Blame mankind, not God, for mess

January 2, 1998

If I have inadvertently patronised Shabbir Akhtar in my book (Muslims and Christians Face to Face, THES, December 12), - assuming it is possible to patronise someone one considers one's intellectual equal or superior - it is partly because his inclination to hyperbole, especially when applied to world religions, tends to bring out the disapproving schoolmarm in me.

But it is also because I was trying to avoid a different type of patronising, that of "making allowances" for these-Muslims-who-don't-really-know-any-better-so-we-can't-expect-too-much-o f-them. Second and third generation Muslims in Britain, not to mention converts to Islam, are now enrolling in small but not insignificant numbers in faculties of religious studies or theology. I therefore expect to see a growing number of knowledgable Muslim-authored works on Christianity in the not-too-distant future.

I plead guilty to having remained in the conference hall and shied away from political matters, although fully accepting the importance of power relations. Those qualified to do so should draw our attention to religiously-motivated oppression. I have read too many one-sided catalogues of injustices perpetrated against either Christians or Muslims, depending on the religious allegiance of the writer, to even consider trying to mediate on such matters.

Nevertheless I disagree that it has always been "a bloody encounter". History does not fail to record the clashes, conflicts and coups but for the most part remains silent about the simple meeting of hearts and minds that must surely have taken place wherever Muslims and Christians have been neighbours. Are we right to attach so much more importance to the former? Religion has more often than not been an important component of the cultural and national identity of human communities. It is therefore invoked in times of crisis or war, especially if sacrifices are required. But should we assume from this that religion is necessarily the cause of conflict? I am not convinced that the streets of Sarajevo and Beirut will teach me more about religion, only more about the human capacity for making a mess of things.

I realise there is no such thing as objectivity and so would not expect to have attained it. When one surveys a large number of writers and thinkers, one assumes the invidious task of arbitrating between them. I suppose I will learn more humility and not again attempt such an ambitious undertaking. To write a book on Muslim-Christian relations is to enter turbulent waters from which few emerge unscathed. To see "Islam" and "Christianity" as engaged in a gargantuan struggle for world domination can only fuel religiously-inspired hatred. If it is a cliche to repeat what has been said by wiser forbears I will end by concurring with Solzhenitsyn that the line between good and evil runs not between religions or ideologies, but through every human heart.

Kate Zebiri

School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

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