Ecumenism

Islamic Horizons, September/October 2008 | Go to article overview

Ecumenism


Two recent disturbances ought to have tempered our new found exuberance for ecumenism both within and outside the Muslim community. In the first, a popular Sunni scholar in Pakistan, during the course of his lecture, unwittingly quoted a well established Sunni text that alledly disparaged 'Ali ('alayhi rahmat), the fourth caliph. In so doing he incensed the Shia to the extent that the government of Pakistan stepped in with threats of legal action against such "irresponsible behavior." In the second, the Muslim hosts of the Madrid interfaith conference (16-18 July) upset some Jewish guests for drawing a distinction between Judaism the religion-which was deemed goodand Zionism, the political movement that gave birth to the state of Israel-which was deemed evil. As one participant put it, no sooner had the Saudi king called in broad terms for tolerance and moderation than a government adviser from a neighboring state urged Muslim leaders to avoid the company of Zionists. Tough business this ecumenism-and made tougher still, by unrealistic expectations on all sides. What then are these expectations?

The first is that ecumenism is driven by the search for peace and that peace would follow dialog just as night follows day. Actually, this modern urge towards ecumenism-which, who knows, might well produce that all elusive peace-is less a response to some higher call for peace, and more a consequence of having to live cheek by jowl, yet amicably, with erstwhile adversaries in a secular humanistic culture. Not surprisingly therefore, in places like Europe as Muslims grow in number so too does media coverage on Islam and democracy, Islam and pluralism, Islam and gender equality. Such coverage is driven by concerns that immigrants with faith lack the ability to think and live in harmony with others in faithfree societies. But this happens elsewhere as well, and to others besides Muslims. In India, for example, similar questions are being asked about the Hindu majority's ability to live in harmony with Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs. In the past living as a religious minority meant that sectarian privileges more than hard work determined economic well being, that harmony obtained only at the pleasure of the majority, and that rebellion often meant an evaporation of the very goodwill that permitted minority liberties. Until the modern age it was only goodwill that stood between any minority and a life of penury, exile, or even death. Much of the grudges that we bear, the wounds that we nurse, and the scores we try to settle today are a result of this tolerant dispensation. Modern civil society deserves credit for replacing goodwill and tolerance with constitutions and laws that protect all human rights. But it has failed to assuage past slights and heal old injuries even with its Nuremberg Trials, and its Truth and Reconciliations Commissions. …

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