MoucarryKUALA LUMPUR, 5 Mar 2010: Defining an ethnic group in religious terms can lead to oppression and arrogance, an Islamic studies expert said at a public lecture about Islam and Christianity in the Middle East.
Speaking at an International Institute for Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) lecture on 3 March, Dr Chawkat Moucarry said such definitions could suppress religious freedom or discriminate against those who wanted to embrace another religion.
“If you invest your ethnic identity with religion, you are giving a religious value to your identity,” Moucarry told The Nut Graph after the lecture.
He said there was a tendency for arrogance when an ethnic identity was defined by a particular faith. This was because if one was born into a faith which one considers the truth, then one is likely to assume superiority for being born into the truth.
“How can you challenge something that occurred by birth?” he said.
During the lecture, Moucarry, who is a Syrian Christian, related his own negative experience when he travelled to Algeria in 1982: “[The name in my passport] is Chawkat George Moucarry as I was born into a Catholic Syrian family and was given the second name of George.
“The [Algerian] immigration officer asked me, ‘Are you Arab?’ I said, ‘Yes’. Then he asked, ‘Are you Christian?’ I said ‘Yes’. He told me, ‘That cannot be. You are either Arab or Christian, you cannot be both.'”
Moucarry was detained for several hours and initially not allowed to enter Algeria due to the officer’s disbelief about his ethnicity and religion.
“It was a humiliating experience,” he said. “For the first time in my life, I was denied my Arab-ness, as being Arab was defined as being Muslim [only].”
Moucarry said a person should not have to give up their ethnic identity just because they have another religion.
Linking ethnicity with religion was one of several reasons cited by Moucarry for polarisation in centuries-old Muslim-Christian relations.
Moucarry said the experience of Muslim minorities in Western countries was another reason for polarisation. “Many [in the West] have reacted badly to the large number of Muslim immigrants and see that as a threat to Western civilisation. They feel it undermines the country’s national identity.”
Moucarry added that in times of economic crisis, foreigners are convenient scapegoats, and Muslims have often been the object of Islamophobic reactions.
Similarly, Moucarry said the experience of Christian minorities in Muslim-majority countries has also been a factor.
“There is legal and social discrimination often found in all majority groups. [In the Middle East], Christians are sometimes seen as not loyal or a threat to the cohesion of the Arab nations, or even covert agents of Western agencies.
“This is despite the key roles Arab Christians played in the Arab renaissance and in building Arab nationalism,” he said.
“Christian Zionism, [which sees Islam as an obstacle to the fulfilment of the Zionist dream], has also fuelled Muslims’ hostility to a degree that Western Christians are unaware of,” said Moucarry, who has a masters degree in Christian theology and a PhD in Islamic studies from the Sorbonne University in Paris.
“[Christian Zionists] do not realise that the fulfilment of their dream means a nightmare for the Palestinians who have been homeless since the creation of [contemporary] Israel. Muslims feel strongly for the suffering of their Palestinian brothers and sisters.”
Some of the points raised during the lecture
Although there are differences, Moucarry said Muslims and Christians have many common challenges that should be faced together, such as corruption, bad governance, unemployment and brain drain.
He added that they also have many common commitments and values such as devotion to God, family, and fellow human beings, noting that Muslims and Christians can work together to resolve many issues affecting humanity.
Moucarry commended the effort of 138 international Muslims leaders who issued a 2007 statement titled A Common Word Between Us and You declaring the common ground between Islam and Christianity.
“A Common Word sets out what is important to both Muslims and Christians: love God and love your neighbour,” Moucarry, who is also World Vision International interfaith relations director, said.
IAIS chairperson Professor Dr Mohammad Hashim Kamali, a signatory of A Common Word, told The Nut Graph the initiative has been well received internationally. “We hope to develop a second chapter with Buddhists who also share many similar values [with Islam],” Hashim Kamali said.