02 Jan, 2010 Accentuate the positive: Dr Muqtedar Khan’s New Year Recipe for World Peace
Dr Muqtedar Khan has written a recent opinion piece, (‘Muhammad’s promise to Christians‘, December 30, 2009), calling upon Christians and Muslims to ‘tell and retell positive stories’ about each other, and ‘abstain from mutual demonization’. He follows his own advice by telling a nice story about a letter, which is thought to be sent from Muhammad to the monks of St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai in Egypt.
Pointing out that these Christianity and Islam account for more than half of the world’s population between them, Dr Khan writes that ‘if they [Christians and Muslims] lived in peace, we would be than half way to world peace.’
Dr Khan also implies that those who would expose Islam or Christianity to criticism are fuelling global conflict. He proposes that, instead of ‘demonizing’ each other – i.e. telling negative stories, adherents of these two faiths should seek out, and retell the most postive stories that they can find about each other. I am reminded of Bing Crosby’s song:
Man, they said we better
Accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
You’ve got to spread joy (up to the maximum)
Bring gloom (down) down to the minimum
Otherwise (otherwise) pandemonium
Liable to walk upon the scene
Is this viewpoint valid? In one sense this is just good neighborliness. If two parties have a history of conflict, it can be helpful if each side agrees to speak well of the other.
On the other hand, there are times where telling the truth is essential, even if the truth is unwelcome or hard to hear, even when it is not a ‘positive story’. Where there has been a history of abuse and injustice, sweet talk can make injustice and suffering worse.
Consider for example the desperate and fragile situation of South Africa emerging from the apartheid years. It became necessary – and wise – to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, because genuine, lasting harmony needed to be truth-based. The nation was plagued with deep and festering wounds, causing the whole body of South Africa to be sick. These wounds had to to be opened to the light of day, and their causes acknowledged, to allow a reasonable hope for genuine and lasting reconciliation.
The problem with Dr Khan’s advice is that when reconciliation is what is needed, sweet talk can be a smokescreen for continued abuse. Dr Khan’s advice is at worst a form of emotional blackmail, which attempts to shut down serious critical discourse, for his logic would paint all who attempt a serious critique of the legacy of each faith as inciters of hatred, and ‘demonizers’. This is itself a form of demonization, which will stigmatize the victims of interfaith hatred, simply for telling their far from ‘positive’ stories.
In the light of these considerations, Dr Khan’s example of St Catherine’s letter is misleading and unfortunate. Dr Khan must surely be aware that scholarly opinion does not regard this document as genuine. It is almost certainly a forgery, created to bolster the security of the Christian monks of the Mount Sinai Monastry. This is why the document no longer exists in its original form: there never was an original letter. In reality the very existence of this document is evidence of the fear under which the monks have lived, as are the impregnable walls of the monastery building itself.
Dr Khan must also be aware that this letter is in conflict at several points with classical Islamic sources, including the Koran.
Dr Khan asserts, on the basis of the Mt Sinai letter, that Christians ‘do not have to make any payments’ for living in peace with Muslims. However he does not mention that the Koran commands the imposition of a tax (known as jizya) upon conquered non-Muslims (Sura 9:29), and this was incorporated into Islamic law. Also, although the letter states that Christians were to be allowed to repair their churches, the orthodox Islamic position was that churches were not allowed to be repaired after conquest. This was based upon the Pact of Umar, which has been relied upon by many great Muslim commentators and jurists. Undoubtedly this phrase was included in the forged letter to counter the difficulties Egyptian Christians were having living under sharia conditions. The reference to Christian girls not being forced to marry Muslim men against their will does not reflect Muhammad’s intentions for 7th century monks at Mt Sinai, but the ever-present fear, which Egyptian Christians experience to this day, that Christian women could be forced into unwanted marriages with Muslim men.
In the end, despite Dr Khan’s evident good will and positive story, it is the authority of the Koran and accepted sources such as the Pact of Umar which have shaped Islamic law and affected the destiny of millions of conquered non-Muslims over centuries – and continue to do so today. Not letters held by Christians in monasteries.
Dr Khan writes that:
Those who seek to foster discord among Muslims and Christians focus on issues that divide and emphasize areas of conflict. But when resources such as Muhammad’s promise to Christians is invoked and highlighted it builds bridges. It inspires Muslims to rise above communal intolerance and engenders good will in Christians who might be nursing fear of Islam or Muslims.
When I look at Islamic sources, I find in them unprecedented examples of religious tolerance and inclusiveness. They make me want to become a better person.
In reality Islam’s policy for dealing with Christians, Jews and other conquered peoples was not shaped by the Mt Sinai letter. It is quite misleading for Dr Khan to imply that it was, or that this letter could be regarded as compelling evidence for Islam’s policy towards non-Muslims.
Genuine reconciliation demands more than this. It requires a frank and open acknowledgement of the past. In order to truly engage with the impact of Islam upon its conquered peoples, Muhammad’s advice of ‘Speak the truth, even if bitter’ is well worth following.
It is a form of abuse to attempt to silence the voices of those who suffer from the worst aspects of Islamic law. To characterize as ‘demonization’ attempts to speak about these sufferings or examine the reasons behind them, is intolerable. This contributes nothing to interfaith harmony, but only condemns the wounds of the past to fester on, unhealed. Sadly, Dr Khan’s counsel is no New Year recipe for peace and harmony in our broken world.
Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.