Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Russia and Islam, part eight: working together, a basic "how-to"

Today I am going to look into the topic of Orthodox and Muslim cooperation, suggest one possible approach to this issue and give a practical example were this could be done immediately and with great benefit for all the parties involved.  I consider this post today as the eighth installment of my "Russia and Islam" series and I suggest that those who have not read it take a look at it before proceeding (click here for parts one, two, three, four, five, six and seven).  For reasons obvious to anybody who has read these series, I will limit my scope to the topic of cooperation between Orthodox Christians and non-Wahabi Muslims.  As an Orthodox Christian myself I do not believe that any cooperation is possible between the Orthodox Church and the Papacy or the Reformed/Protestant denominations, nor do I believe that there is anything to discuss with Wahabis.  So when I will speak of 'Christian' below this will strictly refer to Orthodox Christians and 'Muslim' will refer to any Muslim except Wahabis.

The fundamentally misguided yet typical approach:

Having had many opportunities to exchange views with Muslim from different countries and having also heard Christian and Muslim religious figures engaged in various debates, dialogs and discussions, I can describe the typical scenario by which such dialogs are conducted.

Typically, both sides try to establish a list of all the issues Islam and Christianity agree upon.  These include that God is love, that the Mother of Jesus was a virgin, that the anti-Christ will come before the end of time, that Moses was a great prophet, that angels are the messengers of God any many other things.  Added to this list of topics of agreement are usually statements about how Christians and Muslims have lived in peace side by side and how this should continue today.  This is a well meaning and polite way to engage in a dialog, but this is also a fundamentally misguided one for the simple reason that it overlooks absolutely fundamental theological and historical problems.  Let's take these one by one.

Irreconcilable theological differences between Christianity and Islam

The highest most sacred dogmatic formulation of Christianity is the so-called "Credo" or "Symbol of Faith" (full text here; more info here).  Literally every letter down to the smallest 'i' of this text is, from the Christian point of view, the most sacred and perfect dogmatic formulation, backed by the full authority of the two Ecumenical Councils which proclaimed it and all the subsequent Councils which upheld it.  In simple terms - the Symbol of Faith is absolutely non-negotiable, non-re-definable, non-re-interpretable, you cannot take anything away from it, and you cannot add anything to it.  You can either accept it as is, in toto, or reject it. 

The fact is that Muslim would have many problems with this text, but one part in particular is absolutely unacceptable to any Muslim:
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made
This part clearly and unambiguously affirms that Jesus-Christ was not only the Son of God but actually God Himself. This is expressed by the English formulation "of one essence with the Father" (ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί in Greek with the key term homousios meaning "consubstantial"). This is *THE* core belief of Christianity: that Jesus was the theanthropos, the God-Man or God incarnate.  This belief is categorically unacceptable to Islam which says that Christ was a prophet and by essence a 'normal' human being.

For Islam, the very definition of what it is to be a Muslim is found in the so-called "Shahada" or testimony/witness.  This is the famous statement by which a Muslim attests and proclaims that "There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God".  One can often also hear this phrased as "There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is His prophet".

Now without even going into the issue of whether Christians can agree or not that "Allah" is the appropriate name for God (some do, some don't - this is really irrelevant here), it's the second part which is crucial here: Christianity does not recognize Muhammad as a prophet at all.  In fact, technically speaking, Christianity would most likely classify Muhammad as a heretic (if only because of his rejection of the "Symbol of Faith").  Saint John of Damascus even called him a 'false prophet'.   Simply put: there is no way a Christian can accept the "Shahada" without giving up his Christianity just as there is no way for a Muslim to accept the "Symbol of Faith" without giving up his Islam.

So why bother?

Would it not make much more sense to accept that there are fundamental and irreconcilable differences between Christianity and Islam and simply give up all that useless quest for points of theological agreement?  Who cares if we agree on the secondary if we categorically disagree on the primary?  I am all in favor of Christians studying Islam and for Muslims studying Christianity (in fact, I urge them both to do so!), and I think that it is important that the faithful of these religions talk to each other and explain their points of view as long as this is not presented as some kind of quest for a common theological stanceDifferences should be studying and explained, not obfuscated, minimized or overlooked.

The next divisive issue is the historical record.

Christians and Muslims - friends or foes?  What does history show?

Another well-meaning and fundamentally mistaken approach often seen in dialogs between Christians and Muslims is the attempt to present the history of relations between these two faiths as a long uninterrupted love-fest.  This is factually wrong and naive to the extreme.

First, both Muslims and Christians are human beings, imperfect and sinful human beings (both religions agree on that).  Second, and just to make things worse, both Islam and Christianity have, at times, been official state religions, meaning that states acted in the name of their religion.  As a result, there have been plenty of moments in history where Christians and Muslims fought each other.  Yes, it is true that Muslims and Christians often did live in peace side by side, but unless one is a total bigot and ignoramus, it is simply impossible to ignore the fact that Christians and Muslims also waged war, persecuted and mistreated each other, sometimes viciously.

So what?

What needs to be established not whether Christians and Muslims did wrong each other in the past, but whether they can live in peace.  And the answer to that is a resounding "yes!".  I know, some naysayer will immediately object that both Christianity and Islam have an mixed record of interpretation of whether converting the other to your religion is a religious duty or not.  The point here is not whether some Christians or Muslims do (or did) believe that they have to convert each other at all cost, but whether there are those who do not believe so.  As long as this is a possibility compatible with one's faith this is sufficient.

I think that history, and plenty of statements from religious figures on both sides, prove that this is possible - and that there is a preponderance of evidence to show that - that both Christians and Muslims can accept that the decision to be a Muslim or a Christian should be freely taken inside each person's heart without compulsion or even interference.  The fact that it is possible to interpret Christianity and Islam differently is irrelevant as long as it is also possible to accept such a basic stance on religious choices.

Yes, I know that in Islam apostasy is a capital crime, but I also know that over the centuries Muslims have also chosen to not enforce this.   It is not for me as an Orthodox Christian to dictate what Muslim leaders decide, but it is also clear to me that there are enough wise and pragmatic Muslim leaders out there to fully comprehend the consequences of a decision on their part to enforce the death penalty on somebody choosing to abandon Islam.

So where do we go from here?

It is very simply to get Christians and Muslims to feel hostility towards each other.  First, make a few theological statements which are unacceptable to the other party, call the other a heretic or unbeliever, then mention a few bloody and contentious episodes in history and soon you will have a very nasty situation on your hands.  This is as easy as it is sterile as nothing at all can come from that.

Thankfully, it is just as easy to accept that there are irreconcilable differences between the core beliefs of both religions and that each person should have the means to freely make a choice between these two faiths according  to his conscience.  As for history, it is a no-brainer to accept that both parties have, at times, done wrong to each other and that we are not responsible for what happened in the past, but only for what we make of our present and future.

Still, having dealt with our differences, we still should ask ourselves whether we have something in common, a common interest, or common values, which we might want to jointly defend.  And we most definitely do: our ethics.

The common ground - ethics:

Any religion has two primarily components: what it believes in, what it proclaims, and then the rules of life, the "how to" of daily existence which it mandates.  In Christian terms there is the doxa (what you proclaim or glorify) and the praxis (how you live your spiritual life on a daily basis).  These are the basic rules common to most religions: not to kill, not to steal, to live a life of modesty, to protect the weak, etc.  When comparing Islam and Christianity one can find both differences and similarities between their praxis and ethics.  The differences in praxis are not that important because they mostly affect the private lives of the faithful: Muslims will fast during the month of Ramadan, Christians during the four major fasts of the year and on Wednesdays and Fridays.  So let them, who cares?  They really do not bother each other and, in fact, they are typically respectful of each other's traditions.  On ethics, however, the two religions mostly agree both on a social/corporate and individual level and, with one notable exception which I will discuss below, Christianity and Islam have very similar ideas of what is right and wrong and what society should stand for or pro-actively reject.  Rather than making a long list of what Islam and Christianity agree on, I will simply introduce a new actor for comparison's sake: the "post-Christian secular West".

What does the post-Christian and secular West stand for today?

First and foremost, the post-Christian and secular West stands for the freedom of each person to chose his/her own system of belief, code of behavior, system of morals, lifestyles, etc. In other words, the post-Christian and secular West categorically rejects the notion that something called "The Truth" exists. From that it is logically inevitable to conclude that there really is no "right" or "wrong" at all. In fact, a core belief of the post-Christian and secular West is that "your freedom stops were mine begins" (originally expressed as "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins").  Ergo - as long as others are not affected by it, you can do whatever you want.  Each person has his/her 'truth' and what you consider right another person might consider wrong and vice-versa.

Second, and as a direct consequence of the first point, the post-Christian and secular West places the well-being of the individual above the well-being of the community.  This is perfectly expressed by the famous "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" phrase of the US Declaration of Independence which states that these are the inalienable right of each individual.  The contrast with both Christianity and Islam could not have been greater since these religions consider that the real life is the Eternal Life, that the human being is called to be in obedience to God and that true happiness is spiritual and not earthly.  In fact, while the West considers life as the highest value, Christianity and Islam welcome death and consider that dying in the name of God is a most desirable act of witness of God (martis in Greek has exactly the same meaning as shahid in Arabic: witness).

Finally, and as a direct consequence of the two points above, the only common value to all people in the post-Christian and secular West is, of course, money.  Money is, literally, the only "common currency" of a society without any supreme values in which each person is free to define right and wrong as he/she wishes.  This results in an inevitable monetization of everything, including the life of a human being.

This is really a very minimal system of values, but it is plenty enough to make it the "anti-religion" par excellence.  In comparison to that, the differences between Orthodoxy and Islam suddenly appear tiny, almost irrelevant.  Today, this is best exemplified in Russia where both Orthodox Christianity and Islam are under a direct multi-level attack by the determined efforts of the post-Christian and secular West which spares no effort to subvert and destroy the vales of these religions and replace them by Western "values" promoted in multi-billion dollar propaganda campaigns, including music, movies, books, fashion, TV, talk shows, stores, politicians, famous personalities, etc.

The recent and famous cases of Pussy-Riot and the supposed "right" of Russian homosexual to organize "pride" parades in Moscow are the perfect examples of the kind of agenda the post-Christian and secular West is pushing nowadays.  And although this is not reported in the Western corporate media, I can attest to the fact that Muslim leaders in Russia all perfectly understand that they are also under attack and that this is not just an "Orthodox problem".

So what could they do about it?

A prefect opportunity - the Russian Constitution

Russian politicians are not blind to what is going on and with the exception of a few pathologically naive or dishonest "liberals", they all understand that what is happening now is a clash of civilizations between the post-Christian and secular West and post-Soviet Russia.  The fact that this clash if civilizations is not only ideological, but also political and even military (as the examples of the Euromaidan in the Ukraine and the deployment of the US anti-missile system in Eastern Europe shows) only makes these matters more urgent.

It just so happened that the Russian Constitution is celebrating its 20th anniversary and that possible changes to that Constitution are being discussed in many part of Russian society.  On of the most bizarre features of the current Russian Constitution is that it forbids the state from having any ideology.  Article 13.2 of the current Constitution states that "No ideology may be established as state or obligatory one".  The roots of this rather strange paragraph can be traced to a mix of the general rejection of the old Soviet official Marxist-Leninist Communist ideology and a transparent attempt of the foreign "advisers" to the Eltsin regime in 1993 to make darn sure that nothing "Russian" would find its place in the new Russian Constitution.

Some Russian Orthodox politicians have suggested that this paragraph 13.2 should be expunged and that some formulation would have to be found to express the notion that Orthodoxy played a key historical role in the culture and system of values of modern Russia, that Orthodox values are the basis of the modern ideology of Russia.  So far, no exact formulation has been suggested and there is even a debate whether such a phrase should be included in the Constitution itself or in its preamble.

Needless to say, even raising such a notion has resulted in an outraged reaction by the small but very vocal minority of pro-Western "liberal" politicians.  More importantly, a lot of Russian Orthodox Christians also have deep reservations about the wisdom of such an amendment because it might alienate all the non-Orthodox people in Russia, which include not only Muslims or Buddhists, but a probably majority of agnostics.  Muslim leaders have also expressed concern that this would officially place Islam in a 2nd-category religion status (even though that is exactly the status of Christian dhimmis under Sharia law) and given Orthodoxy a senior, leading role.

I strongly believe that this is the perfect example when Christians and Muslims can easily find a common ground and unite forces: why not simply recognize the special role of Orthodoxy and Islam in the historical formulation of the Russian culture, society and system of values?

First, this happens to be historically correct.  Not only were there a lot of Muslims among the Mongols who occupied Russia, in particular in the late period of occupation, but the expansion of the Russian state included many areas with a majority Muslim population who became citizens of the Russian Empire.  Muslims have fought in defense of the Russian state and nation in many wars from the times of Saint Alexander Nevsky, to WWII to the 08.08.08 war against Georgia.  Last but most definitely not least, Akhmad Kadyrov and his son Ramzan Kadyrov have played an absolutely crucial role in kicking the Wahabis out of Chechnya and thereby they not only saved the Chechen nation from what would have been an absolutely devastating Russian assault, but they also probably saved Russia from a very dangerous and bloody war in the Caucasus.  The same can be said of the Dagestani men who for several days single-handedly fought the invading "Islamic International Brigade" of Shamil Basaev and Khattab from Chechnia in 1999 until the main Federal forces got involved.  Modern Russia is, beyond any possible doubt, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state whose well-being and prosperity depends in great part from the kind of Islam Russian Muslims will chose: the Islam of Ramzan Kadyrov or the "Islam" of Doku Umarov (the shaitan who fancies himself the "President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and Emir of the Caucasus Emirate").

Second, by acknowledging the role of both Orthodox Christianity and Islam the proponents of this constitutional amendment would gain the support of what is by far the largest segment of the religions population: there are Buddhists, Papists, Protestants, Jews and other religious denominations in Russia, but they are tiny compared to the big two.  Personally, I would also include Buddhists in this list of "culture forming" religious whose values are shaping Russian society if only because (unlike the other small(er) religions) they are truly indigenous to Russia whereas the other denominations are "foreign imports" which, of course, have the right to exist in Russia, but which have had exactly zero influence on the formation of the Russian national identity or system of values.

As for the nominally religious and mostly agnostic people, the mere fact that two (or three) religions are recognized in a special role should assuage their concerns about any one system of values or ideology becoming official at the expense of everybody else.  After all, most people in Russia would agree that the ethics of Islam and Christianity have a lot in common.  The only major societal and moral issue in which Orthodox Christianity and Islam really disagree on is the issue of capital punishment.  But that is irrelevant since Russia has pledged a total moratorium on executions anyway (of all things, to join - what else? - the Council of Europe); besides a majority of Russians still remain in favor of the death penalty to the point that it might even be re-introduced in the future.


Contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, cooperation between Orthodox Christianity and Islam is actually very easy to achieve.  Both sides have to accept the fact of irreconcilable theological disagreements, both sides have to accept that they did wrong each other in the past, and both sides have to affirm the right of each person to freely chose his/her religion, including the right to switch from one to another.  So far that should be a no-brainer.

Next, Christian and Muslims need to define a set of civilizational issues that they fully agree on.  Also a no-brainer.

Finally, both sides should systematically defend their cultural, social and civilizational values together, side by side.  In fact, as long as their cultural, social and civilizational values are not in conflict with each other, Orthodox Christians and Muslims should defend the values of the other side on principle, as being *Russian* formative/foundational values.  For example, Russian Orthodox Christians should defend the right of Muslim girls to wear a scarf in school and elsewhere.  Not only because that is beautiful or because before Peter I all Russian woman always war the exact same scarfs not only in church, but all day long - but because the so-called "Islamic veil" is in no way a threat to Christianity: just look at an icon of the Mother of God.

Recently, an Orthodox church was burned down at night in Tatarstan by some Wahabi thugs.  The local Muslim community got together and donated all the money needed for a full reconstruction.  Likewise, in Chechnia, Ramzan Kadyrov has personally overseen the reconstruction of many Russian churches destroyed in combat or by the Wahabis and the local government has now allocated money for the construction of an Orthodox cathedral in the center of Grozny.  In the meantime, the city authorities of Stavropol have ordered the destruction of two "illegal" mosques.  That is in a city which has only one mosque - currently used as a museum, it's tiny anyway - and a Muslim population of anywhere 60'000 and 500'000 people (depends on who you ask and how you measure).  The city authorities did promise to build a full Islamic Center (with mosque, school, hotel, etc.) which is great, but nothing has been done so far.  Granted, the situation in Stavropol is particularly bad and it is complicated by many other factors such as the existence of nominally "Muslim" gangs of thugs and the hostility of the local popularization to what they perceive as the "Islamization" of their city and region.  This is the exact type of case where the Federal authorities need to energetically intervene, as Putin has often done in such cases, and deal with this problem in what is referred to as "manual regime" (in contrast to the bureaucratic autopilot).  Overall, so far, the record of Orthodox-Muslim cooperation is checkered.

If Orthodox Christians and Muslims could get together and jointly push for a change in the Russian Constitution this would not only get the job done, but it would herald a new era for Russia because it would send a strong signal to the local level in Russia (such as Stavropol) and abroad (Iran, Syria, Lebanon) that Russia has taken the fundamental decision to work with any Muslim party willing to do so on the basis of a few clearly defined, mutually accepted and simple principles.

A special words to any naysayers

I personally find all of the above really basic and self-evident.  But having met the naysayers from both sides, I know that some of you will not be convinced.  You "know" that Christians are imperialists never to be trusted or the Muslims are out to establish a "world Caliphate" on our dead bodies. Okay.  Now let me ask you the question Americans kids like to challenge each other with: "and what are you gonna do about it?!".  Expel all Muslims out of Russia and cut-off the Caucasus?  Kill all of kufars and organize an Islamic Caliphate in Russia?   Fight the righteous struggle against everybody and all fronts at the same time all on your own?  Convince everybody to convert?

I don't think so.

In fact, by doing any of that all your are going to do is to do exactly what the Western political elites really want you to do!  You do that any nobody will be more happy than the Tamir Pardo, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Hillary Clinton.   Politics is the art of the possible and to aim at the impossible is simply one form of political suicide.  Those who desperately want to pit Christians against Muslims will never achieve anything but delivering yet another blow against the very religion they claim to defend.  In my experience, these people have a very poor and superficial religious education and typically no historical education at all.  They mistake their hatred for the "other" for a God-pleasing religious zeal, and they act not so much out of love for their own religion, as out of hate for the religion of the other.  These are the folks who simply cannot see, in the beautiful words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn that
All attempts to find a way out of the plight of today's world are fruitless unless we redirect our consciousness, in repentance, to the Creator of all: without this, no exit will be illumined, and we shall seek it in vain. The resources we have set aside for ourselves are too impoverished for the task. We must first recognize the horror perpetrated not by some outside force, not by class or national enemies, but within each of us individually, and within every society. This is especially true of a free and highly developed society, for here in particular we have surely brought everything upon ourselves, of our own free will. We ourselves, in our daily unthinking selfishness, are pulling tight that noose...
God-fearing and pious Muslims and Christians alike must realize and accept that humility and sincere repentance for our own sins is what God calls us to do and that seeking an external enemy to fear and hate is not profitable for our souls.  Our diversity of beliefs has no other cause than our own sinfulness, which itself is a direct consequence of our common humanity, a humanity which we all share regardless of our beliefs.  Having found and espoused the True faith does not necessarily make us better people at all, it only makes us more fortunate and privileged ones, and that privilege places a special burden upon us to show forgiveness and compassion towards our erring fellow human being.  Finally, if our goal is really to convert the other one, the best way to do that is by our individual example of true piety, purity and love and not by "winning" a political struggle.

The Saker