Friday, 12 October 2007

Theocrats United

Anyone who says Muslims don't have a sense of humour should take a look at the extraordinary "open letter" signed by 138 assorted mullahs, muftis and sheikhs and addressed to the world's Christians.

Cheekily purporting to be a plea for dialogue and understanding based on what the two religions have in common, it reads more like a series of veiled threats.

Like this: "As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them—so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes."

Which begs a whole series of questions. I mean, say what you like about the Iraq war, the Americans aren't exactly there to spread Christianity. Indeed, the increasing domination of fundamentalist Islam may well turn out to be the war's most lasting (and all-too-foreseeable) consequence.

Most of the letter is taken up with a highly selective series of quotations from the Bible and the Koran, chosen to demonstrate
1. That Christianity and Islam are basically the same thing; and
2. That same thing is called Islam.

Jesus, it turns out, was a Muslim all along. If the Christian world would only acknowledge that obvious fact, then all the world's problems would disappear. After all,

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.

So no role then for Hindus, atheists, Buddhists, agnostics, Sikhs, Jews, Zoroastrians, Scientologists or devotees of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The presumption of these scholars, an ad-hoc group put together by a Jordanian institute, is quite astonishing. Needless to say, appeaser-in-chief Rowan Williams has welcomed it warmly. Other top Christians, though, are liable to be less enthusiastic. I do hope Ratzinger puts the boot in. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali already has, and in no uncertain terms.

But if the letter's theological assertiveness takes the breath away, it's the clerics' political naieveté that is truly staggering. Do they really think that a theological dialogue will produce world peace? Do they really think that most people in the West, even in the USA, are so bothered about religion that the best hope for the future of the world is to get a bunch of old men in robes and (in many cases) beards to discuss the Unity of God?

They probably do. In the same way they probably think that the entire Western world would like nothing better than to follow Anne Coulter's advice to "invade their countries and convert them to Christianity". They probably believe the Crusades are still in full swing.

Just look at the list of Christians they thought worthy of receiving the tract.

They begin with "His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI". Fair enough. Then follows an extraordinary enumeration of all the Patriarchs of the various Orthodox communions, most with titles of (literally) Byzantine plenitude.

There's "His All-Holiness Bartholomew I, Patriarch of Constantinople, New Rome", "His Beatitude Ilia II, Archbishop of Mtskheta-Tbilisi, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia", and "His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Apostolic Throne of St. Mark" (pictured), not forgetting "His Beatitude Ignatius Zakka I, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Supreme Head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church".

In 21st place comes "His Beatitude Mar Dinkha IV, Patriarch of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East". I believe he lives in Chicago.

Then, as an afterthought, there's a short list of Protestants, beginning with Rowan Williams.

All this may represent the Christian world as viewed from 13th century Cairo, or indeed Ratzinger's Vatican (his 2000 shocker, Domine Jesus, declared that Protestant churches were "not churches in the sense that the Catholic Church understands the word church"). But I doubt it reflects the view from Washington.

Perhaps it's just a wind-up. Orthodox churches seem to expend almost as much effort excommunicating each other over obscure points of precedence as Anglicans do arguing about gay bishops. Just this week, the Russian Orthodox delegation stormed out of unity talks with the Roman Catholics because the Estonian church, which the Russians regard as schismatic, had been invited along. The Muslim scholars are bound to have left some bearded prelate out of the list of salutations. The repercussions will be felt in the Christian east long after the contents of this silly letter are long forgotten.