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‘A Common Word’ in the News

A review of Christian-Muslim conflict and a modest proposal to counter it

At a Christian-Muslim conference in Geneva this week, participants agreed to build a network for “peace teams” to intervene in crises
where religious differences are invoked as the cause of the dispute.
The idea is that religious differences may not be the real problem in a
so-called religious conflict, but rather a means to mobilise the masses
in a dispute that actually stems from political or economic rivalries.

If outside experts could help disentangle religion from the other
issues, the argument goes, that could help neutralise religion’s
capacity to mobilise and inflame, in the hope of leading to a
de-escalation of the crisis.

Is this idealistic? Maybe. However, given the number of crises
throughout the world that have religion factored into the equation, it
certainly seems worth the effort. Many of these conflicts are not simply
battles between religious fanatics, as they may be presented, but
calculated agitation by one group against another, usually for political
or economic advantage. Some smokescreens are easy to see through,
others almost impenetrable.

ghaziIn his speech to the conference,
Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal sketched out the problem
facing religious experts who undertake such peace missions.  “Before
considering what to do and how to do it, we are faced with a series of
complex social, political and religious puzzles which we must fully
understand in order not to make things worse,”
he said.

(Photo: Prince Ghazi, 1 Nov 2010/WCC-Mark Beach)

He then offered a brief tour d’horizon of Christian-Muslim
tension and conflict in the world.  It’s not complete and readers may
disagree on specific points (that’s what the Comments section below is
for!), but it’s a useful overview worth posting verbatim to highlight
the problems and invite debate on them.

Ghazi said there are:

  • “places where Christians are clearly severely oppressed by Muslims
    (such as Pakistan, Iraq and Sudan), and places where Muslims are clearly
    severely oppressed by Christians (such as the Philippines);
  • ” a lot of other places where it is not clear who is oppressing who
    (such as along the Muslim-Christian ‘fault line’ in Sub-Saharan Africa);
  • “places where we know both Christians and Muslims routinely wrong and kill each other (such as Nigeria);
  • “places where Christians and Muslims are both oppressed by others (such as Palestine, Burma, Thailand and India on occasion);
  • “places where our knowledge of the religious oppression there is limited (such as China);
  • conflict 2“places
    where foreign missionary activity is exacerbating local relationships
    and causing communal violence (such as Indonesia) albeit that this does
    not justify the oppression there;

    (Photo: Children urge Philippine army and Muslim separatists to stop fighting in Mindanao, 2 Oct 2008/Romeo Ranoco)
  • “places where the cause of violence is not religion but irredentism
    (such as Chechnya, Kashmir and Sudan) although again this does not
    justify the oppression there;
  • “places where there is no violent oppression as such but legal or
    social discrimination (such as in parts of the Arab world and Europe,
    and right here in Switzerland — where Muslims can no longer build
  • “places where Christians are oppressed by Muslims but Muslims
    oppress other Muslims even more violently (such as Pakistan and Iraq)
    due to sectarian violence (though the governments do their best to stop
  • “places where we as Christians and Muslims are not likely to agree on who is wronging who;
  • “places where Muslims and/or Christians will never agree among
    themselves — let alone with each other — on who is doing what to who and
    whose fault it is;
  • “and, finally, places where individuals regularly exaggerate their
    religious plight to their co-religionists abroad due to their own
    individual myopia, or simply to exploit them for personal financial
    benefit. This in turn is then seized upon by the international
    proselytism ‘industry’ to solicit more and more donations from their own
    popular bases which then fund more and more attempts at foreign
    proselytism and this makes the situation yet worse.”

conflict 3

(Photo: Office in Lahore where
moderate Pakistani Sunni imam Sarfraz Naeemi was killed by a Taliban
suicide bomber, 12 June 2009/Mohsin Raza)

top of that, Ghazi added, religious leaders  have varying degrees of
political power or social influence in different places  and different
levels of access to information about what is really going on and how
best to help.

What do you think? Can outside religious experts help defuse
conflicts that are religious or partly religious in nature? And what do
you think of the list of Christian-Muslim flashpoints presented above?