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Christian-Muslim Relations: Historical Realities and Today’s Relationships

Tarek Mitri

As we engage in a genuine dialogue with our neighbors of other religions we do not refrain, at times, from exercising or claiming the right to be wrong. But we learn to be more cautious with the right to be simplistic or ideological. For Christians approaching Islam and the realities of Muslims, there is nothing more hazardously simplistic than sensationalist images. Likewise, nothing is more deceptively ideological than culturalism and essentialism.

Millions of uncritical consumers of information are made to see the world in the form of clear images, short stories and quotes. But undecoded images and texts little informed by context may conceal or blur, rather than unfold, the complexities of diverse and ever-changing situations.

For its part, the culturalist perception combines religious relativism and the superiority of the secular humanist culture. Medieval Christians defined their superiority over Muslims in religious terms. At present, many of their counterparts take pride in their precedence and outdistance over Muslims, on the course of religious scepticism and secularist inclination. A few decades ago, many people, not only sociologists and philosophers of religions, searched for an essence common to all religions. Without much embarrassment, they discredited the Christian claim to uniqueness. There was a widespread interest in similarities among religions. Today, the balance is in favour of those who do not see but differences. It is not uncommon to see people rushing to explain terrorist violence in the light of what they perceive to be distinctive about Islam. Thus, they fail to see that such violence is not grounded in traditional Islamic values. But quite the contrary, it is provoked by the loss of such values without a genuine compensation offered by modernity, often unaccomplished or imposed.    

Expressions of Essentialism: Crude or Subtle

The emphasis on distinctiveness and discontinuity draws heavily on essentialism. In many cases sociological realities of Muslims, the diversity of their cultural and political conditions are seen to be essentially the same. For those unable or unwilling to recognize their plurality, comparisons of national realities in the Muslim world turn into analogies and specific situations that do not conform to the preconceived model are singled out as exceptions, which confirm the rule. Essentialism does not go unnoticed. It is likely to be challenged, even in times of war. Once identified and confronted with critical knowledge or life experience, its rudimentary expressions loose much of their credibility. But in its subtle and learned forms, essentialism remains influential. It confirms crude prejudices and stereotypes. At best, it softens them.

In a recent book, the orientalist Bernard Lewis attempts to identify the root causes behind the tragic fall of Islam from the intellectual and cultural grandeur it commanded in the Middle Ages. In proposing to answer the question “what went wrong”, he looks incisively into the various facets of western impact, from law to music, and the Ottoman response. Understandably, he privileges what he knows best. But he ends his perceptive historical inquiry with a gross generalization. In his conclusive chapter he deals with Islam as if it were a one giant entity. Muslims of an undifferentiated Middle Easts have the feeling, he asserts, that history somehow betrayed them. To the question “what went wrong” he suggests they substituted the question “who did this to us?” leading only to “neurotic fantasies and conspiracy theories”. If the peoples of the Middle East continue on the present path, he adds as he hardly dissimulates the passion of an ideologue, “the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and where will be no escape from a downward of hate and spite, rage and self-pity.”

Another recurring ideological approach is examplified by those who argue that the inferiority of Christians under Islamic rule is an embodiment of a transhistorical dhimma  or covenant. Bat Ye’or, a widely quoted Israeli author bestows an immutable character of being a subdued Christian, or Jew, under Islam. In her view, recent changes are of little relevance, as Islam is resurgent in the form of Islamism. No modern cultural or political movement achieved an irreversible improvement of their status of inferior minorities. In fact she rebukes Christians from the Arab world for having believed that they could modernize Islam and reconcile it with their idea of a nation. She adds, in a reprehensive tone, that the patriotic discourse adopted by these Christians is the expression of an internalized dhimmitude. 

Unsurprisingly she looks for historical sources that seem to corroborate the unchanging model of majority-minority relations in the Islamic world. Consequently, she does not suggest but the “Israeli option” for Christians to pursue. Blaming them for not having dared to imitate the Jews, her concern for their fate is meant to argue  for an essentil intolerance of Islam. To be sure, her comparison between Christians and Jews “under Islam” is an additional, but not so common, apologetic tool for portraying Zionism as a liberation project for oppressed Jews, not only in Europe, but also in the Islamic world. The anachronistic twist does not seem to embarrass her. 

Historical Realities: Complexity and Plurality 

It is needless to say that the exclusive use of one hermeneutical key does not enable us to embrace the complexity of broader Christian-Muslim relations through history. At the global level, they have known rivalry and war. Feeling of contempt and superiority were strong on both sides but they were tampered, even in times of military confrontation as in the Crusades, with feelings of doubt, curiosity and even admiration. It is often forgotten that there were some rich and fertile encounters, in the realms of life and ideas alike. One of the features of our historical memories, as deplorable as it may be, has been the way in which conflicts overshadow peaceful experiences and reproaches drown the voices of comprehension. In times of tensions and conflicts, a significant number of Christians demonstrate that they have passively inherited certain prejudices, mostly in the religious realm.

Traditional universes were self-contained. Exclusivist and reductionist attitudes towards the religious other were prevailing. John of Damascus and many of his followers saw in Islam a Jewish-Christian heresy. Muslims religious scholars affirm that the Council of Nicea had corrupted the Gospel and associated Jesus with divinity:   Therefore, the Quranic revelation alone restores the truth of Christianity. Before the rise of Islam, Christianity had established categories for the religious other: Jew, pagan and heretic. When Christians encountered Muslims they perceived their religious otherness in terms of these categories. They did not use the words of Muslims and Islam. Instead they used ethnic terms such as Arabs or biblical such as Ishmaelite, Hagarean and Saracen-did not Sarah send Hagar away empty? The Muslim invaders were scourges sent by God to punish Christians for their sins. But this was no small gain to be rescued from Roman imperial oppression writes the ninth century Syrian Christian chronicler Dionysus Tel Mahre. Sebeos the Armenian had written as early as 661 that that God granted to Arabs the lands he had promised to Abraham and gave them victory over the impious Byzantines. Also in the seventh century, we know of at least one mirror image of Sebeos views. Anastasios, a monk of Saint Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, sees the Arab invasions as a punishment for the monophysicism of Heraclius.

The Muslim strength and unity coincided with Byzantine weakness.  The swift early conquests of Muslims confirmed their belief that God was on their side. This self-assured sense of divine mission was certainly a key factor in the success and rapidity of subsequent conquests. They did not fight against Christians or forced them to convert, but granted them freedom to practise their religion and offered protection under tutelage. The various dhimma pacts reflected this notion, with varying degrees and forms of Christian subordination. The guiding principle of the dhimma pact stated: “to them belongs whatever belongs to us, and incumbent upon them whatever is incumbent upon us”. A political allegiance, involving a certain form of submission, materialized in the paying of a poll tax al jizya.

Islamic early history bears witness, especially during the formative phase of Arab-Islamic civilization, to a capability of inviting and consequently integrating the contribution that Christians were able, and eager, to offer. They had even an opportunity to influence the self-definition of the dominant community. They were instrumental, through transmission-but also creation- in the various fields of human knowledge, in the construction of a religiously rationalized non-Christian order. They posed many of the critical questions and provided much of the material and method with which Muslims could frame their own answers. But they were pushed toward the margin when the task was done.

Even still a numerical majority in many parts of the Muslim Empire, Christians turned inwards and closed upon themselves. The creative urge and the cultural achievement became confined largely to preservation.In addition, there were times where suspicion of, and pressure on, Christians accelerated a process of marginalization. Christian communities, or fractions of them, identified or were perceived to identify, with external enemies of the Muslim Ummah. Distrust lead to the elaboration and enforcement of a more rigid code of dhimmi rights and obligations.

It is true that legal inferiority and occasional changes in political loyalties brought about an  erosion of Christians’ energies but tolerance ensured their survival . They were still able to be a partner in dialogue, not only in the apologetic mode. Notwithstanding the many limitations imposed on social inter-action and equitable civil relationships, collaboration and exchange was possible. Genuine encounters occurred between persons. At the popular level, ways of life and sentiments were shared with an almost identical sense of transcendence, confidence in Divine Providence and humble submission to the will of God. Among intellectuals, a genuine dialogue was, parallel to apologetics, mediated through philosophy. Many spiritual figures were not immune to one another’s influence. Christians were not insensitive to what was said about Jesus, the “Muslim Jesus” as the title of a new books calles an anthology of Muslim texts. The “Seal of Holiness” as Ibn Arabi calls him, Jesus was more markedly venerated by Muslim mystics. 

Be that as it may, the concern for self-preservation and survival defined a circumscribed entity. The dhimma pact reached its most elaborate form of codification in the millet system under the Ottoman Empire. Millets were not nations, as often suggested, and the Empire being a sort of multinational association. They were multi-cultural and multi-lingual religious communities. The world millet comes from the quranic Arabic word milla, which means creed or religious way. The millet system followed the dhimma principle of a contractual relationship. Religious communities had their own administrative and juridical institutions under the authority of the Churches’ hierarchies. The Islamic central power exercised an overall control but did not interfere in the internal functioning of millets .

Very soon, it became evident that the non-territorial millets were not immune to foreign intervention. European support to different Christian communities modified gradually the balance of power within the Ottoman Empire. Projects of national revival and emancipation were at work among Christians. At the same time, their interests were an alibi for outsider’s interference. The cultural component of religious plurality was greatly affected. The diffusion of western education through missionary schools accentuated differences between communities. Christians were opened to a new type of culture to which Muslims had a limited access. This acculturation provided the hitherto weaker Christians with a new means of self-affirmation. For them, Western influence was also frequently a source of economic prosperity and subtle forms of political power. Majority-minority relations were thus modified. New political opportunities permitted some Christian communities, or fractions of communities, to move rapidly, some would say abruptly, from passive acceptance of the millet system into a rather militant nationalist and separatist strategy. This sheds some light on the subsequent tragic massacres and deportations of Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks and others.

The Modern Pact of Citizenship

But here were Christians who were opposed, sometimes passionately, to the separatist   tendencies of their coreligionists. Some opted for modern and universalist ideologies. They enabled them to shake loose their minority identity that they thought to be to be retrogressive and artificially divisive. They emphasized their common ethno-cultural identity with Muslims as the basis of independence and modern nation building. The patriotic bond cemented opposition to the Ottoman central and oppressive power and later to dominating   European powers. Thus in the struggle for, and achievement of, independence was established the pact of citizenship, superseding the former dhimma pact. In the case of Palestine, the pact of citizenship was affirmed as Christians and Muslims suffered together dispossession and expulsion and as they resist today against occupation, on their long and painful road to independence.

In the Arab world and beyond, it remains true that the milletist attitudes did not fade away. In the search for independence and liberation, Islamic self-awareness was intensified. A sometimes-violent self-assertion gained visibility and appeal against the failure of modern, more or less secular independent and authoritarian governments. In some instances, this has led to anti-Christian feelings. It was said, and believed, that the colonial powers, and national governments later, gave a preferential treatment to Christians and used them to benefit their domination. No matter how questionable these perceptions, there will always be people, today like yesterday, who cannot, or do not dare, oppose those who make them angry. They look unconsciously for substitutes and often find them.

The Globalization of Christian-Muslim Relations

In recent years, it is has become difficult to discard the resonating effects in many parts of the world of a discourse on the global confrontation between Christianity or the West and Islam, even if the contemporary western world has been largely self-defined as secular and Muslims gradually perceived it as such. Non-western Christians can be identified culturally and at times politically with the West, in spite of their often affirmed cultural and religious distinction.

In the Muslim world, ideological thought patterns represent the West as selfish, materialistic and dominating. In the West, the equivalent thought patterns perceive Islam as irrational, fanatical and expansionist. In the age of global communication and migration, these thought patterns, in the variety of their subtle and not-so-subtle expressions, foster antagonism. It is true that the issue of Islam and the West is more complex and more contingent upon contemporary concerns than either proponents and opponents of culturalist politics would imply. Many of the problems, such as foreign hegemony and intervention, terrorism and international threats, are confused and exaggerated. In fact, they are determined by the power politics of states and forces within different nations. But it remains true that the end of worldwide ideological confrontations has favored the re-emergence of perceptions where Islam and the West exist as subjective, imaginary constructs, which influence the way each sees the other.


In addition to war-prone attitudes and fears that are fostered by the tendency to globalize Christian-Muslim relations, one could refer to the way in which are advocated, in the West, the rights of Christian minorities in predominantly Islamic countries. The logic of reciprocity, borrowed by religious communities from states, favors a world view opposing an Islamic Umma with Christendom, no matter if both are not historical realities in the present time, each having a ramification in the “abode” of the other. Asymmetrically diverse, minorities are sometimes perceived as victims and not actors. Their ability to act as bridge-builders is severely jeopardized when they are forced into a condition of hostages. Such a role of mediation, that many of them continue nevertheless to play, is put at risk by when human rights violations are addressed selectively. Many of the interests of Christian minorities cannot be safeguarded and promoted except in conjunction with those of the Muslim majorities among whom they live. Upholding the rights of Christians in the Muslim world, in a way that that confirms the suspicion that  minority protection serves the purposes of foreign intervention, reinforces the perception that they are alien in their own countries or disloyal to them. Defending the rights of Christians in opposition to their Muslims co-citizens and neighbors, with whom they share culture and national identity, aggravates the suspicion of majorities towards minorities seen as an instrument of a real or potential threat instigated by foreign and powerful forces.

Affirming Citizenship and De-globalizing Tensions

The universal principles of co-citizenship, equality, the rule of law and human rights need to be in the heart of the “dialogue of life” between Christians and Muslims. Their universality is often affirmed, not withstanding differences in approaches and emphasis.  Greater is the urgency of cooperation between Christians and Muslims in upholding together these values, in every region of the world. These issues need to be addressed, theoretically and practically, with renewed vigour and all over the world. Co-citizenship is the encounter of persons as equal actors in society and polity who, while influenced by culture, religion and ethnicity, cannot be reduced to the roles assigned to them in the name of communal identities, loyalties and perceived interests.  

There are many Christians and Muslims who have become increasingly aware that human rights should not be implemented selectively. For people of faith, it is crucial to insist on the indivisibility of human rights, reconcile individual rights with those of communities and stand by the victims whatever their ethnic or religious identity. The protection of human rights should not be conditioned by confessional solidarity, no matter how legitimate. This needs to be equally true of advocacy and respect of international legality. The universality of ethical and political norms that sustain international law is recognized across the religious divide and invites consistency. But this is not the case. One striking example is the legitimating of the use of force against one country who does not comply with UN Security Council resolutions while another country in the same region is privileged with impunity while systematically ignoring resolutions of the same Council (There are 32 of them since 1967).

More than ever before, Christians and Muslims are called to defend a number of common universal values that draw them nearer to each other. In the name of these values they are called to join efforts in the context of communal tensions and conflicts that are exaggeratedly identified with religious difference. Some reflections on this responsibility are proposed by a study document drafted by a group of Muslim and Christian partners in dialogue, and issued by the World Council of Churches.To be sure, Christianity and Islam carry, though in different ways that are region-specific, deep historical memories. They appeal, although variably, to universal loyalties. But they come to be seen as a cause of conflict while often they are not more than an intensifying feature of disputes whose main causes are outside religion. There are cases where a conflict in one place, with its local causes and character, is perceived and instrumentalized as part of a conflict in another, with its separate and specific causes and character. So enmities in one part of the world spill over into situations of tension in other regions.  An act of violence in one place is used to confirm stereotypes of the “enemy” in another place or even provoke revenge attacks elsewhere in the world. What is otherwise a remote conflict becomes a local problem. Neighbours hold each other accountable for the wrongs attributed to their co-religionists elsewhere. Unless they are prepared to dissociate themselves publicly from those with whom they share a common faith, they are accused of complicity with them. 

It is therefore crucial to offer a prospect counteracting processes that tend to globalize conflicts. Attention to the specific local causes of conflicts helps identifying solutions.  This is not possible unless the leaders of both communities refuse to be drawn into others’ conflicts on the basis of uncritical response to calls for solidarity among adherents to one faith. In affirming common principles of peace, justice and reconciliation, parties to local conflicts are helped to release Islam and Christianity from the burden of and self-serving interpretations and sectional interests. Christian and Islamic convictions can then constitute a basis for critical engagement with human weakness and defective social and economic orders. Thus, Muslims and Christians learn that Christianity and Islam are not two monolithic blocks confronting each other. In dialogue with each other “they understand justice to be a universal value grounded in their faith and are called to take sides with the oppressed and marginalized, irrespective of their religious identity. Justice is an expression of a religious commitment that extends beyond the boundaries of one’s own religious community. Muslims and Christians uphold their own religious values and ideals when they take a common stand in solidarity with, or in defense of, the victims of oppression and exclusion”. 

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