The Cross and the Crescent
FRANCIS X. MAIER
By looking at the past — our own past and the common history we share with Islam and other religious traditions — and by judging it honestly and rigorously, but without fear or rancor, we serve the truth that makes us free. We "contribute to the path of reconciliation," however difficult that might be.
"History," an elderly friend once said to me with a smile, "is always more interesting than the theories that explain it." Finally, 30 years later, I know what he meant.
People and their motives are always more complicated than history's broad strokes suggest. Nothing proves this more persuasively than two very different (but equally compelling) books I've recently read.
In From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East (Henry Holt and Company, 1997), I learned how, in the year 587, the Byzantine monk John Moschos set off with a companion to gather the wisdom of the Desert Fathers. His journey took him in an arc around the eastern
Unfortunately, his life coincided with the aftermath of Justinian the Great's failed attempt at imperial revival. The world Moschos knew had begun to unravel. A century after his travels, much of what he observed had already been overrun by Muslim invaders. The power of his account, however, endured. And 1,400 years after Moschos first set out, his words drew another writer, William Dalrymple, to retrace his steps in From the Holy Mountain.
Dalrymple has an eye for the human ironies that underlie the dilemmas of the
Anxious 'People of the Book'
As Dalrymple discovers, the current condition of Christians under Islam can vary greatly from country to country and century to century. Under
By contrast, Muslim Turkey, officially a "secular" state and a NATO ally of the
Dalrymple shows that tolerance between Christians and Muslims — even something approaching affection — is possible. In fact, at the personal level, the level of daily life, it is not uncommon. At the Shrine of Our Lady of Seidnaya in
Unfortunately, what we in the West perceive as "fundamentalism" — a kind of mental virus that periodically sweeps the Islamic world — may be more inherent to Islam than anyone wants to admit. At least, so say Islam's critics. And that anxiety won't be relieved by a reading of Bat Ye'or's The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996).
Unlike the easy travelogue style of Dalrymple, Ye'or, an Egyptian émigré turned British citizen, approaches her material as an academic. Her focus is historical scholarship. Specifically, she documents, in extraordinary detail, the experience of dhimmitude from the seventh through the 20th centuries.
For Muslims, the dhimmis are the "people of the Book" — the Jews and Christians of conquered territories whose religious practice was tolerated if they paid a special tax. In the early centuries of armed Islamic jihad, subjugated pagans had a choice between conversion to Islam or execution. But "the people of the Book," in theory and often in fact, had a third choice: political disenfranchisement and economic penalties, in return for the right to exist as religious communities.
Today's secular scholars like to contrast this perceived Islamic tolerance with the allegedly bigoted record of the Christian West. But, as with so much about the past, people see what they want to see. In the case of many secular scholars, their work implies an instinct against Christianity that traces itself back to the Enlightenment. In any event, the sins of Christians throughout history are well-documented. Repentance for those sins played a big role in the theology of the Great Jubilee. Unfortunately, few other religious communities have had the courage to review their own histories with equal honesty. Ye'or shows that Islam urgently needs the same examination of conscience.
While respect for the "people of the Book" was indeed official policy in most Muslim-dominated societies, its practical application inevitably sought to marginalize and humiliate the dhimmis. Political power was reserved for Muslims. Direct persecution of Christians and Jews did occur. More frequently, however, the law worked to make life for these communities less and less bearable — in effect, a slow strangulation.
Nonetheless, as Ye'or shows clearly by quoting entire Muslim documents, Muslim treatment of Christians over the centuries often included enslavement, harassment, seizure of lands and the abduction of children. (In the case of
Moreover, the impulse to aggressive jihad has no real parallel in Christianity (the Crusades, whatever their sins, were a reaction to jihad) and, as the great French thinker Jacques Ellul suggests in his foreword, the recourse to armed expansion is arguably part of Islam's basic thought structure.
So where do these two books leave us? Just here: Memory has power. Pope John Paul II has an unusually keen understanding of how history — our memory of the past — can shape both the present and future. This is why he has asked us again and again to seek a "purification of memory."
As the International Theological Commission said in its statement "Memory and Reconciliation" in 1999: "[The purification of memory] aims at liberating personal and communal conscience from all forms of resentment and violence that are the legacy of past faults, through a renewed historical and theological evaluation of such events."
In other words, by looking at the past — our own past and the common history we share with Islam and other religious traditions — and by judging it honestly and rigorously, but without fear or rancor, we serve the truth that makes us free. We "contribute to the path of reconciliation," however difficult that might be.
Christians and Muslims have traveled a rough road together over the centuries. It does no good to ignore that. But history is made by people, and people have the capacity to learn from history without being imprisoned by it.
People can change. People can forgive. People can love. In reading and reflecting on these two extraordinary books, we may find a way to learn the lessons of the past … without being limited by its mistakes.
Francis X. Maier. "The Cross and the Crescent." National Catholic Register. (February, 2002).
This article is reprinted with permission of the author Francis X. Maier.
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Francis X. Maier writes from