Christian-Muslim relations: all in this together?

By Harry Hagopian
8 May 2012

Last week, I had the pleasure of being invited to an inter-faith talk at the lovely St James’s Church in Piccadilly, London, which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1684. Entitled ‘In It Together - Muslim/Christian Relations: Co-operation not Conflict’, the event was organised by BibleLands and the guest speaker was HRH Princess Badiya Bint El-Hassan of Jordan. The respondent was Professor David Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University.

Some readers might perhaps not be aware that Princess Badiya hails from the Jordanian Royal Hashemite Family and that she supports practical work to promote inter-faith and cross-cultural understanding. Moreover, her father - HRH Prince Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan - is one of the towering figures in interreligious dialogue and perhaps also one of the foremost thinkers across the world.

The talk was both encouraging and vivifying. Speaking ‘simply’ as a Muslim woman, and bringing into it her own vignettes and stories as well as her sense of discernment, humour and infectious laughter, Princess Badiya’s paper was - perhaps not unexpectedly - strongly supportive of Christian-Muslim dialogue as she enumerated a host of reasons why the followers of those two great monotheistic traditions should talk to each other rather than at each other. But she was also disarmingly candid about the negative stereotypes of Islam in the West: some of them fomented by the rapacious attitudes of extremist Muslims whose deeds or words colour negatively a global religion that is neither monolithic nor homogeneous.

Having appreciated this talk as another good foundation for interreligious acceptance, and having also listened to the effusive endorsement the Princess gave to the work of BibleLands in the Middle East, I would like to draw momentarily upon my own experience in this field and suggest small ways in which such dialogue could be enhanced in the future so long as we all remain committed to a genuine desire to see collaboration taking root across our different cultures and boundaries.

Princess Badiya focused on those revealed verses in the Holy Qur’an that affirm the inclusiveness of Islam toward Jews and Christians. And I agree fully that those verses are principal examples of this coexistence we all seek in our lives. However, it is equally possible to think of other verses that could readily be construed as being antithetical toward any sense of inclusiveness or acceptance of the other. My concern lies with those verses, not so much in exegetical or hermeneutical terms, but much more in practical terms since any dialogue built on mutual confidence should face up to those challenging obstacles and then choose (with good will as well as good faith) the appropriate methodologies to overcome them - possibly bearing in mind those two ancillary sub-components:

First, a distinction should be made between religion as it embodies dogma or doctrine and religion as it defines a way of life. I learnt this distinction early on from Gabriel Habib, a Lebanese-born former General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches. Interestingly enough, this point was put as a question to Professor David Ford from the audience but sadly neither time nor space allowed him to elaborate further upon it. However, I would argue that it remains quintessential for any inter-faith progress.

Second, and consequently, I would also add that there are key differences between Islam and Christianity on a number of doctrinal or dogmatic levels to be dealt with by theologians and fouqaha’ (scholars) from both faiths. However, addressing interreligious dialogue at this meta-level should not preclude a broader cooperation that views religion as a way of life and as a witness to one’s faith. In other words, dialogue should be conducted vertically and horizontally. After all, what matters to most ordinary citizens are their day-to-day relations: we should accept each other despite our diversities and as such draw our equality from a common citizenship. In other words, such citizenship should not be stumped by sectarian or confessional considerations simply because a man and woman profess different faiths.

However, this can only be achieved if more Muslim leaders worldwide raise their heads above the parapet and speak their minds publicly in order to counter any tensions engendered by an unnecessary extremism that is a times imposed upon adherents of different faiths. Stating such convictions in interreligious fora or closed conferences is laudable but wanting. If they believe in the message of conviviality, of a true and unflagging partnership, Muslim notables must also challenge aloud those who advocate differently or who label any person a kafir / infidel if s/he does not subscribe to their own views. Otherwise, muted voices will by definition simply remain mute.

Conversely, Christian leaders across the board also have a responsibility mutatis mutandis of speaking out against any faith-based discrimination. This is an irreducible responsibility, not a multiple-choice option, and doing otherwise - whether out of a romantic notion of East meeting West or out of some form of misguided post-colonial demureness - is a mere dereliction of duty.

In his own six footnotes during the response, Dr David Ford referred to ‘A Common Word’ that was addressed to Christian leaders worldwide by 138 Muslim scholars in October 2007. This is certainly not the sole document in the field, but it is a key one and many churches - from the Vatican to Lambeth Palace - have already engaged with it. However, I would encourage its further incorporation into our respective ministries since it might well help clothe the richly constructive thoughts Princess Badiya shared with us few days ago. After all, does such a document not affirm that Christians and Muslims inter partes are “in it together” and that the less delinquent choice surely ought to be cooperation … not conflict?

As I was listening to Princess Badiya’s talk at St James’s, my mind strayed for a few seconds to the alleged pronouncements last month by Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, who was quoted as saying to a Kuwaiti NGO that all churches should be destroyed in the Arabian Peninsula. Given such distressingly regressive statements that defy even the Almighty, the contrasting talk by Princess Badiya was nothing short of a renewing sign of hope for me, as I am sure for others too.

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net

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