(© Johnny DiBiasi / sxc.hu)
THE headlines in the newspapers as I sit down to write this are as gloomy as the dank December day in Washington, DC, outside. Sunni militants bomb a Shia mosque in Iraq, killing Shia worshippers. Responsibility for the terrorism in Mumbai is claimed by a group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen. Violence between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria results in the deaths of hundreds.
The Western media are often accused of showing an anti-Muslim bias, especially in the wake of the events of 2001 in the US. The terms “Muslim” and “Islam” only turn up when linked to militants, jihad, and extremism. The television companies highlight terrorism and other atrocities on their news broadcasts to whet the appetites of their increasingly jaded audiences.
I consider myself fairly clued up on issues such as media bias and the widespread ignorance about Islam in the US. Nevertheless, this morning I find that I have to make an effort to resist composing the headline in my own head: Muslim violence again.
I confess I am almost relieved to find out that, even though only churches and not mosques seem to have been destroyed in Nigeria, nevertheless Christians there have been as guilty of violence as their Muslim counterparts.
Religious tit for tat
The history of violence and intolerance in the name of religion should not be turned into a blame game. It is easy to read the headlines about terrorists who claim Islam as their motivation and their cause, and to say, “They are violent,” and, “They are intolerant.” We forget that some of the discontent that fuels such violence finds its roots in the period of Western colonialism and neo-colonialism.
Procession in Bangalore for Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India Movement, a call for independence of India
from British rule, 1942 (Public domain. Source: wikipedia.org)
One of the greatest crimes of the 20th century was the way the British mismanaged the partition of India and Pakistan. The conflict between these two nations today, centered on the status of Kashmir, is just the latest act in that long tragedy.
Muslims who blame Western colonialism for all the evils in their world forget too easily, however, that the West has also on many occasions suffered from Muslim colonialism. The Ottoman Turks were as aggressive in their empire-building efforts as the Western powers were in the 19th and 20th centuries. A large part of the Christian Mediterranean endured the Muslim yoke of Ottoman rule for hundreds of years.
Even England and Ireland further north were not spared. State papers from the Stuart era in England refer to the English Channel as “a Turkish Sea” because of the dominance of Ottoman naval power. Raids on the English and Irish coasts were launched from the Ottoman client-state of Algiers, “the whip of the Christian world”. It was only in 1683, with the failure of the Ottoman siege of Vienna, that the Muslim threat to Christian Europe began to subside.
Muslims can cite Christian aggression and violence during the Crusades (Public domain. Source: wikipedia.org)
Muslims can cite Christian aggression and violence during the Crusades, of course. Christians, however, can counter that the Palestine they sought to conquer only became Muslim because of Arab aggression and conquest, when the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab took the city in 683CE.
Claim within context
There is a persistent claim that Muslim rule was always tolerant and accommodating to the non-Muslim population. Proponents of an Islamic state often cite the convivencia in Muslim Spain, a term used to describe the glorious and harmonious coexistence of Muslims, Jews, and Christians in Muslim Andalusia. This Muslim golden age is often contrasted with the intolerance of Catholic Spain after the reconquista ended Muslim rule.
19th century portrait of Maimonides
(Public domain. Source: wikipedia.org)
This is a romantic legend. It is true that Maimonides, the greatest of Jewish philosophers, was a product of Muslim Spain. But those who most often speak of tolerant Andalusian Islam always forget to mention that the Muslim rulers of Cordoba offered Maimonides and the entire Jewish community the choice of conversion to Islam, death, or exile. Several Muslim sources, such as al-Qifti’s Tarikh al-hukama and Ibn al-Ibri’s Tarikh mukhtasar al-duwal, even claim that Maimonides was forced to convert to Islam before his exile.
It is instructive for us to remember the words of Americo Castro, the historian who first coined the term convivencia to describe the creative interaction between Jews, Muslims and Christians in Muslim Spain. “Each of the three peoples of the peninsula saw itself forced to live for eight centuries together with the other two at the same time it passionately desired their extermination,” wrote Castro.
There is no bifurcation of “they” and “we” in the history of religious intolerance and violence. There is only a “we”, in the sense of “kita” in Malay, the first person plural pronoun that includes both the speaker as well as the one spoken to. The period in which much of Islamic law and theology developed was not one in which religious freedom or tolerance, in the sense that we understand today, were seen as social or ethical goods.
Christianity has the Inquisition, the wars of religion in Europe, the destruction of many civilisations and cultures, and so much more, to answer for. Neither Muslims nor Christians have clean hands. As Bernard Lewis has observed, “for Christians and Muslims alike, tolerance is a new virtue and intolerance a new crime”.
Conversations of truth
If we intend to engage one another in a truthful and fruitful conversation, we need to acknowledge the failures evident from the history of our religious traditions. We must move away from the childish romantic legends of perfect virtue and infallibility. Otherwise we end up always in the futile activity of protecting our own turf, or justifying our collective religious neuroses.
Official Islam in Malaysia at present seems incapable of engaging in this conversation of truth. Some Muslim commentators have said that the recent fatwa issue, and indeed all Islamic matters, should be left to Muslims, and non-Muslims should not comment on them. Their argument is that fatwa do not affect non-Muslims, and therefore should not be questioned by them.
When a fatwa reinforces a version of Islam that is reactionary and intolerant, then it does affect non-Muslims. The policing of morals, and the arrogation of religious authority by just one small elite group, can result in a kind of spiritual pride that affects all relationships in the community we call Malaysia. It is no great leap to go from telling Shia Muslims in Malaysia they cannot practise their faith, to telling a Muslim who wishes to be a Buddhist or Hindu that she has no such freedom. Intolerance creeps, and religious violence does not just come at the point of a gun.
Americo Castro, The Structure of Spanish History, trans. Edmund L King, 1954, pp. 54-55
Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam, 1984, p. 3
Aloysious Mowe, SJ is an International Visiting Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, Washington, DC. He is a Jesuit priest with an academic interest in Islamic law and history.