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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Archbishop and Christian-Muslim dialogue

He likes to be liked, does our Archbishop Rowan, and this will surely have melted the stoniest of hearts at the inauguration of the Christian-Muslim Forum:-

It’s easy to talk about these things abstractly so I’ll end by quoting to you a story I came across recently from a most unlikely quarter. The book I’m reading from is an excellent book by Brian McClaren, an American Evangelical, pastor of a large independent church in the Washington DC area. The sort of Christian pastor who arouses a certain amount of anxiety in the breasts both of Muslims and of more liberal Christians, not to say columnists in some of our newspapers. The book is entitled, though, ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’ and it ahs a long and extraordinarily moving chapter on his approach to people of other faiths. Towards the end of this chapter McClaren quotes from another writer from the same background telling a little story about an encounter in the Washington DC area not long after September 11th. One day my daughter saw a woman walking towards us covered in a veil and asked the inevitable ‘What’s that, Mummy?’ ‘Emma,’ I answered, ‘that lady is a Muslim from a faraway place and she dresses like that and covers her head with a veil because she loves God. That is how their people show they love God’. My daughter considered these words, she stared at the woman who passed us, she pointed at the woman and then pointed at my hair and further quizzed ‘Mummy, do you love God?’ ‘Yes’, I said, ‘I do; you and I are Christians and Christian ladies show their love for God by going to church, eating the bread and drinking the wine, serving the poor and giving to those in need. We don’t wear veils but we do love God’.

After this Emma took every opportunity to point to Muslim women during our shopping trips and telling me ‘Mummy, she loves God’. One day we were getting out of our car in our driveway at the same time as our Pakistani neighbours. Emma saw the mother beautifully veiled and pointed at her and shouted ‘Look Mummy – she loves God’. My neighbour was surprised, I told her what I had told her what I had taught Emma about Muslim ladies loving God, while she held back tears this near stranger hugged me saying, ‘I wish all Americans would teach their children so, the world would be better’.

Reading this in the context of the cartoon affair, my feelings are profoundly mixed. I have no doubt that this woman ‘wrought a good work’, defusing the potential for distrust and fear created by an encounter with a disconcerting Other. And yet I can’t help feeling that the Archbishop’s retelling of the story in this context exudes a sickly odour of wishful thinking, if not plain dishonesty.

Of course there is such a thing as innocent deception where children are concerned. ‘Because traditional patriarchal authority allows her no choice’ would have been an unsatisfactory reply even if it could have been made comprehensible to the little girl. Who, after all, can say which explanation, or what combination of the two, applies to any given veiled stranger we pass in the street?

But when the story is retold for an audience of adults, Tony Blair included, who are thus being invited to agree with the Archbishop that ‘we have to get out of any remnants of a mindset which thinks in terms of a clash of civilisations’, naïf surely becomes faux naïf. Everyone in the audience will have been perfectly well aware that in a Western context the hijab crystallizes complex and deeply controversial issues to do with Islam and the status of women. But here is the Archbishop dropping a broad hint to the Christians present that in the name of dialogue they must pretend they know only what Mummy told little Emma. It is as if the precondition for dialogue which he has accepted is that the Christians take, or behave as if they took, the Muslims at their own self-estimation. There is more of diplomacy here than of true dialogue. There is no chance of a robust and meaningful dialogue developing when dishonesty is built in from the start. It is more like the forced smiles of warring relatives submitting to their annual close encounter at Christmas.

How can anyone look at the cartoon affair, with its burning embassies, and deny that a clash of civilizations is going on (or at least a clash of value systems, which to my way of thinking is ultimately the same thing – for the record I don’t mean a clash between ‘the West’ and ‘Islam’, but between those who believe in the freedom of the individual to believe and speak as he/she chooses, and those who don’t)? If this isn’t such a clash, what else has to happen before we admit that we have one on our hands? There is one easy way to keep up the Archbishop’s stance of denial, and that is to say ‘well, free speech was never really such a big deal for us anyway’. There are doubtless plenty of individuals who can say this with perfect sincerity (and the Guardian is always happy for them to say it in its comment pages), but I do not believe that the Archbishop is one of them. To bow to violent intolerance in the name of tolerance is to uphold no value at all, and he surely knows that very well. Is he simply in denial? The more likely explanation, I suspect, is that he really means ‘the idea of a clash of civilizations is appalling, so let’s all say it isn’t happening and then maybe it really will go away’. Well, he was in Berlin over the weekend for the Bonhoeffer centenary (his German is impressive, by the way), and one would hope that has given him a reminder or two that evil does not go away when it is not confronted.

The way Rowan Williams could exercise genuine Christian leadership is not by pretending that there is no clash of civilizations, but by drawing a clear line between that clash, which surely cannot be avoided, and a war between peoples, which we must all do our utmost to prevent. There really are incompatible value systems at war here, but no human being can be reduced to a robot driven by a fixed ideology, good or bad. The West has many faces and Islam has many faces. The encounter between the two is being processed in innumerable different ways by Muslims in the West, and our concern that some of those ways are manifestly unacceptable must never lead us to forget that they are not the only ones.

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