Mission

Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

The Salam Institute for Peace and Justice (Washington, DC) is actively involved in conflict resolution between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in several parts of the world. Its co-founder and Executive Director, Mohammed Abu-Nimer, is the author of Nonviolence and Peace Building in Islam: Theory and Practice (University Press of Florida, 2003) and is Directorof the Peacebuilding and Development Institute at American University. He co-sponsored a series of two dialogs between Fuller Theological Seminary and the Salam Institute (of which I was a part) which resulted in the book, Peace-Building by, between, and beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians (Lexington Books, reprint. ed., 2010).

[This was first posted on the Peace Catalysts Int'l website the week before 9/11 under the title, "Fear, Inc."]

 

The flames of suspicion, hate and fear swept over our country in the 1940s and 1950s, fanned by the zealous anti-Communist Senator from Wisconsin, mwo4meph McCarthy. Government employees, people from the entertainment industry, the unions and universities, were dragged before interrogation panels, some staged by the government, some privately sponsored. Thousands lost their jobs and reputations as a result, and hundreds were imprisoned. More gravely, the whole country was caught in a vortex of hysteria, mutual denigration and bitter debates.

The current campaign in the United States to vilify Muslims is certainly reminiscent of the McCarthyism of the 1950s. OK, it's not state-sponsored, and so it's on a smaller scale; but it's sure poisoning our public discourse, especially in this pre-election year.

If you don’t believe me, then just add up these phrases that bounce back and forth from the media, the blogosphere, and the lips of your neighbor next door:

 

  • “Practicing Muslims cannot be loyal Americans”
  • “There is no such thing as moderate Islam. Traditional Islam is radical Islam
  • “President Obama is a Muslim”
  • “Sharia is a threat to America”
  • “Mosques are Trojan Horses”
  • “Radical Islam has infiltrated America, the government and mainstream Muslim organizations”

 

These thoughts don’t just appear out of thin air. That is what a new study by a Washington think tank, Center for American Progress (CAP), is trying to show. Its 138-page report, “Fear Inc: Exposing the Islamophobia Network in America” (download here), points to seven foundations that together have contributed over $42 million in support of this campaign bent on exploiting the fear and ignorance of Americans about Islam after 9/11 (see Keith Olbermann’s interview of one of its authors).

Following the money trail is crucial, though never entirely possible. Yet at the very least, by exposing the funding traceable via IRS channels, the authors hoped that some of the donors would think twice about what they are funding. You can’t make Islamophobia disappear with a magic wand, but cutting off some of the money has got to help. And in fact, one of the foundations contacted CAP after the study was published, bitterly complaining that their name was associated with such illustrious merchants of hate. Bingo!

Sadly, lots of money is funneled through private foundations, corporations and individual donors, and often with precise political goals in mind. “Fear, Inc.” reveals that the top seven foundations typically give to conservative, right-wing causes and agents. The number one donor turns out to be The Donors Capital Fund, which in 2009, for instance, dispensed about $60 million for “mainstream conservative groups, none of which are Islamophobic” (p. 16). Yet from 2007 to 2009 they also distributed $21, 318, 600 to four of the most “islamophobic” organizations.

OK, so what is their definition of “islamophobia”? Actually, it’s a very helpful one: “an exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from America’s social, political, and civic life” (p. 9). So it’s the reinforcement of “negative stereotypes” that 1) prey on existing fear and hostility toward Muslims, 2) by distorting and exaggerating aspects of Islamic beliefs and practices, 3) with the goal of discriminating against, stigmatizing and even excluding Muslims “from America’s social, political, and civic life.”

Who are these purveyors of hate and misinformation? They fall into four categories:

 

1. The pseudo-scholars and policy experts: here, five individuals share the responsibility for providing the catchy talking points (“mosques are a Trojan horse”). One of these, Frank Gaffney (see my blog “Sharia Conspiracy Theories”) uses his neoconservative think tank, The Centre for Security Policy, to broadcast a definition of “Sharia” no Muslim would recognize, but which allows him to state – rather ominously – that the Islamic sharia is the greatest totalitarian threat to US security. Next, lawyer and author David Yerushalmi’s rhetoric along the same lines has provided a backbone to the campaign in 23 states to outlaw Sharia (see my blog, “Sharia: Can It Be Outlawed?”). Add three more names: Steve Emerson’s overstated analysis of the “Islamic threat” by means of his think tank, The Investigative Project on Terrorism; Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum; and Robert Spencer (who has written the most books by far) and his website Jihad Watch.

 

2. Grassroots organizations and the religious right, providing “the muscle of the Islamophobia network” and successfully building on the momentum of the “Ground Zero Mosque” protest (which was neither a mosque nor at ground zero) in 2009-2010: at the top of the list is Lebanese-American Brigitte Gabriel, dubbed “a radical islamophobe” by the New York Times, who founded in 2007 Act! For America, which now boasts 573 chapters and 170,000 members worldwide. Its national Executive Director is former Christian Coalition strategist Guy Rodgers and its short-term goal is to turn fear of Islam into an electrifying tool in the upcoming presidential campaign so as to defeat President Obama. Another influential grassroots organization is Pamela Geller’s Stop Islamization of America, which in the words of the Anti-Defamation League “promotes a conspiratorial anti-Muslim agenda under the guise of fighting radical Islam” (p. 69). In the Religious Right category, you find John Hagee (Christians United for Israel), Pat Robertson (American Center for Law and Justice), and Ralph Reed (Faith and Freedom Coalition), and grassroots organizations like the Eagle Forum, American Family Coalition, and more recently, the Tennessee Freedom Coalition. Finally, some local Tea Party chapters have embraced Geller and Gabriel’s agenda.

 

3. Media outlets: these enable the mainstreaming of extremist rhetoric, and in particular, Fox News in network TV and radio personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck. David Horowitz is also a major player in the field of Islam-bashing. His Freedom Center (founded in 1988), according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, has “helped spread bigoted ideas into American life. Through his two online magazines (FrontPage and Jihad Watch, both directed by Robert Spencer), blog (NewsReal), Islamofascism Awareness Week organized on hundreds of US college campuses, his Wednesday Morning Club and his annual Restoration Weekend in Palm Beach, Florida (Michele Bachman and Newt Gingrich were among this year’s speakers), Horowitz provides the backbone of the anti-Muslim cottage industry.

 

4. The political players: Republican representatives Peter King (NY, who organized the congressional hearings on the radicalization of the US Muslim community) and Michele Bachman are among three other colleagues the study mentions as intentionally using the slogans and material of groups mentioned above.

 

Lest we think this is a harmless use of democratic free speech and lively political debating, perhaps we should ponder the fact that Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik in his rambling 1,500-page manifesto quoted Robert Spencer 162 times and Pamela Geller’s blog Atlas Shrugs 12 times. Hate speech can lead some people to act on it. Tragically, McCarthyism is making a comeback – and it has its clones in Europe too.

I believe we should applaud and support the interfaith, grassroots movement that is planning to use the tenth anniversary of 9/11 for bold acts of solidarity with the Muslim community – a community which, by the way, has incessantly denounced violence in the name of religion, and especially in this last decade (see the latest Pew Poll on American Muslims).

Finally, let me say as a Christian aspiring to follow Jesus who commanded love of enemy and embodied costly peacemaking: let’s use this opportunity to preach, pray, and implement the Father’s reconciling love on this Sunday morning, ten years after 9/11.

28 September 2011

The Common Word Letter

The 2007 letter by 138 global Muslim leaders and scholars addressed to the Pope and all Christian leaders was an historic initiative. Based on the premise that what unites Muslims and Christians is at the core of their respective faiths (love of God and love of neighbor), this was a call for the two communities of faith to work together to build a more peaceful world. It is part of a larger website, The Amman Message, which chronicles the most stunning show of Islamic unity in at least a millennium (2004-6). More than just a repudiation of all acts of terrorism, it was an effort a) to define who is a Muslim; b) to ban the practice of calling fellow Muslims apostates (takfir); c) and to agree on concrete benchmarks for those scholars/jurists who issue legal opinions (fatwas).

The Yale Center for Faith and Culture, founded by Professor Miroslav Volf, houses a "Reconciliation Program" run by my friend, mwo4meph Cumming, who founded and directed a women's health NGO for many years in Mauritania. Volf and Cumming hosted the first Muslim-Christian dialogue conference after the publication of the 2007 landmark letter to the Pope and all Christian leaders signed by 138 Muslim leaders and scholars from all over the world (The Common Word).

27 September 2011

Carl Medearis Website

Carl Medearis is a friend with years of residence in Lebanon, who is now in the forefront of Muslim-Christian reconciliation. Among his recent bestselling books are Muslims, Christians and Jesus, Tea with Hezbollah, and Speaking of Jesus.

Dr. Rick Love and his associates engage in a variety of peacebuilding activities all over the USA, mostly between Muslims and Christians. I contribute regularly to their blogs.

His hands still bloody from bludgeoning his brother and hastily burying him, Cain, son of Adam, hurried home. Yet the satisfaction of getting rid of his life’s biggest nuisance was now, ever so slightly, eroded by an edginess he couldn’t pin down. Suddenly, a voice out of nowhere – yet a voice he instinctively recognized – rang in his ear. “Where is your brother, Cain?” He angrily retorted, “O God! Am I my brother’s keeper?” 

The Bible’s storyline is about a God who creates a dazzling world and places one creature at its pinnacle – the only one fashioned in his own image –with the mission to care for it. Yet right from the start that crazy gamble looks doomed, and things go from bad to worse. In the end, though, he decides to come down as a man who sacrifices his own perfect life so that humankind can be redeemed from sin, death and hell. Jesus embodies on the cross the man who truly became not only his brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, but also their savior. 

There’s no redeemer story in the Qur’an, though the Prophet, in popular piety, functions like a perfect man who intercedes for the faithful on the Last Day. Having said that, the creation narrative is remarkably similar. God announces to the angels that he is placing Adam as his trustee on earth, or his representative. The angels protest. Why would God empower creatures as stewards of his world, who clearly have the potential to “sow mischief and shed blood” (Q. 2:30)? In both Bible and Qur’an God takes an enormous risk by empowering humanity as his vicegerents. 

From the start, then, humanity is honored. In Genesis 1:27 both men and women are made in God’s image, while several well-attested hadiths (sayings about what the Prophet said and did) teach that Adam was created in the image of the Merciful. So in light of this, as deputies of the Most High, fashioned in his image, our first priority is to care for people everywhere, while we also remember to care for the earth and its myriad creatures. Put otherwise, we seek to preserve the balance and health of the earth’s ecosystems so as to benefit everyone equally.

 

 Cain and Abel revisited 

  Now back to Cain and Abel, whose story is also told in the Qur’an, though not by name. Here Cain’s crime is used as a lead-in, a) to a statement about the Mosaic Law and murder; and b) to a legal section on murder and sedition. Here’s the key verse, quoted again and again since 9/11, as proof that Islam does not condone violence: 

  

“We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land - it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind” (Q. 5:32). 

  

Unless it is capital punishment for murder or violent rebellion, the killing of another person is like killing all humanity, and saving one person is akin to saving all humanity. Human life is sacred and all human beings are endowed with the same dignity, regardless of race, class or religion – at least, this represents the view of most every Muslim scholar today.

 

 A comment on hermeneutics, polemics, and interfaith dialog

 I could leave it at that, but if you googled “as if he had killed all of mankind,” you would discover that there is a great deal of Internet chatter on this issue. I will comment on three issues that flow out of this debate and then conclude. 

  

1. Islamophobia is alive and well and this verse is an easy target. Probably the best example is by an author calling himself “Atheist Jabali” (“Killing all Humanity: How Obama Misinterprets Quran 5:32 and Passes a Noble Jewish Teaching as Islamic). The tone is obviously polemical, and as such, much of what he says can easily be countered. Take his point about Obama quoting wrongly, “whoever kills an innocent.” True, it’s not a literal translation, but it is still faithful to the original verse – the case of a murderer or someone guilty of armed rebellion is excluded from the start. But he does raise an interesting question about the context of the verse, which is rarely quoted in its entirety. It is about what God taught the Israelites, presumably through the Law of Moses. Yet if you look for this idea in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), you won’t find it. You have to go to the Talmud to find such a reference – he’s right. As it turns out, the Hebrew original has the “blood” spilled in the plural. So in the commentary of the Tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter 4, of the Talmud, we read:

 

“The voice of the 'bloods' of thy brother are crying unto me from the ground. It does not read ‘blood’, but ‘bloods’, which means his blood and the blood of his descendants. [According to others it reads ‘bloods’ in the plural, because his blood was scattered all over the trees and stones.] Therefore the man was created singly, to teach that he who destroys one soul of a human being, the Scripture considers him as if he should destroy a whole world, and him who saves one soul of Israel, the Scripture considers him as if he should save a whole world.”

 

This is the closest possible source for the qur’anic assertion of Q. 5:32. Could there be other possible biblical interpretations of this verse? Of course, and there have been. But we are simply describing what turns out to be the case with all sacred texts: a multiplicity of voices and perspectives, constantly evolving with the changing times. 

 

2. Respect the way devotees interpret their own sacred texts. This is a cardinal rule of interreligious dialog. I did some poking around classical commentaries in Arabic and English and nobody seemed to care whether this saying came from the Bible or not. The Qur’an said God taught it to the Jews – end of matter. The only issue raised (and sometimes this verse was simply glossed over) was how killing one person could be killing all humankind. The fourteenth century commentator Ibn Kathir offers this simple explanation, “because there is no difference between one life and another.” But there is more than meets the eye here, as my next statement makes clear.

 

3. Nevertheless, you will have to draw a line in the sand. On the one hand, as an outsider, for me the vast majority of qur’anic interpretation is simply to observe and compare. I evaluate it only in relation to other views and as a scholar I do my best to catalog different currents of thought. Some issues, on the other hand, touch on human rights and can lead to discrimination, hostility and even violence. And, it turns out, some people devote their whole career to focus on the very worst of elements of the Islamic tradition (see my blog McCarthyism Returns in the 2010s). But in the interest of a fair-minded dialog between Christians and Muslims, and for the benefit of all my readers, I have to point out problem areas, as many of my Muslim colleagues do as well.

For instance, the above-mentioned Ibn Kathir cites one early commentator, Sa’id bin Jubayr, who understands the verse to mean this:

 

“He who allows himself to shed the blood of a Muslim, is like he who allows shedding the blood of all people. He who forbids shedding the blood of one Muslim, is like he who forbids shedding the blood of all people.” 

 

This narrowing down of the scope of whose murder is equivalent to the murder of all humanity is understandable at the time (the Abode of Islam was theoretically and practically at war with the rest of the world, the Abode of War), but it would be problematic nowadays. After all the genocides of recent history – before and after the issuing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – we dare not as people of faith open any loophole that would make some people less “human” than others.

My colleague in the Theology and Religious Studies Department at the St. Joseph's University, Rabbi Alan Iser, did a search for me in the Talmud. His conclusion was that this passage was also interpreted by the majority of Jewish scholars over the ages as only applying to the shedding of "Jewish" blood.

 The islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who was the chief propagandist for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1950s, turned much more radical than the mainstream of the Brotherhood and led a faction while in prison that later developed into the so-called “jihadis” of today. The starting point was to restrict the above-mentioned human trusteeship to the Muslim community (I covered this in Earth, Empire and Sacred Text). The next step was to hark back to the classical notion of jihad and the dualistic vision of the world that went with it. Here is Qutb’s interpretation of this passage on Adam’s two sons in his monumental commentary, In the Shade of the Qur’an:

 

“The law given to the Children of Israel included this principle which equates the life of any human being with every life. The right to life is applicable to all. Hence, killing one person is an aggression against the right to live in which all people stand equal.” 

 

No problem here. But in the next paragraph, we plunge into a different world altogether:

 

“It should be clarified here that this rule applies to people in the land [Abode] of Islam, whether Muslim or not, as long as they are living under the rule and protection of the Islamic authority. As for those who are in a land hostile to Islam [Abode of War], neither their lives nor their properties are protected unless they have concluded a peace treaty with the land of Islam. This legislative rule should be well remembered. We should also remember that the land of Islam is that in which the rule of Islam prevails and Islamic law is implemented. The hostile land is that which does not implement Islamic law.”

 

As you can see, this kind of interpretation leads to declaring, a) leaders of Muslim nations as unbelievers (kafir) and therefore targets for assassination; b) fellow Muslims who deny one’s islamist vision as kafir; c) current governments as anti-Islamic and in need of toppling, making way for the imposition of strict shari’a law (however interpreted).

 

 A Muslim-Christian declaration of human solidarity

 This is a far cry from the recent Muslim initiative at the very highest level from all corners of the Islamic world – the Common Word letter, which begins thus:

 

“Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.”

The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour.”

 

After all, the foundational narrative in both traditions begins with the human being created as God’s trustee on the earth – a great honor and a grave responsibility. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” asked Cain sarcastically. “Indeed you are!” came the response indirectly. In fact, as a punishment for the “bloods” spilled into the ground, he wandered a fugitive for the rest of his life.

To kill another human being is like killing all, and to save one, is like saving all. Whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, all of us, wherever we may be scattered on the face of the earth or on the spectrum of social statuses, we are all of equal value in God’s eyes.

This book is now published and available as an ebook. Unfortunately, with the current COVID-19 pandemic, the publisher cannot send out the actual physical books. Read a summary for each of the 6 chapters and buy it on the publisher's page. Here's the abstract, or précis:

 

This book seeks to construct a Muslim-Christian theological discourse on creation and humanity, which could help adherents of both faiths work together to preserve our planet, bring justice to its most needy inhabitants and contribute to peacebuilding in areas of conflict. For more information or to purchase (now also in paperback!)

[Thanks to my colleague Dan Varisco, anthropologist at Hofstra University, who posted a blog about this treaty on July 4, 2011 ]

I’m writing here about 1797, when the third American treaty with a foreign nation was signed by President John Adams with the Dey of Algiers (officially, a regent of the Ottoman Empire; in practice, a warlord making his fortune in piracy). My main point in what follows is that states can make or break treaties, declare war or make peace. Interreligious dialog takes place between people of good will, but beware: politics will always muddy the waters.

First, a digression. I lived nine years in Algiers, a place dear to my heart. It’s a gorgeous city built around a hilly bay on the Mediterranean, with majestic French buildings reminding one of Paris, yet all painted in white. “Alger la Blanche,” they called it. That’s where I learned Arabic, both the local dialect (which other Arabs from Egypt eastward completely disown!) and the modern standard or classical Arabic, both of which were taught by the Catholic White Fathers just five minutes’ walk from the Anglican church where I lived and served.

Algiers is where I learned first hand about . . .

 

  • colonialism (the French version was more brutal than most)
  • postcolonial realities (a one-party system kept a small elite in power and in control of unspeakable fossil-fuel riches – oil and natural gas – and they’re still in power!)
  • and the politics of religion and ethnicities (the Berber question was especially thorny, but now mostly resolved).

 

Now back to pirates. Perhaps you thought that our current troubles with Somali piracy were a new phenomenon. Not so. They are truly small fry: the three Ottoman regencies of North Africa in the 18th century gave all the European nations a run for their money – literally! So powerful were these small kingdoms that they exacted steep sums of money from these larger powers, sometimes for the ransom of sailors, more often as a tribute for future non-aggression.

These were the famous Barbary pirates – Barbary being the North African coast, so-called by the Europeans because of its majority Berber population (and also, because Europeans considered them "barbaric").

I remember a plaque in the Holy Trinity Church of Algiers (Anglican) where I served for four years, which commemorated the release of a whole village in Ireland that had been enslaved by the Barbary corsairs, people who obviously ventured into the Mediterranean to do “business”! Now I only wish I could remember the exact date and location of the village!

American colony ships in the Mediterranean were of course protected by British ships and treasury, but came under French protection during the war of independence. By 1784 this shield wore thin and the Moroccan pirates seized an American vessel. Luckily, Spain was able to intervene and negotiate a treaty between the US and the Moroccan state so that both cargo and crew were saved.

Things became more complicated with the Algerian regency. In July 1785, two ships were seized and the crews enslaved. Their captivity lasted over a decade. Let it be said that “white slavery” in this case was more benign than the “black slavery” we (and many others) were inflicting at the time. They could often acquire property and work their way up the social ladder. Still, scores of mournful tales of captivity tugged at the hearts of Americans in the early 1800s. In the end, citizen pressure forced Washington to build a navy and fight two “Barbary Wars,” the first against Tripoli and the second against Algiers, which resulted in the release of 1,083 Christian slaves (presumably of several nationalities) in September of 1816.

Now for the treaty. Since you know the end of the story, you might be tempted to say, “what’s a few promises on paper, which were easily discarded when the Dey of Algiers, seeing the Americans busily fighting the British (leading up to the War of 1812), seized the opportunity and attacked US vessels once again?” Well, there is more here than meets the eye.

About this 1797 treaty, let’s focus on three points, and then close with a couple of conclusions.

 

First, this is “a treaty of peace and friendship” between the USA, the Dey of Tripoli (that was signed the year before) and the Bey of Algiers. So all the mutual protection clauses are present: goods sail through their waters untouched and protected from other enemies when possible; if the other’s sailors or citizens or goods are found on a captured enemy vessel, they will be returned to them; passports will be issued and respected by both sides; consuls with all necessary protocol will be exchanged, as with other “most favored nations.”

 

Second, there is a glaring hitch: Article 10 stipulates that “The money and presents demanded by the Bey of Tripoli as a full and satisfactory consideration on his part and on the part of his subjects for this treaty of perpetual peace and friendship are acknowledged to have been received by him previous to his signing the same.” It goes on to say that this is a one-time payment. No further tribute will be paid by either party. Still, this is no reciprocal treaty, as it only involves: a) US ships in the Mediterranean, largely under Barbary control; and b) a large sum of money paid by the USA. Piracy is what it’s all about.

Thomas Jefferson, then US ambassador to Europe, opposed President Adams in the payment of tribute. He would have preferred that stories of captivity and brutality would force military action. Unsurprisingly, the First Barbary War with Tripoli happened under his direction as Commander in Chief. By then, Adams had built the US navy from scratch and founded the Marines who, in America’s first war overseas, landed on the shores of Tripoli (the tune should come to you!).

Several recent books deal with the Barbary Wars, and with Jefferson in particular, especially in light of a post-9/11 American experience and two wars being fought with Muslim countries. Maybe it’s déjà vu in retrospect . . . See an informative (if biased – Hitchens strongly defended the Iraq War from the start) piece on this by British-American journalist and author, Christopher Hitchens (yes, the guiding star of the New Atheists).

 

Third, religion comes into play, but in a surprising way. The US is a newcomer to trade in the Mediterranean, and its recent struggle with Britain, combined with many of its founders’ overt sympathy with the French revolutionaries, suggested to the Barbary regents that it was not a “Christian” nation. Read for yourself:

 

(ARTICLE 11) “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries” (see full text).

 

So in essence, the Barbary Muslims can enter into a treaty with the a-religious Americans, because, by implication, Christians and Muslims inevitably clash and collide. The clash of civilizations theory has been around for a long time (see my first blog). So no, this is no interreligious dialog.

Yet Jefferson as ambassador accompanying his president, John Adams, did meet with Tripoli’s ambassador in London in 1785, and as it is reported now in many sources, the Barbary envoy told them,

 

“it was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

 

Nothing unusual about this in terms of theology and law (see my two blogs on jihad); just sad to see how religion so easily becomes the tool of dictators, the better to achieve their selfish ends – and here a lucrative racket of terror, extortion and slavery.

What might this treaty and its context tell us about interreligious dialog? First, it seems to me, that in our globalized, interconnected world of the Internet and social media, in which people as never before dream of – and often succeed in – bringing down dictators, we should no longer be fettered to past paradigms of clashes and conflicts. Muslim-majority countries are not banding together to conquer the world, nor are Muslims and a secular west on an inevitable collision course. Today as never before, people of faith are drawing from the ample spiritual resources of their respective faith traditions to create more peace and mutual respect.

Second, and finally, we can learn from history. This treaty can teach us about human nature, especially from the angle of the powerful. This treaty didn’t stop the Dey of Algiers from attacking American ships when the opportunity arose. Pirates will be pirates. True, America’s first overseas war brought down oppressive, greedy tyrants. But our success set us on a path of no return. Our overseas military adventures have only become more gigantic, more numerous, and more costly over time. Is this sustainable? Is it morally defensible? Can people of faith weigh in, as the prophets of old announced God’s judgment on tyrannic nations oppressing weaker ones, and on greedy leaders exploiting the poor for their own gain?

That is one of the tasks I believe people taking on the mantle of “trustees of the earth” must tackle together. Speaking truth to power in the name of justice, human dignity and a more peaceable earth is part of our calling, Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of all faiths and no faith..

Books

  • Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love
    Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love

    This book is now published and available as an ebook. Unfortunately, with the current COVID-19 pandemic, the publisher cannot send out the actual physical books. Read a summary for each of the 6 chapters and buy it on the publisher's page. Here's the abstract, or précis:

     

    Read more...
  • Earth, Empire and Sacred Text
    Earth, Empire and Sacred Text

    This book seeks to construct a Muslim-Christian theological discourse on creation and humanity, which could help adherents of both faiths work together to preserve our planet, bring justice to its most needy inhabitants and contribute to peacebuilding in areas of conflict. For more information or to purchase (now also in paperback!)

    Read more...