Under the Radar

Under the Radar

In the midst of the election excitement here in the U.S, two events of great import are passing under the radar for most Americans. On the cultural level I think they carry as much significance as the election outcomes themselves.

The first is the exchange of open letters between 138 Muslim clerics and mostly western Christian leaders. The international group associated with the Royal Aal-Bayt Institue for Islamic Thought in Jordan published the document “A Common Word Between Us and You” in October 2007. In the document, they state that “The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians. The basis for this peace already exists. It is part of the foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbor.”

In November a response was spearheaded by the Yale Center for Faith and Culture entitled “Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to ‘A Common Word Between Us and You.”

Among the authors of the document are Harold Attridge, dean of the Yale Divinity School, and Miroslav Volf, founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Miroslav is a native of Croatia. I first met him in 1992. He has served for years as a visiting professor on the faculty of the Evandjeoski Teoloshki Fakultet (Evangelical Theological Seminary) in Croatia where I served as dean for several years in the mid-90’s, and continue as a lecturer annually. His books Exclusion and Embrace and The End of Memory have gained international acclaim.

The Yale document has garnered the support of many well-known evangelical and traditional church leaders, including some of my colleagues from the seminary in Croatia. The hope is that the effort will produce the fruit of peaceful dialogue and increased understanding between the Christian and Muslim worlds. To be frank, I am more than guarded in my optimism.

The Yale document has generated not only support, but strong criticism as well. One of the more insightful responses comes from the Barnabas Fund which is led by Anglican priest, Canon Patrick Sookhdeo, a converted Muslim who understands the issues at hand better than most. A very brief summary of the objections are as follows:

  1. The Yale document fails to recognize that “A Common Word” appears to be in the da-wa tradition of Islam. That is, a call to conversion to Islam.
  2. The eagerness to respond has blinded the authors to the negative implications of the Muslim letter.
  3. The apologetic tone of the response plays into the historic Muslim insistence on a dominate-subordinate relation between Islam and other religions. In essence, the response is an appeasement.
  4. The many signatories in support of the Yale statement signed it without an adequate understanding of Islam’s approach to other religions.
  5. The Yale statement surrenders theological ground regarding the deity of Christ in light of the Muslim insistence that God is one and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, which is quoted in the Muslim letter.
  6. While the role of Muhammad and the Muslim understanding of the unity of God are recognized there is no reciprocal statement confirming the Christian view of Christ and the Gospel.
  7. The Yale authors take responsibility and apologize for both the Crusades and the “excesses of the war on terror,” thus reinforcing Muslim belief in collective guilt (and thus the justice of collective retribution), and that the war on terror is an extension of the Crusades pitting Christendom against Islam.
  8. Muslims have welcomed the apology and published the admission of guilt by Christians without conceding any historical wrongdoing on the part of Muslims, moderate, radical or otherwise, including the persecution of believers and suppression of religious freedom within Muslim dominant countries.

The Barnabas Fund analysis recognizes the value of dialogue, but they see the Yale Statement as “giving everything away without receiving anything in return,” i.e. it is an act of appeasement. There can be no dialogue where the human rights of Christians in predominately Muslim countries are not given equal hearing with Muslim concerns

I think these criticisms are valid, and reveal a serious flaw in the approach of the Yale Center. The question is, is this a kind of cultural Munich Declaration (“Peace in our time”) or the opening of a genuine dialogue? Only time will tell. Meanwhile Miroslav Volf has posted a letter on the Yale site acknowledging similar criticisms and committing to deal with them honestly. My concern in all of this is that the project’s detractors will be written off as intolerant and reactionary. As stated in the Barnabas Fund analysis, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical or even alarmed.

You can view both original documents, the Barnabas Fund analysis, and Miroslav Volf’s letter on the following links:
A Common Word
The Yale Document
The Barnabas Fund analysis

The second event is Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ statement of February 7 on BBC that some accommodation to Muslim shari’a law is inevitable in Britain. While little noticed in the States, the statement generated headlines throughout Britain. The public outcry and some high level calls for his resignation reportedly shocked the Archbishop. So why the strong reaction? Simply put, many Brits feel vulnerable, not only to terrorist threats, but to cultural threats, as well — a more genteel version of the clash of civilizations.

Again, Canon Sookhdeo’s response to this controversy: “The process of setting up a system of shari’a courts recognized by the state and its civil law will help those Muslims in Britain who appear to be working to develop a network of loosely-knit Islamic autonomous regions, a de facto non-territorial Islamic state.” (More, Barnabas Fund’s response to the Archbishop of Canterbury).

It is too easy for the intellectually smug to write off such criticisms as alarmist hysteria or Islamophobia. I’m not so sure. I’ve never considered name-calling to be a very impressive argument. Such concerns need to be taken seriously.

Canada also faces conflict over shari’a. In 2005 Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty abruptly announced his intention to end all faith-based arbitration in his province. This was in order to fend off efforts to establish shari’a courts in addition to the existing Catholic and Jewish arbitration relating to family law which had been recognized since 1991. But now there are efforts afoot to introduce shari’a compliant no-interest mortgage instruments such as are currently popular in Britain for Muslim banking clients.

In a book entitled The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law, published in 2005 by Cambridge University Press, Professor of Islamic Law, Wael B. Hallaq of McGill University in Montreal writes the following:

“One of the fundamental features of the so-called modern Islamic resurgence is the call to restore the Shari’a, the religious law of Islam. During the past two and a half decades, this call has grown ever more forceful, generating religious movements, a vast amount of literature, and affecting world politics.” He also writes that Muhammad established Islam as “a new religion with a political order at its center” (emphasis mine).

For students of Islam, there is nothing controversial about either of these statements. What amazes me is how few Americans are familiar with these facts, and have never spent an iota of energy considering their implications. I say Americans, not westerners. Europeans are well aware of them by now and as the Rowan Williams controversy shows, are busy wrestling with the implications.

The concerns many are raising about the implications of Islamic law in western society are sincere. These questions are arrived at honestly. They deserve honest answers. They should not be summarily dismissed. Perhaps that is the kind of dialogue some signatories of the Yale statement are hoping for.

As time goes on, the implications of the role of shari’a law will only increase in importance both in Europe and in North America. While most Americans are wasting their time with the American Idol, a seismic shift is taking place directly under their feet. The Yale Center’s call for dialogue is certainly in order, but I’m not sure how many in the west are capable of asking a single intelligent question about the issues. The average American has no idea what the political tenets of Islam are, or how they might be expressed in the public square. Maybe we should start thinking about it.