Managing Muslim Christian Relations

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by Glenn McIntosh

In February 2004, a conference was held on 'Managing Muslim-Christian Relations: Educational Policy Options'. This involved local academics, leaders, and those involved in the educational enterprise, as well as a number of individuals from overseas (particularly south-east Asia). Participants were hosted at Trinity college, and workshops held over three days.

The opening took place on Wednesday the 11th at the Sidney Myer Asia Centre, with Dr Carnley and Dr Saeed as the keynote speakers. Dr Peter Carnley is the Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia, and Dr Abdullah Saeed is the Professor and Head of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne.

first address

Dr Carnley argued that the muting of religious tradition is an unreasonable way to respond to the legitimate desire not to cause conflict. He began with the recent examples of the suppression of religious symbols in French schools, and the inhibition of nativity plays in Western Australian schools.

'Not wanting to offend anybody', says Dr Carnley, is the premise that has driven these decisions. And even in the coming conference, he foresaw some wanting to defer discussion of religious controversies in favour of debates about human rights. He felt that this fitted in with the drift of post-enlightenment Western societies - religion being relegated to the private sphere (even being 'treated as a hobby'), such that religion should never impinge on [public] political matters. 'So it should not surprise us', he stated.

But interestingly, he pointed out, there has been a strength of protest against this stifling of religious identity. Dr Carnley views this as a disenchantment with secular reason that has grown since the 1970s, and a new openness to the celebration of religious difference. He contended that education should aim to remove the ignorance of such difference.

He cited a range of initiatives being taken in mediation between Christian and Muslim institutions, for example the ongoing Anglican dialogue with Al Azhar University. And countered the 'clash of civilisations' conjecture with the view that in reality there was a growing globalisation of 'human civilisation' (using the words of Prince Hasan of Jordan). He pointed to the substance of a common Abrahamic tradition and a common recognition of the God of Abraham (in contrast to the lack of significance in new 'traditions' such as Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer!).

'Civilising Faith', said Dr Carnley, 'is a challenge to the secular order'. But, he concluded, 'the Enlightenment is over'. He invited people to a public and genuine engagement with others. Education must not only be accurate, but respectful and active in correcting the misrepresentation of religion.

second address

Dr Saeed argued for a re-examination of the accreted beliefs that have caused division between people of different religions. He began by contesting what he called a 'common belief' in homogenous and antagonistic Christian/Muslim blocs. He felt this to be simplistic. Conflict is localized in geographical places and at specific times in history, and has motivations that are political, economic and social; in history, the dividing line is not invariably religion.

He analyzed conflict as occurring within several domains. The first of these is the enmities between states, often over economic resources (and seldom having religious dimensions in the modern era). The second is the antagonisms between the 'common' people, over basic human needs such as employment and justice and so on, where religious difference is at the level of ethnic and linguistic difference (and flashpoints require some catalyst). The last is the struggles between religious establishments - leaders, scholars, and intellectuals - who 'produce knowledge' of religion, and have been active in the misrepresentation of others (particularly from the 7th to the 15th century). Dr Saeed suggested that these establishments were also responsible for correcting that misrepresentation.

Migration and communication has removed many barriers, and Dr Saeed was optimistic about the future. He gave examples of how in the past Muslims have belittled the validity of the Christian texts, and Christians have portrayed Mohammed as a false prophet. But he pointed to positive developments, such as the recognition by the Second Vatican Council of the God of Islam as the creator God, and by Muslim affirmations of 'the people of the book'.

In this new process of self-criticism, Dr Saeed wanted to distinguish between two foci. One can be critical of aspects such as prayer, worship, and our doctrine of God. But, he said, these reviews have little impact on outsiders. On the other hand, one can be critical of aspects such as the characterization of prophets and of scriptures, and it is these that are the proper subject of public discussion.

Dr Saeed pushed this idea further with a detailed example of how one might go about re-examining the Muslim doctrine of the distortion of Christian Scriptures. This development (7th to 9th century) has become largely accepted by the Muslim community. However, the scholars have a somewhat broader view, and it could be argued that a reassessment of this doctrine is appropriate. Historically the charge of the distortion of scripture by its interpreters has become understood as the falsification of scripture, and Dr Saeed described this as arising from the view of scripture as a dictated voice, leading to an overly harsh judgment of other texts and their validity. He also pointed to the competitive motivation to emphasize the supremacy of Islam. But while the Qur'an is critical of some Christian belief, there is a strong respect for the earlier scriptures, and some early Muslim theologians do not raise the claim of falsification (the Qur'an itself does not make that explicit statement).

'We can revisit these problem-causing doctrines', says Dr Saeed, and there are 'many such examples'. This will not lead to an internal revolution in our views, but it will change the way we relate to the 'religious other'. He challenged that our traditions have abundant resources for such re-examinations, and that they would be conducive to a better mutual understanding.

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