Pakistani newspapers have carried reports that an evangelical church in Florida, the Dove World Outreach Centre, has plans to publicly desecrate copies of the Holy Quran on the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. This is a continuation of their controversial campaign that started with placing a sign outside their church stating: “Islam is of the Devil”.
Why would they do such things? According to the church leadership: “(Islam) is a violent and oppressive religion that is trying to mascarade (sic) itself as a religion of peace, seeking to deceive our society”.
This is certainly not my experience of Islam, having lived amongst Muslims in the Palestinian Territories and Pakistan. I realise how true is our CEO’s assertion at the British Council that “the world needs more (and better) cultural relations”. I wonder whether the leaders of the church have ever met some real Muslims and tried to understand the diversity of their faith.
My own understanding of the views of other people has been most wrong, and most tinged with racism or phobia, when I have based my opinions on received wisdom, rather than listening to the people themselves.
Brought up in the years of the Iranian revolution, I erroneously identified the Shia with fundamentalist Islam. The reality is, of course, far more complex, as I discovered as I began to understand the richness of Islam and differences between Sufi, Sunni, Shia, Wahhabi, Deobandi, etc
The Christianity espoused by Dove World has no more place in my own life as a Christian than does a ‘violent and oppressive religion’ have in the lives of my Muslim colleagues. ‘Fundamentalism’ is a term that was originally used to mean ‘Biblical fundamentalism’ as applied to Christianity. More recently it has been applied to almost any extreme and intolerant version of a religious faith.
There are two things that strike me about fundamentalists in general (and I have far more direct experience of Christian fundamentalism than any other sort): they are characterised by fear and a lack of love. Karen Armstrong in her book Islam: a Short History states that the fear arises from a conviction that the secular establishment is going to wipe out their religion. Perhaps, in recent years, there is also a fear that other religions are attempting to wipe them out. They tend to be unloving due to the belief that only they are right and that everyone else is doomed to eternal damnation.
Love of God and love of our neighbour is at the heart of the three great monotheistic faiths. In October 2007, 138 Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals from around the world came together to declare the common ground between Islam and Christianity. The final declaration was sent to the leaders of all the major Christian denominations. Drawing on both Muslim and Christian scriptures, they demonstrated that the foundational principle of both faiths is love of the one God and love of the neighbour.
Members of the Al Fallujah forum have threatened to “spill rivers of your (American) blood” and “a war of the likes you have never seen before”. I take a different approach. The initial announcement was made on Facebook where I joined ‘In Protest of “International Burn the Koran Day”’. Within a day this group had 5,000 members, rapidly demonstrating that people of all faiths can unite peacefully against extremism in all its forms.
The British Council is a secular organisation but welcomes all its staff and customers to practice their religion. Our staff is made up of people of all faiths and none, those who have deep spiritual convictions and those who are deeply opposed to any expression of faith. That is part of the organisational diversity which we treasure.
We are united by a belief in cultural relations as a means of building trust and engagement between people. In Pakistan, we concentrate mainly on young people because they are the most susceptible to the attractions of a simplistic, extremist narrative. We urgently need more people who can counter in positive and respectful ways the extremist narrative on all sides, in the West and in Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2010.