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Christians and Muslims grapple with diversity

Relations between Christians and Muslims in the contemporary world are tetchy because they are the only religions that have staked a claim over the entire world, according to Waikato University Religious Studies lecturer Rev Dr Douglas Pratt.

“Within both Islam and Christianity there is an expressed aim to extend God’s rule over the whole of the earth because it is believed this is what God wants. Therefore Christians and Muslims can make universal claims. Not all members of these two religions hold to those claims. But there are elements in the ideologies of both that promote hostility to the other side largely on the basis of a perceived competitive threat.

“There is a widespread Christian suspicion of Islam. Christians feel they can’t trust Islam because they think it wants to take over the world and impose a harsh law-code on everyone, which is not actually the case.

“Muslims traditionally view their religion as a corrective to both Judaism and Christianity, so they can have anxieties about a perceived imperialist agenda of Christians and Jews. Today this is often expressed in terms of hostility toward a Zionist-Western alliance, whether imagined or real.”

Douglas says it’s ironic some New Zealanders fear Muslim desires to impose themselves on others. “In this country Muslims are a minority and they are the ones who have been imposed upon by such acts as the desecration of mosques and expressions of rejection. No Christian premises have been attacked by Muslims in this country, and it is extremely unlikely to happen.”

According to Douglas, the fundamental issue for New Zealanders is the same as it is for other peoples around the world: how do we deal with religious plurality?

“We can cope with diversity when it doesn’t threaten the fabric of society. But when people begin to feel diversity has gone too far, Winston Peters and his ilk react against it and call for exclusion.”

“In some Muslim countries – Pakistan, Nigeria, or Saudi Arabia, for example – there are political movements that marginalise minorities and call for the imposition of Islamic uniformity. Winston Peters will tolerate a certain amount of diversity in our society but he also calls for uniformity. The message is our exclusivity is acceptable, but your exclusivity is not.”

One key problem area is secularism. Muslims see the triumph of secularism in Western societies as proof that Christianity has failed. Therefore it is necessary for Islam to take a strong stance to avoid succumbing to secularism.

As Douglas sees it, “secular society allows for religious diversity but the ideology of secularism marginalizes religion. There are good reasons this was so for Western society but religion will not be so easily dismissed. Today Islam is leading the way in ensuring the public profile of religion. Nevertheless, the challenge for Muslims is to find a modus vivendi in the contemporary pluralist world.”

“There is, of course, considerable diversity within the Muslim community. Even in New Zealand some Muslim individuals may be sympathetic to imperialist claims in the name of Islam. But I believe most Muslims here don’t harbour such views. All the Muslims I have met in this country are clear in their commitment to maintaining religious identity in a pluralist society. Muslims from South Africa, for instance, joined with Christians in the struggle against apartheid and they don’t seek Islamic hegemony.”

Today Western governments debate the need to have structural links to religious communities. We can see this in the New Zealand government’s support of the National Interfaith Forum and its links to the wider interfaith community via the office of the Race Relations Commissioner. In the UK a new NGO, the Christian-Muslim Forum, is shortly to be launched.

Douglas is the author of The Challenge of Islam: Encounters in Interfaith Dialogue (2005).