Fr. Elias Mallon, SA, Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, and External Affairs Officer for Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), was invited to give a presentation at the 38th Seerah Conference at the Islamic Center of Central New Jersey (Monmouth Junction, NJ) on 30 December 2016. Seerah refers to biographies of the Prophet Muhammad and are often like retreats during which Muslims hear lectures and sermons about the life and virtues of the Prophet and recommit themselves to imitating him.
The conference was very well attended with several hundred participants. All but two of the speakers were Muslims. The following is a reprint of his presentation.
From Dialogue to Cooperation: 38th Seerah Conference
Islamic Center of Central New Jersey 2016
It is an honor and a joy to be able to attend the 38th Seerah Conference here at the Islamic Center of Central New Jersey for several reasons. First it is good to see friends of more than twenty-five years like Mr. Dawud Assad, Iman Talib Abdul-Rashid and Imam Chebli; friends with whom I have worked for so long. Secondly it is good finally to be able to visit the Center here in central New Jersey. Lastly, I am happy to be able to attend this 38th Seerah Conference. I was at one of the first Seerah Conferences that was held in the late 70’s or early 80’s. When the conferences’ dates were later moved to Christmas time, I was no longer able to attend.
As Christians and Muslims we are living in very challenging times and not merely abroad. In the Middle East we are seeing wanton destruction on a scale that has not been seen there since the Mongol Invasions in the thirteenth century. Historical and archaeological sites which have existed for almost 5000 years, surviving Assyrians, Babylonians, the armies of Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Abbasids, the Ottomans and the Colonialists of the 19th and 20th centuries are now being destroyed. The great synthetic culture of the Middle East—so much like an oriental carpet in its beautiful plurality and complexity—is now coming unraveled. But unlike the complexity of an oriental carpet which is composed of threads, the great synthetic culture of the Middle East was composed of people of different faiths–Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Sabbaks, Mandaeans, Druze, Alawi to name a few; different ethnic groups, different language families and different customs, all living together for centuries in relative peace
Now that too is coming unraveled. Religious minorities in the Middle East, which is often where these religions were born, are threatened with extinction. Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in the region, while not threatened with extinction, have been killed in large numbers by extremists and even by their own governments.
In Europe and the United States things are not going well. For any number of causes there has been an increase of anti-Muslim violence in the United States and at very least strong anti-Muslim rhetoric in Western Europe. There is a lot of talk about Islamophobia in the media. Personally I do not like the term Islamophobia for several reasons. A phobia is an irrational, fear of some specific thing; it is a psychiatric condition which can often be cured. When I see negative reactions to Muslims in the US and Western Europe, however, I see two related but very different phenomena. The first is a fear—usually exaggerated and sometimes even hysterical—that is built on things which have actually happened. There is no need to run through all the terrorist attacks which have been directed against innocent civilians in many places in the world. It needs also be noted that very many Muslims have been victims in these attacks. These events frighten people and this fear must be taken seriously and addressed. I think this can be done. When, for example, one compares the victims of terrorist attacks in the US with the number of victims of handguns, the latter is greater by over a hundredfold. Yet there is often hysteria about Muslim extremists coupled with almost indifference to gun violence. I am convinced, however, that this fear can be dealt with and lessened. We need to put a lot of attention here and to do it as Christians and Muslims together.
The second phenomenon is most definitely not a phobia. It is out and out bigotry. It has nothing to do even with hysterically exaggerated experience. It is a deeply rooted hatred of another group of people. Racism is a form of bigotry based on a person’s race. What we are facing here is bigotry to people on the basis of their religion. It has nothing to do with experience; it is a decision—irrational to be sure—but still a decision. A phobia, no matter how extreme or irrational, is a psychological condition, a weakness. Unlike bigotry, phobia is of itself not a matter of morality. Bigotry, however, is immoral. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1988) states”
“The equality of men (sic) rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.” (¶ 1935).
If one googles “racism as a sin,” one finds several Churches, e.g. Episcopalian, Lutheran, United Methodist, United Church of Christ, etc., who have declared racism and hence bigotry to be a sin.
I think this distinction is important in that it recognizes two phenomena which appear similar but are in fact very different and which require very different approaches if they are to be solved.
The Catholic-Muslim Dialogue has been going on for over fifty years since the publication of Nostra Ætate or the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions (28 October 1965) at the Second Vatican Council. Since that time, the Catholic Church has been involved with Muslims on international, national and local levels. Many Protestant Churches throughout the world have also been intensely involved in the dialogue between Christianity and Islam.
Although there have been difficulties along the path, the Christian-Muslim dialogue has made tremendous strides in increasing understanding between the two religions. Multi-national conferences sponsored by both Muslims and Christians—one need think only of آل البيت in Jordan and the Pontifical Institute for the Study of Arabic and Islam (PISAI) in Rome to name two— have dealt with deep and important areas of agreement and disagreement between the two religions. By any measure these dialogues have been successful. However, the extraordinary success of these dialogues has not found its way down to the congregational levels. Believers in churches and mosques are generally totally unaware of the progress that has been made between our two religions. As a result, the possibilities, in fact real dangers, for misunderstanding, competition and even conflict between the two religions on these levels remain an unfortunate reality
One of the most extraordinary documents to have appeared in the last twenty years was published on 13 October 2007. Entitled A Common Word , a reference to كلمة سواء (Qur’ān 3:65), the document was addressed to all major Christian leaders in the world by well over a hundred Muslim leaders and scholars. As someone who works at the UN, I not only read the text of resolutions but also the list of signatories, which is often equally as important as the resolution itself. When I read the original signatories of A Common Word, I was surprised—amazed to be exact—at the diversity of the signatories. I am quite familiar with Islam and also quite familiar with the different groups in Islam which might not always enjoy good relations with each other. Therefore, when I saw Sunnis, Ithnasheri Shi’ites, Isma’ili, Zayidi, Salafi, Sufi and other groups represented, I was deeply impressed. In fact I wondered if Christians would be able to respond with the same unity. Sadly, we were not.
While addressed to a wide and clearly well researched list of Christian leaders, A Common Word was addressed not just to leaders but all believers in Christianity and Islam. While the topics were clearly theological, A Common Word also has a profound existential impact which is unusual for such documents. In closing, A Common Word poses a frightening challenge to both our religions:
Finding common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders. Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.
And to those who nevertheless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake or reckon that ultimately they stand to gain through them, we say that our very eternal souls are all also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony.
A Common Word sees a double threat in conflict between Islam and Christianity. It sees an existential threat when it states: “The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.” Equally important it sees an even greater spiritual threat when it states: “…we may say that our very eternal souls are also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony.”
These are two challenges which we cannot ignore and still consider ourselves good Christians or good Muslims. In a world where sectarian violence and bigotry literally threaten the survival of our planet, we cannot say we believe in and worship the Creator of Heaven and Earth and at the same time be indifferent to the destruction of the Creator’s work.
Let’s be honest about it. No religion is known for being creative and most religions look disapprovingly at innovation. While I am not calling for innovation in the Muslim sense of بدعة, I am calling on both our traditions to look for new ways to read those parts our sacred texts which call for tolerance and peace as well as for reading those texts which speak of violence and conflict. I am calling both our traditions to be creative and innovative in engaging the other in not only dialogue but practical actions which improve our lives and societies. It is too easy to ignore each other, not so much out of hostility but out of laziness and distraction by other things, until a conflict or problem arises.
When a problem or conflict arises as will occur from time to time, the structures must already be in place, the relationships already developed in order to deal with such crises. Perhaps simplistically put, the two communities must go out of their ways to get to know each other, to be friends and neighbors with each other, to respect each other. This is the task before us as leaders in our communities. It is all too easy for each of to get caught up in our own realities and be unaware of, or worse, indifferent to the other. That is understandable but it is not excusable. We must hold each other accountable for this.
It will not be easy and Christians and Muslims each face different challenges and obstacles to doing this. This is where dialogue becomes practical. It is not merely a question of “you believe this” and “I believe that, how interesting, goodbye.” It is committing ourselves to supporting each other as we encounter obstacles and difficulties. It means us Christians taking Mark 9:40 seriously ὃς γὰρ οὐκ ἔστιν καθ᾽ ὑμῶν, ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν ἐστιν “whoever is not against us is for us.” It means Muslims taking Qur’ān 5:83 لتجدن اقربهم مودّة للذين آمنوا الذين قالوا انّا نصارى, “you will find those who say ‘we are Christians’ to be nearest of them in love to those who believe.” Taking these sacred texts as a starting point, I believe Christians and Muslims can rise to the challenge to which A Common Word calls us and bring the relationship of our two faiths to a new level.
Rev. Dr. Elias D. Mallon
Catholic Near East Welfare Association 30 December 2016
1 In grateful recognition for the many decades of service which Mr. & Mrs. Dawud Assad have given to building up understanding and cooperation between Muslims and people of other faiths. May God reward you!
2 Cf. www.acommonword.com.
سورة العمران 3
“Say, ‘O People of the Book, come to a common/equal word between us and you….”
سورة المآئدة 4