The Financial Express

Clash between moderates and fundamentalists in Christianity and Islam

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When Martin Luther posted 95 theses on Wittenberg's Castle Church door on October 31, 1517, that is, on the eve of All Saints' Day (or All Hallows' Day), few would have believed then, and not many more even today, that this began a torturous journey towards the birth of the secular nation-state: unlike the open-ended borders of faith, the state's boundaries would be fixed, elevating sovereign rights to the hallowed sola fide and sola scriptura beliefs. Whereas sola fide boils down to the pre-requisite of getting to heaven, in this case, passing faith, sola scriptura identifies the Bible as the source of the Christian beliefs. Luther's 'radical' argument that faith and belief did not have to be memorised, monitored, recited, or reaffirmed publicly challenged the fundamentalist Roman Catholic Church, introduced the Protestant faith, which has garnered 1.0 million subscribers for every year since Luther nailed those theses, and spawned other doctrinal variations, such as Calvinism. Christian 'Reformists' and 'Counter-reformists' waged deadly conflicts across West Europe until the 1648 Peace at Westphalia, a point to ponder today as Islam's moderates confront fundamentalists for similar reasons.

As another faith from the same monotheistic family as Christianity and born in roughly in the same neck of the world's woods, Islam has faced many more doctrinal challenges in its fifteen centuries of existence than Christianity did before Luther. Beginning with the Shi'ia split at the very outset, and at the very heart of the faith, its beliefs have since been challenged (by Christian crusades from 1095), reinforced (by mid-18th Century Wahhabi'ism), and rejected (by Kemal Ataturk's secular revolution in the 1920s). Yet, at no point before our contemporary circumstances has Islam confronted a do-or-die kind of a religious showdown as widely across the world: fundamentalist drives have forced states to disown secularity for an 'Islamic' republic (as in Iran 1979), created an exclusive Islamic State (of Lebanon and/or Syria), even if for a brief while, and, at the same time, driven the custodian country, Saudi Arabia, to officially declare a 'moderation' campaign from 2017.

Keen observers have every right to reckon that Islam is going through a similar passage today in the 21st Century (since the 1970s, in fact), that Christianity experienced for two centuries after Luther, in spite of some critical contrasts. The first among these variations involve the relationship between the religious institution (church, mosque) and state: in spite of Luther's challenge, Christianity practised the Doctrine of Two Swords for many previous centuries (that is, 'give unto God what is God's, and to the Emperor what is his', but keep the temporal 'sword' under the spiritual 'sword': Pope Gelasius I spoke of it in 494, then Pope Boniface VIII spoke about it between 1294 and 1303).  In Islam, where the peak political institution, the khilaafat (caliphate), is even more spiritually driven (in establishment, functions, and purposes), such leeway for the temporal to thrive is much more circumscribed. More than that, the underlying conflict is between 'believers' and 'non-believers', not necessarily over territory or material claims, but over doctrine.

In spite of other differences, the key point still remains that all the 'princes' across the Islamic world cannot just convene at their own 'Westphalia' and chalk out some peace agreement with spiritual guidance among themselves: the 30-year negotiations at Westphalia were not conducted by cardinals representing the church, but two of the most pivotal negotiators were cardinals representing secular forces, the French king, through Armand Jean du Plessis, Duke of Richelieu and Fronsac, as Foreign Secretary and Chief Minister, and Jules Raymond Mazarin, Duke of Rethel, Mayenne, and Nevers, as Chief Minister, both on behalf of King Louis XIII; then Mazarin continuing, from 1642, to be Chief Minister for Louis XIV, the one who reaffirmed a Protestant theme, 'I am the state', rather than 'I am a Christian soldier'.

Still, Christian-Islam similarities can be extracted. First, both have not only forcefully presented the secular case in the debate, but also have found facilitated or favoured the contextual imperatives behind secular forces: technological advances, inter-faith exchanges, diluting faith-based differences, thus reducing both the catalytic role of spreading religion forcefully and the blind-sighted resistance to external beliefs, and a wider, more cosmopolitan setting than prevailed when the two holy scriptures were composed.

Second, at the critical transformative juncture (that is, 16th and 17th centuries for Christianity, and 20th and 21st centuries for Islam), both have resorted to bestial practices that even the two scriptures abhor: beheading betrayers, utilising temporal tools, like money, to promote spiritual outcomes, and not only interpreting scriptural references, codes, or passages as subjectively as possible but also imposing that version upon others, often by force. Utilising the 500-year hiatus to draw the conclusion that one (Islam) is worse than the other (Christianity), or even reversing that equation, plays the same obfuscation game: both were inhuman and unscripted in the direst moment of that fundamentalist-secular transition to warrant comparisons, or to withdraw lessons from, for policy-making purposes.

Third, both instances have not too secretly rebounded off another monotheistic faith in the same family: Judaism. Luther himself authored anti-Semitic treatises, and even did to them what fundamentalist Islamic State supporters did to the Jews (or even Zaidis) recently, burning their property, banishing them, and barring them from all but enslaved work. Jews then, turned to the Muslims (the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent rescued many Jews from reconquista Spain in the 16th Century, for which reason they ascribe to him one of the highest of Jewish accolades, the 'King Solomon' title), for help, just as they are today turning to the Christians to persecute Muslims, especially in and around Israel.

Finally, at this juncture in human history, both Christians and Muslims have been sympathising more with fundamentalist precepts than in the recent past. Commemorating the 500th Protestant Reformation anniversary, one Pew report this year showed, through a poll, how Christians may be seeking more of what the Roman Catholic Church wanted before Luther's time as proof of faith to enter heaven than they subsequently did after Luther, while, for Muslims, awaiting '72 virgins' in heaven and other erroneously depicted Quranic extractions have been increasingly used by subscribers in the name of jihad to galvanise the faithful.

If at this 21st Century juncture believers of both religions pause and ponder the damages wrought and the promises unfulfilled because of such inclinations, perhaps they might draw an identical conclusion for the first time together in their coexistence: there may be more mileage together than apart, and recognising that may help pull the plug on the greatest threat visiting both, fundamentalist growth.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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