Some notes on religious dialogue and rational debate

‘Christianity vs Islam’ is the wrong fight, a red herring. Just as the Pope should find allies amongst Islamic scholars in his fight against Godless materialism, so the rest of us should be allying ourselves with moderates – be they Christian and Islamic – against the extremists

From my article on the Dalai Lama:

What is important is finding the common ground between religions and therefore cultures, identifying those common morals that can unite us all. Multiculturalism, then, is not so much about celebrating differences, but emphasising our similarities.

It is encouraging to see a high-profile example of this in an Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI from a group of emminent Islamic scholars, in response to the speech the Pope gave at the University of Regensburg last month.

The press release from Islamica magazine, which has published the letter, states that:

All the eight schools of thought and jurisprudence in Islam are represented by the signatories, including a woman scholar … The letter tackles the main substantive issues raised in his treatment of a debate between the medieval Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an “educated Persian”, including reason and faith; forced conversion; “jihad” vs. “holy war”; and the relationship between Christianity and Islam. They engage the Pope on an intellectual level concerning these crucial topics—which go well beyond the controversial quotation of the emperor—pointing out what they see as mistakes and oversimplifications in the Pope’s own remarks about Islamic belief and practice.

I think the main thrust of the Pope’s address was actually a defence of theology and faith, against the forces of brute science. This, he has surmised, constitutes a greater threat to Christianity than Islam. Muslims should be his ally in this defence. Reading the entire text of the Pope’s speech, I think it is clear that he did criticize Islam along the way… but it was a genuine and specific criticism, and not a bigoted attack that many observers interpreted. And to this criticism, the Islamic scholars have contributed a genuine response, highlighting his mistakes. This is how discourse between the faiths should be. If not, then we return to a mere spouting of dogma, so brilliantly satirized by “Even Stevphens” on the The Daily Show.

The scholars also condemn, without reservation, the shooting of a Catholic nun in Somalia. Andrew Sullivan is rather mealie-mouthed about this:

I presume they also condemn the bombings of mosques, rampant Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Iraq and the murderous violence of al Qaeda. But they do not use this occasion to do so.

Only, I think they do. The Islamic scholars also say (and Sullivan also quotes):

If some have disregarded a long and well-established tradition in favor of utopian dreams where the end justifies the means, they have done so of their own accord and without the sanction of God, His Prophet, or the learned tradition.

Condemning the Somalian murder is relevant, as it addresses the aftermath of the Pope’s speech, which is what they are engaged with. If they also condemn ‘means-to-an-end’ violence, then their failure to name and shame specific atrocities does not mean that they endorse them!

I am very taken by the ideas on Christianity in the political sphere, which Sullivan has been laying down on the Daily Dish, and, I understand, in his new book. He makes the distinction between the quiet faith of those who believe “while no-one else is watching”, and the political zealots who seek to impose their faith on others. The latter group he labels “Christianists”, and is at pains to distance himself from their intolerance. Often however (and the post I link to above is a good example), he does not extend the same courtesy to other faiths, instead hinting that everyone within Islam is of one mind.

Some strong words from The Lounsbury at ‘Aqoul:

[The veil debate] also serves to illustrate the disservice the Islamophobes do in their constant idiotic and ill-informed whinging on about “Shariah law” (based on some half-understood readings on Saudiyah and medieval practice) and inability to distinguish between the Islamic equivalents of country bumpkin snake-handling evangelical inbreds and your ordinary urbanite football watching mate. Their bigotted and hysterical whinging on gives a veneer of credence to the neo-Salafi Religious Offenderati Pimps spin and ostentatious pimpery of retrograde nonsense.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – It seems to me as if everyone is on the wrong side at the moment. ‘Christianity vs Islam’ is the wrong fight, a red herring. Just as the Pope should find allies amongst Islamic scholars in his fight against Godless materialism, so the rest of us should be allying ourselves with moderates – be they Christian and Islamic – against the extremists, whose fundamentalism is a blaspheme against their God.

25 thoughts on “Some notes on religious dialogue and rational debate”

  1. Do you remember how the bombing of the Admiral Duncan gay place in Soho was sort of like an own-goal for homophobia? Ironically, that event made it suddenly not ok anymore to be homophobic. I think religiously-motivated violence kind of makes it not ok to be religious any more. If it doesn’t, then it should do. We don’t have time to quibble over which brand of Islam does or doesn’t endorse or condemn which kind of violence. Ditto for Christianity. People die in the meantime. To hell with the lot of it, I say. If people haven’t figured out by now the harm that organised religion does, what hope is there really? “Because god said so” is no longer an acceptable justification for anything in an enlightened twenty-first-century world.

  2. There are several issues about the Pope’s University of Regensburg lecture that should be noted. The Pope targeted Protestant thought far more than he attacked Islam. The Pope’s animosity toward Protestant theology and philosophy is far more evident, than any animosity to Islam. So why did Protestants ignore the Pope, while Muslims got into an uproar? First Protestants havie been listening to Popes for 500 years. 400 years ago, Protestants got upset, but by now what the Pope says does not matter to most Protestants, just as it does not matter to mostr Catholics. Muslims are not use to hearing about what the Pope has to say about them, so they still get upset. Give them a few hundred more years to gain perspective.

  3. Perspective would have been to understand that the Pope was criticizing Protestant thought by linking it to the alleged flaws of Islam. The Pope was up to the old European trick of using Islam as a respesenative of a European (Christian) opponant. The Muslim responce gave the Pope’s lecture far more attention than it desirved.

  4. My point is, that the “neo-Salafi Religious Offenderati Pimps” response gave the Pope’s remarks more attention.

    Moderates would not call killing a Somalian nun “the Muslim responce”, as they’ve made quite clear. Their own response has hardly given the lecture any more attention.

    And I don’t think they’ve mistaken his remarks. He was critical of Islam, and they are entitled to respond to that.

  5. Free speech includes the right to offend. My point is that Protestants had far more reason to be offended than Muslims did, but chose to not respond. The reason, Prptestants are use to the idea of the Pope exercizing his right to free speech, and unless he says something unusual, they ignore him. For Muslims free speach is part of a new and sometimes very uncomfortable world. They do not know when to ignore the Pope, but eventually they will learn.

  6. But the point of my original post is precisely to distinguish between Muslims who are entirely comfortable with free speech, and those who are not. You seem to be falling into the exact false lemma that The Lounsbury (quoted above) warns against.

  7. Robert, There are moderate Muslims, but there are deep conflicts within Islam. The last time I checked “the Islamic equivalents of country bumpkin snake-handling evangelical inbreds,” ran Iran, were murdering each other at quite a respectable rate in Iraq, were contending for control of the Palestinian Authority, were channeling large amounts of Saudi oil money to religious schools all over the Middle East, blowing up trains in India, Spain, and the UK, killing tousits in Bali and Egypt, crashing jets into buildings in the United States, killing hundreds of Israelis by suicide bombings, and murdering hundreds of thousands of their fellow Muslims in the Sudan. In case you have not checked recently, the Muslim country bumkins are quite as good as Christian country bumkins at killing large numbers of people.

    As for “your ordinary urbanite football watching mate.” well they are human to, and snide, snobby remarks about them are singularly unhelpful in resolving their prejudices. Intime, after their grand daughters come home with a nice Muslim boy, they might loose some of their prejudices. At the wedding the will sit with the boy’s grandfater, a Muslim fanatic from Pakastan, and drink tea.

    I happen to think that discourse about Islam should include acknowledge the manifestations of fanataism among Muslims, as well as an acknowledgement that most Muslims are not fanatics.

    Now can the Pope, whose job description entails the ability to speak without error for God, have allies among Muslims? Since the Pope cannot acknowledge spiritual equals among other Christians, let alone other religions, how can he enter into dialigue, or have allies? The Pope, the Church’s former Grand Inquisitor, is one who is uncomfortable with free speech in his own community.

  8. I happen to think that discourse about Islam should include acknowledge the manifestations of fanataism among Muslims, as well as an acknowledgement that most Muslims are not fanatics.

    Hah! It would be great if that happened. But you seem to imply that reminders of the extremist element are somehow getting lost, while moderate muslims are flavour of the month. That’s not the case, even in the liberal media.

    In fact, the reverse is true, and we hold up the manifestations of fanatasism as the best that Islam can ever be. This excludes and alienated our allies within Islam. Our message to them becomes: we don’t want you to succeed.

    The discourse is, at its heart, still about trying to prove the cultural superiority of one religious tradition over another. It’s an impossible task. For every instance of terror, moral depravity, denial of human rights, falsehood, bigotry, and fundamentalism that is displayed about Islam, they can and will send us a Christian/American/Jewish/Russian/South American/Occidental/Takeyourpick example right back to compliment it and (if you will) balance it (Britain used to be a pretty fundamentalist place once: I can see the place where they burned the heretics in Edinburgh as I type).

  9. What allies in Islam Robert? Europeans are hopelessly confused about toleration, despite the fact that Europeans like Roger Williams, and John Milton worked it all out in the 17th century. You will never get the Pope to give up the concept that he is the Vicar of Christ, that the Catholic Church is the only true church, and Christianity is the only true religion. The Pope, by the way is wrong, because Judaism is the only true religion, but that is another story. Toleration is about according others the right to be wrong, the right to make mistakes. Toleration is about respecting human autonomy, it is not about thinking that everyone is equally right. Yes, I stand with the Enlightenment, I stand with Kant. I am proud of the American tradition of Democratic Pluralism, and I think that European multicultualism is a hopelessly wrong denial of human nature. Of course, although you European intellectuals have a right to to make your own stupid mistakes. We in the United States will not chop off your heads, or try to force you to use, pounds and inches.

  10. Just to clarify, I’m not talking about allies for the Pope. You may be right that he cannot really get any, him apparently being the infallible Vicar of Christ, etc.

    I’m talking about the allies, within Islam, of moderation and tolerance. These are multitude, and I speak to many every day. They are the product of our British multiculturalism, the unsung masses who are happy to go to the mosque, but also got to parties with me to celebrate, say, Diwali or Christmas. You know, all those people who were embarrassed by the furore over those Danish cartoons, and the over-reaction to the Pope’s lecture?

    By the way, we Brits definitely don’t have a problem with the Imperial system of measurements. T’was us who propagated them (during our Imperialist days, of course).

  11. Robert, I have written in my own blog abput moderate Muslims, including Italian and Israeli Muslims. I have taken the stand that Muslims in Europe and the United States have the Same Asperations and desires as we do, and that their full intigration into Western society is a matter of time. I believe that Islam will eventually come to terms with a pluralistic world, but having said that, I see some present trends in Islam as deplorable. Thjis would include the rabid anti-Semitism of the media of Islamic countries, and prreached of hate for Jews in mosques around the world. I feel that I have a right to make harsh judgements about Moslems who accept this bigoted line. I note that conflict with Jews is part of Islamic theology, and that this anti -Semetic eschatology intrudes into current manifestations of Islamic thought, including the Charter of Hamas, the political and religious discourse of Hezbolla, Iranian Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood.

    The Jewish experience tells us to not discount our enemies, and that Europeans, including the British are far to willing to sell us out. When Hitler fired up his ovens, most Europeans were willing to cooperate or ignore our plight – there were a few notable exceptions. During the Holocaust, it was the policy of the British government to prevent Jewsish escapes from Hitler’s death machine.

    European intellectuals bend over backward to demonstrate their love of Islam and their contemp for Israel and for Jews who support it. European multicultualism appearantly does not lead to tolerance or understanding of Zionism. Multiculturealism is not true tolerantion, because it does not accord to Westerners, to Europeans, to Christians and to Jews, the right to be wrong, the right to criticize others, and the right to have our own oppenions when the conflict with those of Muslims.

  12. have taken the stand that Muslims in Europe and the United States have the Same Asperations and desires as we do,

    Hear hear

    Multiculturealism is not true tolerantion, because it does not accord to Westerners, to Europeans, to Christians and to Jews, the right to be wrong, the right to criticize others, and the right to have our own oppenions when the conflict with those of Muslims.

    I agree with your framing of this particular debate: multiculturalism should be about toleration, and allowing others to be wrong, according to your own beliefs. But I disagree with your suggestion that it has failed. During (say) the cartoon debates, no-one went to prison for publishing the cartoons in the UK, or in Denmark, or anywhere else. When we encounter intolerance, tolerance does actually prevail, always, despite the complaints of a few. The system works.

    I read a lot of Andrew Sullivan’s blog, which chronicles a worrying slide into intolerance in the USA. Constituational Ammendments to ban gay union, and all that. What’s your analysis of this? Is he being too paranoid.

  13. Robert, I read that a 14 year old English girl was arrested, because she protested when her teacher ordered her to sit with a group of students who did nor speak her language. This represents to me, the excess of European multiculturalism. There were a lot of Europeans who questioned the right of a Danish Journal to publish cartoon depictions offensive to Muslims. It may be true that no one went to prison, but there were plently of Europeans who thought the cartoons should be made illegal. This would include the “Independant,” which does not hesitate to publish brutally anti-Semetic cartoons.

    Of course Americans are intolerant, this is my point. The right to be wrong includes a certain right to be intolerant. The right to intolerance should not include the right to insititutional discrimination. In the United States we give the intolerant enough rope to hang themselves. You Europeans get so upset when a mad dog barks, that you don’t notice how loud you are barking, or how crazy you are acting in responce. We Americans still have a few things we can teach you.

  14. Robert, Let me call your attention to the problem of BBC multiculturalism:

    In one of a series of discussions, executives were asked to rule on how they would react if the controversial comedian Sacha Baron Cohen ) known for his offensive characters Ali G and Borat – was a guest on the programme Room 101.”

    “On the show, celebrities are invited to throw their pet hates into a dustbin and it was imagined that Baron Cohen chose some kosher food, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a Bible and the Koran.”

    “Nearly everyone at the summit, including the show’s actual producer and the BBC’s head of drama, Alan Yentob, agreed they could all be thrown into the bin, except the Koran for fear of offending Muslims.” – SIMON WALTERS, Mail on Sunday

    The craven, dishonest and truely dispicable nature of multiculturalism is clearly obvious here. It is politically correct for the multiculturalist to insult the valuse of Western Civilization, but not those of Muslims.

  15. I’m interested in defending the concept of multiculturalism here, not the fools who misunderstand, and misuse it. If favouritism is given over to Islam over everything else, then that ain’t multiculturalism, by definition.

    I’m right in thinking that this BBC programme is a hypothetical situation? I doubt very much that the bible would be treated differently. People would be offended to the same degree by that. As would definitely be the case if you threw in the Guru Granth Sahib. He could probably get away with a cow, despite the fact that they are sacred to Hindus, because, well, cows have an inherent humour to them (cow-pats, etcetera).

    And that’s part of the conundrum. Throwing a Koran into the Room 101, or some kosher food, isn’t particularly funny. In Britain however, anything involving the Archbishop of Canterbury is fucking hilarious. Down the chute, all robes, mitre and beard! How we would guffaw. So I’m not sure your the hypothetical yeilds the conclusion you and Simon Walters ask of it…

    (Have you got a link for that BBC discussion, by the way?)

  16. Robert, Are you interested in defending multiculturalism or pluralism? I see these as different concepts. Pluralism assumes that we as individuals believe in ultimate truths, but as a mixed community of people with different beliefs, we are not going to be able to sort it all out. We run society while holding different beliefs, Pluralism can only function in a democracy. Multiculturalism does not require democracy. The former Soviet Union was a multicultural socoiety. The British ran India as a multicultural society. In theory the relationship between the United States and native peoples was multicultural, with each tribe being regarded by treaty as a seperate nation. This multiculturalism did not work well for the native Americans. I do not think multiculturalism works well in Europe including the UK, British Muslems are far less satisfied with their situation than American Muslims are with their situation under our pluralistic system. We do noyt experienc American Muslims challenging basic pluralistic concepts like freedom of speech.

  17. Civility despite disagreement is of course an aspect of pluralism. It is a part of my cultural values. Those are values which I intend to affirm against multiculturalism. Since my ancestors left the Church of England in 1776 because it supported British oppression of the American Colonies, I am willing to make an exception from the rule of civility in the case of the Archbishop.

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