By Rudy Barnes, Jr., February 6, 2016
Can Jesus and Muhammad meet today and reconcile their differences on religion and politics? It depends on how Christians and Muslims understand the teachings of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad on God’s standards of legitimacy (what is right). In the ancient scriptures, Moses and Muhammad emphasized God’s laws, while Jesus emphasized God’s love over law.
There are many variations of Christianity. Jerry Falwell, Jr. is an evangelical Christian who is President of Liberty University, the largest Christian University in the world. He endorsed Donald Trump to be President of the U.S. and referred to him as an exemplar of the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. By Falwell’s fundamentalist standards of Christianity, moderate and progressive Christians are heretics.
There are similar differences within Islam. Polling data provided by the Pew Research Center indicates that most Muslims are fundamentalists who believe that Muhammad dictated the Qur’an as the perfect and immutable word of God. Most Christians believe that Jesus taught and exemplified the word of God, but they are not fundamentalists who consider the Bible to be the inerrant and infallible word of God. Few Christians believe that the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel accounts are a verbatim account of his teachings.
Islamic scholars have asserted that the greatest commandment is a common word of faith for Christians and Muslims alike. But how to relate the moral imperative to love our neighbors--including our unbelieving neighbors--to our politics has proven to be problematic. Most Islamic scholars reject libertarian concepts of democracy and human rights since they conflict with the dictates of the Qur’an and Islamic law (Shari’a) that includes apostasy and blasphemy laws that prevent any freedom of religion and speech. This represents a basic conflict of religious and political values that impedes better interfaith relations, and is a theme of Islamist terrorists.
Such a toxic mix of religion and politics is not limited to Islam. The current political season in the U.S. has produced GOP politicians like Trump who claim that God is on their side as they seek the support of fundamentalist evangelical Christians. It is nothing new. Christianity and political power have had an incestuous relationship ever since Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century; and even though Jesus avoided mixing the power of God’s kingdom with that of worldly kingdoms, the Church has done just that. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980s and his son’s endorsement of Donald Trump this year are only the most recent examples of Christianity mixing religion with politics.
Islam has been more consistent than Christianity in imposing the divine mandates of religion on its politics, blurring any distinction between the two. Unlike Western democracies, Islamic cultures were not transformed by the libertarian concepts of the Enlightenment. Even following the political upheavals of the Arab Spring of 2011, libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law are largely absent in Islamic cultures. Shari’a continues to stifle fundamental freedoms with apostasy and blasphemy laws, and has sanctified authoritarian regimes like that of President (and former General) El-Sissi in Egypt.
El-Sissi has used religion to suppress political dissent and incarcerate opponents of his authoritarian regime. And the bitter and vociferous dispute between two prominent Islamic clerics, Sheikh Ali Gomaa and Dr. Qaradawi, the former supporting El-Sissi and the latter opposing him, is testimony to the pervasive and corrosive role of religion and politics in Egypt, the bellwether of Sunni Islam. Saudi Arabia is another ally of the U.S. in the Middle East that makes no pretense of democracy, human rights or the secular rule of law as it exports its version of fundamentalist Islam (Wahhabism) worldwide.
How do we define Jesus and Muhammad in today’s world—or more appropriately, how do we define the many and diverse variations of Islam and Christianity that have developed around their teachings—in order to reconcile the religious differences that have created so much hate and violence? Secretary of State John Kerry has called the Islamists of ISIS apostates, using their own terminology to condemn them, but that is not helpful since Kerry is not a Muslim and has no standing to define true Islam. The same can be said of those Islamists who condemn Christians in the U.S. as minions of the Great Satan.
We cannot define either Jesus or Muhammad today in a way acceptable to all Christians and Muslims, but if the greatest commandment is truly a common word of faith then we can define what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves—including our unbelieving neighbors—as a common religious and political value and learn to practice what we preach. That’s a big order, and there is little evidence that religious leaders are willing to do that; but it’s the only way that Jesus and Muhammad can meet today and reconcile contentious differences in religion and politics. If religious leaders were committed to that kind of reconciliation, they could transform religion and politics as we know them and make the world a better place.
Notes and References to Resources:
Previous blogs on related topics are: Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today?, January 25, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty, March 29, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 21, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015; The Muslim Stranger: A Good Neighbor or a Threat?, October 25, 2015; Faith, Hope and Love in a World of Fear, Suspicion and Hate, December 5, 2015; Who Is My Neighbor?, January 23, 2016; and The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, January 30, 2016..
On Jerry Falwell’s praise for Donald Trump as exemplifying the greatest commandment, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/01/26/evangelical-leader-jerry-falwell-jr-endorses-trump/?tid=a_inl.
On The gospel according to Donald Trump, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-gospel-according-to-trump/2016/01/19/b63977b4-bef7-11e5-83d4-42e3bceea902_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.
On Sheikh Ali Gomaa’s praise for President al-Sissi’s oppressive policies in Egypt and his condemnation of the opposition. See http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/world/middleeast/egypt-abdel-fattah-el-sisi-islam.html.
On how U.S. support for al-Sissi’s repressive regime has undermined democracy, legitimacy and the stability of Egyptian politics by strengthening rather than weakening terrorist groups, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-to-rescue-egypt/2016/01/28/183fc432-c3a7-11e5-8965-0607e0e265ce_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions. See also, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/5-years-after-a-revolution-egypts-regime-is-far-from-restoring-democracy/2016/01/25/cb18a75e-c389-11e5-a4aa-f25866ba0dc6_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions; see also, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/egypts-state-of-repression/2015/12/03/6fbf98dc-991c-11e5-8917-653b65c809eb_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.
For an in-depth analysis of how al-Sissi’s repressive regime is undermining Egyptian stability and what the U.S. can do about it, see http://www.brookings.edu/research/testimony/2015/11/03-us-egypt-relationship-hamid.
For the fiercely competing views of Sheikh Ali Gomaa and another respected Islamic scholar, Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, on the legitimacy of the Sissi regime under Islam, see https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/africa/8421-ali-gomaa-kill-them-they-stink and http://iumsonline.org/en/iums123/news/d4052/.
Sheikh Gomaa has an unlikely ally in Senator Ted Cruz, who has praised al-Sissi as “…a tough, terror-fighting commander who should both be befriended and emulated. Here's Cruz, from the Post's annotated transcript of the whole debate. ‘... let me contrast President Obama, who at the prayer breakfast, essentially acted as an apologist. He said, "Well, gosh, the crusades, the inquisitions —" We need a president that shows the courage that Egypt's President al-Sissi, a Muslim, when he called out the radical Islamic terrorists who are threatening the world. Sissi, you see, is no sissy. The Egyptian president came to power in 2013 through a coup that ousted the country's first democratically-elected leader — Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sissi's takeover was spurred in part by rising anti-Morsi sentiment and mass protests and saw only muted condemnation from a few circles in Washington.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/08/07/gop-debate-highlights-republicans-obsession-with-egypts-sissi/?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1
On Secretary Kerry condemning supporters of ISIS as apostates, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/02/03/john-kerry-keeps-calling-the-islamic-state-apostates-maybe-he-should-stop/?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_headlines.