Sunday, 22 December 2013

A Flimsy Foundation

Today, I felt a strong desire to respond to the BBC’s recent point of view article titled “A long winter for Christians in the Middle East” for the sake of offering an alternative angle on an otherwise interesting article IMHO. The reader should be warned that we are delving into very deep and passionate mire of social science and theology with a dash of Middle Eastern dynamic, all subjects worthy of knowledge harvesting. If any or all of these subjects give you indigestion, you are free to go on to other articles on this blog.

In a recent BBC point of view article, William Dalrymple (a Scottish catholic travel writer) talks about how the “Arab Spring” has given rise to a winter for the Middle East’s 14 million strong Christians, forcing mass emigrations on scale never before seen since the Iraq war of 2003. As protests morphed to armed struggles and opposition forces become more radicalised in different states, the spirit of communal activities and togetherness has seemingly been torn apart (maybe forever) in many Arab and Middle-Eastern states, particularly in Syria.

Mr. Darymple goes on to illustrate the dimensions of this communal spirit in these areas, mentioning Mughal art sporting apparently Christian scriptural quotations (which he rightly points out are probably from non-canonical texts which have been rejected by mainstream Christians but have somehow been incorporated into Islamic thought).

An example of Mughal art depicting the crowning of a
new ruler. All in all, they are quite beautiful
It is here that the article finally reaches a crescendo of reasoning; Mr. Dalrymple talks about a Mughal manuscript dating back to the 16th Century that now resides in the British Library that contains an illustration of the Nativity but with features that are undeniably Qur’anic (i.e. oasis and palm trees instead of a stable) in nature. With this, the author further reasons that this picture shows how much devotion that Muslim rulers apparently showed to the Christians’ Lord and that it is above the simplistic thinking associated with the ‘clash of civilisations’ (he mentions Samuel Huntington’s book and theory by the same name).

In short, ladies and gentleman; Christians and Muslims both believe in the Nativity and therefore Christmas is Mr. Dalrymple’s solution for rebuilding a brotherly foundation between these two communities. He delivers the coup de grace at the end of the article where he describes the commonality of these groups is “... to gather around the Christ child and pray for peace.”

This is a dramatic piece of theological mediation with a major flaw, a flaw that has cost Syrians once and is now being put forward again to risk them again (this time by a writer and not a diplomat/politician). There was a time when people hoped that the Sunni rebel fighters would identify with national unity, commonality with the diversity of their country and other secular ideals to win the fight against tyranny. Instead, we have a rebel force that is further being assimilated into radical Islamism, fuelled by the socio-religious and cultural differences between communities as well as better organisation and funding. Now Christmas is being touted (I sincerely hope not by politicians eventually) as a foundation for peace in the hope that the rebel Islamist fighters would identify with the Nativity and stop fighting. If even Ramadhan could not stop the fighting, what hope is there in relying on a tradition that is more prominently associated with Christians than with Muslims? We cannot afford to force-build on flimsy foundations.

Instead, I offer my own, alternative theological argument; both sides view Jesus as a figure of authority. He once said we should love our enemies. This can therefore be used as a basis of peace because it is more of a command than a theological tradition. The catch; it is more closely identified with Christians than with Muslims (perhaps the moderates might accept it but they are rapidly being assimilated or swept away by radicals). Nevertheless, enforcing this fundamental commandment into both sides’ psyche might be the only way to build a reasonably more solid foundation than Mr. Dalrymple’s tradition argument for peace.

Finally, with regard to the clash of civilisations, I have this to say; neighbours are different just as civilisations are different. Despite those differences, we tend to coexist because not only is it beneficial to communal peace and prosperity but also because it is morally more praiseworthy. But clashes are there in the form of friendly arguments at the market place or bazaar (this is from experience). We can prevent those clashes from becoming more serious by nurturing trust, freedom of thought and respect for life (with a scriptural base to boost). These are the keys to a solid foundation that will prevent things like this from happening.