It takes more than theology to bring Muslims, Christians together

A group of Muslim scholars and religious leaders have made an overture to Christian leaders including Pope Benedict XVI, by pointing out similarities between Islam and Christianity, particularly the belief in one God, and the injunction to love one’s neighbor.

However on these two points of similarity alone, it is unlikely that Christians and Muslims will be kissing each other on the streets. The similarities are also only apparent. While Christianity believes in the Holy Trinity as one God, Muslims believe in one God.

The injunction to love one’s neighbor is there, implicitly or explicitly, in most religions, and that did not prevent the Crusades. It did not prevent Catholics and Protestants from killing each other in Northern Ireland. It hasn’t prevented Muslims and Hindus from killing each other in India. It did not prevent 9/11.

The upshot is that it takes more than a theological dissertation to bring communities together. You have to able to wipe out history, a lot of which is traumatic to both communities. You have to able to wipe out old hatreds and suspicions. Here too, the Christian injunction on forgiveness, will not change bitter feelings and memories on the ground.

There is also the issue that these Muslim leaders do not represent all of Islam. Unlike Christian churches who have heads, like the Pope, Islam is far more amorphous in its leadership structure. Like Christianity it has a lot of sects and divisions, the most distinct and known being that between the Sunnis and the Shias.

The hand of peace from the Muslims to Christian leaders is therefore welcome, even if the theological argument begs the question.

A more compelling argument for peace, I think, is pointed out at the very outset in the letter from the Muslim leaders to Christian leaders: “Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.”

Can religious leaders on either side deliver that peace, when extremists on both sides, including notably Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden are not signatories to this letter ?

To be sure the hand of peace from Muslim scholars, and not their dissertation on theological similarities holds out promise. If moderates take the lead in sufficient numbers surely the extremists in the community will have to re-evaluate their strategies.

To be effective however, the moderates, will have to recognize that the popularity of Islamic extremism, does not have its roots in religious differences alone, but in injustice, poverty, hurt, and the perceived feeling that this is the outcome of a conspiracy between Christians and Jews. Try telling the Palestinians that they should love their Israeli neighbors who occupy their land ! Try telling them that America is Christian and that Islam enjoins them to be tolerant of Christianity !

That feeling among Muslims of persecution surfaces in the letter too when it says “As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them—so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes”.

A rapprochement between Muslims and Christians can only come by a combination of political, social, and cultural moves, and not by attempting to find out similarities between the two religions. That is not a precondition. Hindus and Christians don’t usually kill each other in India in a religious frenzy. Although Hinduism is polytheistic while Christianity is not, the two communities generally respect each other’s right to worship different gods.

The text of the letter is available on a web site which calls itself the Official Website of A Common Word.

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