Pope Francis visited Turkey last November and paid a state visit to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey. In their speeches, both the pope and prime minister referred to the violence in the Middle East and the necessity for just and peaceful solutions. However, Mr. Erdogan blamed the rise of ISIS on the “serious and rapid rise of Islamophobia” in Europe and the West. Mr. Erdogan’s criticism is not an isolated one but one that is increasingly being heard.
It cannot be doubted there has been a rise in xenophobia (fear of the foreign) in Europe in the past decades. It is not, however, something new. Islamophobia is only one of the forms that this xenophobia takes, although in recent years Islam has been a favorite target.
In France, Jean-Marie LePen and the National Front Party (Front national); in Austria, Jörg Haider and the Austrian Freedom Party (Freiheits Partei Österreichs); and in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders and the Freedom Party (Partij voor de Vreijheid) have a long history of opposition to immigration in general in order to protect “European values.” Although Mr. Haider was of the opinion that Islam was incompatible with European democracy, Islam was for the most part more a target of opportunity — many immigrants were coming from Turkey and North Africa — than an ideological choice.
Recent events in the Muslim world, the rise of political Islam, jihadism and terrorism have focused much of the contemporary European xenophobia on Islam. On 15 December 2014 in Dresden, Germany, there was a large demonstration denouncing the “Islamicization” of Europe. A movement that started in Denmark has developed into PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamierung des Abendlades, or “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamicization of the Occident”) and seems to be centered mostly in the eastern half of Germany. Other groups with odd and ominous names such as Hooligans gegen Salafisten (“Hooligans against Salafists”) have had the ability to tap into those elements of society that, for one reason or another, feel disenfranchised or “cheated.” In almost all cases, immigrants are seen as the cause of society’s problems.
North America is not free of xenophobia — in the United States it is directed mostly at Latinos, but since the 9/11 attacks, fear of Islam has led to protests about the building of mosques (there are reports that some mosques have even been burned), and the profiling of Muslims as possible terrorists. There are also credible indications that there is economic and employment discrimination against Muslims in some places.
It must be noted that in each of these countries, the government has reacted vigorously against xenophobic demonstrations. Very often governments equate them with neo-fascism and the extreme right. And while these movements have much in common with neo-fascism and the extreme right, to simply identify them as such is not helpful or accurate.
Nevertheless, there is no question that in Europe, North America and elsewhere, fear of Islam is on the rise, leading to acts of prejudice and discrimination. But, it is simply not true that Muslims are being persecuted in Western Europe or North America.
While Christians must oppose all forms of discrimination, Christians simply cannot overlook the atrocities that are being perpetrated in the name of Islam in many places in the world against fellow Christians. There is simply no moral equivalent, for example, between the admitted and lamentable discrimination against Muslims in the West and the sufferings of Christians in Iraq and Syria. Veterans of Christian-Muslim dialogue — Christians who have a high regard and affection for Islam — are sensing a tension, if not emerging crisis, in the dialogue.
To be honest, the statement that “Islam is a religion of peace” is seen by many as less and less credible. This is not simply due to prejudices in the West, but to the actions of some Muslims themselves. While the West has played a devastating and regrettable role in destabilizing Iraq, in the past 10 years more than a million Christians have suffered; Christians have been killed, their assets have been plundered, and survivors have been forced into exile as refugees by Islamic movements in northwestern Iraq. ISIS’s aim to spread the caliphate around the world characterizes it as a religio-political ideology. Talk of the black flag of ISIS flying over the White House and other Western capitals does nothing to calm xenophobia in Europe and the West. Even paranoids can have real enemies.
Atrocities such as the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by the Boko Haram in Nigeria and the recent slaughter of more than a 120 students in Peshawar, Pakistan, by the Taliban all have one thing in common: their actions are done in the name of Islam, using the Quran and the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad as justification and support. ISIS, Boko Haram and the Taliban are not small, isolated, fanatical splinter groups. They are not connected to Hinduism, Buddhism or any indigenous traditions. Rather, they are large and powerful Islamic movements. Their symbols are taken from Islam as is their supposed legal system. Often enough, their reading of the Quran and the Sunna is not weird or idiosyncratic, but straightforward and literal.
It is clear that many — indeed most — Muslims do not approve of such behavior and do not interpret the Quran in such exclusive and violent ways. Often without recognition from the West, Muslim scholars have done a great deal to counteract the ideology of ISIS. I totally agree with those Muslims who hold that these organizations are acting contrary to the values of Islam. However, it comes across as morally disingenuous to then absolve oneself simply by declaring that these movements are not Islamic. At times, some Muslim responses appear half-hearted — as if to avoid deeper, more disturbing questions. One sometimes gets the impression that the argument is: Because it has done these horrible things, ISIS is not Islamic. One wonders then, if these horrible things had not been done, would ISIS then be Islamic?
One of the purposes of dialogue is the pursuit of truth in love. Every group — religious or otherwise — has a self-image. In dialogue, that self-image can be examined in ways that are uncomfortable. While it is never justifiable in dialogue to compare the best of my religion with the worst of the other believer’s faith, I may be able to see my religion in a different light, which can be unflattering and even disturbing. An example of this may help Muslims in the crisis they are now experiencing.
The Jewish-Catholic dialogue began in earnest with Vatican II (1962-65). Although there had always been respectful encounters between some Catholics and Jews, it was not until the Holy See’s decree “Nostra Ætate” (1964) that Catholics formally and officially began to dialogue with Jews. One of the dominant topics on the agenda was the Holocaust.
The systematic extermination of six million Jews in “Christian” Europe was the chief concern of the Jewish dialogue partners. While the Nazi experience was horrendous in its demonic efficiency, it was not a new phenomenon. European Jews had been persecuted, killed, their assets stolen and exiled for well over a thousand years. Facing the Holocaust through Jewish eyes was — and remains — painful for Catholics and other Christians. In the initial shock and shame, some explained the Holocaust as not being connected to Christianity at all. Nazism, it was argued, was a self-consciously pagan phenomenon, which is true. Those Christians who, often enthusiastically, supported Nazism were thus taking part in a pagan phenomenon and were, therefore, not really Christians.
It was not long, however, before the moral weakness of the argument became clear. The insistence of Jews that the Holocaust was not an isolated phenomenon, but a part of a Christian history of well over a thousand years prodded Christians to deeper reflection.
After a long and often painful dialogue, which is still ongoing, Christians have begun to realize that some of the things we did and some of the things we held dear had violent and deadly consequences for Jews. For example, the Gospel of John, the most theological and mystical of the Gospels, spoke of “the Jews” in odd and dangerous ways. One example of an odd citation can be found in John 20:19, where we are told that the disciples were behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” Yet the disciples themselves were Jews!
Another example of a dangerous citation can be found in John 19:7, where it states “ ‘We have a law,’ the Jews replied ‘and according to that Law he [i.e. Jesus] ought to die, because he has claimed to be the Son of God.’ ” For two thousand years this verse and others were used to accuse Jews of the crime of deicide, “killing God,” and to justify punishing them for the crime. These were not theoretical possibilities but realities that played themselves out with sickening regularity over the centuries.
It is difficult for a non-Christian to appreciate how difficult it was — and remains — for many Christians to face these realities. Over the years the Catholic Church and other Christian churches have recognized the role our theologies played in the persecution of Jews. Non-scriptural texts that were deemed offensive were dropped, explanations were added to difficult scriptural texts; and guidelines were issued for preachers on how to deal with these texts. This is not by any means to claim that Christians have totally put this history behind us. But it is an example of how a religion can be faithful to its God and scripture while undergoing what can be a searing examination of conscience.
Each of the world’s religions arose and developed in relative isolation. Each of the world’s religions achieved cultural and political hegemony at one time or another. However, in the modern world of globalization, religious isolation is impossible and religiously inspired violence can threaten the survival of the entire planet. We no longer live in a world of isolated religions but rather in a community of religions. This is something unprecedented in human history.
Islam is faced with a serious challenge in the modern world. Can it face the challenge of that incredibly powerful verse of the Quran that reads “Oh you who believe, be strict in observing justice and be witnesses for God even though it be against yourselves, your parents and your relatives” (4:136)?
One can hope that the experience of Christians and Jews may provide help and support in this.
Rev. Elias Mallon is a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement and CNEWA’s external affairs officer.