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  Global Views
It's Not a Clash between Christian and Islamic Civilizations
Keynote Speech at Asia-Pacific, Europe Media Dialogue
Special Contribution
By Chandra Muzaffar
Iraqi Muslim pilgrims pray at the Imam Hussein holy shrine in Karbala.

It is important to emphasize at the outset that the wars and conflicts of our time that happen to involve Christians and Muslims have very little to do with their respective religious doctrines or practices. The underlying causes are more often than not rooted in power and politics or wealth and the economy or both.

Take for instance the bloody turmoil in Iraq. Everyone knows that it is a direct consequence of the United States led invasion and occupation of that country in March 2003. A lot of the invaders may have been Christians but invading and occupying someone else's land is not part of the teachings of Jesus. In fact, Jesus stood up to the imperial power of his day — Rome — that had occupied his homeland, namely, Palestine.

Right through history there have been invaders and occupiers who have come from different religious and cultural backgrounds.

As with occupation, so with resistance. Most of those resisting the occupation of Iraq may be Muslims. The Qur'an deems it a duty for a Muslim to resist occupation. But if Iraqi Muslims resist foreign occupation it is not simply because they are Muslims. People — whatever their religious or cultural affiliation — have always fought against occupation. The French resisted Nazi occupation of their country just as the Chinese struggled against Japanese occupation in the Second World War.

That occupation and resistance are not linked to one's religious identity is further borne out by the examples of Afghanistan and Chechnya. If the majority of the occupying force in Afghanistan today are made up of Christians, one should remember that not so long ago a substantial portion of the invaders of Afghanistan from the now extinct Soviet Union comprised atheists and agnostics. Resistance to the Soviet occupation came from not only avowedly religious Muslims but also from secular and nationalist groups. Likewise, Russians of different stripes and hues have dominated Chechnya from the days of the Czars. Though Christian Czars were ousted from power and atheistic Bolsheviks took their place, the domination of Chechnya continued. By the same token, Chechen resistance to Russian rule today draws its strength from not only practising Muslims but also those who are nationalists without any commitment to religion.

We have shown that occupation which is at the root of some major current conflicts, and the resistance it generates, cannot be explained in Christian Muslim terms. On the contrary, as we have hinted, neither Christianity nor Islam condones occupation; both would in fact endorse resistance against occupation.

Similarly, the basic philosophies of both religions would condemn the terrible violence that often accompanies occupation. For in both Christianity and Islam life is sacred. In both religions resistance to occupation or aggression and oppression should not lead to the killing of non-combatants or civilians. St. Augustine had developed some of these ideas in his theory of 'just war' while in the Qur'an and from the example of the Prophet Muhammad, there are clear prohibitions against harming children, women, the old, the infirm and even animals and the natural environment in times of war.

It is not just on the question of violence or occupation that there are similarities between Christianity and Islam. Since occupation is the consequence of hegemony or control and dominance, it is significant that the fundamental teachings of both religions abjure hegemony. In Christianity, it is only to God that one surrenders. No temporal power has the right to establish total control over the human being. This is why there was a strong sense of egalitarianism in early Christian communities in the Middle East before the religion was absorbed by the Roman Empire and became associated with imperial power. Complete submission to God (Allah) is the very foundation of faith in Islam. Since it is loyalty to God that is the supreme principle in Islam any attempt to impose hegemony over a nation or a people would be regarded as subversion of the faith itself. True liberation of both individual and community in Islam demands liberation from hegemony. It explains to some extent why the majority of Muslims today are opposed to what they perceive as the US drive to establish global hegemony.

This brings us to yet another similarity in the philosophies of Christianity and Islam. Since global hegemony is motivated by the quest for power and wealth as an end in itself, both philosophies would view hegemony's obsession as a violation of the very purpose of life and creation. When the quest for power and wealth knows no bounds, as it is the case with hegemony, noble values such as justice and compassion are marginalized.

Worse, the hegemonic drive invariably gives rise to wars and conflicts to which we are witness today. It was the desire for power and wealth through control over the region's second biggest oil reserves that led to the Iraq war. Christian and Muslim intellectuals and activists who had opposed the war right from the beginning went even further and pointed out that underlying the invasion and occupation was greed — the greed for oil, for wealth and for power. Greed, needless to say, is a despicable vice in the eyes of all religions.

The mainstream global media as a whole failed to highlight these dimensions of the protest against the Iraq war. Of course the protests themselves were given extensive coverage in the Asian and European media — and even in the American media. But the ethical positions adopted by Christian and Muslim protesters rooted in their respective religious teachings were not accorded any prominence. I am not aware of any mainstream radio or television channel that aired a programme that discussed why Christian and Muslim activists had joined hands to oppose the war from a shared spiritual and moral perspective.

Indeed, even today in spite of all the talk about inter-faith and inter-civilisational dialogue, there is very little emphasis in the mainstream media on the commonalities between Christianity and Islam in relation to fundamental challenges facing humankind. Specifically, how progressive intellectuals within the two religious traditions view the concentration of global power in the hands of a few, or the widening disparities between the global rich and the global poor, or the increasing impact of a culture of individualism upon communities everywhere, or even the environmental and ecological crisis, seldom becomes the themes of radio or television programmes. Once in a while prime radio or television news may give limited coverage to some kind hearted Christians and Muslims doing charity work. And of course, if Christians and Muslims are killing one another in Indonesia or Nigeria — even if they are isolated happenings — the media would go all out to sensationalize the events.

This in fact is the nub of the matter. By and large the media in Asia or in Europe appears to be attracted to conflict situations involving Christians and Muslims rather than to those less dramatic episodes of cooperation and sharing between the two communities. The media is not interested in Christians and Muslims in Mindanao in the Philippines combining energies to expose the abuses of the armed forces against the poor or in telling the world about mainstream Muslims in Indonesia protecting churches from the threats posed by a fanatical Muslim fringe. Often, it is the fanatical fringe that receives all the media publicity!

This is also true of the media in Europe and the West. Some virulent attack by some Christian preacher against Islam and Muslims is highlighted in the media while the quiet endeavours by Christians and Muslims working together to help drug addicts or alcoholics in some European or American suburb are often ignored by all and sundry. Likewise, a Muslim demagogue espousing an atavistic view on the position of women in society is projected in the media as the voice of the community while the thousands of Muslim women working shoulder to shoulder with Christian or 'post-Christian' women and men in various professions in a number of European countries are given scant attention.

Our reflections on how the media treats issues pertaining to Christian-Muslim ties raise an important question: Why does the media in both Asia and Europe behave this way? There are a number of possible reasons.

1) Is it because sections of the mainstream media see themselves as part of the global power structure or are supportive of the system that they do not want to highlight those issues which challenge the system — which is what progressive Christian and Muslim intellectuals and activists often do? Or is it simply because the media is so much in awe of the power that the global powers-that-be command that it shuns criticism of the latter?

2) Is it because a lot of media practitioners in Asia and Europe feel that religion should not be concerned with issues of power and poverty that they are not willing to give prominence to individuals who articulate these issues from a faith perspective? Is this a reflection of the media's own secular outlook which confines religion to the individual self operating within his/her private sphere?

3) Is it because the media by and large is ignorant of religion — especially the role of religion in social transformation — that it is not able to grapple with issues such as the interface between religion and society? Because of this ignorance most of the media downplay stories connected with Christian-Muslim interaction and the like however positive they may be.

4) Is it because there is an inherent bias against Islam and Muslims within sections of the European and Western media that it has become difficult to present the religion and its followers in a balanced and objective manner which is why Islam's commitment to justice or the readiness of Muslims to work together with Christians on matters pertaining to justice does not attract media attention?

5) Is it because sensationalizing events or exaggerating conflicts appeals to readers, listeners and viewers that the media has chosen to do this even if it is at the expense of inter-religious understanding and harmony? In other words, is it because of the profit motive that positive but boring news about Christian-Muslim relations are sacrificed at the altar of sensationalism?

Whatever the reasons, the media, it is obvious, cannot go on this way. It has to play a more constructive role in fostering Christian-Muslim ties. This requires a change in its mindset — a change which empathizes with both the shared values and principles in Christianity and Islam and the common struggle of progressive Christians and Muslims for a world that is just and compassionate.

Professor Dr. Chandra Muzaffar,
President, International Movement for a Just World (JUST)
And, Professor of Global Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Penang, Malaysia.

P. O. Box 288, Jalan Sultan, 46730 Petaling Jaya, Selangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia
Tel: (603) 7960-3207 / 3869 / 3872
Fax: (603) 7960-3245

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Dr.Chandra Muzaffar, who serves as a special contributor for The Seoul Times, is president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST). He was a member of the Tribunal on Burma and East Timur established by the People’s Plan 21st Century (PP21) movement in Bangkok in 1992. JUST had also published a monograph by JUST Fellow, Dr. Mikio Oishi, entitled Aung San Suu Kyi’s Struggle Its Principles and Strategy in 1997.






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