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City of Banjul
Thursday, March 4, 2021

Dr Chris Hewerith (Christian-Muslim scholar)

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Islam has been, perhaps with a modicum of justification, seen by many in the West as a religion of violence.  Suicide bombings by Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Boko Haram in Nigeria are almost daily occurrences.  Is it your view that such perceptions have a basis in reality?

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Violence, that is, violating the rights of other human beings, can never be a central part of any Godly religion.  From the time of Prophet Muhammad, we see the way in which he sought peaceful solutions, such as in the Treaty of Hudaibiyya, rather than violence.  He treated captured soldiers and civilians with respect and was noted for seeking peace through granting amnesty, for example, at the conquest of Makka.  The rules of engagement in battle laid down by the Qur’an and the Prophet restricted any combat to being between combatants and forbade any attack, killing or terrorism of non-combatants, which included explicitly all women, children, the sick and elderly and also surrendered soldiers.  A similar decree can be seen in the teaching of Jesus, who forbade his followers to take up the sword against those who opposed them.  A code for the conduct of war through the “just war principles” was laid down in the Christian tradition.  Therefore we can say that violence can be no part of a Godly religion.

That is not to say for a moment that Christians and Muslims have always abided by the principles of their faiths in this matter.  It must be a cause for shame on the part of the followers that they have used violence against the decrees of God and God’s revelations.  Unfortunately, this continues to our own times and can be seen in the wave of indiscriminate killing that has afflicted us all for example in the 20th century and until today.

In both Muslim and Christian teachings, suicide is forbidden as it takes upon the individual the fundamental right of God to determine when each one of us dies.  Suicide bombers almost invariably target civilian populations and thus go against the rules of conduct even in war.  For these two reasons, we can see that suicide bombers are forbidden in both Christianity and Islam.  This is a distortion of true religion that has afflicted our own generation.  The same can be said of Western forces using missiles, aerial bombardment, drones and so forth as weapons of indiscriminate killing.  From the Muslim perspective, this position was made clear in the Amman Message in 2004 signed by scores of Muslim heads of state and the principal religious authorities (see www.ammanmessage.com).  

The first suicide attack that we know of in Muslim history occurred in 1983 in the Lebanon targeting the American Marine base.  They occurred again in the Intifada in Palestine against Israeli forces from 1991.  The terror that has been unleashed by those who follow the methods of the al-Qaida tendency in the 21st century must be seen as unIslamic and an aberration against the teachings of Islam, as the Amman Message made clear.

 

What is your take on attitudes towards Muslims in the West in the post 9/11 world?

The fundamental error that was made by the American administration after the attacks on the twin towers was to fail to ask what were the causes that led to this event; instead there was an immediate rush to the so-called “war on terror” with the disastrous consequences with which we are familiar.  Instead of treating these attacks as a matter for international action against a criminal offence, to be prosecuted through the courts, a military reaction was launched.  Most Americans know nothing of Islam and the affairs of the Muslim world and so it was easy for them to be manipulated into an assumption that this was in accordance with Islam, which became the “new enemy.”  Even in countries like Britain and France, which had a long association with Islam and Muslims, most people followed the American lead and believed their rhetoric.

The only way to deal with the present situation is through educating Muslims about what Islam truly teaches and helping non-Muslims to understand Islam and see that those who support terrorist attacks are extremists, far away from the true teachings of Islam.  There were attacks by terrorist groups in Europe: the Irish Republican Army, the Red Army Faction, the Basque Separatists and so on, but the general population knew that they represented only a tiny extremist tendency within the general population and so did not hold whole peoples responsible for their actions.  The fact is that most people, even in Britain and France, which both have millions of Muslim citizens, were ignorant of them, their ways and their religion, and so were open to be told lies by those who wanted war instead of a renewed effort to establish world peace.  This ignorance is an underlying problem and it is something that I have been trying to address in decades of teaching about Islam to non-Muslim audiences (see www.chrishewer.org).

 

 

What else must happen to promote the culture of religious tolerance? Some say better education will go a long way in changing attitudes but the media in the west, I stand to be corrected, is rabid and anti-Islam?

Education of the head and of the heart is certainly a key element in promoting a culture of religious tolerance.  People need to be exposed to true followers of both faiths, which is why groups like the Marlborough-Gunjur exchange projects in Britain and The Gambia are crucial contributors.  It was common in the 20th century in many parts of Africa that Christians and Muslims lived together as members of the same family and shared the same villages.  They knew each other in their hearts and thus their common humanity was obvious to all concerned so that a mutual respect was there which gave religious differences a proper context as secondary to being brothers and sisters in humanity.  This experience needs to be shared on a much wider basis: we need to know one another in our common humanity.

As regards the media in the West; we must accept that they have their own agendas, which are set by political and economic forces rather than on the basis of truth or educating their readers.  They want to sell newspapers etc. and serve their masters above all else and will make the news as sensational as they can.  They too share the ignorance of many people but in their case they have the money and power to do something about it.  One good piece of news is that many people in Britain, for example, know that what they receive from the media has the bias of the owners and politicians rather than being free and fair reporting.

 

What are your last words and how do you feel about the state of the world as far as religious tolerance is concerned?

We have to accept that there are forces of international power, economics and politics that make the world a more dangerous place than it was fifteen years ago.  Political corruption is a widespread phenomenon in many countries in the West and in Muslim-majority lands.  The way in which movements such as we have seen at work in the Arab lands have conducted themselves mean that we have not seen the last of violence in the name of religion.  The way that western powers have handled international affairs and their own domestic policies have stored up problems for the future.  We will live through difficult times and have to accept that religious intolerance on many sides will make matters worse.

There must always be the attitude of hope within all Christians and Muslims.  We must hope for a better and more respectful world and do all that we can to strive towards it in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.  Better to light a candle of hope and truth in the world than to curse the darkness that pervades.  In whatever circumstance we find ourselves, we owe it to God and humanity to continue the Godly jihad of working for justice, peace and mutual respect.

 

Author: Sainey Darboe

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