ENEC – 1/05 – 2009
Religions and cultures in comparison for a Planetary Humanism
In the respect of each other’s beliefs, it is necessary to work for the recognition of natural law and common values as a meeting point for peace.
The challenge lies in being able to give a common response to the problems of the 21st century, as well as preparing the new generations for multi-ethnic religious and cultural coexistence, starting from the experience of the Christian Arabs: The relationship between Islam and Christianity in the Middle East, indicates some critical issues related to the issue of cultural and religious minorities, issues of great importance that make us understand and manage the presence of Muslims in European countries (Agnelli Foundation).
A dialogue of life: non-ideological, on the rights and dignity of the person, aimed at conversion of heart.
We all know that in the word Islam there is the root of the word peace and we remember how Jesus presented to his people the first mission entrusted to them: “In whatever house you enter, say first of all: peace in this house”.
In the Koran, the word peace is one of the ninety-nine most beautiful names of God.
It is true that where Islam is present we cannot speak of society without encountering the religious dimension and, conversely, we cannot affirm anything of Islam without establishing a connection with the society in which it lives and evolves. In this regard, Louis Massignon wrote: “There are a people that no one truly loves, because no one truly knows, and no one truly knows, because no one truly loves, and this people is the Muslim people. I feel the duty to devote my whole life to making them known and loved by Christians”.
Peace is a precious good: it is the condition of a country not shaken by civil wars, conflicts or tensions between different social classes, where there is equality of citizens before the law. To undertake a journey together it is necessary to know each other, in order to be able to start a minimum of collaboration, synergy and create a climate of peace; therefore, listen with respect and understand each other. In order to do this, let us take a look at the fundamentals of the two religions and the substantial differences between the Gospel and the Koran and the path that can be taken together. Before going into these concepts, I would like to start with recent events.
In September 2006 Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech at the University of Regensburg in which he extended a hand to Islamic institutions on important issues for peace. He dealt with burning current issues such as freedom of expression, of belief, of worship and religious practice, of bioethics, of the human values of life and the family. He questioned the Islamic world about the massacres in the name of God, asking for reflection to establish serenity in relations between believers in the one God; he took the opportunity to express his regret for the little felt presence of God in the Western world. The speech had a worldwide resonance, but was misunderstood in the Islamic world, with violent reactions to the point of causing considerable material damage to Christian institutions and even the murder of a nun.
At the same time I was in Egypt and was reading the reply of the president of the Union of Journalists, a famous intellectual, to the Pope’s speech; he pointed out that the authors of the violent reactions, who apologized to the Pope or retracted his statements, had not read the original text of the speech but had based themselves on other sources! We know today that the misunderstandings have been cleared up but without the pre-existing prejudices we would have spared human lives and damage.
The Christian Basics and the Gospel
These are the words of God-inspired human beings. It is through his creatures that God acts. It’s not just the word of God; it’s the word of Isaiah, Mark, John, etc. God has made use of his creatures and inspired them to spread his word to the world; God’s word in human form comes through a human community. The Christian concept of God: Logos and Love to the point of becoming totally small, of taking on a human body and finally giving oneself as bread in our hands. It is about taking care of the personal relationship with God. I recognize that the Western world, wrongly called Christian, is going through a great moral crisis having relegated religion to the private sphere and adopted an attitude of indifference towards our Creator.
Muslims and the Koran
Koran: it is the literal, uninterpretable, word of God. God gave his word to Mohammed, but it is an eternal word. It is not the word of Muhammad. It is as it is forever, it is immutable. It is not adaptable; it does not know the separation between the political and religious spheres. There is no distinction in Islam between sacred and profane, between religion and state, between civil society and the believing community: hence the Islamic law (Sharia) that should govern the whole life of peoples.
In the Koran there are both verses that are in favour of religious tolerance, (not equality), and others that are openly opposed to this tolerance. Therefore, there are two readings of the Koran and the Sunna, two different choices in contrast to each other, one aggressive, warlike and the other peaceful; we need an authority, unanimously recognized by Muslims that can say: from now on, only this verse has value; but this does not happen. In fact, there is no institutional Islamic theology; there is no single religious authority.
Religious factor in Arab countries
The temperament and tradition of the populations living in the southern part of the Mediterranean area make them particularly sensitive to religious involvement. This attitude can be better understood if we take into account the fact that the whole of society is impregnated with religious characteristics. Suffice it to say that it is precisely from the Koran that every Arab state with a Muslim majority draws the laws governing the coexistence of citizens.
In fact, Islam, both as a state and as a religion, contains an immutable social and political project, since the Koran has laid the foundations to govern civil society for people of all times and places. The civil and religious identity of the Arab citizen are intimately linked, and this gives rise to prejudice and discrimination against others. All Muslims are part of the same community, Umbrian. From this it is clear that the religious factor cannot be overlooked in addressing the problems of the Middle East.
The challenge of radical-political Islam
In recent decades, the current of thought has imposed itself on the power of the Arab states, claiming to apply the dictates of the Koran to the letter without contextualizing its reading and reflection. Moreover, it is unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between Christian civilization and Western modernization. This current, combined with economic and cultural underdevelopment, manages to coagulate large strata of the population, disappointed by the lack of economic development and social reforms always promised by governments and never implemented. Islam is then perceived as an opportunity for redemption and fundamentalism exploits the ignorance of these social strata regarding its objectives of conquest. Religious prejudices, customs and traditions, frustrations, economic backwardness, feelings of hostility towards the West together with that of God-favoured people, are all components of a powder keg ready to explode if no action is taken in time.
The image that official Islam gives of itself today is contradictory and the media do not emphasize its spirituality. It seems to pay more attention to issues that have roots in custom and tradition rather than religion (the veil, covering the woman’s body, ritual practices, gender discrimination) and not to the inner dimension of the person.
Given these differences and contradictions, I wonder if the Islamic law of a country can guarantee peace to its citizens, or is she herself a source of hatred and discord? A puzzling fact was noted in a recent UN report: the countries of the Muslim world, which are home to 20% of the world’s population, account for only 4% of world trade. Furthermore, the countries of the Arab Muslim world where there is most innovation today are those that have little or no oil.
There is no peace without justice in the hearts
The legal situation of the Christian, and in some way also of women, is critical in countries subject to Sharia law, and does not bring peace. Let’s take a succinct look at the legal conditions, of the people, predominant in the Arab countries; they are authentic barriers to peace and equally invisible knots to Italians.
Islamic religious law (Sharia) conditions the life of the country, of families, of people and, therefore, permeates Islamic countries and Islamic centres (in Italy or elsewhere) where Muslim Arab immigrants join. The Sharia is the source of the constitutional order, in an armoured society into which one can enter without being able to leave. The cornerstones of the Sharia are: the divine source of Koranic law, the non-freedom of religious choice, the non-equality between citizens and the rights of women halved compared to those of men.
In the Islamic tradition there is the concept of inequality: between man and woman, between Muslim and non-Muslim. The male Muslim is considered fully entitled to rights and duties; whoever converts to another religion or becomes an atheist, is a traitor liable to the death penalty or at least to the loss of all rights. Needless to say, there are many limitations on the dignity and freedom of women: they cannot judge a man, they inherit half of their brother, the Christian woman cannot inherit from her Muslim husband; the husband has almost absolute authority over his wife. The non-Muslim, man or woman, is limited in his civil and religious rights and prevented from carrying out certain trades and professions (gynaecologist, Arabic language and literature teacher, magistrate, government, etc.).
In order to dialogue, it is essential to recognize differences and to note that immigration gives us the opportunity to be able to give a greater spiritualisation to our lives and to make the value of religious freedom known.
Human Rights – UN Universal Declaration of 1948
The implementation of UN resolutions on human rights in Arab countries must be done without hesitation. I note with regret the indifference, if not the failure of the governments of the European Union to demand the elimination of discrimination included in the laws concerning relations between people in Arab countries. These are real humiliations that cause the slow depopulation of discriminated minorities, a Shoah in white. It is estimated that around ten million indigenous Arabs have had to emigrate to the West in order to survive or recover their dignity as free citizens and guarantee their children a future with equal rights before the law. This forced exodus has uprooted entire indigenous minorities from their native lands, slowly disappearing in the face of the indifference of international institutions and political powers willing to do business with countries rich in energy sources.
There is no Islamic majority country in which Christians are completely free to practise their faith or women free to exercise their dignity as people.
The thousand-year experience of Arab Christians and Muslims leads us to state that the relationship between Islam and Christianity in the Middle East is also of great importance for understanding and managing the presence of Muslims in European countries. The separation between state and religion in the West undoubtedly offers a greater possibility of social integration and religious choice to the millions of Muslims living there.
In the eyes of Muslims themselves, the indifference of our governments to the fate of Christian minorities in Islamic countries and our reluctance to deal with those who are humiliating them is very important. The defence of the Copts of Egypt, of the Melkites and Maronites in the Middle East, of the Assyrian churches in Mesopotamia, of African Christians and blacks in Sudan, and of the religious freedom of Muslims themselves, against discrimination, must be done in the name of the application of Human Rights. This defence can foster a fruitful existential dialogue with the religious minority Muslims in Europe.
In the inflation of words of our days, phrases like how we are all brothers have become very common; they are trendy. Fraternity is a task that awaits its realization, we are called to rediscover the forgotten brother and thus to transform a pure and simple possibility into an effective reality. There is no dialogue without the truth, the whole truth. No, to the art of accommodation; to say only what pleases the other is to create confusion, while to insist on what is not shared is to create fanaticism.
Both in the Koran and in the Gospel the well is the centre of encounters because water is the sign of life. We no longer have wells, we only open taps and no longer understand this sign. The dialogue aims to create in our hearts a well where we can meet water because it is the sign of eternal life; a revolution of hearts. Inter-religious dialogue, in fact, is not proposed as a conversion from one religion to another, but the mutual knowledge and sharing of one’s spiritual riches. Dialogue with Muslims starts from culture rather than religion where too many differences and prejudices separate us. Recognition and respect for natural law constitute the great basis for dialogue, between believers and non-believers, of the different religions. As proof of this fact, during the Cairo Conference on Population in 1994 under the auspices of the UN, the positions of the Vatican were closer to the Islamic countries belonging to the OIC, Organization of the Islamic Conference, than those of the countries of the European Union.
The principles of Humanism are an ideal platform for building bridges between people and peoples: Clarity in the relationship, mutual trust, gentleness, knowing how to listen to each other; prudence, patience, attitudes and misunderstandings to avoid. Together, each in his or her own place and with his or her own talents, know how to consolidate all that is positive in the world and to overcome with good will all that hurts, degrades and kills man. To establish a loyal dialogue, based on respect for cultures, so that the walls of hatred will fall and the rejection of one another will be overcome.
Despite the fact that the dialogue between religious leaders has not brought concrete results so far, it must be continued; it should be remembered that the Virgin Mary is a meeting point between Muslims and Christians: – Mary is the one who unites the two religions. Despite the perseverance of a few souls of good will, the seed of change is struggling to germinate for two reasons: a) the society of Arab countries is rigidly armoured by religious laws. b) Western society is allergic to religious themes: there are even dangers hidden in the folds of the proposed laws in Italy that go against the morals of the two religions.
In order to obtain concrete results towards Peace, it is necessary to focus on that concern works of charity, action for peace and justice, human promotion, Human realities do not exist without man, without the free commitment of his spirit and his heart. Precisely for this reason all believers, of all faiths, are all the more called to allow themselves to be penetrated interiorly by God’s peace, and to bring his strength into the world. Respect for religious conscience is in fact the necessary prerequisite for the affirmation of the culture of peace among communities and peoples in a globalized world such as the present one.
Believers and souls of good will on the road to the 21st century
To manage change it is necessary that they act in harmony North and South, East and West and it is important not to leave room for those who claim to hold a monopoly on the Truth and have the arrogance to use coercion to impose their Truth, isolate themselves, create ghettos, future centres of power.
The present conversation, Religions and cultures compared for a Planetary Humanism, is part of this framework of peace in the name of God. Women and men of good will, well inserted in the two shores of the Mediterranean, can represent the milestone for change.
The theme of Human Rights is a good platform to promote peace together without distinction of race, religious belief or ideology: that is to say, to recognize Man’s dignity in creation. Muslims and Christians take it as a model to focus on for works of charity, action for peace and justice, promotion of women. As an example for further study, we cite some of the possible actions in the world:
- Actions for the promotion of the right to life constitute today the great basis for dialogue between believers of different religions and between believers and non-believers themselves. This is a great meeting point and, therefore, a fundamental prerequisite for genuine peace, the denunciation of the havoc that is being wrought in our society: alongside the victims of armed conflict, terrorism and various forms of violence, there are the silent deaths caused by hunger, abortion and other forms of manipulation and mutilation.
- Actions for the free profession of one’s faith. The difficulties that both Christians and followers of other religions, including in some cases Muslims themselves, encounter in publicly and freely professing their religious beliefs; in some states they are even persecuted by systematically mocking religious beliefs. This can only promote a negative mentality and culture for peace.
- Action for the right to access essential goods such as food, water, housing, health; with the globalization of the media, blatant inequalities can only cause frustration and feelings of revolt over injustice. The very serious deficiencies from which many people suffer, especially on the African continent, are at the root of violent claims and therefore constitute a tremendous wound inflicted on peace.
- Actions for equality between human beings; it is an asset that cannot be disregarded or vilified without jeopardising peace.
- Actions for the promotion of women who represent more than half of the world’s population but who are often prevented from exercising their potential; this female condition introduces factors of instability into the social order such as the exploitation of women treated as objects and the many forms of disrespect for their dignity, submission to the will of man, with consequences that are harmful to his dignity as a person and to the exercise of the same fundamental freedoms. The project of literacy of female populations is an effective tool in this perspective.
- Actions to dispel a certain conception of God that justifies violence and wars in His name
The specific projects that some NGOs have underway to deal with individual threats to peace must be supported by international bodies, in particular the United Nations, which with the Universal Declaration of 1948 set as a fundamental task the promotion of human rights as the first step towards world peace. Utopia? No, just a hope and a wish: that every person of good will may feel committed to being a tireless peacemaker and a strenuous defender of the dignity of the human person and his inalienable rights. It is crucial to unite energies to implement one or more projects in their respective territories; a step together towards the conversion of hearts. Finally, I would like to underline the Church’s attention to Planetary Humanism, quoting Benedict XVI: only by respecting the human person is it possible to promote peace, and only by building peace are the foundations for an authentic integral humanism laid.
I AM CONVINCED THAT ISLAM, UNDERSTOOD ACCORDING TO ITS SPIRITUAL TRADITION, CAN OFFER PRECIOUS RESOURCES TO BE SPENT AND SHARED TO BUILD, TOGETHER WITH CHRISTIANITY AND OTHER RELIGIONS, THE GLOBAL CULTURE OF PEACE AND FRATERNITY.
Giuseppe Samir Eid
N.B. free extrapolation from the author’s book: Muslims and Christians – The Invisible Knots of Dialogue, Ed. Carabà, Milan, 2007.
Free web translation from the original in Italian
The published articles intend to provide the tools for a social inclusion of the migratory flow, shed light on human rights and the condition of life of Christians in the Islamic world from which the author come from. Knowledge of the other, of cultural and religious differences are primary ingredients to create peace in the hearts of men everywhere, a prerequisite for a peaceful coexistence and convinced citizenship in the territory.