Muslim-Christian Relations: Historical and Contemporary Realities
Abstract and Keywords
Throughout the nearly fifteen centuries of Muslim-Christian encounter, individual adherents of both traditions often have lived peaceably with each other. At the same time, Muslim expansion into Christian territories and Christian imperialism in Muslims lands have fostered fear and ill-will on both sides. Repercussions from the Crusades continue to resound in the contemporary rhetoric employed by defenders of both faiths. In recent years relations between Muslims and Christians across the globe have become increasingly polarized, fanned by anti-Islamic rhetoric and fearmongering. While a number of verses in the Qur’an call for treating Christians and Jews with respect as recipients of God’s divine message, in reality many Muslims have found it difficult not to see Christians as polytheists because of their doctrine of the Trinity. Christians, for their part, traditionally have viewed the Qur’an as fraudulent and Muhammad as an imposter. Old sectarian rivalries play out with serious consequences for minority groups, both Christian and Muslim. Conflicts in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere for much of the 20th century were often labeled as ethnic, political, or ideological perpetuations of long-standing struggles over land, power, and influence. These conflicts now tend to be labeled in accord with the specifically religious affiliation of their participants. Understanding the history of Muslim-Christian relations, as well as current political realities such as the dismantling of the political order created by European colonialism, helps give context to current “hot spots” of Muslim-Christian conflict in the world.
It is difficult to imagine a time in history at which there is greater need for serious interfaith engagement than now. We need to understand better the history of Muslim-Christian relations so as to give context to current “hot spots” of Muslim-Christian conflict in the world. It is also important to understand the ways in which members of the two communities experience each other in specific areas of the world today, including the United States, taking note of efforts currently underway to advance interfaith understanding and cooperation. The events of September 11, 2001, and the resulting American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, have led to ugly commentary reminiscent of medieval hyperbole. Right-wing evangelical rhetoric in the United States against Islam has been fueled by incidents of international terrorism involving Muslims, while the well-funded Islamophobia industry in the United States has been producing and distributing large amounts of anti-Muslim material. Since the events of September 2011, American Muslims, caught in a painful position, have decried the acts of the 9/11 terrorists and defended Islam as a religion of peace. American Muslims want to exercise their constitutional rights to free speech in expressing their objection to certain American foreign policies, at the same time that they fear the consequences of the Patriot Act and other acts they view as assaults on their civil liberties. Meanwhile other Americans are struggling to understand that the Muslims with whom they interact in businesses, schools, and neighborhoods are different from the Muslim extremists who are calling for ever more dire measures against the United States. This is the general context in which Christian-Muslim dialogue is now taking place and to which it must address itself if it is to be effective.
With the inception of Islam in the 7th century ce the earliest community of Muslims saw itself in continuity with Jews and Christians. The Qur’an refers to many of the prophets detailed in the Hebrew Bible and clarifies that Muhammad is to be the last in the long prophetic line. Next in importance to Muhammad in this lineage is Jesus, who in the Qur’an is specifically not the son of God and not in any way divine. Political resistance to the Prophet Muhammad created a series of conflicts resulting in the crystallization of Islam into its own separate religion and identity. Theological differences were articulated early and have continued throughout history to present major challenges to interfaith relationships.
A combination of factors led to the rapid spread of Islam after the Prophet’s death in 732 ce. The Persian Sassanian and the Greek Byzantine Empires were exhausted after many years of struggle, and Islam was able to occupy what amounted to a power vacuum in many of the areas to which it spread. Military expeditions were political in nature and not undertaken for the purpose of forcing conversion to Islam. Christians and Jews were given “dhimmi” status, paying a poll tax for their protection. Dhimmis had the right to practice their religion in private and to govern their own communities. Special dress was required and new church buildings could not be constructed. The Christian church as a whole was divided into five apostolic sects at the beginning of Islam, located in Rome, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. The resulting sectarian divisions had significant consequences for the spread of Islam. Many oriental Christians actually welcomed Muslim political authority as a relief from Byzantine oversight, and they cooperated with their new Muslim rulers.
Within the Islamic community early attitudes of seeming tolerance and even appreciation of Christians and Jews soon gave way to more narrow interpretations of the Qur’an and Islamic law, resulting in growing intolerance. From the beginning Christians were nervous about the growth of a new religion that they saw as a Christian heresy and which invaded and took over many of their lands.
Certain periods in world history reflected harmonious interactions among the three Abrahamic faiths. Medieval Andalusia, for example, provided a venue for Muslims and Christians, along with Jews, to live in proximity and even mutual appreciation. It was a time of great opulence and achievement, and social intercourse at the upper levels was easy. It was also a period during which a number of Christians chose to convert to Islam. Medieval Andalusia has often been cited as an ideal place and time of interfaith harmony. To some extent that claim may be justified. If so, however, it was fairly short and was soon supplanted by the tensions, prejudices, and ill treatment of minorities by both Muslims and Christians that more often have characterized relationships between the communities. By the 10th century the Iberian Peninsula was characterized by hostilities between the Christian kingdom of León in the north and the considerably larger Muslim al-Andalus in the south.
Other encounters, such as those experienced through the centuries of the Crusades, have left both Christians and Muslims bitter and angry. The question of sovereignty over the city of Jerusalem remained an ongoing issue. Considered the Holy City by Christians, Jerusalem from Islam’s beginning was also a place greatly venerated by Muslims, and it quickly came under Muslim sovereignty. Many complex factors went into the call of Pope Urban II for a crusade against Muslims in 1095, primary among them the recapture of Jerusalem for Christianity. Religious zeal carried Christian forces well into Muslim territories, and early efforts actually led to the capture of the prize of Jerusalem, which they held for some years. Western Christians, generally ignorant of the lands of the East, whether Christian or Muslim, vented their ire against their Eastern Christian brethren almost as much as toward Muslims. The two centuries in which Christians occupied Palestine witnessed a constant pattern of shifting alliances. The Crusades lasted for several centuries, ending finally in victory for Islam.
By the close of the Middle Ages hostilities between Islam and Western Christendom once again were intense, with active warfare for several centuries. A number of events served as a kind of transition from the Middle Ages to a new era of international engagement. The fall of Constantinople in the middle of the 15th century and the final expulsion of Muslims from Andalusia at the end of that century illustrate this transition. For some eleven centuries Constantinople had stood as the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Its fall to the invading Turks in 1453 signaled a dramatic change in the power relationships between Islam and Christendom. The specter of a Muslim takeover of all of Europe was raised anew.
In the 15th and succeeding centuries Muslim navies roamed the Mediterranean, attacking European ships and coastal towns. Raids were carried out as far north as England and Ireland. Muslim fortunes, however, were reversed in Spain, where, after centuries of glory, they suffered a steady loss of territories under the Christian Reconquista. Initially under Christian rule Muslims were the recipients of a policy of toleration. Gradually, however, the two communities became completely segregated, and a rising tide of anti-Semitism had consequences for both Muslims and Jews. The struggle for sectarian control ended with the union of the Spanish kingdoms under Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. By the turn of the 15th century Muslims in Spain had to choose between conversion, emigration, or death.
Yet, another shift in relations soon set in. The rise of rationalism, a fascination on the part of the West with the cultural trappings of the East, and the necessities of international political and economic exchange soon drew the worlds of Islam and Christendom closer together. At the same time, under the influence of Western missionary agencies, a very negative perception of Islam continued to develop in Europe. For a long period Western scholarly research on Islam was dominated by the desire to convert Muslims to Christianity, resulting in analyses of Islam that were apologetic and highly polemical. It is only in the 20th century that more objective scholarship has emerged, especially efforts launched following the publication of Edward Said’s epic Orientalism.
Before leaving the historical context it is important to note some of the nonmilitary, cultural, and intellectual ways in which East and West encountered each other. Much has been made of the interchange between the Crusaders and the Arabs. In some cases each side found in the other chivalry and respect worthy of admiration and even emulation. For the most part, however, European thinking had little influence on Arab culture. Conversely, the West found great benefit from early Islamic thought in the fields of culture and science. In fact, it discovered that in the Islamic world the concept of divine unity led to an understanding that the arts and sciences, as we would call them today, are but different dimensions of the unified study of God’s many-faceted world. Westerners learned from their encounters with Islamic civilizations in all major scholarly and scientific fields, including philosophy, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, and mathematics as well as the arts and music. It is well known that ancient Greek philosophy and science came to the West through the medium of Arab translation. Arab-Islamic medical science had a great influence on the development of the disciplines of medicine in Europe.
Unfortunately, since the Middle Ages it has been politics that has dominated thinking on both sides, and a legacy of confrontation, distrust, and misunderstanding has prevailed until the present day. Anti-Islamic stereotypes in both Europe and America today reflect early vitriolic sentiments expressed by ignorant and uninformed Christians aghast at the rise of Islam and by their descendants who suffered defeat by Muslims in the Crusades and beyond.
Christian-Muslim Relations in the Early 21st Century
The Ottoman Empire, at its height during the 16th and 17th centuries under Suleiman the Magnificent, suffered gradual decline in succeeding centuries, culminating in its defeat as an ally of Imperial Germany during World War I. Having already lost most of its European territories before the war, the empire suffered a breakup into what is now Turkey and the countries of the Middle East, whose boundaries were drawn by the victorious Western allies. It was also at this time that the seeds were sown for the establishment of the state of Israel in the heart of the Middle East, with statehood emerging in 1948. These events of the first half of the 20th century were pivotal for determining the subsequent relations between Muslims and the West (Christians and Jews, and now secularists).
Meanwhile in other parts of the Muslim world, especially Africa and South Asia, colonialists wreaked havoc, supplanting Islamic educational systems with secular or Christianity-based systems. By 1900 more than 90 percent of sub-Saharan Africa was already under European control. Native peoples often were treated as “savages” who were to be educated to conform to the customs of the West. Inhumane behavior has never been limited to either Christians or Muslims. Turkey during and after World War I carried out one of the worst genocides in history with the massacre of more than 1 million Armenians.
Muslim-Christian relations in Europe today are inevitably affected by centuries-old fears of Islamic violence. These fears, of course, are exacerbated by the terrorist events that have occurred in various parts of the world since the turn of the 21st century. Concern over the rising tide of immigrants coming into Europe from various parts of the Muslim world also has served to raise European nervousness about the presence of Islam. Today some 70 percent of all refugees in the world are Muslim. On the psychological level fear and mistrust tap into a long history of mutual aggression. On the practical level, Europeans fear that they will lose jobs, a fair cut of social services, and the cultural integrity of their respective countries.
For their part many Muslims are experiencing what they see as a new form of international colonialism. Muslim countries in the developing world often are controlled by Western powers through means such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the UN Security Council. The West has long been known for supporting corrupt dictators so as to foster its own economic needs. Muslims, not surprisingly, question the sincerity of Western belief in justice and democracy.
Selected areas of the world are highlighted in the following subsections as examples of the problems that bear on Christian-Muslim relations.
Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa
Many areas of Africa, of course, are suffering greatly today as a result of deteriorating conditions and relations between Muslim and Christian groups. One obvious example is Nigeria. Since 1990 conflicts between Muslims and Christians in northern Nigeria have become violent and often deadly. The full picture is complex and related directly to the British colonialist venture in Nigeria. Thus, relations between the two communities are based not only on religion, but also more specifically are a combination of economic, political, and religious factors.
The British captured the Sokoto Caliphate in 1903, after which it became known as the Northern Protectorate, which, in 1960, became part of the independent Federal Republic of Nigeria. The Hausa-Fulani, the dominant leadership, were Muslim, and the ethnic minorities were primarily Christian. This racial-ethnic divide remains as the major identifier of groups today, even though issues of conflict may have nothing specifically to do with religion. Interfaith conflict in Nigeria in the contemporary period took a more serious turn when, in 1991, some Muslims objected to Christian evangelization efforts and fighting broke out. These troubles have continued regularly, often with orgies of killing and looting, much of it unrelated to religion or ethnicity. For Muslims themselves, violence among members of the faith may be of greater consequence than struggles between groups representing Islam and Christianity.
Today a major player in exacerbating Nigerian sectarian violence is the Muslim sect called Boko Haram, which is strongly opposed to Western values and forms of education and generally shares a Taliban ideology. In recent years, members of Boko Haram have raided schools, churches, and government offices in their fight to carve out an Islamic enclave in northeastern Nigeria. Such terrorist attacks have had a strong effect on the country’s economy since farmers in the area are frightened away from growing their crops. In April 2014, Boko Haram abducted more than 200 schoolgirls, who as of this writing have not been returned.
Those familiar with the situation in northern Nigeria believe that Christian and Muslim organizations could greatly assist in ending conflicts said to be carried out in the name of religion. Many observers believe that the key lies with renewed efforts at interreligious dialogue. Founded in the 1950s, PROCMURA, the program for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa, continues to work to lower tensions through constructive engagement of churches and mosques in Nigeria and elsewhere.
Christian-Muslim Relations in Indonesia
Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim majority country, and it also has large numbers of Protestants and Roman Catholics. Conservative Muslims often think that Christians seek to convert them, and Christians worry that Muslims want to make Indonesia into an Islamic state. Christians have always harbored a deep fear of Islamization. Under President Suharto Christians began to lose their influence with the regime and felt increasingly marginalized. In 1998 after the fall of the Suharto regime, an upsurge in violent Muslim-Christian conflicts took place throughout the country. The violence came as a surprise to many, who thought Indonesia’s tradition of positive and harmonious interfaith relations, based on the five principles of pancasila, would prevail. Since Indonesia became an independent state in 1945, pancasila has served as its guiding philosophy, including among other principals freedom of religion within the framework of monotheism. The cause of violence has been attributed by many people to nonreligious factors such as politics and control of state power. Still, religious rhetoric has been used to mobilize groups and forces. The possibility of interreligious conflict has increased dramatically in recent years.
The GKJ (Java Christian Church) is working hard to avoid further deterioration in Muslim-Christian relations. In exchange for a kind of religious equilibrium, the church tries to cooperate with secular authorities. New forms of conflict transformation, specifically efforts toward peace-building, are gaining ground across communities that have experienced some of the worst conflicts. A group called Peace Provocateurs, for example, has worked to advance brotherhood and peace in Ambon, as a result of which Ambon has achieved relative calm. One of the largest Muslim organizations in Indonesia, the Muhammadiyah, is also working for peace and accepts Christians in its schools. In 2013, a large interfaith conference was co-sponsored by several Christian and Muslim organizations, leading to meetings across the country to air tensions, prevent violence, and promote harmony.
Despite peaceful efforts in Southeast Asia in general violence has not fully abated. Since 2000, several countries have seen the emergence of armed Islamist groups, such as Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines and Laskar Jihad in Indonesia. The world was shocked at the Bali bombings in 2002, carried out by an al-Qaida affiliate. Some observers argue that violence in Southeast Asia represents a defense response on the part of Muslims rather than aggressive fanaticism. Often it represents a response to efforts of local governments to extend their control over areas where Muslims are in the minority.
Christian-Muslim Relations in the Middle East
Relations between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East have been affected historically by territorial ambitions, competition over particular sites important to both religions, and constantly changing developments in the region’s politics. The epicenter of Christian-Muslim relations after the rise of Islam, the Middle East is a complex, heterogeneous region, where the addition of the state of Israel has further complicated relations. The recent Arab Spring, pressures for a more Islamic state in Turkey, and international dialogue on the future of relations between Iran and the West have added to regional tensions.
Generally minorities (sometimes tiny ones) in states dominated by Muslim-majority populations, Christians are focused on trying to live as full and equal citizens. In some cases, especially in Syria and Egypt today, Christians are struggling for their very existence. Often they look back at periods in the region’s history when tolerance and coexistence marked relations, and they hope that such examples from the past might help show the way forward to enhanced coexistence and more security for Christians in the future. Christians in Muslim-dominated areas generally support efforts to secure the separation of religion and state, while some Muslims argue that the two must not be separated. Christians worry that when no distinction is made between religion and politics they run the risk of being labeled noncitizens, even though they were the primary populations of their lands long before the beginning of Islam.
In general, Christians number about 5 percent of the total population of the Middle East. They account for some 40 percent of the population in Lebanon and 10 percent in Egypt. Israel/Palestine, home of the birth of Christianity, claims less than 2 percent of the population as Christian. Under the Ottoman Empire, from which the modern states of the Middle East were carved out by Western colonial powers, religious minorities were afforded legal protection by Qur’anic injunction. The modern states have mainly replaced these laws with modern civil codes. Nonetheless, divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims have deep roots in most areas of the Middle East and can sometimes serve as the central cause of harassment and discrimination.
Muslims, especially in states where they make up the majority of a population, are divided into various groups whose supporters uphold more progressive notions of government versus those who advance more conservative views. Modern Turkey, for example, is struggling to determine the degree to which it remains a secular state, the basis on which it was founded in 1924, or move toward the Islamicization of society. The latter option, of course, presents serious problems for its Christian minorities. Matters worsened in 2010 with the murder of the head of Turkey’s Catholic Church, who had led Vatican efforts to improve Muslim-Christian relations in Turkey. The resulting tensions have encouraged some Islamist terrorist response and increased persecution of non-Muslim minorities.
For decades Lebanon was viewed as a kind of model of successful Christian-Muslim (and Druze) relationships at the level of the national government. Since Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 to 1990 that balance has been upset. Now the deadly crisis in Syria threatens to escalate tensions among the several groups that make up the largest religious communities in Lebanon. Christian-Muslim relations are at a low point not experienced since the days of the Crusades. Christians are being killed in Lebanon as a direct result of the Syrian war, with churches destroyed, priests tortured, and bishops kidnapped. Fears are growing that indigenous Christian communities not only in Lebanon, but also in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria will be forced out of their native homes in the Middle East permanently.
Conservative Christian communities in the West, especially in the United States, have targeted the treatment of Christians by Muslims in the Middle East as a major concern. Why should we be asked to help foster appreciation of the religion of Islam in America, they question, when Christians are denied their rights in many Middle Eastern countries? In Saudi Arabia, for example, non-Muslim houses of worship are sometimes burned; religious police regularly close down the operations of Christian Bible distributors and of churchgoers in general; school textbooks are often intolerant of Christianity and Judaism; names that sound too Christian or Jewish are forbidden to be given to babies, among other actions.
Despite these deteriorating circumstances and their negative effects on Muslim-Christian relations, some efforts are being made in the Middle East to promote better understanding between the two long-standing neighboring communities. In the 20th century, both Christians and Muslims worked to improve relations and to build on a long history of peaceful coexistence. Dialogue has taken place both through the structured efforts of organizations, such as the World Council of Churches, and in more informal settings. Some groups of Christians, in particular the Orthodox Church, have begun to reexamine the sources of the respective faiths and, on a theological level, to see God working through religions such as Islam. Efforts are being made to break away from the Western concept of nationalism and to emphasis the common historical and linguistic links shared between Christians and Muslims, looking for more positive models for the future.
Christian-Muslim Relations in Europe
The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of newly demarcated states in the Middle East, the retreat of colonialist powers around the world, the creation of the states of Pakistan and Israel, the rise of the Islamic republic in Iran, postcolonial conflicts in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the breakup of Yugoslavia and consequent ethnic cleansing—these and many other factors have led to large numbers of Muslims moving to western Europe. Some have come as refugees, some simply seeking a better life. Following the ties developed through Western colonialism Muslims have come from Turkey to Germany, from North Africa to France, from Indonesia to the Netherlands, from the Indian subcontinent to Britain. More recently, refugees have arrived, and continue to arrive, from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, and elsewhere. Some 30 million Muslims now make their home in Europe.
The great rise in Muslim immigration in the last several decades is perhaps the single most important factor influencing the ways in which Europeans view Muslims. Muslims are arriving in virtually all the countries of Europe from all over the world, looking for work, education, and a better life. Europeans, for their part, see Muslims not only as part of a generally foreign religion that has been viewed as both repellant and seductively attractive through the decades of the last century or more, but now also as neighbors and even competitors for employment and the services of the state. Islam is no longer a “foreign” religion but a genuinely European one, with predictions that, in some cities, the majority of the population will be Muslim in the coming decades. This, of course, creates a dramatically new situation for Christian-Muslim relations.
Some very specific events in different parts of Europe have led to outrage by Muslims and thus to rising tensions between the two communities. Particularly noteworthy were the so-called cartoon controversies, which started with the publication in a Danish newspaper on September 30, 2005, of a series of some twelve cartoons, most deprecating the prophet Muhammad. One image that portrayed Muhammad’s turban as a bomb constituted one of the most offensive drawings. The cartoons were reprinted in more than fifty newspapers worldwide, as a result of which hundreds of thousands of Muslims took to the streets to protest and riot, leading to incidents of brutality and killing. Christians were shocked, Muslims were angry and hurt, and interfaith relations suffered a serious setback.
Acts of terror on the part of Muslims, including the bombings in New York, Madrid, and London, have helped to polarize European responses to Muslims and Islam. Events that are mainly about political power or economic resources nonetheless may be identified with the religion of the perpetrators. Negative stereotyping by the press and media promote fear among the general public. In France the official state policy of laïcité (laicism) has led to numerous incidents of conflict when Muslims have insisted on such public manifestations of the faith as the wearing of the headscarf or the application of Sharia law.
Muslims, meanwhile, wonder why Europeans can so often fail to relate their own subjugation of native Muslim populations through the various means of Western imperialism and colonization to subsequent acts of violence on the part of Muslims. Many immigrants experience a kind of continuation of colonialist treatment in various European countries, some feeling marginalized, disaffected, and economically passed over. Instead of the wonderful new life they dreamed of they find inferior educational opportunities, unemployment (in some European cities up to 70 percent of the Muslim population is unemployed), and poor housing. For some immigrants these disparate conditions lead to violence, crime, drug use, and increasing radicalization, especially of youth. The relative ease of travel to home countries may, in some cases, encourage immigrants to identify with radical elements of Islam. In Sweden, for example, which is a fairly new host to Muslim immigrants, journalists attest to the presence of some 1,500 Islamic extremists.
A second generation of Muslims is now fully established as citizens of respective European countries, doubling in the last decade. Muslim imams are not only imported from the Middle East and other Muslim areas, but also are being trained as “homegrown” clerics in France and elsewhere. Islam is growing in many European countries not only because of immigration, but also because of high rates of birth as well as conversion. Convert women are among the most active in participating in interfaith discussions and in explaining Islam to non-Muslims.
Issues such as wearing of the hijab, public call to prayer and building of mosques with visible minarets, availability of halal meat, participation of Muslim girls in some public school activities, and a host of other issues must be faced by Europeans. Some among the Muslim population, perhaps growing, want nothing to do with Western life and values, leading to feelings of marginalization and economic disadvantage. Conversations between Muslims and other Europeans are also difficult because of the high level of anti-Muslim prejudice, encouraged by the press and other forms of media.
Changes in European churches have made it difficult to bring Christians and Muslims together for conversation. As Protestant churches are increasingly empty except for ritual events, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic populations are on the rise. Fortunately, some positive developments in interfaith relations are taking place. Some Protestant churches are attempting to educate their parishioners about Islam. Muslims and Christians are working together on issues of everyday life, with interaction between women on the increase. Some efforts on the part of Christian churches to address these issues of disparity and to attempt to promote better understanding and even dialogue have proven successful. In some cases, churches and mosque communities are working together to counter the new militant atheism that is increasingly popular in Europe. The churches themselves, however, have generally lost power and influence in most of Europe and find resources for such efforts sadly lacking.
Since his installation in March 2013 Pope Francis has encouraged the Roman Catholic Church to intensify its dialogue with Islam and with Muslim leaders so that each community views the other not as the enemy but as brothers and sisters. Initiatives such as the Anglican Church’s “Building Bridges Seminar” with Muslims and Christians have laid the ground for common study of scripture, understanding the social challenges each community faces, and identifying the challenges of violence, poverty, and injustice. An important ingredient in these conversations is the understanding that the religious communities of Europe share a common history and face a united future, whether they want it or not. The World Council of Churches, which has promoted interfaith conversation among all major religious groups since the mid-20th century, is working now to promote bilateral dialogue between Christians and Muslims in the context of multilateral events.
Christian-Muslim Relations in the United States
The American Muslim community is greatly diverse, including ethnic, racial, denominational, and ideological distinctions. Most American Muslims are immigrants or from immigrant families, while more than 30 percent are African American or Latino/a. The vast majority are Sunni, with a significant minority of Shi‘a and a number of smaller sectarian, often heterodox, communities. Among the groups that have been most amenable to dialogue in the United States are South Asians (generally fluent in English), Iranians, and certain Arabs. America’s political relationships with Muslim countries inevitably affect the nature of the dialogue.
The African American Muslim community began most notably with the development of the Nation of Islam in the mid-20th century. After the death of its founder Elijah Muhammad, under the leadership of Elijah’s son Warith Deen Mohammed the community moved away from the quasi-Muslim ideology of the Nation to enter mainstream Islam. Many other African Americans have joined Sunni and even Shi‘a Islam, while sectarian movements continue to attract young blacks and Latino/as.
American Muslims for over a decade have decried the acts of the 9/11 terrorists and defended Islam as a religion of peace. They want to exercise their constitutional rights to free speech in expressing their objection to certain American foreign policies, at the same time that they fear the consequences of the Patriot Act and other actions they view as assaults on their civil liberties. Meanwhile other Americans are struggling to understand that the Muslims with whom they interact in businesses, schools, and neighborhoods are different from the Muslim extremists who are calling for even more dire measures against the United States. Right-wing evangelical rhetoric against Islam has been fueled by incidents of international terrorism involving Muslims. Islamophobia, literally fear of Islam, has grown steadily in the United States since the attacks of 9/11. Analysts sometimes identify what they call the Islamophobia industry in America, which produces anti-Muslim material at an estimated worth of more than 40 million dollars each year.
Christian-Muslim dialogue in the United States has taken a number of forms. Until recently, most of it has been initiated by Christian denominations, organizations, and churches. Since 2005 some Muslim groups have become interested in opening conversations with Christian and Jewish neighbors to help explain that theirs is a religion of peace and not one of hatred and violence as it is often portrayed by the media. Some dialogues are highly academic, featuring religious professionals from the ranks of clergy or university professors. Other conversations are more informal, with both sides attempting simply to learn a little about each other. Those who favor dialogue believe that when citizens of a pluralistic society know more about each other they can become more understanding, charitable, and perhaps even appreciative of each other’s contributions.
Rather than the traditional interfaith conversations about theology, newer efforts are being made to find topics of mutual interest and contemporary relevance. One example is the dialogue focused on a shared approach to decisions about moral and ethical matters, such as questions related to family and gender relations, ecology, or the consequences of new technologies and scientific advancements. Some Muslims and Christians are finding common ground in learning more about each other’s ritual practices. This can mean not only discussing, but also observing, and even, in some cases, participating in the rituals of the other. On rare occasions it may take the form of specially designed interfaith worship.
Many of the formal dialogues held in America have been sponsored by national religious organizations. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for well over a decade has organized dialogues among religious leaders, primarily priests and imams, held on both coasts and in the Midwest. The National Council of Churches recently began a nationwide dialogue focused on issues of human rights and on countering stereotypical portrayals of Muslims and Islam in the media. A number of Christian denominations, most notably the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, and United Church of Christ, have been creative in developing new forms of engagement with Islam.
Until recently most national Muslim organizations have not been proactive in developing dialogue with Christians. This situation is changing, however, and national groups such as the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Council of North America, the Muslim American Society, and the Muslim Political Action Committee have added concern for building better interfaith relations to their agendas. Muslims are starting to understand that they must develop their own language of encounter. Both cultural and linguistic gaps must be overcome. Within the Muslim community itself certain asymmetries serve to further complicate efforts at communication with other faith communities. South Asians and Sunnis are heavily overrepresented in most conversation groups, while African Americans and Shi‘a tend to be overlooked. African Americans may be further marginalized insofar as problems they may consider most salient, such as poverty or racism, are not usually broached as subjects of interfaith dialogue.
Of major concern to both Muslims and Christians is finding ways in which to involve young people in interfaith engagement. Along with activities that involve action rather than conversation, youth are attracted by the growing use of social media and networking to foster interfaith engagement. Efforts are currently underway to develop social media as a new channel for interreligious and intercultural discussion. Most colleges and universities provide comprehensive lists of interfaith organizations on their respective campuses.
The “Common Word” Initiative
One fairly recent Muslim-initiated event designed to improve Muslim-Christian relations is worth exploration in some detail. It began with yet another incident interpreted by Muslims as an insult to their religion. Response to that incident led to an unprecedented Muslim invitation to dialogue. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave a talk in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted derogatory remarks about Islam made by a Byzantine emperor in the 15th century. Muslims were deeply offended by the apparent insult to their religion and their Prophet Muhammad, and again violence broke out. The pope publicly apologized for his remarks and insisted that the words of the Byzantine emperor in no way reflected his own feelings. Nonetheless, the speech was taken by Muslims as a reiteration of ancient diatribe by Christians against Islam, portraying it as a violent and irrational religion.
In 2007, 138 Muslim Sunni and Shi‘a leaders, including two women and representing countries and cultures around the world, signed a letter called “A Common Word between Us and You.” The initiative for the “Common Word” missive came from the Royal Aal al-Bait Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman, Jordan. Divided into three parts, the letter cites the scriptural basis in both Islam and Christianity for (1) the call to love of God, (2) the call to love of neighbor, (3) common ground for future dialogue. The theme is taken from Qur’an verse 3:64, “Say, O People of the Book [Christians and Jews]! Come to a common word between us and you.”
While the pope was intended as the primary recipient, the document was also addressed to the heads of many different Christian communions. It has received a variety of responses not only from Roman Catholics, but also from other Christians, including evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and several Orthodox leaders. The “Common Word” letter was designed to affirm that while differences exist, a sound basis exists for religious understanding as well as for practical cooperation between Christianity and Islam. It represents a major effort by Muslims to challenge their Christian counterparts to join them in affirming commonalities at a time when reactionary voices within each tradition are decrying the other and fueling regional conflicts in various parts of the world. In many ways “A Common Word” can be said to be unique, an invitation unparalleled in the history of Christian-Muslim relations.
That 138 Muslims took the initiative to reach out to Christians, and that interfaith meetings continue to occur as its result, represents a signal breakthrough whatever its specific conclusions. It remains to be seen whether the “Common Word” and the discussions it has spawned will really break new ground or will simply be one more example of the conundrums that have deadlocked Christian-Muslim dialogue over the centuries. It also remains to be seen if the theological differences identified as a result of the document can be pursued with enthusiasm because of the challenges they present, and whether the issues of (in)justice to which many Christian respondents have pointed can serve as a stimulus to the world’s leading clerics and religious intellectuals to actually move in the direction of more peaceful solutions for a world deeply in need of strong moral leadership.
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