Christians and Muslims: Believers Living in Society, By HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal

It is a pleasure to reiterate my admiration for the vision and philosophy underlying the present Summit.  All too often the emphasis is on the material at the expense of the spiritual and therefore at the expense too of values. The ethical, if mentioned at all, comes only as an afterthought, a sort of ‘politically correct’ nod designed to ward off criticism, but is omitted from the crucial list of factors moulding our responses to differing situations or shaping our vision. Thus it is a relief that today we come together as believers, convinced of the inherent dignity with which every man, woman and child has been endowed; cognisant of our obligations in the teaching and taking of responsibility, and looking to the future in terms of an ethical and sensitive approach to human development.

This is significant because I believe the key to meeting the challenges of the future is to change conventional ways of thinking.

 

Coming as I have from London where I had the opportunity to visit the British Museum – founded some 250 years ago to promote universal understanding – the words of Imam Shatibi of 14th Century Spain come to mind:  ”   تعظيم الجوامع واحترام الفروق ” ‘enhancing commonalities and respecting differences’.

 

Of course there are differences, for as the Holy Qur’an says (The Feast 5:48) had Allah willed, humans would have been created as a single nation, but were not so that we may be “tested.”  So, the verse continues, “compete with one another in good works. You will all return to God.”  At that Final Judgment, “He will make clear to you the matters you differed about.”  In other words, pluralism is part of the divine plan, and those of us who believe our “way” is better should endeavour to demonstrate that superiority through good works.

Triumphalism, as the belief which assumes the primacy of one’s own values and the right to rule others, has no place in our discussions.

 

Yet acceptance of the other must go beyond mere recognition of the other’s theological right to exist (as professed by all the Abrahamic faiths), to an acknowledgement of the other’s intrinsic worth. This equally implies a recognition of the legitimacy of the other’s truth, though it may not be our own. As Canon Giles Fraser put it: “It’s easy enough to generate a narrow version of inclusion – the inclusion of all those who share my world view. But to design a more inclusive version of inclusion requires sharing space with those who think and feel differently to me, even if their difference is something I would think of as a form of prejudice.”[1]  More simply put this could be described as the difference between tolerance and respect, between forbearance and universal human dignity with justice.

Religiously motivated violence, by contrast, is rooted in a perception of the Other that denies his humanity.

 

The schisms in the world today have become so numerous, the inequities and inequalities so stark, that a universal respect for human dignity must once again be brought back to the consciousness of the international community. Now, more than at any other time, an ethic of human solidarity and a new international order are required.

 

Fourteen years ago, at the annual meeting of the IMF and the World Bank in Prague, Vaclav Havel emphasised that the “the crucial task is to fundamentally strengthen a system of universally shared moral standards that will make it impossible, on a truly global scale, for the various rules to be time and again circumvented with still more ingenuity than had gone into their invention.”

 

Earlier still, as co-chairman with Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan of the Independent Commission on Humanitarian Issues, we issued a call for the establishment of a new international humanitarian order, precisely to bring to humanitarian issues the same level of experience and expertise as is usually accorded only to economic and hard security matters. This proposal, I am pleased to say, was adopted in 1981 by the UN General Assembly; its relevance remains undiminished.

 

The current situation is bleak. Until recently, in living memory no Iraqi or Syrian had attacked a church.  If either had had to point to one defining marker of their national identity, it would be the resilient and thriving variety of the faiths and peoples between the Tigris and the Euphrates.  The international Muslim community has always justly taken pride in our protection of the religious minorities who lived and took shelter among us. Yet today we are witnessing the tragic new escalation in the extremists’ effort to incite a religious war – to seize the vacuum and manipulate it to their own ends. It is a particularly obscene blasphemy against the spirit of Islam and the character of our earliest civilisations, against the people of the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia.

 

The followers of all faiths affirm the non-ultimacy of economic and political considerations, of the new material world order. I feel we must insist upon the ethical dimension and demand that humanitarian factors be placed at the forefront of all other considerations; we must seek a new kind of politics, capable of ending humanity’s ancient wars against itself and against nature.

 

Muslim-Christian dialogue has come a long way since its modest beginnings in the early 1980’s. We have achieved a basic recognition of the basic spiritual and moral affinity of our faiths and the degree to which, despite differences in theological idiom and rituals, their essence remains the same: belief in the ultimate accountability of man before God.

To date however, this meeting of minds has been mainly academic, and greater efforts are needed to encourage its growth at the grass roots level, both between and within Muslim and Christian societies where negative prejudice remains rampant – and growing.

 

The broad geographical boundaries between Islam and Western Christianity are becoming daily more blurred, but increased proximity has not dispelled the sensitivities and phobias arising from justified or unjustified feelings of insecurity. Meanwhile, the historical legacy of mutual prejudice arising out of the colonialist era and western dominance, persists in peoples’ minds and is reinforced today, on the one hand by the misconception that terrorism is somehow intrinsically Islamic, and on the other by the continuing disparity in development.

 

As believers in society, we can and must reach out to our respective communities to encourage them to talk not at, but to each other; to celebrate the richness of diversity and the benefits and joys of inter-cultural and inter-religious exchange, and to re-establish our sacred spaces not as venues of division, but as places for constructive exchange. Beyond that, it is my profound wish that we can build a template of hope to include the marginalised and the disenfranchised through coordinated action on the following five fronts:

 

1. We appeal to the higher bodies in the international community to re-establish a New International Humanitarian Order proposed by Jordan and adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1981. This order would help ensure that humanitarian concerns are placed at the centre of our national and global policies.

 

2. The scope of international humanitarian law should be broadened to include The Law of Peace relating to human welfare. We have always spoken of the ways to wage war – now is the time to wage peace.

3. The gains of market based globalization have not been shared by all. We ask that the leaders of the world actively develop and further faith based mechanisms such as zakat to help the poorest of the poor, irrespective of race or religion, around the world.

 

4. It is essential to illustrate to our youth that they can develop a sense of wellbeing and fraternity through communities of faith. Else, we run the risk of our youth adopting extremist positions as they look to develop a sense of meaning of life, brotherhood and belonging.

5. As the nations of the world come together to finalize the post-2015 development agenda, the moral lobby of faith that is still strong across the world must act in cohesion to ensure that human dignity is at the forefront of all development efforts.

 

It is only through our collective action that we will be able to reaffirm our common human dignity and build a credible template of hope.

As my late mother-in-law, the Begum Shaista Ikramullah said, speaking in 1948 at the Third Committee of the UN, charged with debating and drawing up the DHR: “It is imperative that there be an accepted code of civilized behaviour…”

Adding later, that:

 

“The ideas emphasized in the DHR are far from being realized, but there is a goal to which those who believe in the freedom of the human spirit can try to reach.”[2]

Without ethics and principles to which to aspire – without hopes and dreams – we cannot even begin.

[1]Hallelujah, the long wait for female bishops is over at last, Comment is Free, the Guardian, 17th November 2014

[2]From Purdah to Parliament, Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah; OUP Revised and Expanded Edition, 1998; (page 191-2)

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