By Saleem H. Ali and Hiba Zeino
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Pope Benedict's visit to the Middle East last week has accentuated the need to improve relations between Muslims and Christians at multiple levels. Despite sharing a common Abrahamic lineage, both faith communities have a chequered history of relations going back to the Crusades. While the Koran recognizes Christians and Jews as "people of the book," some verses of the book are often taken out of context as well by some Muslims to advocate an exclusionary theology that marginalizes other faiths.
The pope visited the Holy Land at a time when there is a major migration of minority Christian communities from the Muslim-majority region to other parts of the world. In his recent book about the "Middle East's vanishing Christians," Charles Sennott raises the significant question of why this is occurring. In areas such as Palestine, the population of Christians has declined from 7 percent in 1948 to around 2 percent in 2009.
What are the factors for such a decline? Some may argue that Christian communities have historically had higher education levels allowing them to migrate more easily during times of economic stress or political instability. However, there is perhaps also an issue of feeling marginalized in Muslim dominant countries that may need to be addressed. For example, in addition to the Christian exodus from Palestine, there is the problem of mass migration from Iraq, where the United States-led invasion has left long-standing Christian minorities prone to the threats of extremist groups.
Although the media tends to carry the vociferous voices of those on the extreme fringes of the religious spectrum from both faiths, at the expense of the silent majority, there are reasons to be hopeful about religious coexistence in the broader Middle East. Take Lebanon for example, a country traditionally polarized along sectarian lines. Political alliances for the upcoming Lebanese parliamentary elections show that the traditional Muslim-Christian divide is being replaced by cross-cutting ideological, economic and political differences. In a symbolic gesture that hints at the potential for reaching a secular system of political governance in the future, the Lebanese government has also recently taken steps to remove any mention of citizens' sect from official identification cards, if this is requested by the card holder. In addition, calls for civil marriage laws have become ever more forceful with current confessional-based laws permitting only religious matrimonies inside Lebanon.
Or take Qatar, an Arab Gulf country enshrined in Wahhabi Islamic tradition. It now hosts six churches for various Christian denominations. This is not to mention the recent offensive in the Gaza Strip which rallied the Arab street, in all of its confessional colours, against the war.
As contemporary societies in the Middle East begin to embrace pluralism at multiple levels, it is essential for the curricula in Muslim schools to also tackle the issue of misinterpretation more directly. Positive interactions between Muslims and Christians in Islamic history need to be more clearly highlighted. For example, the first hijrah, or emigration, which Muslims made from Mecca, was to the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia ruled by Emperor Najashi, who provided them with refuge in their hour of greatest need.
There will always be theological differences between various faiths; differences that external players will always attempt to manipulate for broader purposes. However, in a politically volatile region such as the Middle East, it is essential to build better relations between two of the world's largest religious groups. It is also important that Muslim-Christian unity should not be at the expense of alienating other faith communities; their collective relations as people of faith should transcend the minutiae of theological differences.
Pope Benedict's symbolic gesture of visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the positive reception he received there from the imam of the site must be reinforced with a specific renunciation of negative narratives on both sides. Both faith traditions share the blame for abusing historical incidents as a means of propagating a sense of alienation from each other. In an increasingly globalized world, we must strive to learn from history but not let the past hamper our progress toward mutually advantageous human relations.
Saleem H. Ali, a Muslim of Pakistani origin, is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and the author of "Islam and Education" (Oxford University Press, 2009); Hiba Zeino, a Christian of Lebanese origin, is a political science graduate of the American University of Beirut. They wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.