Friday selection: And Now On To The Prayer Wars
Farish A. Noor
[Posted with permission]
The month of Ramadhan is said to be a blessed month for many, and for some it can promise even more than is usually expected. This year’s Ramadhan is witness to an event of considerable importance, albeit somewhat ludicrous at the same time. While tension and mistrust continue to tarnish the already embattled process of inter-religious dialogue, recent events such as Pope Benedict XVI’s speech in Germany have done little to calm the anger and frustration of Muslims all over the world. Now we have to brace ourselves for the latest nail to be hammered into the coffin of inter-religious dialogue: the prayer wars.
A recent media report has noted that all over North America this Ramadhan, Evangelical Christians will embark on a 30-day ‘Muslim Prayer Focus’. Supported by right-wing evangelical conservatives like the American National Association of Evangelicals and Youth With A Mission, evangelical Christian leaders all over the USA will ask their followers to spend the next 30 days praying for Muslims to see the light and to find a place for Jesus in their hearts. Prayer booklets, leaflets and posters have already been prepared and disseminated to help Muslims save themselves from themselves, and on the website of the National Association of Evangelicals it is stated that they wish for all other faiths to “understand and consider the grace of God incarnated in Jesus Christ.” One wonders how this message of goodwill will be interpreted in the mountains of Waziristan or the stronghold of the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan.
That evangelical Christians in the American Bible Belt would get up to such things is to be expected: After all, this is what all missionary faiths do, and Islam is likewise a missionary religion that seeks to convert others to its creed and way of life. The success of two of the three Abrahamic faiths – Christianity and Islam – has more to do with the missionary zeal of its followers than anything else, for it is them – the ordinary Christians and Muslims the world over – who have really supported the expansion of both religions all over the world, at the cost of other local faiths and belief systems at times.
But coming as it does now, at a time of heightened tension between the Western and Muslim worlds, the call for a mass evangelical prayer to convert Muslims to Christianity is about the most counter-productive thing that any faith community could conceive of. Its implications are wide and obvious: For a start it will fuel the already overheaded paranoia and conspiracy-theory machinery that animates many a radical Islamist group the world over, convicing many of their members that there is indeed a Christian conspiracy against Islam and Muslims. It will also add to the further isolation of the United States, which is increasingly seen as a superpower bent on imposing its military, political, economic, and now cultural-religious values, on every other community on this planet.
One is forced to brace onceself for the immediate logical response. Will we see counter-prayer initiatives by Muslims, praying that Christians see the light and convert to Islam en masse? Or has this all already happened and can things only deteriorate further from this point onwards?
Again a degree of calm, rational distance from the immediate phenomena of politics is necessary, if for no other reason than to preserve some semblance of common sense and rationality. It is important to note that the calls for prayer to convert Muslims to Christianity is emanating not from ever-so-secular Europe, but rather from the heartland of America. This reminds us again that the United States is a specific country with a specific relationship to religion. Contrary to appearances, America is not a secular country but rather a highly religious one where religion has penetrated deep into the social and political life of the nation; and has given birth to numerous politicians with a decidedly missionary outlook in their politics. Since the time of the Monroe doctrine, successive American politicians have spoken about America’s ‘right’ and ‘mission’ to civilise the world in terms that could only be seen as theological. No politician from post-War Western Europe would dream of talking in such terms, for fear of being dubbed a conservative looney and a candidate for a padded room in the asylum.
Another factor that has to be taken into account here is the fact that the brand of evangelical Christianity that is on the march in the United States is quite distinct from the more schools of Christian thought in Europe. Only among these American evangelicals do we hear talk of a missionary goal to convert the rest of humanity to their brand of Christianity (and while on that subject, it should be noted that these radical evangelicals also hold that some other Christians, notably the Catholics and members of the Eastern orthodox church, are borderline heretics too…).
While other schools of Christian thought have adapted themselves to the reality of living in a plural multi-religious world of different faiths, this sense of benighted tolerance for relativism is nowhere to be found among the legions of ultra-conservatives who support the current neo-Con establishment installed in the White House. Why, even the elders of the Vatican – following the discussions of the Vatican II council – have come to accept that the path to salvation does not lie through Christianity alone, and that other religions also have their inherent worth and truths as well, to be respected equally.
No, the lunacy of the current ‘prayer wars’ is of a distinctively American variety, and bears all the hallmarks of an America in deep spiritual crisis and in search of a direction. The irony is that while some right-wing evangelicals are happy to pray for the souls of other non-believers, they have spent considerably less time praying for the victims of America’s superpower politics and hegemonic dominance in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Where then is the process of inter-civiliational dialogue heading? Well, for a start the first criteria to be met in any dialogue process is respect: Respect for the identity of the other, even if we do not necessarily accept everything that they do or say in the name of their beliefs. In this confused and increasingly volatile world that we live in today, this element of mutual respect is sorely lacking. It would be the height of arrogance for American evangelicals to assume that people of other faiths need to be ‘saved’ from their beliefs, without at the same time taking some critical distance from their own faith and questioning their own motives. This smacks of the blind faith and fanaticism they are so wont to accuse others of. For dialogue to work, we must always begin with an internal dialogue with and within ourselves, and to gauge our own commitment and purpose against the litmus test of arrogance and hypocrisy. So before we embark on yet another round of missionary conquest, perhaps we should begin by looking at the hypocrisy and double-standards in our own practice of faith. And this applies to both Christians and Muslims, by the way…
Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and historian, as well as a human rights activist. Visit his site at www.othermalaysia.org