Living together in real harmony


Universe Column for November 6th 2005

by David Alton

Reeking this weekend of bonfires and fireworks, it’s maybe a good time to conclude these four columns which have revisited Dignitatis Humanae – forty years old this year. Addressed to the whole world, and not just to Catholics, this great statement of the Second Vatican Council inextricably linked human dignity and religious freedom.

More than anyone, English Catholics who know their history, understand what happens when an alienated and embittered group of young men are driven into taking desperate measures. For refusing to conform to the required religious norm many had seen their families persecuted, massive fines imposed, their homes and lands confiscated, and the civil and political rights abrogated. The result? Among other things, the Gunpowder Plot.

Historians remain undecided as to whether Guy Fawkes was “set up” or whether he really did attempt to commit an act of seventeenth century terror. Either way, four hundred years ago this weekend he paid the ultimate price.

What does this tell us today about phenomena like suicide bombers, jihad, the forcible imposition of Sharia Law and Islamaphobia. What does it tell us about the minds of alienated young men living in the back streets of Leeds or Bradford, Blackburn or Oldham, and who are willing to plant bombs on the London underground?

The fear of being charged with Islamaphobia has frequently led to a failure to disentangle the goodness of many fine Muslims from the proper criticism of those things which are being done in the name of Islam.  In countries like Sudan , Islam has  not been  a religion of peace  but we need to also understand that many Islamic scholars are trying to counter what they call “the false Islam” which fills the minds of alienated young men with anger and hate.

Whilst Pope John Paul II constantly sought tolerance between the great faiths – particularly through the World Day of Prayer For Peace which he convened in Assisi in October 1986 – he did not believe we should refrain from asking fundamental questions of one another.

In the early 1990s, John Paul II  said:

“Did you ever read the Qur’an (Koran)? I recommend it. What the Qur’an teaches people is aggression; and what we (Christians) teach our people is peace…Christianity aspires to peace and love. Islam is a religion that attacks. If you start teaching aggression to the whole community, you end up pandering to the negative elements in everyone. You know what that leads to: Such people will assault us.”

And our history reminds us that Islamic states have not been accepting of Christian communities. Although there were flourishing Christian churches in north Africa following the Arab invasion Christianity was absorbed by Islam to such an extent that the only significant presence remaining is in Egypt (where the Coptic church is persecuted and oppressed). The same is true in the Middle East and in Turkey . The persecution has not always been violent but the conditions in which the ancient churches and individual Christians were forced to live inside Islamic states has led to their systematic asphyxiation.

For those Muslims who adhere to the precept of the holy war the military advance of Islam was merely halted at the Battle of Lepanto (1571) and at Vienna (1683). Jihad has now manifested itself in a modern form and is adhered to by adherents of Al Qu’aeda, Hamas, Laskar Jihad and other radical groups.

It manifested itself in Algeria in 1996 when the Bishop of Orano was murdered, in 1999 when seven Trappist monks were gunned down, and through the deaths of four White Fathers and six religious sisters. It manifested itself in Pakistan , in 2001 when 18 Christians were murdered in the Church of St. Dominic in Bahawalpur , and through the persistent use of Blasphemy Laws to the prosecution of those who hold that Jesus is the Son of God, with trials that can lead to execution.

In Nigeria 13 states now have imposed Shari’a as state law and Christians have been victimised and persecuted. There is every danger that Nigeria will descend into the sort of violence that has so disfigured Sudan .

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia continues to export wahhabism to the west – financing mosques and madrasas – but forbidding any place of Christian worship in its own country. The consequence of this asymmetry in enabling any meaningful dialogue with Muslims was summed up by Cardinal Karl Lehmann: “The basic requirement for dialogue is that people must meet as equals. This is dubious in relations with Islam as there is no mutual recognition. One can build a huge mosque in Rome for example, but even celebrating a Christian service in a country like Saudi Arabia is problematic”

Although individual Christians and the institutions of its Church have, during epochs of its history, strayed far from the precepts of its founder, the fact remains that nowhere in His teachings is there any licence for depredations against people with other beliefs.

That was a lesson which cost Guy Fawkes his life 400 years ago and is a lesson whose memory speaks right into today’s debates about how the great religions co-exist with one another and within our secular society.