Conflict and Bridges

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‘What makes you think Christians and Muslims are up for dialogue and conflict resolution after 1400 years, they’re much better at being enemies?’ This is my friend teasing me about the impossibility of my work. One of my Muslim colleagues regularly opened our events saying ‘for the past fourteen hundred years we have been rivals, mission and proselytising lies at the very heart of our two religions.’
 
I want to offer brief thoughts on Christian-Muslim conflict and explore alternatives.
 
What are the roots of conflict? I think most of us agree that this has a lot to do with boundaries – between people, religions, countries – border squabbles and disputes. It’s good to knowing our boundaries, why they are there, and tread carefully. It's OK to have boundaries, you wouldn't want me to pitch my tent on your front lawn uninvited. I’m sure that you would gently direct me to the nearest campsite! But, being abusive to someone who parks on the public road outside your house is another thing.
 
Christians and Muslims are well aware of boundaries – we say Muhammad was God’s Final Messenger, while we say Jesus Christ is the Son of God. You couldn’t ask for a clearer boundary, which is fine, we know where we stand. But conflict is deeper than that, difference often seems to be a problem, rather than a distinctive. Why is that?
 
I think the root issue is of insecurity, particularly of threat. This manifests in different ways - politically, culture shock, power struggles, reactionary responses. These are probably just different ways of looking at the same thing.
 
Political conflict can be described as tribalism, seeking to get what is best for our tribe, those like us, millionaires or marginalised, asylum seekers or tax avoiders, should we cut housing benefit or tax mansions? Different positions and expressed choices, but our political system thrives on conflict, on opposition, and this is reflected, or reinforced, by the media. Do you ever look at politics and wish it was more like ecumenism or inter faith? Labour will never be Conservative and Catholic will never be Protestant, but which pairing, generally, has the more constructive relationship? 
 
So is tribalism a key factor in inter-religious conflict? It fits the situation in Nigeria where Christian-Muslim tensions match tribal affiliations, it wasn’t always this way. Pentecostal missionaries (I’m not being anti-Pentecostal) arrived in Nigeria, they were not indigenous and they were not Islam-friendly; unlike the Christians already living there, they were also keen to seek ‘converts’. Mission and conversion are sources of conflict, provocative acts, Jesus didn’t say ‘Go and do mission, evangelise, seek conversions’, he said ‘Go and make disciples’ which is very different. Tribalism fits in Bosnia, the Christian Muslim Forum sent a group of UK Christians and Muslims there to witness conflict resolution after the war. Again, the Bosnians lived in peace for hundreds of years and then neighbour turned against neighbour on the basis of ethno-religious difference.
 
We see warring tribes in this country, the BNP (which seems to have imploded), EDL and groups like Muslims Against the Crusades. They thrive on tension, conflict (maybe not fully expressed in wider society) and intolerance. Intolerance is a good marker of conflict, though tolerance is too – I don’t like your presence but will put up with it grudgingly because I have to. 
 
Can the factors I listed be tied in with Christian-Muslim relations? The political/tribal issue is opened up every time we hear ‘this is a Christian country’ especially when it is associated with challenging the place of Islam here, as the BNP and EDL have done, as well as some Christian organisations. For some it seems that to be anti-Muslim is to be Christian, but where did they get that idea? Not from the Gospels!
 
In our society, made up of Christians and Muslims (and others), we should ask ‘How do we understand and relate to one another within the purposes of God?’ A question asked in our report to the Archbishop of Canterbury recommending the creation of the Christian Muslim Forum – ‘[there is a] possibility of new and creative partnerships nurtured by a growing trust in one another and directed towards the common good. We can no longer ignore one another’s presence, and this challenge meets us not only in our social interaction but also as people of faith … explor[ing] that challenge seriously, in a way that recognises both common ground and difference, requires of us both a serious commitment of time and energy in dialogue with one another.’ 
 
Tribal outlooks are generally unthinking, a knee-jerk response which does not reflect reality. We sought to challenge tribalism in our letter on ‘Local Encounter’:
 
  • We pledge, as members of both faiths, to live up to the best of our traditions by respecting, welcoming and being hospitable to our neighbours of other faiths.
  • We will speak generously of other faiths, scriptures and worshippers with our own congregations, while recognising we have some critical theological differences. 
  • We will engage openly and honestly with each other about our own faith and scriptures … all issues of concern, including sensitive or painful issues. 
  • We will make a point of developing and sustaining friendships with leaders and members of other faiths in our neighbourhoods and regionally …
  • We will show solidarity with each other at times of distress
Culture-shock is possibly a less critical way of describing things, people may ‘suddenly’ become aware their neighbourhood has changed, it no longer looks familiar to them. This is perhaps what happens when people notice that the local church and pub have closed down and then Muslims apply to build a cultural centre. Perhaps they are seeking not to worry people too much by seeking planning approval for a mosque, as if a place of prayer ever did any harm! One Christian group talks about a group of mosque-busters who can be called upon and mobilised, celebrating if a mosque development is blocked. That isn’t really culture shock, rather cultural unfriendliness, Islamophobia, racism. If you want to raise the temperature, contribute to community un-cohesion and fuel hatred for your neighbour then opposing the building of a place of worship is probably a good place to start!
 
In modern times we go back less than 25 years to ‘the Rushdie Affair’. Muslim colleagues often point to this as the pivotal moment for the UK Muslim community, proving that it is never helpful to bring ‘Satan’ into the conversation! The Muslim community expressed its outrage, notably in Bradford, people suddenly became aware of British Muslims, while Muslims began to be more overt about a Muslim identity, mutual incomprehension and bilateral culture shock became evident. The Rushdie Affair led to the creation of the Muslim Parliament and was also a factor in the development of the Muslim Council of Britain. 
 
It must be said that, unfortunately, we need a shock to fully notice a situation, engage with it and move on. The Christian Muslim Forum is also part of the legacy of Rushdie. In 1997 Archbishop Carey announced at a public dinner for the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, that he wanted to create the means for Christians and Muslims to engage with each other nationally:
 
‘… there are still fears to be addressed.  I do not fear Islam.  I understand and respect its strength and those who faithfully worship according to the tenets of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.  Others, however, do retain such fears.  The international strength of Islam does create fear among some other religious communities.  Equally, I recognise that Muslims can often feel threatened by a culture like ours in Britain which appears so alien, and sometimes, even for the Christian communities, so anti-religion, and religious values. ‘
 
‘the issues facing us are so pressing that I am convinced of the need to establish fuller bilateral dialogue between Christians and Muslims around the country.’   
 
We can see power struggles and reactionary responses in anti-Muslim campaigns – objections to halal meat, mosque-building, anti-shari’ah bills, public protests claiming to be against extreme Islam (a religion which warns its followers not to be extreme!) but don't distinguish between the extreme and the everyday. So, the Christian Muslim Forum offers:
 
role-modelling of a productive, committed relationship between Christians and Muslims, which seeks to inspire others. A commitment to learning about each other from each other, collaborating on shared issues, even difficult ones, recognising differences and similarities, while inviting others to join us on the journey. A journey including education, myth-busting, advocacy, honesty, risk-taking. We have created a conversation and invite others to join it. 
 
There is always the risk that inter faith fits its stereotype, men sitting around talking over tea and samosas, as one of my female colleagues often teases us. But everything starts with conversation, it must lead somewhere and achieve something and it is the antidote for the problems I have described, it’s easy to have negative views about someone if you don’t know them, to assume the worst, to feel threatened, on the wrong side of a power struggle, even when in a majority. And we have to ask that question, why does the majority feel that its position is so precarious? Are we brave enough to try the other’s shoes on, or take them off, and come face to face with reality? Injecting reality into the situation has been part of the work of the Christian Muslim Forum, particularly with our ‘Christmas Statement’ of 2006
 
‘As Muslims and Christians together we are wholeheartedly committed to the retention of specific religious recognition for Christian festivals. Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus and we wish this significant part of the Christian heritage of this country to remain an acknowledged part of national life. The desire to secularize religious festivals is in itself offensive to both of our communities.‘
 
In the same vein we produced the Ethical Guidelines for Witness:
 
As members of the Christian Muslim Forum we are deeply committed to our own faiths and wish to bear faithful witness to them. We are committed to working together for the common good. We recognise that both communities actively invite others to share their faith and acknowledge that all faiths have the same right to share their faith with others.
 
2) We cannot convert people, only God can do that. 
 
3) Sharing our faith should never be coercive; this is especially important when working with children, young people and vulnerable adults. 
 
6) We will speak of our faith without demeaning or ridiculing the faiths of others.
 
7) We will speak clearly and honestly about our faith, even when that is uncomfortable or controversial.
 
8) We will be honest about our motivations for activities and we will inform people when events will include the sharing of faith.
 
9) Whilst recognising that either community will naturally rejoice with and support those who have chosen to join them, we will be sensitive to the loss that others may feel.
 
10) Whilst we may feel hurt when someone we know and love chooses to leave our faith, we will respect their decision and will not force them to stay or harass them afterwards.
 
The understanding and appreciation of each other that comes through patient dialogue, building friendship, exploring perceptions, busting-myths is vital. Our trust and friendship gives us a solid base for engaging with difficult issues and when we do so we approach them from a shared position, our ethical guidelines show that this is possible where our deepest beliefs are concerned and there is most difference between us. I often ask myself, thinking of those who challenge us or say that we are not doing enough or not focusing on the critical issues, who bring some conflict into our work, is this all too simplistic, is it not robust enough? I hope that you will see that we cannot respond to conflict with violence and that peace and resolution are more challenging, worthwhile and at the core of our two religions. Jesus didn’t make things complicated, difficult yes, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’, I think that says it all. In closing, these are some words from a Christian woman who I commissioned to write an article about peace
 
‘If I look honestly I see the seeds of destruction in my own heart. I am capable of cruelty, anger, deceit. My ego blocks an appreciation of others. It causes me to be jealous, to blame and not to forgive. I lose connectivity with others and desire their pain and downfall. When I hear and see an accentuation of these aspects acted out on the world stage, I am convinced that I must keep looking at myself. I need to keep examining my soul … The human heart has great capacity to show love and compassion, to reflect our Creator’s likeness, but we need to nurture and protect these precious qualities to help them flourish.  Love and Compassion are the tools for harmonious living and peaceful existence. They are the antidote to hatred. I am reminded of the importance of daily discipline to cultivate the soil of our hearts to enable such healing seeds to grow. We need to strengthen our connection to each other through connecting to God in quiet meditation (prayer) and desiring the best for each other. At Easter, we celebrate the resurrection of Christ. It is an event of immense hope and reconciliation. It allows us humans a new beginning and a chance for things to be different. It allows us to tap into God’s cosmic love and accept ourselves as we are, frail and often ego-driven. Through God’s acceptance we can accept others and “otherness”. With his enabling we can hold in check our desire to dominate or belittle, to humiliate or shame. So we return to John Donne: No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’
 
Julian Bond
Director
Christian Muslim Forum
 
Please send us a tweet if you read this article on the morning of 24 April before I deliver this speech, @chrismusforum, #conflictandbridges
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