Let’s Talk Before The Whole World Ends

A group of Muslim spiritual leaders and scholars from countries including Iran and Pakistan are reaching out to their Christian counterparts amid boiling conflicts between those two worlds. In an open letter [PDF] addressed to church leaders including Pope Benedict XVI, the Muslims warn that “the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.”

Muslims and Christians are enjoined to worship but one God and love their neighbors, the letter notes, and a 13-page treatise written by the scholars lists comparable passages of the Q’uran and the Bible. “Love of the [neighbor] is an essential and integral part of faith in God and love of God because in Islam without love of the [neighbor] there is no true faith in God and no righteousness,” they write. “Without giving the [neighbor] what we ourselves love, we do no truly love God or the [neighbor].”

The document, released yesterday, already has its skeptics among those who believe Islam’s leaders are unwilling to rid their institution of violent fundamentalists. Yet it is an unprecedented call for reconciliation at a time when the turbulent Middle East is the fulcrum of instability around the globe.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican official in charge of inter-religious relations, called the document “very interesting” and praised the writers’ focus on Christians’ and Muslims’ shared beliefs. The letter addressed “leaders of Christian churches everywhere,” and several of them expressed optimism at what the outreach represented.

“This is a substantial letter which speaks of the unity of God from a Muslim perspective,” said Richard Chartres, the Anglican bishop of London. “It demands a substantial response which approaches the same theme from a Christian perspective.”

American spiritual leaders also praised the letter “as a Muslim hand of conviviality and cooperation extended to Christians worldwide.” In a statement, four professors at the Yale Divinity School said that Christians ought to return the gesture “so that together with all other human beings we may live in peace and justice as we seek to love God and our neighbors.”

Joseph Lumbard, a professor of Islamic studies at Brandeis University and a signatory of the document, said in a telephone interview that those who doubt the sincerity of the 138 Muslims behind the document haven’t been paying attention. “July 2005 — in Amman, Jordan, over 200 scholars signed a declaration condemning acts of terrorism. If you go online you find reams and reams of denunciations of such acts, you find them really digging into theology and the nuances of how the phenomenon arises and how to counteract it.”

The 2005 statement, which has come to be known as the Amman Message, was indeed a breakthrough for modern Islam. According to Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad, a member of Jordan’s royal family and chairman of the Amman Message Committee, the statement forbidding declarations of intrareligious apostasy and fatwas represented “the first time in over a thousand years that the Ummah” — or the Muslim world — “has formally and specifically come to such a pluralistic mutual inter-recognition.”

Since then, Islamic terrorism has only proliferated, due in large part to the ongoing war in Iraq. Lumbard, who converted to Islam during his undergraduate studies at George Washington University, blamed the perception that religious leaders tolerate terrorism on the lack of major media coverage of Islamic outreach efforts, noting that yesterday’s letter to the Christian world did not get significant coverage in the major American newspapers today. Also damaging relations with the church was a speech given by the pope last year that was interpreted as critical of Islam.

There are no new revelations in the document released yesterday, particularly as relate to the common roots of Christianity and Islam. Several of the Christian leaders have pointed out that Jews were not addressed in the letter, nor were the Q’uran’s calls to fight non-believers. There’s also little indication that violent extremists who target authority or the West are motivated by their religious faith as much as by occupation, living conditions and other external conditions. Put another way, terrorists do what they do not because of the religious authority of their leaders, but in spite of it.

Then again, there seems little to lose by trying to forge a stronger bond between the Islamic and Christian communities. How else to reverse the swelling tide of violence in the Islamic world?

“I would say wind back the clock and don’t invade Iraq,” Lumbard quipped. But, he acknowledged, at this point it’s not clear getting out of Iraq would have any effect. In the meantime, he said, the West should work with and promote mainstream Islam’s leaders, offering the Grand Mufti of Egypt as a choice example. “One of the main problems is that… we fail to appreciate how central religion is to any effective discourse when it comes to problems that are based upon a religious misunderstanding. We want to address it either with bombs or by using some kind of political approach. It’s the same thing as trying to address an economic problem with religion.”

The Bush administration’s efforts to reach out to the Muslim world are probably destined for failure so long as the situation in Iraq remains as ominous as it is. Based on skyrocketing anti-U.S. sentiment around the globe, it’s fair to say that the State Department’s official Middle East diplomacy initiative, led by Karen Hughes, has been a spectacular disappointment. Considering that religious figures are almost universally better received than politicians anyway, perhaps naysayers ought to at least keep quiet for now, if not encourage collaboration between the West and moderates in the Muslim world.

“If you want to counteract the strident, virulent interpretations of Islam that are leading to unbalance, you actually have to strengthen Islam itself,” Lumbard said.