Christianity and Islam

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:28 pm on 23rd March 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 2:28 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, I begin by thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for initiating this extremely important debate. I can think of very few people in our country who know the two religions as well as he does. The relationship between Christianity and Islam is one of the most important issues of our time. Sometimes it is referred to directly, sometimes it is simply alluded to. When, for example, Huntington talks about the "clash of civilizations", what he has in mind and expresses very clearly is a looming conflict between Christianity and Islam. When neo-cons in the United States articulate their world view, they identify Islam as their enemy. Rather surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, this is also the view of European liberals in the circles in which I move. There is a strong feeling that liberalism historically has achieved certain very important values, including freedom of speech, respect for individuals, equality between the sexes and so on, and that Islam—not only outside the European boundary but within Europe—is beginning to threaten those values. Many liberals have even begun to talk about the "new age of barbarism" that might be upon us. For their part, many Muslims also tend to view the world in this bipolar, Manichaean way. In terms of how it perceives the world, al-Qaeda is in many ways simply a mirror image of the neo-cons in the United States.

I want to raise two or three important questions. Why has the relationship between Christianity and Islam become so problematic? Why not other religions? I can think of at least five important reasons why the relationship has become problematic. First, both are missionary religions in a way that many others are not. Secondly, both have a long history of rivalry and struggle with each other, and these historical memories are not easily disposed of. Thirdly, both once ruled large empires and still have nostalgic memories, wondering how to restore those empires in one form or another and by what means—economic or cultural. Fourthly, Christianity and Islam are both dominant in more than a dozen countries, so that the conflict is not just between two countries but between two blocs of countries. Fifthly, both religions, unlike many others, are present in almost every country that I can think of, and so are forced to live together. Thanks to the history of colonialism, as the right reverend Prelate said, in some countries there are only two communities—Muslims and Christians—each struggling to lay down the framework within which the other should operate, as is happening in Nigeria and Sudan with Sharia.

It is a strange irony of history that both these religions should be at each other's throat in one part of the world in particular—Israel—and in relation to the third Abrahamic religion, which is the mother of both Christianity and Islam. I think it very strange that these two religions, both of which are good daughters of Judaism, should find themselves quarrelling and falling apart precisely over what should or should not happen to Israel. As somebody who is neither a Christian nor a Muslim, I see a certain irony in that.

If we are not careful, the conflict between the two religions and the two communities can easily get out of control. What happened on 9/11 is simply a portent of what could happen. Those of us who have lived through at least half the Cold War from 1948 to 1989 fear the prospect of embarking upon another "hot" cold war, which could last almost as long, if not longer, and which could be pretty vicious. You no longer have major powers controlling the satellites, so the danger is that that war will be fought out by the worst possible means in the streets and corners of every major city in the world.

Therefore, this topic could not be more appropriate politically. The question that we should be asking ourselves is whether there is anything that we can do to avoid another 40, 50 or 60 years of disastrous conflict between two parts of the world, which is played out not only in those two parts but in the rest of the world as well. The right reverend Prelate rightly talked about dialogue—after all, what is the alternative to talking? I want to reiterate his point, but with some exemplary caution. Having spent a lot of time trying to understand the nature and limits of dialogue—in fact, I have completed a book on it—I want to share with your Lordships one or two thoughts on how dialogue can easily lead to more conflict rather than less. The obvious purpose of dialogue is to intensify mutual understanding. That requires that each party should be able to look at itself from the standpoint of the other and possibly learn some insights that the other might have to offer.

In this context, I am reminded of an important dialogue that took place in the early years of the 19th century between Hindus and Christians. Christian missionaries had encountered Muslims and Jews, but they had never before systematically encountered Hindus. Therefore, when they first met Hindus, an important debate took place. The Christian missionaries asked the Hindus an important question: "Do you believe in one God or many?" They expected that the answer would be obvious. The Hindu pundits, who had trained in formidable Buddhist logic, replied immediately that the question was blasphemous and absurd. Why was it blasphemous? The answer was: "Just as you cannot attribute empirical qualities to God—whether God is short or tall, white or black—you cannot attribute quantitative predicates to God either. God can be both one or many, or could be neither or both. To assume that God must be fitted into the limited proportions of the human categories of logic is already an act of blasphemy; you are reducing God to the proportions of the human mind".

"Pray, why is the question absurd?" The answer was: "You assume that God must be a being, a person. Is air one or many? Is energy one or many?" The Christian missionaries said: "The question is absurd". The dialogue continued: "Why is it absurd? We are not talking about a being; we are talking about an impersonal principle. Why do you assume in asking the question whether God is one or many that God must be a being? God could be an impersonal principle, in which case the question doesn't make sense. Therefore, your question is absurd and we refuse to answer it". The missionaries were obviously not prepared for this and the debate went on. For their part, Hindus began to ask questions of the missionaries. "Why did God send his only son rather than come down himself, as the Hindus believe? How cruel it would be of a god to allow his son to go through excruciating suffering. What kind of a god do you Christians have?" Or they said: "You condemn a man to heaven or hell on the basis of what he did in one life. Why don't you give him more lives? Everybody gets a second or third chance, so you ought to believe in reincarnation rather than a one-off life only".

This debate went on and began to produce some fascinating results. But by the time the debate could be picked up in a spirit of mutual understanding, British rule had consolidated itself so deeply that the Hindus lost confidence in themselves; they began to mimic Christianity and to pretend that they were no different from Christians.

My point is that, yes, we need dialogue, but a dialogue in which we are prepared to suspend our certainties, to question our own questions and to look at ourselves from the standpoint of the other. That is not easy for religions. If every religion believes that it is infallible—the last word of God on Earth—the question is: what can one learn from the other, apart from simply borrowing some ephemeral or unimportant ideas? We need to think a little more carefully as to how the dialogue can take place, important as it is.

The second point that grows out of this concern with dialogue is that, although dialogue is a rational activity, reason does not function in a vacuum; it is embedded in a body of assumptions, human interests and so on. That is why it is very common, for example, for the same Muslims reading the Koran in particular historical contexts to pick and choose different sentences, different verses and different suras. Why is this happening? Why have these same texts been read differently throughout history? Why are they read in a fundamentalist way in one context but in a liberal way in another context? The answer is to do with a feeling of siege and fear, all of which you bring to bear on your reading of the text. Therefore, it is not possible to conduct a dialogue unless we also attend to the fundamental conflicts of interest which characterise the two communities. This involves, as the right reverend Prelate said, a piecemeal identification of important issues, political as well as economic, which we must go through and try to find ways of resolving.

In this context, I want to float a third idea. It would not be a bad idea at all to do the kind of thing that we did in 1944-45 that led to the creation of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods agreement. The time has come to revisit those institutions and to ask ourselves some very fundamental questions. What new principles should govern the structure of global institutions and the relations between states? Perhaps one thing that might be worth considering is the question that the right reverend Prelate raised about freedom of speech versus freedom of religious sensibility.

Now that I am running out of time, I want to end by sharing just one thought. Is this sort of thing likely? Is it likely that we will have a rational dialogue, peaceful resolution of conflicts of interest and so on? I am afraid that I remain deeply pessimistic for at least three reasons. First, the quality of political leadership that this calls for is, sadly, not in evidence. Secondly, conflict and war always make small people look large. Therefore, politicians of all parties and all countries have a psychological and political investment in situations of conflict and war—it wins elections. The third reason relates to the way in which we have built up structures of vested interests. In our part of the world, corporate interests have built up an exploitative arrangement with suppliers of raw materials in other countries. These corporate interests, which are sustained by a mechanism of domination, will throw all their weight behind any project that keeps the conflict growing rather than resolves it.

But I very much hope that some message may go out from our debate. However difficult it is and however pessimistic we might feel, there is no answer other than to resolve these issues dialogically and through good political common sense.