A Groundbreaking Event In Muslim-Christian Solidarity

“The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.” An open letter carrying this message was sent by 138 of the world’s most senior Muslim leaders to the heads of all Christian churches – including Pope Benedict XVI, addressing Christians around the world on the eve of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holy day marking the end of Ramadan.

This letter, a welcome high-profile olive branch extended to all Christians, is described as a truly historic event and was even more significant in that among the signatories of the document, one could find the names of several prominent leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Everybody thinks this is a historic event,” said John L. Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University and director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding: “If you look at the history of Islam and the Muslim world, this is really the first time that we have an initiative where Muslims have collectively come together and agreed to what binds them to Christians,” said Esposito.

Indeed, this initiative by Muslim leaders from around the world to reach out to all Christians is a first, and it comes not a minute too soon as relations between the two communities are particularly strained.

The tensions came to a boil beginning with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, in which close to 3,000 people were killed. These terrorist attacks by self-declared Muslims were followed by a series of similarly murderous ones on Western targets such as London, Madrid and other cities. The controversy over the offensive caricature of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, which resulted in anti-Western riots from London to Islamabad, added fuel to the fire, only to be followed by reportedly damaging statements from the pope about Islam and violence not long afterward.

The schism between the West and Muslims only seemed to be widening.

The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan – two Muslim countries – spearheaded by the United States and mostly Western coalition forces have done nothing to abate that tension. The situation was aggravated when President George W. Bush spoke of a “crusade” at the outset of the Iraq war, which is how many Muslims perceive the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Emerging as it does from the turmoil and tension between the West and Islam, this document is truly “a dramatic and groundbreaking display of international solidarity,” as the letter was described in a communique issued on behalf of Muslim leaders.

Esposito, an expert on Islam, emphasized that Muslims and Christians share the same principles of love of one God and love of the neighbor. The Georgetown scholar pointed to a number of similarities between the Holy Koran and the Holy Bible.

Despite language differences between the Hebrew Old Testament, the original word of Jesus Christ in Aramaic, and the actual transmitted Greek of the New Testament, the three versions have the same command: to love God fully with one’s heart and soul and to be fully devoted to Him. The Muslim holy book, the Koran, carries the same message.

“Everyone is interested in political and economic contentions, difficulties, struggles, wars,” said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, during a press conference in Washington marking the event.

The differences between Christians and Muslims, say the theological experts, is a difference of theology rather than of politics.

“Without a theological solution, without a certain sense of accepting the other, all other solutions are expediency and sooner or later they wither away,” said Nasr.

“Post 9/11, a common question is: Where are the moderate Muslim voices?” said Esposito. “This historic document is a crystal-clear message of peace and tolerance from 138 Muslim leaders from across the Islamic world.”

The authors of the letter believe that with over half of the world’s population consisting of Muslims and Christians, meaningful world peace can only come from peace and justice between those two faiths.

The signatories of the document, who include some of the world’s most influential Islamic leaders and thinkers, are calling for tolerance, understanding and moderation. The uniqueness of this approach lies not only in the fact that Muslims have extended and opened their arms to Christians, but it also marks “an historic achievement in terms of Islamic unity,” according to Esposito.

What is significant in this case is that this initiative groups Muslims from right across the spectrum, uniting Sunnis and Shiites and individuals ascribing to different schools of thought within those two branches of Islam. The driving force behind this letter, and a previous one to the pope by a smaller group of 38 scholars a year ago, has been the Royal Academy of Jordan, an international and non-governmental Islamic institute headquartered in Amman.

While the 138 signatures on this historic document are those of recognised Muslim leaders, for this initiative to succeed it needs the support of the masses. This letter is undoubtedly an encouraging step, but as one cynical commentator put it, prominent as they may be, these are still only 138 names out of 1.6 billion.

Indeed, the task facing mainstream Muslim leaders – of reclaiming Muslim and Western attention away from the radical minority – is as monumental as the difference between 138 and 1.6 billion. But as the saying goes, faith can move mountains.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service.