When kingdoms clash: the Christian and ideologies

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Throughout the nearly fifteen centuries of Muslim-Christian encounter, individual adherents of both traditions often have lived peaceably with each other. At the same time, Muslim expansion into Christian territories and Christian imperialism in Muslims lands have fostered fear and ill-will on both sides. Repercussions from the Crusades continue to resound in the contemporary rhetoric employed by defenders of both faiths. In recent years relations between Muslims and Christians across the globe have become increasingly polarized, fanned by anti-Islamic rhetoric and fearmongering.

Old sectarian rivalries play out with serious consequences for minority groups, both Christian and Muslim. Conflicts in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere for much of the 20th century were often labeled as ethnic, political, or ideological perpetuations of long-standing struggles over land, power, and influence. These conflicts now tend to be labeled in accord with the specifically religious affiliation of their participants. It is difficult to imagine a time in history at which there is greater need for serious interfaith engagement than now.

It is also important to understand the ways in which members of the two communities experience each other in specific areas of the world today, including the United States, taking note of efforts currently underway to advance interfaith understanding and cooperation. The events of September 11, , and the resulting American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, have led to ugly commentary reminiscent of medieval hyperbole. Right-wing evangelical rhetoric in the United States against Islam has been fueled by incidents of international terrorism involving Muslims, while the well-funded Islamophobia industry in the United States has been producing and distributing large amounts of anti-Muslim material.

American Muslims want to exercise their constitutional rights to free speech in expressing their objection to certain American foreign policies, at the same time that they fear the consequences of the Patriot Act and other acts they view as assaults on their civil liberties.

Meanwhile other Americans are struggling to understand that the Muslims with whom they interact in businesses, schools, and neighborhoods are different from the Muslim extremists who are calling for ever more dire measures against the United States. This is the general context in which Christian-Muslim dialogue is now taking place and to which it must address itself if it is to be effective. With the inception of Islam in the 7th century ce the earliest community of Muslims saw itself in continuity with Jews and Christians.

Political resistance to the Prophet Muhammad created a series of conflicts resulting in the crystallization of Islam into its own separate religion and identity. Theological differences were articulated early and have continued throughout history to present major challenges to interfaith relationships.

The Persian Sassanian and the Greek Byzantine Empires were exhausted after many years of struggle, and Islam was able to occupy what amounted to a power vacuum in many of the areas to which it spread. Military expeditions were political in nature and not undertaken for the purpose of forcing conversion to Islam.

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The Clash of Ideas

Dhimmis had the right to practice their religion in private and to govern their own communities. Special dress was required and new church buildings could not be constructed. The Christian church as a whole was divided into five apostolic sects at the beginning of Islam, located in Rome, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. The resulting sectarian divisions had significant consequences for the spread of Islam.

Many oriental Christians actually welcomed Muslim political authority as a relief from Byzantine oversight, and they cooperated with their new Muslim rulers. From the beginning Christians were nervous about the growth of a new religion that they saw as a Christian heresy and which invaded and took over many of their lands. Certain periods in world history reflected harmonious interactions among the three Abrahamic faiths. Medieval Andalusia, for example, provided a venue for Muslims and Christians, along with Jews, to live in proximity and even mutual appreciation.

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It was a time of great opulence and achievement, and social intercourse at the upper levels was easy. It was also a period during which a number of Christians chose to convert to Islam. Medieval Andalusia has often been cited as an ideal place and time of interfaith harmony. To some extent that claim may be justified. If so, however, it was fairly short and was soon supplanted by the tensions, prejudices, and ill treatment of minorities by both Muslims and Christians that more often have characterized relationships between the communities. Other encounters, such as those experienced through the centuries of the Crusades, have left both Christians and Muslims bitter and angry.

The question of sovereignty over the city of Jerusalem remained an ongoing issue. Many complex factors went into the call of Pope Urban II for a crusade against Muslims in , primary among them the recapture of Jerusalem for Christianity.

When Kingdoms Clash: The Christian and Ideologies

Religious zeal carried Christian forces well into Muslim territories, and early efforts actually led to the capture of the prize of Jerusalem, which they held for some years. Western Christians, generally ignorant of the lands of the East, whether Christian or Muslim, vented their ire against their Eastern Christian brethren almost as much as toward Muslims. The two centuries in which Christians occupied Palestine witnessed a constant pattern of shifting alliances. The Crusades lasted for several centuries, ending finally in victory for Islam.

By the close of the Middle Ages hostilities between Islam and Western Christendom once again were intense, with active warfare for several centuries. A number of events served as a kind of transition from the Middle Ages to a new era of international engagement. The fall of Constantinople in the middle of the 15th century and the final expulsion of Muslims from Andalusia at the end of that century illustrate this transition.

For some eleven centuries Constantinople had stood as the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Its fall to the invading Turks in signaled a dramatic change in the power relationships between Islam and Christendom.

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The specter of a Muslim takeover of all of Europe was raised anew. In the 15th and succeeding centuries Muslim navies roamed the Mediterranean, attacking European ships and coastal towns. Raids were carried out as far north as England and Ireland. Muslim fortunes, however, were reversed in Spain, where, after centuries of glory, they suffered a steady loss of territories under the Christian Reconquista.

Initially under Christian rule Muslims were the recipients of a policy of toleration. Gradually, however, the two communities became completely segregated, and a rising tide of anti-Semitism had consequences for both Muslims and Jews. By the turn of the 15th century Muslims in Spain had to choose between conversion, emigration, or death. Yet, another shift in relations soon set in.

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The rise of rationalism, a fascination on the part of the West with the cultural trappings of the East, and the necessities of international political and economic exchange soon drew the worlds of Islam and Christendom closer together. At the same time, under the influence of Western missionary agencies, a very negative perception of Islam continued to develop in Europe. For a long period Western scholarly research on Islam was dominated by the desire to convert Muslims to Christianity, resulting in analyses of Islam that were apologetic and highly polemical.

Before leaving the historical context it is important to note some of the nonmilitary, cultural, and intellectual ways in which East and West encountered each other. Much has been made of the interchange between the Crusaders and the Arabs. In some cases each side found in the other chivalry and respect worthy of admiration and even emulation. For the most part, however, European thinking had little influence on Arab culture.

Conversely, the West found great benefit from early Islamic thought in the fields of culture and science. Westerners learned from their encounters with Islamic civilizations in all major scholarly and scientific fields, including philosophy, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, and mathematics as well as the arts and music. It is well known that ancient Greek philosophy and science came to the West through the medium of Arab translation. Arab-Islamic medical science had a great influence on the development of the disciplines of medicine in Europe.

Unfortunately, since the Middle Ages it has been politics that has dominated thinking on both sides, and a legacy of confrontation, distrust, and misunderstanding has prevailed until the present day.

Militia Extremists

Anti-Islamic stereotypes in both Europe and America today reflect early vitriolic sentiments expressed by ignorant and uninformed Christians aghast at the rise of Islam and by their descendants who suffered defeat by Muslims in the Crusades and beyond. The Ottoman Empire, at its height during the 16th and 17th centuries under Suleiman the Magnificent, suffered gradual decline in succeeding centuries, culminating in its defeat as an ally of Imperial Germany during World War I.

Having already lost most of its European territories before the war, the empire suffered a breakup into what is now Turkey and the countries of the Middle East, whose boundaries were drawn by the victorious Western allies. It was also at this time that the seeds were sown for the establishment of the state of Israel in the heart of the Middle East, with statehood emerging in These events of the first half of the 20th century were pivotal for determining the subsequent relations between Muslims and the West Christians and Jews, and now secularists.

Meanwhile in other parts of the Muslim world, especially Africa and South Asia, colonialists wreaked havoc, supplanting Islamic educational systems with secular or Christianity-based systems. By more than 90 percent of sub-Saharan Africa was already under European control. Inhumane behavior has never been limited to either Christians or Muslims.


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Turkey during and after World War I carried out one of the worst genocides in history with the massacre of more than 1 million Armenians. Muslim-Christian relations in Europe today are inevitably affected by centuries-old fears of Islamic violence. These fears, of course, are exacerbated by the terrorist events that have occurred in various parts of the world since the turn of the 21st century.

Concern over the rising tide of immigrants coming into Europe from various parts of the Muslim world also has served to raise European nervousness about the presence of Islam. Today some 70 percent of all refugees in the world are Muslim. On the psychological level fear and mistrust tap into a long history of mutual aggression.

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On the practical level, Europeans fear that they will lose jobs, a fair cut of social services, and the cultural integrity of their respective countries. For their part many Muslims are experiencing what they see as a new form of international colonialism. The West has long been known for supporting corrupt dictators so as to foster its own economic needs. Muslims, not surprisingly, question the sincerity of Western belief in justice and democracy.

Selected areas of the world are highlighted in the following subsections as examples of the problems that bear on Christian-Muslim relations. Many areas of Africa, of course, are suffering greatly today as a result of deteriorating conditions and relations between Muslim and Christian groups. One obvious example is Nigeria. Since conflicts between Muslims and Christians in northern Nigeria have become violent and often deadly. The full picture is complex and related directly to the British colonialist venture in Nigeria.

Thus, relations between the two communities are based not only on religion, but also more specifically are a combination of economic, political, and religious factors. The British captured the Sokoto Caliphate in , after which it became known as the Northern Protectorate, which, in , became part of the independent Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The Hausa-Fulani, the dominant leadership, were Muslim, and the ethnic minorities were primarily Christian. This racial-ethnic divide remains as the major identifier of groups today, even though issues of conflict may have nothing specifically to do with religion.

Interfaith conflict in Nigeria in the contemporary period took a more serious turn when, in , some Muslims objected to Christian evangelization efforts and fighting broke out. These troubles have continued regularly, often with orgies of killing and looting, much of it unrelated to religion or ethnicity.

For Muslims themselves, violence among members of the faith may be of greater consequence than struggles between groups representing Islam and Christianity. Today a major player in exacerbating Nigerian sectarian violence is the Muslim sect called Boko Haram, which is strongly opposed to Western values and forms of education and generally shares a Taliban ideology. In recent years, members of Boko Haram have raided schools, churches, and government offices in their fight to carve out an Islamic enclave in northeastern Nigeria. In April , Boko Haram abducted more than schoolgirls, who as of this writing have not been returned.

Those familiar with the situation in northern Nigeria believe that Christian and Muslim organizations could greatly assist in ending conflicts said to be carried out in the name of religion. Many observers believe that the key lies with renewed efforts at interreligious dialogue.

Conservative Muslims often think that Christians seek to convert them, and Christians worry that Muslims want to make Indonesia into an Islamic state.