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Muslim and Christian Dialogue in Great Britain

Introduction

The two major religions, Christianity and Islam, accounts for about sixty percent of the world’s population. Christians account for about 33 percent, while Muslims account for roughly 19 percent of humanity. The two religions are also the most widespread geographically, with more sects and sub groups than any other religion in the world (Arinze, 1997a). It is obvious, therefore, that how the adherents of these two religions relate to one another, and how they perceive inter-relationship between them holds grave consequences for, not just the religions, but the entirety of the world population. Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges man has had to endure throughout its history on earth is that of inter-faith relationship in general and Christian-Muslim relationship, to be precise (Rae, 2002; Goddard, 2000).

The present state of Christian-Muslim relationship and the followers of both religions are burdened by a history of conflict and a collective memory of grave injustices on both sides. To the average Muslim, the realities and consequences of the crusaders and the crusade era is difficult to forgive and forget. On the other hand, the average Christian sees Islam as the birth of terrorism and Muslims as terrorists. Muslims are regarded as violent, aggressive and in some cases, heretics. This blend of history with more recent global events, such as terrorist attacks, have further heightened the perceived differences of Christians and Muslims and in the process, created an environment that promotes division (Rae, 2002).

While Great Britain has its fair share of historic and recent events, the perception of many British Christians is shaped, to a large extent, by stories and images of conflicts overseas, which in most cases, involves ‘fundamental Muslim groups’. Again, in most cases, these images of Christians and Muslims involved in historical, political or economical conflicts (often attributed to Muslim aggressiveness, violence and intolerance) are super-imposed on the average British Muslim, who is made to suffer by association of their faith. In response, Muslims too either withdraw into their shells, completely shutting out Christians in particular and the society at large, or fight back violently in defence (Werbner 2000).

Thus, in a way, inter-religion relationship, and by extension dialogue, has been shaped by both fear and ignorance. British Christian’s response to Muslims is borne out of fear and misconceptions, to a large extent, and Muslim’s response to such misguided relationship has been out of self defence, especially since they are a minority in the country. Bearing these antecedents in mind one is tempted to assume that Muslim-Christian dialogue is an impossible task; however, the situation on ground says otherwise. Perhaps, there is increasing awareness of the importance of inter-religion dialogue; its ability to build bridges of confidence among different people and to strengthen understanding and mutual respect, coupled with the stark awareness that in the present day, no person, group or nation can survive independently, have all fuelled the tendency towards increased Christian-Muslim dialogue (Rae, 2002; Goddard, 2000).

This paper therefore intends to examine the present day Christian Muslim dialogue in Great Britain, by looking at the challenges and then possibilities, prospects and outcomes of such dialogue. It is clear that there are several hurdles before a sincere, in depth and effective Christian Muslim dialogue can be achieved. Therefore, this paper will first present the factors and challenges that have shaped and hindered Christian Muslim dialogue, then it would look at the present situation of things, the recent drive towards Christian-Muslin dialogue in Great Britain, the possibilities and outcomes. It is expected that through these pages, this paper would have presented Christian Muslim dialogue as an effective tool to improve the communication between religions, increase knowledge about each other, and in the process reduce fear and hatred borne out of prejudices, and finally improve tolerance and coexistence.

Christians and Muslims, across the globe, have always been involved in one form of dialogue or the other. From the early periods of Islam up till the present, dialogues between Christians and Muslims have been continuous and permanent, the problem is, these relations or dialogues have not always occurred in a positive and/or friendly manner (Koechler, 2007; Said, 1981). A number of reasons, historic and contemporary, have shaped the inter-relations between these two religions. Stereotypes and prejudice account for one of the most important factors that have both shaped and hindered lasting, friendly relations between Christian and Muslims. These stereotypes are often the result of a history of hostile, confrontational relations these religions have shared over time.

It should be stated that Christian scholars have greatly impaired the relationship between the two religions. For a very long time, research on Islam was primarily carried out by Christian scholars, who often deal with the subject in an “apologetic and highly polemical manner” (Koechler, 2007). These scholars have painted a very distorted image of Islam, its moral, religious and social teachings, in the minds of Europeans. For example, what is known today as ‘orientalism’ has its roots in the perceived superiority of the Christian doctrine which tend to see Islam as heresy. The distorted image of Islam and Muslims created by these scholars, and the hostile history these religions share have helped to create stereotypes that in turn shape Christian Muslim relation up till this day.

One of such stereotypes that have shaped Christian Muslim relationship since the time of the crusade wars and wars with the Ottoman Empire is the general perception, not only in Great Britain, but in the whole of Europe and Americas, that Islam is hostile and violent both in its religions and political instructions. Christians have come to interpret the popular Islamic message of ‘Jihad’ as meaning ‘war against the unbelievers’. Koechler (2007) argue that Christian scholars, from time, assert that Islam generally and ‘unreservedly’ justifies any form of violent against unbelievers – meaning Christians in most cases. Unfortunately, the spate of terrorist attacks globally has helped to further strengthen and confirm this stereotype. In the mind of the average British person, Islam and Muslims is synonymous with terrorism and violence.

By extension of this perceived hostile and violent nature of Islam, contemporary Christians see Islam as a religion that does not allow religious freedom. It is believed that Islam has strict, archaic moral and social codes that do not fit into picture of the liberal worldview of Europeans, whose identity is defined by her Christian history. These two perceptions, Islam as hostile and violent and Islam as restrictive and out of tune with civilisation, have created an atmosphere of deep mistrust further strengthening the wrongful “perception of Islam as being a threat to Christian civilization in Europe and negating its very right of existence” (Koechler, 2007).

Also, Muslim’s perception of Christians has been shaped by colonial and post-colonial relations with Christianity. Muslims still remember the oppressive evangelisation that characterise the colonisation period. Muslims, therefore still see Christians as oppressive and only interested in them because they want to convert them. And because of this, Muslims tend to associate Christianity with the West. Again, Muslims see the West (and by extension, Christianity) as immoral, corrupt and decadent and would not readily want to associate with Christianity. It is important to state here that to some Muslims, terrorism and violent attacks are valid and justified responses to Western (Christian) oppression (Rae, 2002; Werbner 2000).

The media has played significant roles in the strained relationship between Christians and Muslims. It is generally acknowledged that media driven discussions about religion in relation to ideology, morals and social values play a dominant role in shaping the perceptions in Britain. Unfortunately, media portrayal of Islam and Muslims has not always been so positive. And as a result, the average man and woman in Britain understand very little about Islam, except for the frequent news of terrorism, oppression of women and all sorts of negative information. Muslims too, have learnt to care less about what Christians think about them, creating a sort of communication barrier between the adherents of these two religions.

Besides stereotypes and the media, politics has also significantly influenced Christian Muslim relations in Britain. Koechler (2007) explains that after the end of communism and consequently, the disappearance of the friend-enemy-pattern between the West and the Communist East, Islam has come to function as a surrogate for the former enemy stereotype in the above mentioned relationship, enabling the West to assert its hegemony. Also, the Palestine-Israel conflict, the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and other crises worldwide are politically influenced factors that have shaped Christian Muslim relations. British Muslims see Britain’s passivity in these crises as a confirmation of their beliefs that the Christian West has no interest in Islam and Muslims. In sum, these factors defy the theological and philosophical similarities that the two religions share; creating a communication barrier between them that has greatly reduced the quality and utility of dialogue between the two religions.

Incidentally, despite the history of conflict and controversy, the two religions share a lot of similarities. Christianity and Islam share significant theological similarities which could serve as the basis for an enlightened and fruitful dialogue on theological, cultural, social and political arenas. Of these similarities, the belief in one God is a major meeting point for the two religions. While there are slight variations in their doctrine concerning God, with Islam’s expression of a God a single entity and Christianity’s concept of trinity, monotheism defines and shape both religions’ attitudes and worldview.

Further, both religions preach universality. They are open to all mankind and do not conceive of God as a tribal or local entity, thus excluding any form of discrimination with regards to faith and beliefs. The universality of both religions is said to reflect their open mindedness to every race and colour. Again, both religion share an unparallel respect for Jesus among all other prophets, although Muslims do not subscribe to the status of son of God ascribed to Jesus by Christianity, it regards Him as one of the most noble of all prophets. Further, Muslims agree with Christian on several metaphysical concepts, such as the concepts of sin and forgiveness, resurrection after death and the final judgement. Such fundamental similarity in doctrine should serve as a binding factor for both religions.

Fortunately, both religions are beginning to appreciate their similarities, and recently, one of the most interesting things about Christianity in Britain, especially over the last decade, is the rapid growth and spread of inter-faith relationships through dialogues and meetings between Christian Muslim groups. Such relationship and dialogues have been initiated from both sides, and in most cases, the primary objective of these groups and meetings is to begin the process of reconciliation, friendship and fruitful dialogue between the adherents of the two religious communities, to create and strengthen the understanding of each other’s ideologies and to create peaceful co-existence through the process (Gleave, 2006).

On the Christian side, the declaration of the Second Vatican Council of 1965 set the tone for global Christian Muslims dialogue initiatives. The Nostra Aetate, which was the specific declaration of the Vatican council on Christian relations with Muslims states that “Church has a high regard for Muslims “. It further asserts that “over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all men, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values” (Fitzgerald, 2000). The theological underpinnings of this declaration were sufficiently presented in the text of the declaration. The Church of England has since followed suit, the consequence of which is apparent in the rapid growth and spread of Christian Muslim groups across Britain.

Muslims too have made several efforts to reach out to their fellow Christians and to encourage dialogue. The formation of The World Congress of Faiths set the tone for dialogues from the Muslim side. It has been reported that organised dialogue between Christians and Muslims began with emphasis on good community relations and inter-religious understanding. While these initiatives have been on a global scale, local communities have witnessed a surge in inter-faith dialogues organised by youth movements. It appears that the present generation of youths do not want to inherit the religious failures of the past generation. The barrier between the two religions, as mentioned above, are borne out of a history of conflicts and confrontations, and despite several efforts towards reconciliation, the past generation has obviously failed in reconciling the two greatest and largest religions in the world. British youths have thus taken it upon themselves to foster a solid relationship between the two faiths through improved understanding established through dialogues.

Taking stock of the inter-faith relations in Britain, Islam for Today, an organisation representing British Muslims, report that the first inter-faith initiatives started from local churches where the inner city population was fairly large and the authorities had to deal with the challenges of community relations. It is reported that the first bilateral inter-faith relations between Christians and Muslims took place in May of 1973 with the theme ‘Islam in the Parish’. This dialogue resulted in the creation of a panel of Muslims and Christians, which set the stage for the second inter-faith dialogue with the theme ‘The Family in Islam and Christianity’ in 1974 and the third dialogue, Worship and Prayer in Islam and Christianity’ in 1975. These three dialogues were held at Woodhall, Wetherby, with the co-operation and organisation of the local authority. The proceedings of these meetings and dialogues were edited by the Community Relations Chaplaincies of Bradford and Wakefield, and later published by the Bradford Metropolitan District Community Relations Council.

The popularity and relative success of these dialogues, coupled with the fact that by the late 1970s churches had began to feel the pressure of strained relationships between the growing population of Muslims and the local Christian population, and the heightened awareness of the presence of Muslims in Britain by the World Festival of Islam of 1976. The then British Council of Churches (now Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland) published its report `A New Threshold: Guidelines for the Churches in their Relations with Muslim Communities’ highlighting the importance of dialogues with the growing Muslim population and how to go about it (Islam For Today, 2007).

From that period onward, several youth organisations have taken up the cue and dialogue between Muslims and Christians has experienced exponential growth since then. Hundreds of inter-faith youth groups now exist across Britain, and for the most part, their primary objective involves ensuring peaceful understanding and coexistence of Muslims and Christians across the country. ‘Diversity and Dialogue’, a website about the diverse social and religious communities in Britain, reports the activities of several youth organisations involved with one form of inter-faith dialogue or the other.

Some of the organisations listed on the website includes: Fitzrovia Youth in Action (FYA), a community based youth action project that involves the use of sports and community work to engage youths from different faiths and in through the process improve relationship and dialogue between Christians and Muslims throughout the London Borough of Camden. Golden Jubilee Young People’s Faith Forum is another movement aimed at improving inter-faith dialogue. As part of the official events marking the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, the event brought forty young men and forty young women from the nine historic religions in Britain together. In another project, two youth groups, one Muslims and one Christian, came together to create a welcome sign for their community. The sign, a stained glass mosaic, contained and combined the artistic traditions of both Islam and Christianity, indicating the unity and friendship between both religions. The group also reportedly visited each other’s places of worship, talked about the similarities and differences between their religion and the importance of understanding each other’s beliefs. The group therefore used the piece of artwork to symbolise their co-operation.

Another organisation, The Interfaith Society established in North London Collegiate School, 2006 aims to promote religious understanding and tolerance between children 7-11years old, while another one, Interfaith Action promotes inter-faith understanding and tolerance between youths in several local communities through joint action and civic participation. Another interesting case of Christian Muslim dialogue occurred on 2nd of October, 2005 in London when over a hundred Christian and Muslim Londoners from schools, faith groups and universities, came together to think and talk about ‘Living in a Multi-Faith London’ (Diversity and Dialogue, 2007).

Dialogue between Christian and Muslims can be a tightrope walk. It could involve pretence, on both sides, that there are no differences between the two religions, when people just meet to share niceties and gloss over their differences, or it could involve unsympathetic and hostile disposition to the other party in the dialogue. In both cases, such dialogue is not only fruitless, both boring and pointless. But when dialogue between Christians and Muslims is authentic, honest, open and with sincerity of intention, the possibilities are endless.

One of the most important outcomes of sincere, honest and open Christian Muslim dialogue is better knowledge of each other. There is no gainsaying the fact that knowledge is the first requirement of an inter-faith understanding. Any relationship between both religions must be based on knowledge and respect for the other party’s beliefs and concepts, if it must be fruitful. Cardinal Arinze (1997) opined that goodwill is necessary in inter-faith relationship, but it is inadequate. Thus, any fruitful dialogue between both religions must involve a sincere and planned study of the other religion. Improved knowledge about the other party’s religion could be gathered from several sources and avenues, such as visitation and participation in the other religion’s place of worship, participation in occasions or celebrations that foster knowledge about the other religion’s doctrines and concepts and even just through open minded conversations.

Further, most of the stereotypes and hostility between the two religions has been due to misinformation and misconception about the other religion (Gledhill, 2008). Better knowledge of each other’s religion would show Muslims and Christians that they share a lot of things in common, such as the belief in one God, belief in the nobility and roles of prophets, belief in the eschatological realities of judgement, reward and punishment and the central role of faith or destiny on our lives. On the moral front, both party agree that religion takes a central place in societal and individual existence, that materialism is unethical and should be overcome, that the institution of marriage and family is sacred and should be upheld and that sexual permissiveness should be opposed. These similarities are strong enough to bind both religions in understanding and appreciation. Although, there are several fundamental differences between the two religions, understanding of this points of convergence would generate acceptance and respect for their differences.

Fortunately, most inter-faith groups in Britain are already involved in a lot of knowledge building activities, such as visiting each other’s place or worship, as mentioned above and joint projects. In the very near future, the results of the knowledge, respect and appreciation of each other that this groups are building now, will be expressed in tranquillity and peaceful co-existence of both parties, devoid of stereotypes, prejudices and unsympathetic apologetic stance on religion.

Cardinal Arinze (1997b) further noted that when Christians and Muslims get to know and understand and respect each other, that is when they are ready for fruitful, sincere and honest dialogue. Dialogue between Christians and Muslims can take any of four different forms. The first form of dialogue occurs across religious frontiers at the level of daily life in the family, in the workplace or in other social activities, the second form of dialogue involves inter-religious co-operation such as joint promotion of peace; the third form of dialogue involves theological discourse of the differences and similarities between the two religions; while finally, the fourth form of dialogue involves the exchange of religious experience. Knowledge and sincerity of purpose strengthens any of these forms of dialogue.

Although, appreciation and respect for one another is one f the most important outcomes of sincere dialogue, it is not the only. Sincere dialogue can also help Christians and Muslims liberate themselves from political manipulation. There is no denying the fact that politics have played a major role, historically, in the conflicts, hostility and misunderstanding that have characterised the history of Muslim Christian relationship. Politicians often manipulate religion and religious leaders to serve their selfish interest. There are several instances of inter-faith wars and hostility that only served the interest of politicians. However, with deep-sited understanding of each other, both religions would no longer fall prey to the mischief of politicians. The primary purpose of religion is to teach mankind how to reach God, politics and politicians have no role, whatsoever, in the scheme of things (Chapman, 1995; Arinze, 1997b).

Religious understanding through dialogue would also help Christians and Muslims fight religious extremism. Both religions agree on the fact that religion is chosen and not imposed. Religious extremist intends to achieve religious unity through physical, psychological, economic or social coercion. With respect and understanding borne out of sincere dialogue, both party would see the folly of trying to force its belief on others. Violence would be seen as unnecessary in religious promotion, as both religions would jointly condemn violence and hostility. By extension, in the absence of extremism and violence, both religions would be able to promote peace and justice, using religious facts as a starting point. The central role of worship and Godliness would be emphasised and more attention would be placed on spiritual development and Godliness. In sum, both religions, through sincere, honest and open minded dialogue and relations could help fight secularism, extremism and social injustice. The possibilities of a sincere Christian Muslim dialogue, as mentioned earlier, are limitless, as long as the dialogue is not founded on pretence and deception.

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