The Need for Intrafaith Perspective on Interfaith Matters

Published February 05, 2018 by Bogdan Smarandache

Daesh, Egypt, Christian-Muslim Dialogue, Intrafaith

Interfaith, Coexistence, Counter-extremism, Middle East

A view from Saydnaya, a monastery in Syria where Christians and Muslims venerated an icon of Mary in the medieval period.

Bogdan Smarandache reflects on western responses to the aftermath of the Da'esh movement and outlines the crucial role of intrafaith discussions in rebuilding interfaith relations.

In 2015, February, several Egyptian workers were taken hostage and executed in Libya by representatives of Da'esh, a.k.a. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Levant (ISIL). Several western governments responded with condemnatory statements. Josh Earnest, then White House press secretary, denounced the executions as "wanton killing of innocents" that targeted "Egyptian citizens". [i] Some members of the online Christian community criticised the Obama Administration for failing to specify that the victims were Copts. The same critics commended other leaders, namely Tony Abbot, David Cameron, and Stephen Harper, for explicitly acknowledging that the victims were Christian. And critics also emphasised the suffering of countless other Christians in the Middle East.[ii] What is the significance of identifying victims of violence and torture by faith? Are Christians in the Middle East particularly vulnerable to violence by groups proclaiming an intolerant version of an Islamic vision, and if so, should their plight merit special attention? And how should Christians abroad react to the plight of persecuted co-religionists? 

It is easy to magnify the weight of events that take place in one's lifetime and this bias can reinforce a skewed historical outlook. Focusing, therefore, exclusively on the suffering of Christians in the Middle East can actually reinforce the erroneous yet resilient notion of a "clash of civilizations" and this can have unintended consequences.[iii] Interfaith relations have always been complex and mutable. Even during the crusades, religious boundaries between Christians and Muslims were sometimes of secondary importance when it came to realpolitik and economic considerations.[iv] And the royal archives of Spain reveal countless cases of violent acts perpetrated by Christians and Muslims who targeted fellow co-religionists in contests for status and honour.[v]  

Granted, propaganda has in the past rallied Christians and Muslims to holy war. And Jews and Muslims suffered forced conversion and expulsion in early modern Spain. The clash paradigm only materialises insofar as individuals or groups within societies employ it as a strategy of exclusion for political or economic advantage. At the same time, emphasising the victimhood of a minority and the oppression of a majority can help reveal institutionalised oppression. But an over-emphasis on the oppression of religious minorities may inadvertently contribute to what Najib George Awad calls “institutionalised minoritization”. Awad argues that Christians in Syria have not only been portrayed as victims in need of patronage and protection but have also self-minoritised, a trend that is reflected in expressions of vulnerability.[vi] By focusing on the victimhood of Middle Eastern Christians to the exclusion of the suffering of others, it is possible that Christians near and far are in fact aiding the realisation of the clash paradigm and inadvertently reinforcing negative stereotypes. 

It is natural that Pope Francis, the representative of the Roman Catholic Church, would take a special interest in the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Yet even the Pope has suggestively reached out to both Western and Middle Eastern leaders, and has sought not only to promote interfaith dialogue but to actually create the dialogue. Pope Francis has prayed alongside the Grand Mufti of Istanbul [vii] and visited a mosque in the Central African Republic―his culminating gesture during his trip to the African continent.[viii] He has called upon Europeans to offer asylum to Syrian refugees, the majority of whom are Muslim.[ix] These gestures are arguably two of the most potent challenges to those Islamic movements that espouse violence and operate on non-historical or ahistorical conceptualisations of creedal fundaments. But for democratically-elected governments of "secular states" to focus on the plight of a specific demographic may carry unintended risks.

Suffering is universal. And the victims of ISIS are not just executed "for their faith" as the aforementioned commentators would say, but also on account of a narrow ideology espoused by the perpetrators. Recognising the disenfranchisement and persecution of the many Muslims in Syria and Iraq opposed to the pseudo-orthodox ideology of Da'esh is also important, along with recognising the decimation of Christian and Jewish and Yazidi communities. Profound sadness arises from the fact that Christian communities have been removed from areas that they have inhabited for generations. But the most useful response to this calamity may be one that also seeks to orient attention towards the nature of the forces that nourish or oppose movements like Da'esh and towards understanding how and why Muslims have been drawn or forced towards such movements.

Rebuilding global interfaith relations may benefit from recognition of the plight of religious minorities within a wider and universal understanding of suffering. Furthermore, discourses on how to assess and react to the suffering of both Christians and Muslims in the Middle East need not be confined to traditional interfaith settings (though these are certainly crucial). Interfaith dialogue can also happen within religious groups seeking to understand the suffering of fellow human beings.

This article is written by Bogdan Smarandache, who is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Medieval Studies in the University of Toronto. His research focuses on Christian-Muslim diplomatic relations in the 12th and 13th centuries and the condition of religious minorities in the Eastern Mediterranean.

[i] "Statement by the Press Secretary on the Murder of Egyptian Citizens", The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. Accessed May 2016.

[ii] Among several examples: Leah Barkoukis, "WH Fails to Mention Victims of ISIS's Mass Execution Were Christians", Townhall. Accessed May 2016.

[iii] One of the many works responsible for popularising the notion of a clash of civilizations is Samuel P. Huntingdon, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

[iv] Michael A. Köhler, Allianzen und Verträge zwischen fränkischen und islamischen Herrschern im Vorderen Orient (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1991), translated in Alliances and Treaties between Frankish and Muslim Rulers in the Middle East: Cross-Cultural Diplomacy in the Period of the Crusades, trans. Peter M. Holt, ed. Konrad Hirschler (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[v] Mark D. Meyerson, A Jewish Renaissance in Fifteenth-Century Spain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. 157, 158, 167-8, 169-72, 175-9; Mark D. Meyerson, The Muslims of Valencia in the Age of Fernando and Isabel: between Coexistence and Crusade (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 232, 239-45, 254.

[vi] Najib George Awad, "Christians in Contemporary Syria: What does Minority Mean?", Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. 29 September 2015. Accessed November 2015.

[vii] Philip Pullella, Daren Butler, "Pope Francis prays in Istanbul's Blue Mosque", Reuters. 29 November 2015. Accessed May 2016.

[viii] Nicole Winfield, "Amid heavy security, pope visits C. African Republic mosque", Christian Science Monitor. 30 November 2015. Accessed May 2016. 

[ix] Chiara Albanese, John Follain, "Pope Flies 12 Syrian Refugees to Vatican in Potent Symbol for EU", Bloomberg. 16 April 2016. Accessed May 2016. 

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