Pope Benedict XVI and Dialogue
Muhammad Khatami, the Iranian President, was the first among present world leaders to call for dialogue between Islam and the West. That was four years after the publication of The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel Huntington in 1996. A month ago, after his appointment, the new Pope, Benedict XVI has made dialogue with other religions the focus of his tenure.
The call of the Pope will certainly attract the attention of the world, seeing that the global village that is increasingly emerging out of the present world order will certainly shrink distance and bring people from different cultures into the same crucible of political and economic interaction. Striking at the equilibrium that will guarantee restrained coexistence necessary for peace and justice to all members of that community has become the preoccupation of world leaders and other people who wish the happiness of humanity.
The call for dialogue would not have come at a better time especially for Africa and Nigeria. Both the two greatest religions of the world – Christianity and Islam – are here as part of the continent’s triple heritage, as Ali Mazrui described it. They will continue to be here possibly for the remaining tenure of mankind on the planet. In a world dominated by politics, and in a country, like Nigeria, where politics is dominated by mischief, care must be taken in walking on the tight rope of mutual existence. So thin and delicate is this rope that a word from the mouth of a reckless politician or imprudent leader is enough to cost thousands of lives. A whim from the greed faculty of an individual, as we have seen many times, will put communities in mutual hostilities for decades.
In the international arena, the theory which directs the thinking and actions of the most powerful nations, United States and its European allies is that propounded in The Clash. No theory has threatened the coexistence of humanity since after the Cold War more than The Clash theory. The theory has accepted that Western Civilization is “in decline, its share of world of political, economic, and military power going down relative to that of other civilizations. The West’s victory in the Cold War has produced not triumph but exhaustion. The West is increasingly concerned with its internal problems and needs, as it confronts slow economic growth, stagnating populations, unemployment, huge government deficits, a declining work ethic, low savings rates, and in many countries including the United States social disintegration, drugs, and crime.”
The central theme of the theory however is summarized in one this sentence: “In the emerging world, the relations between states and groups from different civilizations will not be close and will often be antagonistic.” This antagonism is characterised by “fault line wars”, first, according to Huntington, being Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the second being the first Gulf War. “They were in effect, he asserted, “transition wars to an era dominated by ethnic conflict and fault line wars between groups from different civilizations.” After Afghanistan, we have seen another fault line conflict between West and Islam in the Balkans, Chechnya, and, now, American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The prudent course for the West, advised Huntington, “is not to attempt to stop the shift in power but to learn to navigate the shallows, endure the miseries, moderate ventures, and safeguard its culture… The principal responsibility of Western leaders, consequently, is not to attempt to reshape other civilizations in the image of the West, which is beyond their declining power, but to preserve, protect, and renew the unique qualities of Western civilization. Because it is the most powerful Western country, that responsibility falls overwhelmingly on the United States of America.” It is not as if the clash could be avoided, rather, it is the upper hand that that will preserve the dominance of the West, in Machiavellian terms, that is supreme. Of the eight suggestions listed by Huntington for the preservation of that supremacy, none included dialogue.
So when the Papacy makes dialogue an area of interest, he is rekindling hope that at least on the part of the Roman Catholics, their leader is extending a hand that could be grasped to save souls of the innocent when we the followers are at each others’ throats. At least from the West we have a voice, though western in origin, speaking to entire humanity; the influence of that voice is very pertinent to us in developing countries since it is here that religion is growing, as it shrinks in the West.
It is not in the area of conflict alone that the dialogue agenda of the Pope will find relevance. There is a common ground between the Catholic Church and religions in the world in their fight against atheistic doctrines that have become triumphant in the West. Given the consistent assault on the Church and its fundamental doctrines in Europe and America since the 16th Century, there is little wonder that the membership of religion has dwindled remarkably in the West. Churches today can only be supported by the zeal of converts from developing countries and, for the Catholic Church especially, from Africa and Latin America.
Humanity today, it is posited by secular scholars, does not need religion. It is felt that human reason alone can give mankind the guidance and felicity it needs; that religion could only improve on the condition of our mental illness, not our mental health. Though it teaches us to lead a life devoid of drugs, smoking, alcohol, divorce, premarital sex, suicide, depression and anxiety, homosexuality, etc, it does not, such scholars say, increase our threshold of tolerance and compassion. In the words of C. Daniel Batson and his co-authors, “quite contrary, there is strong evidence that being more religious is associated with poorer positive mental health, with greater intolerance of people who are different from ourselves, and with no greater concern for those in need.” “This evidence,” they concluded, “seems to suggest that, overall, religion is a negative force in human life, one we would be better off without.”
Again, religion is denied any share in the origin of human rights, the pride of modern political philosophy. “As an historian,” wrote Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in 1989, “I confess to a certain amusement when I hear the Judeo-Christian tradition praised as the source of our concern for human rights. In fact, the great religious ages were notable for the indifference to human rights in the contemporary sense. They were notorious not only for acquiescence in poverty, inequality, exploitation, and oppression but for the enthusiastic justifications of slavery, persecution, abandonment of small children, torture, genocide.
“Religion enshrined and vindicated hierarchy, authority, and inequality and hand no compunction about murdering heretics and blasphemers. Till the end of the 18th century, torture was normal investigative procedure in the Roman Catholic Church… In Protestant America in the early 19th century, as Larry Hise points out in his book ‘Pro-Slavery: A History of the Defence of Slavery in America, 1701 – 1840,’ men of cloth ‘wrote almost half of the defences of slavery published in America,’ an appendix lists 275, ministers of the Gospel who piously proclaimed the Christian virtue of a system in which one man owned another as private property to be used as he pleased.
“Human rights is not a religious idea. It is a secular idea, the product of the last four centuries of Western History.”
One can understand why John Stuart Mill could say so in 1869 because the Church then dominated the political affairs of Europe. But for religion to be bombarded with lethal ballistics like those of Schlesinger, Jr, in the end of the twentieth century, justifies the necessity for people of various religious persuasions to join hands, revise their history and forge a common front that will save humanity from the brunt of crass materialism.
Christianity has suffered the greatest assault from Western philosophy, partly because of the role it played in Western history and because all of the researches are carried out in the West. Nevertheless, the concern is common, since results of that history and research are extrapolated to include all religions, even if they did not partake in the subjugation of Europe nor are their societies similar to the West in structure and content. An example is the conclusion of Batson et al: “overall, religion is a negative force in human life, one we would be better off without.”
In Africa, we are forced to put the above reports and rebellion of the West against religion into the context of its technological development. When technique affords a researcher in London or New York enough food, security and leisure, it is easy for him to overlook the fact that his thoughts are a product of the comfort that surrounds him. If he will put himself in the situation of developing countries where survival is the main interest of the intellect, where families sometimes cannot afford a meal at all, where disease abound without any adequate healthcare in place, where there are no jobs for the majority to earn a life of dignity, where even policemen and judges go on strike over non-payment of their salaries, where people are divided by the chance of birth, he will realise that no force other than religion can console the mind and keep the peace in society. I cannot imagine law and order in Nigeria today without religion.
The greatest threat to religion, though, is not from atheists or sceptics; their threat is from without. Much of the dialogue need to concentrate on how to contain the overzealousness of what social psychologists call “intrinsic, end” and the manipulation by the “extrinsic, means” groups of religious people. Both groups endeavour to divide the world along sectarian lines, the former by its wrong interpretation of fundamentals and the latter by using religion to attain political goals. Among the right which supported the invasion of Iraq and gruesome treatment of “terrorists” by the America government are religious people, as I heard them many times in Christian Science Monitor radio, who call for the wholesome invasion and subjugation of the Muslim World. By so doing, they are only confirming the validity of the conclusion reached by Batson et al who, drawing from 47 researches among white, middle-class Christians in the United States, said: “religion is not associated with increased love and acceptance but with increased intolerance, prejudice, and bigotry.”
The extrinsic, end group must be watched closely. It contains almost all the ruling elite in most parts of the world. When George Bush wanted to invade Iraq, he declared it a crusade, in desperation to gain support among his people. The Vatican, as it did during John Paul II, will continue to serve humanity by counteracting dismissing claims and freeing religion from political subjugation. Saddam did the same thing, declaring his fight against America as a Jihad. How many times does Saddam pray in a day, or Bush goes to Church in a year?
Here at home, Nigerians need to watch carefully the emerging recruitment of religion to perpetrate injustice. We have a President who attends choir every week in the Presidency. No other Nigerian leader claimed to be more versed in religion as him, going by the copious quotations from the Bible in his book The Animal Called Man. But instead of reflecting this godliness in his leadership, he chose to behave like Caesar. He breaks every promise he makes, and violates the oath he took to follow and protect the constitution. Under him corruption has remained unchecked, and most of it is reported by Transparency International to be taking place right under his nose, in the Presidency. Now, in his bid to extend his tenure, as he did in 2003 elections, he is appealing to sectarian sentiments through unequal representation in government and at the political reform conference. So while the extrinsic end group among the Christians delighted, their Muslims counterparts are crying foul.
In their response, some people who have never worked for the progress of Islam have threatened Obasanjo with Jihad, while most of them are the last people that are supposed to utter that holy word. These were the same people with whose approval Obasanjo was sold to the Christians in 1999. Many of them did everything within their power to ensure his re-election in 2003. To undercut his main opponent after the elections, some of them were the first to pay homage to the President after the election. What then informs their discovery of Jihad now, a word that signifies a struggle against injustice? Certainly, the President has deliberately committed a wrong, as written by many unbiased Christians as well. But the call for Jihad was not suitable, by both means and circumstance.
We therefore need dialogue between the two religions in this country as much as it is needed globally. We have to guard it against abuse by the political and religious establishments. When we look at the proliferation of Pentecostal churches in addition to the earlier denominations in the country on the one hand, and the intrusion from outside of sects earlier unprofessed by Muslims in this country on the other, the call for dialogue could not have come at a better time. With Nigerians like Cardinal Arinze in charge of relations between the Church and other religions, we cannot be more fortunate.
In the execution of that dialogue, the precept of the Qur’an is clear: “And do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best, except those who commit injustice among them…” In another place God the Most High says: “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best.” In both verses, as noted by Yusuf al-Qardawi, we find a highest premium of care in speech placed when we discuss with Christians and Jews than when we call people generally to the fold of Islam.
In that way, we have the opportunity to contribute to the calls of both Khatami and the new Pope; with the little effort of the lips, we will avert more than one clash, at least in our immediate domain. The dialogue will also lead us to the reassertion of the relevance of religion in our individual and community affairs, saving us from the crass materialism of the new world order