Finally Getting It.

Finally Getting It. December 9, 2012

The Arab Spring is already becoming a bloodbath in Egypt because the Muslim Brotherhood cannot see that its political vision of an Islamic state was a failure from the beginning.

And finally major US Muslim organizations seem to get it. The Cpuncil on American Islamic Relations, CAIR, has urged the Egyptian government to not uphold the death penalty against those currently being accused of blaspheme. This isn’t actual support for complete freedom of speech, but it is a positive step forward. And ISNA has recently addressed the single biggest problem  in relations between Muslims and non-Muslim in the world today. The Islamic Society of North America has co-sponsored an international conference on the rights of minorities in Muslim countries. (

Worldwide, for the last two decades different groups have sought, in thousands of forums, to foster dialogue between different religions. Given the ongoing violence between different religious groups it would seem to be one of the most pressing needs of our time.

Yet often that dialogue has gotten bogged down in political and economic conflicts whose only religious dimension is to provide the dividing line between opposing interests. And even more often the dialogue has consisted of little more that declarations of mutual respect and understanding that mask deep disagreements about the nature of reality and the human person in it. Such dialogue isn’t entirely fruitless, but the results almost never justify the time and expense.

Our understanding of reality as a whole and the place of the human person in it, our particularly religious understanding of reality, isn’t at the root of every social conflict. But it does determine at a fundamental level how we seek to order our social, political, and economic lives. And where religion is actually relevant to people’s social lives is in this way that it shapes fundamental patterns of social organization and behavior. Sentiments of love and respect floating above oppressive structures rooted in fundamental religious beliefs are a waste of time.

It is in the failure to meaningfully address the relationship between religion and social, political, and economic structures that inter-religious dialogue has largely failed for the last several decades.

The reason for this failure is, I think, at least twofold. First religious people living in secular Western societies (particularly Christians, but also Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews) have assumed that problems of religious conflict within their societies are residual effects of the pre-modern era. Thus a combination of secularism, democracy, and contemporary economic theory, combined with better mutual understanding, is believed to resolve them.

Unfortunately this is not, and has not been, the case. Even in the West significant numbers of believers of each major religion still regard it as a religious right and possibly a necessity to treat people outside their community with disrespect and even violence. Christian behavior in the West toward Muslims, Jews, and even their fellow Christians has sometimes been abominable. Secular India has seen Hindu violence against Christians and Muslims. Indonesia has seen Muslim violence against Christians. And one could go on. The secular state with full rights for all is a necessary means of organizing a religiously plural society and managing religious conflict, but it isn’t a solution to religious conflict. At some point even those in secular states need to engage in a dialogue about the root understandings, the religious understandings of the reasons for secularism.

But neither, and this is the second problem, are religious states a solution to religious conflict. For decades in inter-religious dialogue Muslim leaders have touted the supposed tolerance toward religious minorities of an Islamic state. Indeed a consortium of majority Muslim states became signatories to the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights – which purported to offer full human rights to non-Muslims under Islamic Law. Hindu nationalists in India and Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka, and for that matter the Catholics and Orthodox have likewise claimed that there can exist states built on religious understandings of human society and supporting religious law that fully support human rights.

This is nonsense. One of the most fundamental human rights is the right to have an equal voice in forming the legal and political structures that shape social life. Second to this is the right to speak and freely and freely form associations according to the dictates of one’s conscience. Any religious state takes the equal voice away from its citizens by privileging the voice of revelation, religious tradition, or self-selected religious leaders. And historically no religious state has allowed its citizens freedom of speech and association, or indeed any real measure of human rights.

My own belief, based on Christian religious conviction, is that human rights are only human rights if they are a gift humans give to themselves. A divine mandate only turns them into human responsibilities toward God, and these quickly degenerate into human impositions on their fellow humans.

And in fact Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, and Orthodox political leaders and their nations have all sometimes, even frequently promoted religious conflict and harbored religious bigotry and oppression. The same can be said for the Jewish/secular state of Israel. Religious states have always been somewhat oppressive, and frequently have been virulently and murderously oppressive. It is a fantasy to imagine that non-Muslims enjoyed living as dhimmis in a Muslim state. They were at best humiliated second class citizens. At worst they were outlawed and forced into hiding. The same was true of Jews and Muslims (and others) in Christian Europe. Nor do modern Arab citizens of Israel find themselves full partners in a democratic state.

What is necessary, and what can be achieved only through dialogue, is a shared religious vision of why humans,with their unique place in reality as a whole, need to give themselves human rights rather than to impose divine decrees on others.

This is what makes the recent conference so important. For the first time to my knowledge ideas about the need for real democracy that have been circulating among Muslim political scientists for some time are being openly discussed in front of political leaders across the Muslim world. And as importantly American Muslims are finally moving beyond condemnations of Muslim violence against non-Muslims to calling on their co-religionists to recognize that they have a problem in the way they conceptualize a modern state. The old idealizations of an Islamic state that hoped to somehow make 10th century political ideas relevant to contemporary society simply won’t work. The Arab Spring is already becoming a bloodbath in Egypt because the Muslim Brotherhood cannot see that its political vision was a failure from the beginning.

But there was one thing missing from the recent conference in Tunesia: non-Muslims. And this, I think, points to the fact that we need real inter-religious dialogue about the basis on which we organize our shared social spaces; dialogue that addresses directly issues of how our different religions conceptualize the human person and the rights of the human person in society. The problem of religious conflict cannot be solved by one religion for either itself or others. So ultimately the “problem” of non-Muslims in Muslim states isn’t going to be solved satisfactorily by Muslims talking to Muslims about Islam, although it is a real preliminary step. The same may be said of Christians talking to Christians or Hindus talking to Hindus or Jews talking to Jews.

The challenge? Can we as religious people believe that our religion requires dialogue with those outside it even to know its own mind on critical social issues? Can the reality that we are not alone, and will never dominate, become part of our religious vision? Only further dialogue will tell.

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