Love Across Borders Between Islam and Christianity
I was disheartened (more than usual) to hear of today’s bomb blast in Istanbul. I once stood on or near the exact spot where the suicide bomber detonated himself. Had dinner at a Turkish restaurant directly across from the place. Poor Istanbul. God have mercy on the city and its people.
I offer you this long, somber, thought-provoking address by Navid Kermani, a German Muslim writer who received a prestigious Peace Prize from German booksellers. He began by talking about Father Jacques Mourad, a Catholic priest-monk living in a Syrian monastery, who was ultimately abducted by ISIS:
Two phrases are striking in these few lines of a simple e-mail, no doubt written in haste, phrases which are both characteristic of Father Jacques and a standard for all intellectual integrity. In the first phrase, Father Jacques writes, ‘The threat from IS, this sect of terrorists who present such a ghastly picture of Islam’. The second phrase, referring to the Christian world: ‘We mean nothing to them.’ Father Jacques defended the community he does not belong to, and criticised his own. A few days before his abduction, when the group that pretends to represent Islam and claims to apply the law of the Quran was already an immediate physical danger to him and his parish, Father Jacques still insisted that these terrorists were distorting the true face of Islam. I would take issue with any Muslim whose only response to the phenomenon of the Islamic State was the worn-out phrase that their violence has nothing to do with Islam. But a Christian, a Christian priest who could expect to be expelled, humiliated, abducted or killed by followers of another faith, yet still insisted on defending that faith – such a man of God displays a magnanimity that I have encountered nowhere else, except in the lives of the saints.
A person like myself cannot and must not defend Islam in that way. The love of one’s own – one’s own culture, one’s own country and also one’s own person – manifests itself in self-criticism. The love of the other – of another person, another culture and even another religion – can be far more effusive; it can be unreserved. It is true that the prerequisite for love of the other is love of oneself. But one can only fall in love, as Father Paolo and Father Jacques did with Islam, with the other. Self-love must be a struggling, doubting, constantly questioning love if it is to avoid falling prey to narcissism, self-praise, self-satisfaction. How true that is of Islam today! Any Muslim who does not struggle with it, does not doubt it and does not critically question it does not love Islam.
(By the way, last October, Father Jacques escaped from his captors.)
The vast majority of Muslims certainly reject terror, violence and oppression. This is something I have experienced directly on my travels; it is not an empty slogan. On the contrary: those who cannot take freedom for granted know its value best. All of the mass uprisings of recent years in the Islamic world have been uprisings for democracy and human rights: not only the attempted, although mostly failed revolutions in almost all the Arab countries, but also the protest movements in Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and, not least, the revolt at the ballot box in the last Indonesian presidential election. The streams of refugees likewise indicate where many Muslims hope to find better lives than in their home countries: certainly not in religious dictatorships. And the reports that reach us directly from Mosul and Raqqa attest, not to enthusiasm, but to the panic and despair of the population. Every relevant theological authority in the Islamic world has rejected the claim of IS to speak for Islam, and explained in detail how its practices and ideology go against the Quran and the basic teachings of Islamic theology. And let us not forget that those who are fighting on the front lines against Islamic State are themselves Muslims – Kurds, Shiites and also Sunni tribes and the members of the Iraqi army.
All of this needs to be said to expose the illusion that is being propounded in unison by the Islamists and the critics of Islam alike, namely that Islam is waging a war against the West. More accurately, Islam is waging a war against itself; that is to say, the Islamic world is being shaken by an inner conflict whose effects on the political and ethnic map may well come close to matching the dislocations that resulted from the First World War. The multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural Orient, which I studied through its superb literary achievements of the Middle Ages, and which I came to love as an endangered, never whole yet still vital reality during long stays in Cairo and Beirut, as a child during summer holidays in Isfahan and as a reporter at the monastery of Mar Musa – this Orient will have ceased to exist, like the world of yesteryear which Stefan Zweig recalled with nostalgia and sorrow in the 1920s.
What happened? Islamic State was not founded yesterday, nor did it begin with the civil wars in Iraq and Syria. Though its methods meet with abhorrence, its ideology is none other than Wahhabism, which exerts its influence in the remotest corners of the Islamic world today and, in the form of Salafism, has become attractive especially to young people in Europe. Since we know that the schoolbooks and curricula of Islamic State are 95 per cent identical with the schoolbooks and curricula in Saudi Arabia, we also know it is not just in Iraq and Syria that the world is strictly divided into what is forbidden and what is permitted – and humanity divided into believers and unbelievers. A school of thought that declares all people of other religions heretics, and berates, terrorises, vilifies and insults them, has been promulgated for decades, sponsored with billions from oil production, in mosques, in books and on television. If you denigrate other people systematically, day after day, it is only logical – how well we know this from our own history, from German history – that you will end up declaring their lives worthless. That such a religious fascism has become conceivable at all, that IS is able to recruit so many fighters, and still more sympathisers, that it has been able to overrun entire countries and capture major cities with hardly a fight – this is not the beginning, but rather the endpoint to date of a long decline, and I am referring not least to the decline of religious thought.
One more passage:
We read so often that Islam must be cleansed by the fire of Enlightenment, or that modernity must win out over tradition. But that is perhaps too simplistic when we consider that Islam’s past was so much more enlightened, and its traditional writings at times more modern, than the current theological discourse. Goethe and Proust, Lessing and Joyce were not out of their minds, after all, to have been fascinated by Islamic culture. They saw something in the books and monuments that we no longer perceive so easily, brutally confronted as we often are by contemporary Islam. Perhaps the problem of Islam is less its tradition than its nearly total break with that tradition, the loss of its cultural memory, its civilisational amnesia.
All the peoples of the Orient experienced a brutal modernisation imposed from above in the form of colonialism and secular dictatorships. The headscarf – to name one example – the headscarf was not abandoned gradually by Iranian women: in 1936, the Shah sent his soldiers out into the streets to tear it from their heads by force. Unlike Europe, where modernity – in spite of all the setbacks and crimes – was ultimately experienced as a process of emancipation and took place gradually over many decades and centuries, the Middle East experienced it largely as violence. Modernity was associated not with freedom, but with exploitation and despotism. Imagine an Italian president driving his car into St Peter’s Basilica, jumping onto the altar with his dirty boots and whipping the Pope in the face: then you will have a rough idea of what it meant when, in 1928, Reza Shah marched through the holy shrine of Qom in his riding boots and responded to the imam’s request to take off his shoes like any other believer by striking him in the face with his whip. And you will find comparable events and pivotal moments in many other Middle Eastern countries which, instead of slowly leaving the past behind, demolished that past and tried to erase it from memory.
Kermani makes the familiar but still insufficiently appreciated point that fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon, and indeed is the religious version of secular modernism. Both reject tradition, though at least the secularists are aware of what they’re doing. Kermani says that authentic Islamic culture has not survived the shocks of modernity — both secularism and the fundamentalist reaction:
Certainly Muslim countries are still producing outstanding works, as we can see at biennials and film festivals, and once more at this year’s Book Fair. But this culture has hardly anything to do with Islam. There is no Islamic culture any more; at least, none of quality. What we now have bursting all around us and raining down on our heads is the debris of a massive intellectual implosion.
Read the whole thing. It’s very moving.
I wonder if you could say this about the post-Christian West:
There is no Christian culture any more; at least, none of quality. What we now have bursting all around us and raining down on our heads is the debris of a massive intellectual implosion.