at the second siege of Vienna. And Christians, Christians like to say, are sorry about the Crusades with their massacres and atrocities. Muslims still celebrate their conquests and glorify religious aggression.
Muslims tend to roll their eyes at this point. Christians, they point out, have been busy for the last 300 years breaking up Islamic empires, conquering Muslims, subjecting them to discriminatory legislation and making them second class citizens in their own countries. French and Italian conquests in North Africa; Dutch and Portuguese conquests in the East Indies and elsewhere, the British Empire which aggressively attacked Islamic rulers from Nigeria to Afghanistan and Malaya. Now it is the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, the joint western support for the Jews in what for 1,000 years was Islamic Palestine, and forms of cultural and political aggression which seek to remake the whole world in the image of the decadent, post-Christian west.
Can any other religion, Muslims ask, show such a record of aggression, conquest, exploitation and discrimination as those who claim to follow Jesus Christ?
Christians note at this point that the Muslims are simultaneously attacking Christianity as passive and weak while denouncing its brute strength and innate aggression. Surely only one of these charges can be true? Christians would read the history of the last three hundred years in a different way. Because of its openness and dynamism, Christian civilization gave birth to new ways of organizing human society and new technologies and economic institutions and ideas. These brought the Christian world to global predominance, but Christian individuals and cultures were slow to learn how to use their good fortune humanely and well.
Today the extent to which the Christian world struggles to come to terms with the evils of the colonial and imperial expansions of the past, the slave trade, the displacement and massacres of native peoples in so much of what is now the English-speaking world and many other errors and crimes testifies to a new-found civilizational maturity.
Muslims are likely at this point to point out that the Christians are also trying to have it both ways: they are using both their record of global conquest and their contemporary renunciation of conquest to claim civilizational and religious superiority. Can both of these claims really be true?
These discussions can go on for a long time, especially when the participants are even tempered enough to keep talking rather than stalking out in disgust. In my experience they generally end up close to where they begin. Muslims assert that the resistance of Islam both as a system of doctrine and as a living community of believers to the corrosion and discords of modernity points to the clarity of its message and to the superiority of Islam as a religion that can flourish in the contemporary world.
Christians riposte by saying that the unique role of Christianity in bringing modernity into the world evidences the work of the Holy Spirit through the living body of Christ that is the Christian Church. Despite all the shortcomings and abuses of the process of technological and social development of the last 300 years, the healing of the sick, the end of slavery, the emancipation of women and the establishment of genuine religious tolerance and freedom of conscience represent fundamental triumphs of the human spirit that the Christian faith has brought to the world.
Muslims disagree: that Christians can’t disaggregate the good and the bad from their own history (conflating for example commendable advances in medicine with the deplorable rise of sexual promiscuity and the commodification of women into one positive historical movement) just shows what an inadequate platform Christianity provides for serious historical thought and social action.
I’ve grossly oversimplified here; there are Muslims more sympathetic to modernity and Christians more critical of life in the modern west than the two voices I’ve tried to channel. Mustafa Akyol and some of the Islamic intellectuals based in the Sufi traditions of a country like Indonesia, for example, would have a quite different line of discussion.
But the fact remains that for many Christians, attempts to suppress religious liberty (especially for the poor workers from the developing world that the Gulf oil states import to do the work that their own citizens will have nothing to do with) indicate an unformed religious conscience and testify to a terrible spiritual blindness. And for many (though certainly not all) Muslims, these policies are exactly what the world’s most noble religion commands as the will of God on high.
From Via Meadia‘s Christian perspective, the bishops have done the right thing in speaking up about the treatment of Christians on the Arabian peninsula and in the Islamic world as a whole. We can acknowledge that the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia is doing his duty as his conscience instructs, and accept that he speaks out of a rich and vibrant tradition and invokes a religious authority that has deep roots in the world’s second largest religion. But with all due respect, the Grand Mufti has made a moral mistake, and that is never a good thing.