Dr Ivo Coelho – The Challenge of Islam

Profile Ivo Coelho

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The Challenge of Islam by Dr Ivo Coelho, Priest and Philosopher

Christian – Muslim Brotherhood

The encounter between Christianity and Islam has never been an easy one, but there have been periods of calm and periods of unrest. Right now we are certainly living through a period of intense and ominous unrest, with the rise of the so-called Islamic State and the passionate emotions it arouses.

On the one hand, there are those who are attracted and fascinated by the ISIS. I have personally heard of young Muslim people educated in Catholic schools, in Mumbai and elsewhere, who have escaped to join the ISIS. These are part of a much larger number of youth, both Muslim and non-Muslim, from Europe, North America and eslewhere, who are swelling the ranks of the ISIS.

Ed Husain, one time jihadist and now member of the Tony Blair Foundation and of the American Council on Foreign Relations, explains that these are mostly either migrants, new converts or small delinquents, and always youth who are not fully integrated, do not have a strong social network, carry seeds of hatred within themselves, and lacking a good knowledge of their own religion. To this we might need to add that the dream of a grand Caliphate has never quite died down among many Muslims, fuelled no doubt by readings and memories of perceived historical injustices such as the Crusades. I remember very distinctly a fine and educated Muslim girl I met in Paris some twenty years ago, who told me very calmly that Muslims would one day take revenge on the Christian West for all the many centuries of suffering.

On the other hand, there are the many who are revulsed and disgusted by the beheadings and crucifixions of innocent people, and repelled by the news of young Muslims in European countries taking it upon themselves to harass Christians and Jews living in their midst. “One thing which bewilders me is that Islamists who live in Europe, instead of being grateful for the freedom they have there, they abuse it, and they criticize and threaten Europe and its inhabitants; so, what I do not understand is why they insist on remaining in Europe? … I despair…”

What to think and what to say in the face of all this? Some Christians are tempted to regard the whole thing and even Islam itself as diabolic. Others distinguish between Muslims and Islamists. The more sane and sage speak of the task of educating young people, Muslims included, to more fraternal and irenic attitudes. “Maybe it is time Christians became proactive and use their intellectual skills etc. to fight this evil menace,” my friend writes. Ed Husain himself notes that ideology and extremism cannot be fought with bombings and military interventions. What is needed is a war of ideas, involving Muslims themselves. “We should not forget that the great majority of Muslims is not extremist. We need to launch an ideological challenge, one that is capable of conquering minds and hearts. Above all, we need to offer an alternative, a better version of Europe….” More easily and more often, however, Christians easily tend to forget everyone else and pray only for their Christian brothers and sisters who are suffering on account of their faith; but this is, in my opinion, a merely tribal mentality and a far cry from a truly Christian attitude.

So revulsion? Despair? Education? Prayer?

I am convinced that, for one who believes in God, revulsion is understandable but despair is not. However desperate the situation, if I truly believe in God I am called to ask myself: what is God saying to me, to us, through all this?

I would think that God is reminding Christians of the great virtue of hope. Despair is not a Christian option.

I think God is telling Christians not to cast the first stone, and to remember that they have also been guilty of using his name to justify violence and hatred.

I believe also that God is reminding Christians to go slow and not to generalize. Not all Muslims are bad, just as not all Christians are good. I find it inspiring that Ed Husain came across Islamic scholars in the Middle East who opened his eyes to the difference between traditional Islam and the ideological version that advocates hatred and violence.

I believe, above all, that God is inviting Christians to go beyond a merely tribal way of responding, and to extend and expand their hearts to embrace not only Christians but everyone, and not only the good but also the evil. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Mt 5:44-45). The bishops of the Middle East were deeply prophetic in their recent pastoral letter when they stated that it was not a very Christian attitude to be concerned only about the persecution of Christians.

“We fully understand the fears and sufferings of our brothers and sisters in Christ, when by violence they lose members of their families and are driven out of their homes. They have the right to count on our solidarity and prayers. In certain circumstances their only consolation and hope is to be found in Jesus’ words: ‘Happy are those who are persecuted in the cause of right: theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 5:10). However, the repetition of the word ‘persecution’ in some circles (usually referring only to what Christians suffer at the hands of criminals claiming to be Muslims) plays into the hands of extremists, at home and abroad, whose aim is to sow prejudice and hatred, setting peoples and religions against one another.” LINK

So faith, hope and charity: against this there is no law, but also no appeal. It is simply not possible for a Christian to give in to hatred, despair, gloom and generalization. And perhaps what is happening will help us find new meaning in what we have always heard: that it is the cross that is at once the moment of glory.

I begin to understand this when I look at James Foley going bravely to his death. Foley’s death illuminates the nameless thousands who have lost their lives in similar situations in the Middle East, and is in turn, for me, illuminated by the life and death of Christian de Chergé and his fellow monks in Thiberine, Algeria. De Chergé’s vocation as a monk in Algeria was inspired by the death of his friend Muhammad: Muhammad, a Muslim policeman and father of 10, gave his own life in defence of de Chergé, and that gift of his life permeated every Eucharist that the monk celebrated. Islam, de Chergé came to believe, cannot be confined to the idea that people have of it, not even to what Muslims themselves might say about it, or to what we see of it in its historical manifestations. The death of de Chergé and his fellow monks is another light upon the deep and profound connection between cross and glory. We have to dare to say and to believe that glory and victory lies, paradoxically, in death and in defeat faced with faith, love and hope, in the refusal to despair and to demonize.

Where will the current situation lead? We do not know. What we know is that, like Christ, we are called to live by what we believe. And it is encouraging that our Muslim brothers have reminded us, in A Common Word between Us and You, that we are united not only in belief in the omnipotence and mercy of God, but also in the love of God and of neighbour. Which is why I have chosen to speak of Christian-Muslim brotherhood, hoping that this will be seen as an icon of the brotherhood and sisterhood of all human beings, and that more and more of us will be able to join Pope Francis and exclaim with conviction: never again religion in the service of hatred and violence.

Even if we are not able to turn the tide of history, every little victory counts, every little victory over the temptation to hate, generalize and despair.

© Ivo Coelho

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