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Are you my Neighbour?
There is no doubt that the present violence throws a deep shadow over conversations between the West and the Muslim world. - Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, Al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo, 11 September 2004

5 October   |   2004   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

The year was 1966 and the town was Ramallah! I was barely a toddler then, but I still remember quite clearly that our neighbourhood in the northwestern metropolis of Jordan consisted of many Christian and Muslim families living peaceably together. At no time were we tempted to assume that we were either superior or inferior to our neighbours - or that we were somehow different and perhaps did not belong to the land my grandparents had made their home in 1915.

Two years on, after Israel had occupied the eastern sector of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the al-naksa of June 1967, my family moved to Beit Hanina - halfway between Jerusalem and Ramallah. I went to a school where Christian and Muslim kids studied together, played volleyball or basketball together, ate their falafel sandwiches together and spent their recreational leisure together too. One of my best friends at school was ‘Aref al-Nammari: I helped him with his French tests, and he solved my geometry problems! Hardly did the issue of religion creep into our quotidian conversations!

So what has changed now? What has happened to contort our pacific traditions and introduce an element of soul-searching and self-examination - along with a triumphalist measure of Kafkaesque torment - into inter-faith relations? Not only in the Holy Land or parts of the Middle East, but equally so in the West where Islam is being demonised and where people who had erstwhile been convivial neighbours are now clamouring against ‘terrorist’ Muslims and fomenting Islamophobic standpoints. In fact, simply by reading any one of a number of bestsellers today, such as Fianna Nirenstein’s Gli Antisemiti Progressisti: La Forma Nuova Di Un Odio Antico, it is possible to gauge how a growing number of people consider ‘Islamism’ in its diverse manifestations as dangerous as other past ‘ideologies’ in terms of its relentless pursuit toward global domination.

No wonder that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) only last month issued a strong statement through its Bulgarian chairmanship condemning all acts of intolerance and discrimination, ‘including those against Muslims’.

Let me refer to a lecture that the Archbishop of Canterbury delivered at Al-Azhar last month. Focusing on the Christian understanding of the Divine, as well as the concepts of monotheism and the Holy Trinity, Dr Williams stated:

Once we let go of justice, fairness and respect in our dealing with one another, we have dishonoured God as well as human beings. I am deeply grateful that it was once again in this country that Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders from the Holy land under the co-chairmanship of the Grand Imam, Dr Tantawy, signed the Alexandria Declaration together, with its commitment to respect for the rights of the peoples of the Holy Land, its call for justice, and its refusal of terror and violence. How much we still need that vision to inspire us today, as the tragedies of this region of the world continue to resist settlement!

Let me refer also to the educational homepage of the London-based Trinity Institute for Christianity and Culture reminding us in its ecumenical message that ‘it is imperative for us as Christians to be aware of what is going on in our country and the world around us, since ignorance breeds fear and prejudice while spirituality and wisdom, fired by inspiration, lead to a living faith in a journey of continuing exploration and discipleship’.

Yet, despite such compelling assertions or statements, must we not also be less politically correct and face up to the fact that ignorance is rampant, and that fear and prejudice have taken root in many hearts? Can we not be bold enough to suggest that there might well be small groups using their holy scriptures today to justify the violent onslaught on all ‘western’ values? Such groups might not always pen their actions in the context of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations, but they are wreaking havoc with inter-faith and inter-personal relations let alone undervaluing our common humanity and imperilling further our global security. The random attacks against civilian targets or the taking of hostages are merely two examples of barbarous deeds that cannot be exonerated through faith or scripture. No matter what the injustice, despair or motivation, Judaism, Christianity and Islam cannot condone gratuitous or paying violence. As Dr Williams emphasised:

So when someone ‘spoke’ to us in violence and murder, we could choose what we should do. We may rightly want to defend ourselves and one another - our people, our families, the weak and vulnerable among us. But we are not forced to act in revengeful ways, holding up a mirror to the terrible acts done to us. If we do act in the same way as our enemies, we imprison ourselves in their anger, their evil. And we fail to show our belief in the living God who always requires us to do justice and goodness.

But if we agree that there are small numbers of men and women within our societies who are misusing religion for their own missions, should we not also agree that they must be defeated so that their goals are rendered ineffectual?

Today, as the world battles against such individual groups under the facile label of ‘the war against terror’, it must learn nonetheless that the overwhelming majority of all Muslim and non-Muslim believers do not condone atrocities perpetrated in the name of the Almighty One. Nor do they not realise that such atrocities blemish the name of their religion. But it seems to me that 9/11 has ushered in an era of mutually exclusive and frighteningly swaggering mindsets where the dynamics of war and its attendant negative isms - from chauvinism to racism - have taken hold of our lives.

Let me go back to Dr Rowan Williams:

If we look back to the Alexandria Declaration, we see how it is possible for all of us, in the light of our conviction about God, to be committed to something different from the world’s ways; there we find a promise to approach each other with respect and patience and to turn away from open battle, even when we feel threatened by each other. There too we find the common commitment not to use the name of God to justify violence and injustice.

Let me narrow further the focus. To discover the reason that severs the untenable nexus in peoples’ minds between Islam as a divine religion and terrorism as a human aberration, more religious leaders of all persuasions must speak out unequivocally against those dastardly deeds that rob lives or sacrifice them on the altar of personal goals. Local politics are no longer the sole standard for stemming the tide: a global approach is essential, or else narrow misperceptions would be upgraded into broad realities. Paul Liptz, lecturer in the department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University, wrote in the Jerusalem Post on 1 October 2004, ‘If Islam is not the issue, Islamists are: there are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world; if a mere 10% truly support terror, there are some 130 million activists determined to destroy the rest of us.’

Faced with such a range of asymmetrical arguments, the crucial factor of education kicks in as a major component of awareness raising and conscientisation. After all, part of the violence engulfing the world as ‘Islamic terrorism’ is ‘justified’ by its sympathisers as the desperate attempt of ordinary people to throw off the yoke of oppression, suppression and occupation that has been imposed upon them by dire political and socio-economic circumstances. Such circumstances fester in societies that lack not only democracy or human and minorities’ rights, but also those that are rife with corruption and misrule.

This is why I took heart from the initiative last week in New York by Middle Eastern civil society activists who presented the Group of 8 (G-8) and Arab foreign ministers with a blueprint action plan for a reformist Partnership for Peace in the Middle East and North Africa. Those MENA civil society activists generated a serious proposal that underlined three ‘imperatives’ - freedom, democracy and justice - and seven practical sectoral programmes - equality, rule of law, free expression and organisation, inquisitive education, economic inclusion, transparency, creative artistic and literary expressions. Moreover, the proposals requested the G-8 to commit working with governments, civil society and the private sector in MENA to achieve three core tasks - releasing all prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, ensuring that all executive political leaderships are changed regularly and peacefully and that officials or individuals who perpetrate crimes against humanity are held accountable. Such value-friendly proposals are an opportunity to correct the awful rights-based arena of MENA without relying on the heavy-handed, unilateral and often lop-sided plans that the USA would brandish at the negotiating table. They might also become the collective release valve that could give a voice to the masses of voiceless men and women, and as such release the frustration and vitriol that is otherwise channelled toward murderous intent, hateful violence and ugly terrorism.

Could such an initiative succeed in 2004? Is it possible - to use Dr Rowan Williams’ uplifting imagery - that a Christian community anywhere would give support to local Muslims if a mosque is attacked, and Muslims might do the same for local Jews if a synagogue is attacked or a cemetery desecrated, and Muslims and Jews would stand alongside Christians when they are abused and attacked? This might well appear a forlorn hope today, but we must all unite in our unswerving confidence that violence - whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim - is monochromatic and should neither catalyse our aspirations nor legitimise our grievances. If we do so, with consensual integrity, ethics and wisdom, we might still succeed in re-instituting a true sense of neighbourliness that would spare our families, beloved ones and societies from further venom, loss or grief.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2004   |   5 October


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