An important question in Muslim-Christian dialogue

Last Friday, we held our regular Muslim-Christian Dialogue or ‘Cultural Evening’. Though we usually pick a topic, deliver presentations and then open up for discussions, we periodically decide to have an open forum for any questions. We chose the latter format on Friday, which gives room for people to ask whatever they want and forces us to engage with the specific things people want to hear rather than just our pre-prepared theme that they may or may not be interested in.

One of the questions that we circled back onto a number of times was given to my imam friend. It began as a question about freedom of choice in conversion. We were told that nobody can be forced to be Muslim and anybody is free to be whatever religion they want. However, we were also told that anybody who becomes a Muslim is not free to ‘de-convert’. This then led to some discussion surrounding a) the position of those who have been deemed Muslims simply by being born into a particular family; b) how freedom of choice actually exists if people are free to become Muslims but not free to leave Islam; and, c) why so many Muslims appear to see it as entirely legitimate to attack those who leave the faith.

That last point led to some interesting answers. My friend first began to argue that no Muslim has the right to attack another person for leaving the faith and any such person that does cannot be considered a true Muslim. He then went on to deny that persecution by Muslims against people of other religions even existed. Whilst he immediately undermined that point by then seeking to argue that every religion contends with people who claim to be believers doing terrible things (which they do), I suspect this point was based on the previous one that no true Muslim would do such things. This point was pushed back by our Iranian brethren in the room, many of whom had converted and been forced to flee their country due to conversion. My imam friend initially tried to deny their stories before, faced with undeniable evidence, suggesting that this was merely a breakdown in law and order. Again, this was pushed back on the grounds that it was specifically the government targeting them. He then simply wrote off the government as non-Muslim.

My imam friend had some points in the discussion that were valid. Both of us (Christians and Muslims) have people, terrorists, armies and governments who name our religion as theirs but that we would reject as belonging to the camp. It is also true that there are individuals who, claiming to be believers, act in ways that suggest they are not followers of our respective books. It is not at all illegitimate for my friend to deny the faith of those who behave in ways he deems entirely contrary to Islam. All of those points were legitimate. He was also keen to point out that nobody in the room would endorse any such behaviour. I understand why he felt the need to make the point but nobody was seriously suggesting that was the case. Let’s be honest, if anybody thought the guys in the room were going to chop their heads off, none of them would turn up to the meeting!

On all those points, my friend made an entirely valid case. The point that he struggled to answer was the one that was actually being made. Namely, recognising that individuals and even some government will live in such a way as to make clear they have long departed the faith, how does he account for the clear comparative trend between Christian-heritage countries and the Muslim-heritage (or openly theocratically Islamic) countries? If it is only the case that a few rogue individuals will persecute those that don’t subscribe to their faith, why is this demonstrably so widespread in almost every Muslim-majority country and considerably less prevalent in Christian-heritage countries? Why is it common for Muslim people to persecute apostates when, despite recognising there are inevitably individuals who do so, it is much less prevalent among Christian people?

There are reasonably obvious answers to these questions. We may start with the examples set by our respective founders. Jesus’ particular example was not to fight or exact revenge, instead calling his followers to turn the other cheek and all that. Indeed, he even went as far as to rebuke Peter when he tried to physically defend Jesus against those who would arrest him. Mohammad, by contrast, was less overtly peaceable and didn’t see the need for much cheek turning. Likewise, Christianity spread out of the persecution they suffered and their refusal to deny the ethical stance of Christ. Islam, by contrast, expanded through the sword (irrespective of whether one considers those wars defensive or offensive affairs, they were certainly not the refusal to fight exemplified by Jesus and the apostles). Christianity centres on the humiliation of Christ and the shame of the cross; Islam centres on the veneration of Allah through his demands upon his people. This means Christians have no need to defend God’s honour for he is able to glorify and defend himself, even in the face of apparent humiliation and shame. Muslims must defend Allah’s honour for his glory rests on the obedience of his people and his honour upon their defence of him.

When considering religions of peace, it is important for us to look not at the individuals but wider trends. Of course, we can all find individuals who claim to follow a particular religion who are aberrations departing from any sense of true faith. However, when those trends extend across every country and are prevalent among the majority who follow that faith, this is a trend that we shouldn’t ignore. My friend tried to cast these trends in terms of politics but given the varying political systems across such countries where these things are prevalent, and even among those subscribers to that faith in countries where the system is not in any way Islamic, the argument really didn’t wash.