The bishop and the imam ask, Do we really have to fight?
The Economist Special
Monday December 9th 2002
ISLAM AND THE WEST
The bishop and the imam ask, Do we really have to fight?
[Reprinted from Dec 20th 1990, The Economist print edition, http://beta.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=812943
Now that pluralism has beaten communism, they say, the next
great battle is between Islam and Christendom: or rather
between the two chunks of the world that have grown out of
those two different ideas of God and man. We therefore
organised a debate between an open-minded Christian cleric and
an open-minded Muslim one. Call them Francis and Mahmoud. The
reasonable Muslim begins
Mahmoud: It distresses me that so many people seem to think the
next period of history will be a fight between your part of the
world and mine. It is true that we live elbow to elbow with
each other, all the way from the Caspian Sea to the western end
of the Mediterranean. It is also true that our elbows have
banged painfully together many times in the past. But almost
2,000 years after the birth of your Jesus, and more than 1,400
years after the birth of our Muhammed, let me start by asking
whether it really has to happen all over again.
We are both, after all, "people of the Book". We both believe,
along with the Jews, in the idea of a single God. We also share
the idea of individual responsibility before God: in the words
of my Koran, "Each soul draws the reward of its acts on none
These things may sound meaningless to the many people who these
days do not believe in any God at all. But it is these primal
ideas that shape whole cultures, meaning the way we live. There
is a great gap between the way both you and I live, different
though we are, and the tangled life of the multi-god Hindu
culture, or the monochrome life of the almost godless Confucian
culture. Let me remind you that when Muhammed went from Mecca
on his visit to heaven in what you call AD621, he paused in
Jerusalem to kneel in prayer alongside Abraham, Moses--and
Jesus. That moves me.
Francis: It moves me too. But we have to face the facts of
history. The facts are that we cousins of the Book have
quarrelled frequently, and frightfully. There are no rows like
family rows. Let me remind you, in turn, of the time when the
sweaty young squires of a newly confident western Europe, those
yuppies of the eleventh century, clumped their way to Jerusalem
to start the sequence of slaughter and deception we call the
Crusades; and of that later time in the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries when a then all-powerful Europe swallowed
up almost the entire Muslim world into its various empires.
Mahmoud: And let me recall for you, since each of us is
remembering the times when his own side went too far, the Arab
army that swept through North Africa into Spain and France, hot
with a new religion, in your eighth century (and our first),
until Charles Martel stopped it at Poitiers; the Golden Horde,
which occupied most of what you now call European Russia until
a Grand Duke of Moscow turned it around 610 years ago; and the
Turkish thrust into eastern Europe that was reversed at the
gates of Vienna, thanks to a King of Poland, only 307 years
Francis: Yes, we both have our memories. Europe and Islam have
not had a quiet time together. Their fights with each other are
one of history's most familiar stories. Is there any reason to
think the story is over?
Mahmoud: Well, there is one important difference between then
In most of those earlier clashes, the side that went on to the
offensive was full of self-confidence, for what we would now
call both ideological and technological reasons; and the
defending side was divided and weak. The splendidly efficient
Arab army that carried the new-born Crescent as far as Poitiers
was attacking a Europe still in its Dark Ages. The Crusaders
whose heavy cavalry took the Cross back to Jerusalem 350 years
later marched with a Pope's blessing against a temporarily
disorganised Muslim world. The Turks who then pushed the
counter-attack as far as Vienna had the best-organised empire
of its time, and like your empire-builders of the 1900s
combined religious zeal with practical efficiency; and they
both faced a fragmented opposition.
It does not look like that now. I agree that at the moment my
Islam has more religious enthusiasm than your Christendom, or
ex-Christendom: most of us are still believers, most of you are
not sure whether you believe or not. But the rest of the
equation does not apply. You are still the side with crumbs of
modern life. Your Europe is pulling itself together into a new
unity; the Muslims, and especially the Arabs, are still
Francis: I accept that difference, but I am less than wholly
comforted by it, for two reasons. One is that the Arab world
has in this century shown signs, for the first time in ages, of
seriously trying to unite itself; and if Iraq's Mr Saddam
Hussein wins the present confrontation in the Gulf he may
indeed unite a large part of it under his leadership.
Mahmoud: Which I personally think would be a disaster. Saddam
would unite it under the wrong kind of political system, an
ungodly dictatorship, and for the wrong purposes, the
propagation of his own crude ideas about Arab power in the
modern world. But I have to tell you--and warn you--that many
of my fellow-Muslims admire him very much.
Francis: Quite. And that leads to my second reason for not
being reassured by your historical comparison: you have left
out probably the most important thing of all.
Most of those earlier waves of expansion by Islam into Europe,
and vice versa, were at least partly caused by economics. The
Arabs who burst out of the Arabian desert in the century after
Muhammed's death were moved by religious enthusiasm, but they
were also moved by the fact that there were not enough oases in
the desert to keep them alive. The Golden Horde and the Turks
migrated out of central Asia for similar reasons. Much of the
man-power of the Crusades consisted of the new European landed
class's younger sons; as the rural economy of medieval Europe
settled down into its new post-Dark-Ages order, these young
people had nothing much to do, and wanted excitement. The
nineteenth century's empire-builders were a bit like that too.
What worries me now is that the Muslim world to the south and
east of Europe has too many young men and not enough to feed
them on, or keep them busy with. Only four of the 19 countries
with predominantly Muslim populations between Morocco and
Iran--Morocco itself, Tunisia, Yemen and Turkey--have economies
growing faster than the number of mouths they have to feed. In
the other 15, people are getting steadily poorer. In four of
those 15, more than half the population is under the age of 25,
in nine more than 60%.
This is already producing a flood of economic refugees and, if
economic misery leads to more political repression, will
produce a flood of political refugees too, including a lot of
angry revolutionaries. That will cause arguments between
Europe, which will say it cannot take so many refugees, and the
governments that want to get rid of them. These arguments could
get mixed up with other things: freedom of movement between our
two parts of the world, Europe's access to Arab oil, the
ambitions of the next generation of Saddam Husseins. The wrong
sort of new Arab leadership will create the wrong sort of new
Arab self-confidence. And all this in a world of chemical
weapons and nuclear missiles. I cannot claim to foresee the
outcome, but there are the makings of trouble here.
Mahmoud: There are indeed. Let us both say, even if we differ
over the details, that we are worried about how Islam and
Europe will get through the next 50 years without a clash. What
can men of good heart on both sides do to limit the danger?
Francis: I think that depends on whether we can agree about the
basic nature of the world we shall be inhabiting in the
twenty-first century. If we can, we should then be able to ask
ourselves how our two different traditions, the Christian one
and the Muslim one, can cope with that sort of world.
The past two years, 1989 and 1990, have brought a great
clearing of minds about the way man organises his day-to-day
life here on earth. After the rout of communism, it is really
no longer possible to believe that politics and economics can
be left under the control of a handful of people who claim to
"know" how to run these things. We have returned to individual
responsibility, to the belief that each man carries the burden
of his own life: an idea which, as you say, Muslims and
Christians share. It seems clear to me that in future
everybody in the world will want democracy for the political
side of life, and the free choice of the marketplace as the
basis of economic life.
Mahmoud: My picture of democracy may be a little different from
yours, as I shall explain in a moment. But in general I agree.
Indeed, if I may be tactless, I will point out that my Islam
has been much better about communism over the past 70 years
than your Christianity has. Most communist governments came to
power in the Christian part of the world. None ever did in the
Muslim part, unless imposed from outside. Some foolish
Christians used to say that communism was "just another
Christian heresy". Every Muslim saw it for what it was, an
enemy to both of us. Let that pass, however. We agree that, in
future, people everywhere will with to have a much bigger say
in how their earthly lives are organised.
Francis: Then let us go on from there. I claim that the ideas
Christianity introduced into my part of the world are a better
basis for the pursuit of democracy than the ideas produced by
Islam. It is from Christianity, for instance, that we have
learnt the essential idea of separation of church and state.
This is essential because, in matters that have to do with God,
the absolute reigns; things are right or wrong, and no voting
will make them otherwise. But in running our day-to-day life on
earth, if we want to do it the democratic way, we must accept
that the other man's opinion is as good as our own. This is the
realm of relativity, of honest doubt. The two realms are
separate. Christians have been told so from the start. "Render
therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto
God the things that are God's." The Koran--forgive me--has
nothing like that to say to Muslims. On the contrary, you are
told that any such separation is sinfully wrong.
Mahmoud: It took Christians a very long time to put that
principle properly into practice. Your Holy Roman Emperors and
your Popes of the Middle Ages reached many convenient political
arrangements with each other. In general, apart from an
admirable early experiment by the Swiss, it took you 1,600 or
1,700 years--longer than Islam has yet been in
existence--before you even started to develop the democracy for
which you say the separation of church and state is a necessary
You must give us time too. In fact, though we have no great
phrase to point to like your quotation from Jesus in the
Matthew gospel, most Muslim countries already practise a
rough-and-ready separation between the business of God and the
business of the state. We are terribly slow to do it in a
democratic way; but so were you.
Francis: Yet it goes much deeper than the God-state separation.
The practice of democracy requires a special attitude towards
other people. It is necessary to accept, not just in the
intellect but in the heart, that that other being out there is
as important as you are. He may not be as good-looking, or as
clever, or as well-read in Aristotle or Adam Smith, but he is
as important. This is not something men feel naturally. It
cannot be taught in sociology lessons in school. The only way
of learning it, gradually, is out of the climate of ideas in
which we grow up, the body of thought that shapes our lives:
our "culture", to use that clumsy word.
I am going to press you hard. "Love thy neighbour as thyself",
said the founder of Christianity, adding that next to loving
God this was the most important rule of all. I cannot find any
equivalent in Islam's basic book. The Koran says much about
the love of God; that is excellent, but not sufficient. The New
Testament is full of exhortations--the Sermon on the Mount is
one example--to look at our fellow-men with respect, and
without self-assertion. The index of my copy of the Koran has
nothing under "compassion" or "mercy", and only one entry under
"peace" except as a word you say when you meet somebody. There
are some fine verses about patience in Sura 16, and about
modesty in Sura 31, but that is not quite the same thing.
Without plunging into theology, I will briefly say what I think
lies at the root of this. To somebody who lives in the
Christian world, even if he is not himself a believer, it seems
clear that the Christian view of how one man should think of
another man is linked to the Christian idea of a threefold God,
father, son and holy ghost. If you have been told that God
detached the son-part of himself, as it were, to become a human
being, and get crucified, you are liable to start feeling
rather more respectful towards all human beings. Islam, denying
the Trinity, denies itself that opportunity.
Mahmoud: If I do not take you up on the Trinity, you will
understand it is solely in the interest of peace and out of
compassion for our readers. That is not entirely a joke.
Look, let me repeat: you must give us time. The New Testament
has its strong points, including what it says about loving your
neighbour; so does the Koran, especially on the wonder of God.
But 600 years ago, when Christianity was roughly as old as
Islam is now, the politics of Christendom was no more admirable
than you say the politics of Islam is now. In your year of
grace 1390, Christian Europe was authoritarian, brutal, had a
Pope and an Anti-Pope, and was wondering whether to have an
Eleventh--or was it a Thirteenth?--Crusade. Europe's great
change for the better was still around the corner.
You brought up economics earlier in the debate, to score a
point against me. Let me deploy economics now. That great
European change for the better, including the growth of
democracy, came about partly because Europe grew richer. The
spread of wealth, and leisure, and thoughtfulness, helped to
liberate the forces of the spirit that brought about the
Renaissance and the Reformation, which in turn led to the
coming of democracy. Those forces of the spirit were there,
waiting; economic growth was no more than one key, among
others, unlocking the door for them; but it played its part. I
am confident that, if the Arab world can get its economics
straight, a similar door can be unlocked for us. And, if it is,
our democracy may have one or two special advantages.
Francis: If you are right, we can breathe again: what might
otherwise have been the chief danger to the peace of the
twenty-first century will have eased. And I accept your point
about the importance of economics. Indeed, I gratefully
acknowledged that the flowering of Europe in the Renaissance
and the Reformation was much helped, economically and
otherwise, by what Europe imported from the Arabs 600 years and
more ago. We re-learnt from you the natural sciences and the
other things you had learnt from classical Greece, but we had
forgotten during the Dark Ages. That was partly why Europe woke
up again. Thank you.
But what did you mean when you said that your version of
democracy, if it comes, will be in some ways better than ours?
Mahmoud: You have set out what you think are the advantages of
your religion as a foundation for democracy. I will now set out
two advantages I think mine has.
One is that we Muslims are better on the race question: which
will matter a lot in the coming century. The Koran is clear
about it. In the beginning, it says, "mankind was but one
nation"; and then "O mankind! We . . . made you into nations
and tribes, that ye may know each other but not despise each
other." And by and large, if you look around the world, we have
carried the principle into practice fairly well.
Francis: You had in East Africa, not all that long ago, a slave
trade as abominable as ours in West Africa.
Mahmoud: True: we both have to admit our failures. But on the
whole the record of Islam in this matter is not bad. Muslims do
not seem to have the race-consciousness that has marked so much
of the history of Christianity since the Roman empire went
Christian. One of Muhammed's last instructions to the Arabs was
not to treat non-Arabs as inferior. This will be relevant, I
think, in the coming century.
The other advantage may be harder for people in the modern West
to understand, but is even more important in the long run. I
think Islam can point to the danger that lies inside the
triumph of the West, the weakness in its strength.
As you said, the birth of democracy and capitalism was made
possible by removing one part of life from the realm of the
absolute. In the operations of pluralism there is no permanent
right and wrong, no unmistakable good and bad. Each man's
judgment counts as much as the next man's. When a majority
decides something should be done, it is done; if it changes its
mind, it is undone. Whether a field is occupied by sheep or a
computer factory depends on the intricate working out of
millions of individual preferences between roast lamb and
printouts. It is an admirably efficient system, and 1989 and
1990 suggest it is what the whole world wants; but it is not
The decisions of the majority sometimes produce results that
many people see as not just temporarily inconvenient, but
wrong. These may be put right later, if the majority changes;
but there is no guarantee that they will be. Also, in any
system based on the working out of individual choices, some
individuals will finish up at the bottom of the pile, perhaps
permanently. The system has no monitor, as it were, nobody
watching it from outside. The more universal the system
becomes, the more I worry about this lack of any guiding set of
rules. If capitalist democracy is the worldwide system of the
future, many people will begin to feel that they live inside a
smoothly humming but, when you look at it, amoral machine.
Islam, which insists that daily life is part of a wider
whole--that there are always objective truths to be
honoured--is a reminder of these imperfections. I do not know
exactly how the imperfections will be put right; but then
neither did anybody know 600 years ago, back in AD1390, exactly
how the Renaissance and the Reformation would come to the
rescue. Nor am I asking you to become Muslims. I merely
suggest that you address yourselves, in your own way, to the
unfinished business of pluralism.
Francis: As a Christian I agree with you, of course; although
many people in the western world will think we are talking
nonsense just because it is Christmas. How marvellous if Islam,
which helped to prod Christendom awake at the end of the Middle
Ages, should after all help the modern West in the shaping of
the next few centuries.
<> ... On that account: We ordained for
<> the Children of Israel that if anyone
<> slew a person - unless it be for
<> murder or for spreading mischief
<> in the land - it would be as if
<> he slew the whole people: and if
<> any one saved a life, it would
<> be as if he saved the life of
<> the whole people."
<> Holy Qur'an, Surah al-Maidah 5:32.
<> URL: http://quran.al-islam.com/
"And the mind - may God preserve you - is more
prone to deep sleep than the eye. Neediest of
sharpening than a sword. Poorest to treatment.
Fastest to change. Its illness, the deadliest.
Its doctors, the rarest. And its cure, the
hardest. Whoever got a hold of it, before the
spread of the disease, found his sake. Whoever
tried to wrestle it after the spread would not
find his sake. The greatest purpose of knowledge
is the abundance of inspiring thoughts. Then,
the ways to go about one's needs are met."
-- Al-Jahiz ("Puffy"), 9th Century Baghdad,
Kitab at-Tarbi` wat-Tadweer ("Squaring
the Circle"), p. 101, Edited by Prof. Charles
Pellat, Institut Francais de Damas, 1955.