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01 September 2011

Michael Nazir-Ali: Behind & Beyond 9/11

Michael Nazir-Ali: Behind & Beyond 9/11

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, director of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue, looks back at 9/11 and forward at what the Christian response should be…

Ten years on from the ghastly atrocity of 9/11, and all that followed it, it is worth asking about 'the stagnant and fetid waters' that have given birth to terrorism on such a vast and well-organised scale. Commentators have drawn attention to the seething, and growing, resentment in the Muslim world at the dominance of the West, the experience of colonialism, the creation of Israel, the Kashmir dispute and, of course, the casus belli of so much, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

This resentment, however, has not just been the usual one of the weaker against the stronger or of the subjugated against the oppressor. It has also been informed by a world-view which expects 'manifest victory' for Islam, has not been reconciled to lands 'lost' to Islam, whether India, the Iberian peninsula or, indeed, Palestine, seeks the restoration of the Caliphate and the abolition of the nation-state in the cause of a united Ummah or Islamic nation.

Resentment in itself is not enough, even if it is supported by an unfulfilled world-view, to lead to extremism and then to terrorism. What has happened, rather, is that there has been a succession of movements and leaders who have turned the world-view and anger into ideology.

The emergence of Islamic ideology, Sunni or Shia, has led to the rapid islamification of nearly every Muslim community. Indonesian or Malay Islam, for example, which sat at ease with the Hindu and animistic heritage of people has quite quickly been transformed into recognisable orthodoxy. Even though Sufism, or mystical Islam, has been influential in countries like Pakistan or Egypt for centuries, the public face of Islam increasingly resembles a Wahhabi-Salafi profile. One of the effects of this process has been the revival of teaching of suspicion and of hate directed against Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims. In some situations, this has been disseminated through text books, in various subjects, and other aspects of the educational system. The increasing and widespread radicalisation of the madrassas and seminaries has meant that newly-emerging religious leaders are themselves immersed in such ideological propaganda. The mass media, and particularly new technology, has also contributed with the ether being dominated by ideological rather than moderate Islam.

The net result of all this has been a growing change in the mindset and expectations of large sections of the population who are encouraged to see bombings, assassinations and other kinds of terroristic activity as being in the cause of liberation for oppressed Muslims, as vengeance for past wrongs and even as victory for Islam which Muslims should expect. At the same time, 9/11 and other acts of terror have had a profound influence on the American and European psyche. It is not an exaggeration to think of it as a traumatisation. The non-Western is seen less and less as 'the exotic' and the 'ethnic' which should be investigated and sampled and more and more as a threat to be avoided and, if necessary, repelled.

In such a highly polarised situation, what should be a properly Christian approach? We must firstly attempt to distinguish between Muslims, Islam and Islamist ideology. We can never lose sight of God's love for Muslims, as for all of His creation, and of our obligation to love them as well. Although we will not agree with everything in the faith of Islam, we can study it with profit to better understand our neighbour and to be able to converse with our Muslim friends, to witness more effectively to them of God's love for them revealed in Jesus Christ and to seek to serve them in his name.

Islamist ideology, however, may need to be opposed if, for example, it seeks to reduce freedom of belief, expression or the freedom to change our beliefs. Christians will also wish to defend freedom of movement and of opportunity for women and girls and to resist punishments that demean the human person, are cruel and do not have rehabilitation and reformation, as well as retribution, included in their overall aim. Although they will want an appropriate role for the spiritual dimension in public life, they will oppose what is coercive and theocratic and promote what is persuasive and democratic. Alongside this, they will want protection for fundamental freedoms and for the rule of law.

Although we need carefully to distinguish between Muslims, Islam and Islamism, we must also recognise that there is considerable overlap here. A devout and pietistic Muslim can be influenced by extremist ideology, and Islamism certainly uses much in the fundamentals of Islam to argue its case.

In witnessing to Muslims, how far can we work with 'the logic of Islam' and when do we have to be not only counter-cultural but also counter-theological? How far can we affirm what the Qur'an teaches, for instance, about Jesus and when do we need to challenge Islam on its doctrine of God, sin, salvation and grace? Dialogue with moderate Muslims is always a pleasure but we have to be realistic in asking whether it will be able to deliver on the hopes invested in it. Any dialogue should avoid being 'kissy-kissy' and ask tough questions about freedom, integration and equality.

Islamism has brought particular hardship, discrimination and persecution for many non-Muslim communities in the Islamic world and even for some Muslims. One aspect of Christian ministry which has come greatly to the fore is that of advocacy; of being a voice for the voiceless and of support for the persecuted Church.

The best protection for the West from terrorism is the encouraging and the establishing of freedom in Muslim countries together with democracy and the rule of law. Narrow selfinterest should not lead us to abandon the women and children of Afghanistan or the Christians and Ahmadiyya of Pakistan or the Baha'is of Iran to their fate. If we do this, we can be sure that our turn will also surely come.

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