Let me begin by thanking the Community of Saint Agidio for selecting the theme “Peace is the Future” for this International Conference. No other theme could be more pertinent in the current perilous situation in Middle East, particularly in Gaza, Syria and Iraq. I have been asked to speak on ‘Muslims and Christians together for Peace’. It’s about time that believers in the world came together for peace because they take pride in the conviction that peace is the future. In my view, Christians and Muslims as followers of two major religions in the world today have more at stake today than others. It is therefore imperative that they play their necessary role for establishing peace in the world.
Focus on Muslims and Christians does not mean that other religions are not anxious about peace in the world or they have no role to play in the current situation. On the contrary, the continuing demonstrations and rallies denouncing the massacre of innocent people, especially of children in Gaza, condemning immoral and insane killings in Syria and Iraq, particularly of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities speak eloquently about the universal concern for peace. They speak for all believers in world religions and for those who do not belong to any religion but share their religious heritage.
The first thing to do today is strengthen the mutual trust that is sometimes questioned on account of various events in the past and lack of which is frustrating our efforts to coming together for peace today. I need not apologize for the past because Muslims and Christians did in those days what their faith required according to the then theologians who justified such actions. We need not edit or rewrite the history. Today we are all part of an international community bound together with mutual pacts and conventions. However, under the burden of past we lack the required mutual trust. We need to dig deeper in our respective traditions to find common grounds to restore this mutual trust; namely the common hope for peace.
I am encouraged by the Qur’an that tells me that “the nearest among those in love to the believers you will find those who say, "We are Christians"; because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant. And when they listen to the revelation received by the Messenger, you see their eyes overflowing with tears, for they recognize the truth. They say, ‘ What cause can we have not to believe in God and the truth which has come to us, seeing that we long for our Lord to admit us to the company of the righteous?" And for this their prayer has God rewarded them with gardens, with rivers flowing underneath, - their eternal home. Such is the recompense of those who do good (Qur’an, 5: 82-4).
The Qur’an also tells me that those who believe, the Jews, the Sabians and the Christians, anyone who believes in God and the Last Day, and works righteousness, - on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve (Qur’an, 5: 69).
The Qur’an recounts the stories of several messengers who came with guidance from God. It confirms what went before it, namely the Torah and the Gospel that God sent down as guides to mankind (Qur’an, 3: 3). “We gave Moses the Book and followed him up with a succession of messengers. We gave Jesus the son of Mary Clear Signs and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit (Qur’an, 2: 87).
It tells me about Christians and says: “We sent after them Jesus the son of Mary, and bestowed on him the Gospel and We ordained in the hearts of those who followed him Compassion and Mercy (Qur’an, 5:27). About Mary, I am told that God addressed her saying: "O Mary! God has chosen you and purified you; He has chosen you above the women of all nations” (Qur’an, 3: 24).
I must not, however, forget the verses in the Qur’an that criticize Christians along with followers of other religions for not abiding by the Scripture. It says, “If only they had stood fast by the Torah, the Gospel, and all the revelation that was sent to them from their Lord, they would have enjoyed happiness from every side. There is from among them a party on the right course: but many of them follow a wrong course” (5:66).
I believe this is a reminder for Muslims as well.
This is reminder to study the history of conflicts, certainly not to continue the debates of yesteryears but to look for the origins or moral trajectories of current mistrust. The current threat to peace has a trajectory that is too long to be covered in short space of this talk. I confine myself to recent past and to the present chaos that we all wish to pass as quickly as possible. During the past two days we have discussed various aspects of the present crises including religion and violence. I would like to invite your attention to one issue: the lust of absolute power.
As I understand, the present menace to peace is caused by the lust for power, absolute power. The religious wars in the past, particularly in Europe led to the idea of nation-states that replaced medieval empires founded on religious solidarity. The lesson we learnt was that lust for power is divisive even when based on religion. Nation-states were, therefore, defined as polities founded on secularism and democracy; Secularism to separate politics from religion and Democracy to maintain the balance of power. But nationalism has been also divisive and power seeker.
Some lonely voices like Muhammad Iqbal in Lahore in 1924 did warn us about the dangers of formation of states on racial basis and perils of nationalizing moral and ethical values. Iqbal was concerned about Europe where universal ethics of Christianity was being replaced by systems of national ethics. Without bringing any workable synthesis of the two opposing systems of ethics, he feared that intolerance would ruin European morality. He urged the leaders in the world of Islam to understand the real meaning of what has happened in Europe, and then to move forward with self-control and a clear insight into the ultimate aims of Islam as a social policy.
However, the ideology of nationalism soon came to revere nation in terms of superior race and nation-state as infallible sovereignty. This absolutism led to more destruction than ever in human history. We witnessed racial discrimination, genocide, use of weapons of mass destruction and horrendous wars. Unfortunately, the pursuit for absolute power has not subsided yet.
The constitutional lawyers have been churning the doctrines of expediency, emergency, siege, necessity, martial law, security, pre-emptive strikes, and derogation or exemption from rule of law to empower further the already absolutely powerful state. Still, these doctrines operated within the framework of legal positivism. They reject religious and moral normativity and claim that law provides its own norms. At present, however, in the wake of war on terror, the political theorists are advancing the doctrine of ‘state exception’ to argue that the state should be law unto itself, not restricted by the constitutions and by the International laws. They insist that the state should have the right to define its own norms. The critics of this development, like Stephen Humphreys, are characterizing this development as ‘legalizing lawlessness’.
Muslim movements for Islamic state and Khilafa in Iraq and Syria are also marching on similar path; steering away from Democracy to the ideology of absolute power. They are using religious texts and scriptures to justify absolute power. They silence their opponents calling them apostates. They declare non-Muslims non-believers and enemies of God. And kill them both mercilessly. Like the doctrine of state exception, the doctrine of caliphate as vice regency of the Prophet of God also rests on the idea of absolute power. It is justified on the grounds of fear and security. My worry is that unless we collectively address this menacing lust of power in modern political thought and until we subject this lust to universal ethical principles we cannot take effective steps toward peace.
Both Muslims and Christians have been confronting the tension between law and ethics. Unfortunately, both have been generating political doctrines of absolute power, separated from religion and ethics. It is, therefore, the duty of Muslims and Christians both to restore the role of universal ethics to modern politics.
I would like to refer to the Qur’anic verse that calls upon all believers to stand for justice:
O you ho believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it is (against) rich or poor: for God can best protect both. Follow not the lust, lest you swerve, and if you distort or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that you do (Qur’an, 4: 135).
Let me conclude with a prayer that the Qur’an teaches:
Say, O my Sustainer! Cause me to enter in a manner true and sincere, and cause me to leave in a manner true and sincere, and grant me, out of Thy grace, sustaining strength! (Qur’an 17: 80)