On the 27th of June, Oliver McTernan was invited to give a talk at a conference in Gaza with religious scholars on the theme, “A Better Understanding of the Relationship with the West.” The full text of Oliver’s talk is included below:

What do we mean by the ‘West’?

The first concept that comes to mind is a clearly definable geographical area – Europe and North America – in which the dominant cultural and ethnic identity has been shaped by a shared belief and a history greatly dominated by conflict and internal wars.

A parallel concept of the ‘West’ is ‘extra territorial’ as it is basically a ‘mindset’ that has been shaped by colonialism, migration, and more recently by globalization and electronic communication. It has roots in Western thinking but is also shaped through interaction with other cultures and beliefs in different parts of the world. It extends well beyond the ‘business elites’ and through television and social media provides alternative perspectives to a global constituency. Consequently it has has the potential to create new fault lines within cultures and societies that had been previously been more or less monolithic. It is a mindset that presents as many challenges within Western societies as within Arab, African, Asian and Latin American cultures.

This I believe is the reality of today’s world. It is a world that we cannot reinvent but we must engage and imbue with our own religious values and vision of what this God given gift of life could and should be. I use the word imbue intentionally, as it reflects the fundamental principle of the Holy Koran that there should be no coercion in religion. The world that we share, whether we live here in Gaza or in New York, London, Cairo or Abu Dhabi is a world that presents numerous challenges and requires a daily struggle to promote an awareness for the need to protect and to cherish the value of each and every human life. To imbue is to effect real change through making the daily effort to live our own lives by true religiously inspired values. It is what we could call ‘soft ’power as opposed to the ‘hard’ power of the gun or the sword, the instruments of coercion.

On Monday this week the Guardian newspaper published the results of survey of more than 25,000 people across 10 countries as well as Palestine in the Middle East and North Africa. The study, compiled by BBC News Arabic and Arab Barometer, a Princeton University-based research network, identified a marked rise in the proportion of people describing themselves as “not religious” – the increase was from 11% in 2012-2014 to 18% this year.

Trust in religious leaders has also decreased everywhere but Lebanon Morocco, Libya and Palestine showed the steepest drops in confidence. Also according to the survey trust in Islamist movements, such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, is even lower than that for religious leaders. People’s faith in Tunisia’s Ennahda party has declined by 24% since 2011, for the Brotherhood in Jordan by 21% since 2012, and in Morocco by 20% since 2013.

The survey also presented the worrying fact that one in three people surveyed said they felt depressed, with the highest proportion in Iraq (43%), Tunisia (40%) and Palestine (37%). Women and the less affluent appeared most affected. Also more than half (52%) of 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine and Tunisia said they were considering migrating – an increase of 10% from 2016.

I wanted to share these results with you, as if these figures rightly reflect the trend in the region; they present an enormous challenge to both religious and civil leaders. These figures also illustrate, I believe, the impact this extra territorial concept of the West, this mindset is having on people within and beyond the Muslim world as they search for meaning, purpose and aspiration in their lives. It is so important therefore for religious leaders in the region to understand this mindset, not so as to be able to combat these new perspectives, but more so to be able to engage in a truly rich dialogue that will help to imbue your own traditional values and beliefs into the equation thus enabling people to make more informed and enlightened decisions. To respond in this way to the challenges we face is, for me at least, to give full respect to our basic religious belief that no one can be forced to believe.

To understand the mindset of the West it’s important to look at what events shaped the thinking, beliefs and culture of the people Europe and North America. Now given that our time today is limited, this has to be a very brief outline focusing in on what I see as the three main events:

The Protestant Reformation was a major 16th century Europe wide movement aimed initially at reforming the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. It challenged the established order and authority of the Church to say what was right and wrong. Its religious goals were used by ambitious political rulers who wanted to extend their power and control at the expense of the Church which had a monopoly of both temporal and spiritual power. The reformation put the focus more on the individual and less on the community. Everyone had a right to interpret the scriptures for themselves. This was a period of great intolerance and brutality where people killed one another because of their different beliefs.

States too went to war over beliefs. The longest of these wars lasted 30 years, from 1618 to 1648: what began as a battle among the Catholic and Protestant states that formed the Holy Roman Empire, became less about religion and more about which group or regional power would ultimately govern Europe. The war, in which an estimated 12 million people died in the fighting or due to decease and famine,   was sustained by a mixture of religion and politics.

It ended with what has become known as the treaty of Westphalia. Through two years of negotiation between representatives of the warring factions, Westphalia came up with a formula that was aimed allowing people and states of different beliefs to co-exist. The simple formula was that the belief of the ruler was to be the belief of the state. Religion therefore was no longer to be fought over or to be considered as important when discussing relationships between states. This became the new international order. Military force or politics were not to be used to promote one belief over another.

The 18th century period known as the Enlightenment also greatly impacted on the way religion was regarded within Western society. This was the age in which reason, science and philosophy took the place of religion in explaining the world. People were looking for practical scientific explanations in answer to the questions that faith used to provide.

The old religious certainties were challenged and science became the new paradigm for understanding the world. Religion was no longer seen as an important factor in analysing causes of conflict. The world of political and social sciences relegated religion to the personal, private sphere of people’s lives.

The Treaty of Westphalia and the Enlightenment have had a great impact on the way people view religion in public life until this day. In short the predominant view is to see religion as a private matter between God and the individual. Therefore religion should not interfere with the running of the state or the state with religion. In the Soviet period religion was more or less tolerated so long as its practice was confined to within the walls of the church, mosque or synagogue. It became known as ‘sacristy’ religion.

This is, I believe, the mindset that is behind the current Chinese policy towards the Uighur Muslims, a million of whom are detained in correction camps because they abstain from alcohol, have a Qur’an in the house or say in public Salam Alaikum. Such pious practices are judged to be indicative of religious extremism.

Religion in general is viewed with suspicion and it is against this broad background that many people make their judgements on Islam..

But first, let me say, I believe Islam has become part of the West. There are millions of Europeans, many the children of migrants born in Western countries, who practice their Muslim faith and who at the same time make an important contribution to the social and political life of the countries they live in. Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi used to say the Britain was the most Islamic country he lived in as he could practice his faith without State interference. Sadly a number of events in recent years have changed that relationship, and we now face a growing problem of Islamaphobia within many Western countries.

We know that the relationship between Islam and the West has been marred by centuries of confrontation. Even today there are those who see Islam and the West as locked on an unavoidable collision course. People on both sides of this relationship see the other as a threat to their own identity and beliefs. From a Muslim perspective excessive Western military and political intervention, especially since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire has entrenched this perspective. From a Western perspective there have been a number of recent events that has shaped a negative perception.

Muslim immigration to Europe has a long history, but the second half of 20th century saw a marked increase in economic migrants from Muslim countries and from Turkey, North Africa and South Asia in particular. Like the majority of migrants their intention was to return home and not to establish permanent roots. Little effort therefore was made to learn the language and the tendency was to congregate in one neighbourhood or region. There were few common spaces for interaction with the indigenous populations and the local governments lacked any meaningful policy to develop a greater sense of social cohesion. The unplanned separation between communities highlighted a sense of otherness, and this for some people at least reinforced the old sense of seeing the other as a threat to one’s identity. The big increase in refugees from conflict zones in recent years has reinforced these irrational fears.  

In 1988 the publication of Salman Rushdies novel Satanic Verses, which was part based on a fictional account the life of Muhammad, led to a violent reaction among some Muslim groups in the United Kingdom. Public burnings of the book, fire bombings of premises, and a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini, pronouncing a death sentence on Salman Rushdie for ‘insulting’ Islam, all had a dramatic and negative impact on the public’s perception of Islam. The media in particular felt freedom of expression in a multicultural society was under threat. This was enforced by the knowledge that the Saudis were funding the United Kingdom Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, the protest body set up to maximise pressure on The Satanic Verses. The lingering image was of Islam as a reactionary force that was a threat to Western values.

This negative image or perception of Islam was reinforced by 9/11 and subsequent attacks in London, Paris, Brussels and other parts of Europe. The actions of ISIL has further distorted people’s image of Islam. Few people sadly take the time to reflect on the West’s activities in the Arab /Muslim world and the fact that more Muslims have been the victims of ISIL than westerns. In the recently published Survey that I referred to earlier in some countries up to 75% said violence against the US in particular was a logical consequence of interference in the region. These figures bring into focus the gap in how each group perceives the other and the need for an increase in engagement and not further estrangement.  

It is the combination the historical and some of the current events I have mentioned that in great part have led to the misrepresentation of the true image of Islam. This current prevailing image is partly the reason why when the Palestinian cause is crouched in religious language using terms like jihad, which the Qur’an sees as an act of self-defense against persecution, oppression tyranny corruption, a concept that is also enshrined in international law, the message doesn’t always resonate with westerns, either at a political or street level.

In our efforts to address the gap in understanding, the misperceptions of the other, and to find a way to live with our differences in belief and practice we can find numerous examples of enlightened persons of the past. In every age, and within each religious tradition, there are outstanding examples of individuals who have managed by thought and example to cross the cultural and religious boundaries, and by so doing, have given witness to the essential transcendent nature of religion. To paraphrase the words of a 19th-century Russian Orthodox cleric, the differences between faiths do not reach up to heaven. His words are reflective of the Prophet Mohammed’s own words when he declared: “Whoever harms a non-Muslim citizen, I shall bear testimony against him on behalf of that citizen in front of God on the day of judgement?

Let me give a few examples of people who tried to live in accordance with this profound insight to the importance of respect for the whole of human life. A 10th-century Saxon Catholic nun, Hroswitha, described the Cordoba caliphate as ‘the brilliant ornament of the world’. Renowned for its wealth, culture, learning and religious tolerance, and under the guidance of an enlightened Islamic leader, Muslims, Jews and Christians had moved beyond mere co existence to engage in a new level of cross culture interaction. Jews and Christians ‘embraced nearly every aspect of Arabic style’ from philosophy to architecture. Synagogues and churches reflected the architectural style of Muslims and often had Arabic writing adorning their walls. Christians and Jews had been assimilated into different levels of government, acting as ambassadors and ministers as the Cordoba caliphate reached out diplomatically to their more hostile Christian neighbours.

The eventual downfall was not due so much to outside aggression but to a challenge from their North African Muslim neighbours, the Almoravids, who viewed the cultural openness of the ‘Andalusian Muslims’ a threat to traditional Muslim identity. No doubt there were also other interests behind their motives to put an end to this shining example of co-existence and co-operation.

The 13th-century Sultan of Egypt, al-Kamil, is another good example. His reputation as a ‘just, civilised, man of peace’ was confirmed clearly when he chose to inter into a dialogue on faith with Francis of Assisi, at a time when the crusading Christians were besieging his territories.

The Sultan’s religious advisors saw Francis and his small group of followers as a threat to their beliefs that should be eliminated, but al-Kamil recognised in the person and commitment of this humble, unpretentious friar, an essential goodness that should be engaged and protected.

Today we talk of toleration as a virtue – initially tolerance was a negative concept based on the belief that differences in belief shouldn’t exist – to kill was evil so the lesser evil was to co-exist.

18th century French philosopher Voltaire gave it a more positive spin and believed tolerance should be universal in its embrace. Again he took as his model the way different religious groups lived under Turkish Muslim rule in Constantinople. His description of life in 18th century Constantinople under Muslim rule stands in sharp contrast with life in Mosul under ISIL rule.

For Voltaire tolerance of the other was rooted in an awareness of the interconnectedness that exists between human beings despite the diversity of ethnicity, culture and religion.

Voltaire argued, “we ought to regard every man as our brother. What the Turk, my brother? The Chinaman, my brother? The Jew and the Siamese as well? Yes, assuredly, for are we not all children of the same Father and creatures of the same God?”

In our own time we have the Marrakesh Declaration. This is a statement made in January 2016 by more than 250 Muslim religious leaders, heads of state, and scholars defending the rights of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries. The conference, in which the Marrakesh Declaration was signed, was called in response to the persecution of religious minorities, such as Christians and Yazidis, by ISIS. The Muslim scholars gathered in Marrakesh claimed that the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are in harmony with the Charter of Medina as according to their reading of Islamic texts, Islam makes no distinction between the life and property of a non-Muslim and that of a Muslim.

A friend and Muslim scholar, who is at Trinity Hall Cambridge University, Sheikh Michael Mumisa, argues that for him, the most important lesson modern Muslims should learn from the Charter of Medina “is not its contents, but the processes that produced such contents. “

He writes: “Although the Charter of Medina makes references to God, it is a product of deliberations, consultation and consensus between the various communities of Medina, not of divine revelation. In that sense it is a purely secular document. It did not fall from heaven like the tablets of Moses as mentioned in the Qur’an and the Bible, nor were the contents of the Charter revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through Gabriel. Thus, the real general message (kulliyyat) of the Charter of Medina is that modern Muslims should be able to develop their own constitutional laws through deliberation, consultation and other democratic processes without the need to invoke divine revelation.”

Given the gap in understanding and the misperceptions we are facing today People of the book (ahl al-kitab) carry a grave responsibility t reach out to the other, to deepen our understanding and respect for the other. We should work to discover the interconnectedness that exists between human beings despite the diversity of ethnicity, culture and belief.