"Muslims and Christians: Face to Face"

by John Esposito

Commonweal, January 31, 1997

The recent Taliban capture of Kabul and control of much of Afghanistan, Hamas's continued threats to disrupt the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, bombing attacks targeting American military in Saudi Arabia, attacks by Muslim extremists against Christians in Egypt and the Sudan, the brutal murder of Trappist monks in Algeria, communal riots from Nigeria to Indonesia between Muslims and Christians - these are the events associated with Islam that capture headlines and cause grave concern.

At the same time, Islamic political and social activism have become powerful institutionalized forces in mainstream society. Islamic candidates have held cabinet-level positions and been elected parliamentarians, mayors, and city officials in countries as diverse as Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Turkey, Pakistan, Yemen, Kuwait, Malaysia, and even Israel. Secular Turkey has its first Islamist prime minister, Malaysia's deputy prime minister was the founder of a major Malaysian Islamic movement, and Bosnia has a president often identified as an Islamist.

Islam has also proved a potent social force in civil society. Islamically inspired institutions - schools, hospitals, clinics, legal aid societies, social services, banks, publishing houses - have proliferated. Islamists have won elections in professional associations from faculty and student groups to organizations for physicians, lawyers, and engineers.

While there is much that could be written about the positive interaction and exchanges between Islam and Christianity, the realities of contemporary politics and the media have produced a different set of issues. Some speak of a clash of civilizations and a new Crusade, others warn of the dangers of demonizing this major world religion, and there is the tendency of some in the post-cold war period to identify Islam as the new global threat.

Ironically, all too often we seek understanding and answers as though we are inquiring about a "foreign" or alien faith. In fact, Islam is well on the way to becoming the second largest religion in the United States and Europe in the twenty-first century. Thus, we are not just talking about strangers who are Muslims but, in a very real sense, our neighbors as well.

History of Conflict and Misunderstanding

Despite many common theological roots and beliefs, Muslim-Christian relations have often been overshadowed by conflict as the armies and missionaries of Islam and of Christendom have been locked in a struggle for power and for souls: from the fall of the Byzantine (eastern Roman) Empire before Muslim armies in the seventh century to the Crusades during the eleventh and twelfth centuries; the expulsion of the "Moors" from Spain and the Inquisition; the Ottoman threat to overrun Europe; European (Christian) colonial expansion and domination from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries; the political and cultural challenge of the superpowers in a period of "neocolonialism" during the latter half of the twentieth century; the creation of the state of Israel by Western "Christian" countries and consequent Palestinian exile; the competition of Christian and Muslim missionaries today, from Africa to Southeast Asia; and the contemporary reassertion of Islam in politics around the world.

Ironically, the very theological similarities of Christianity and Islam had put the two on an early collision course. Both religions had a universal message and mission. Both possessed a supercessionist theology; that is, each community believed that its covenant with God was the fulfillment of God's earlier revelation to a previous community that had gone astray. While Christians had little problem with their supercessionist views toward Judaism, a similar claim by Muslims to have the final revelation was unacceptable and, more than that, a threat to the uniqueness and divinely mandated role of Christianity to be the only means to salvation.

Christendom experienced the early conquests and expansion of Islam as a theological, political, and civilizational challenge to its religious and political hegemony. Muslim rule, and with it the message of Islam, quickly spread from the Byzantine and Persian Empires to Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, and swept across North Africa and into Europe where Muslims ruled Spain and the Mediterranean from Sicily to Anatolia.

Non-Muslims in the Islamic State

For non-Muslim populations in Byzantium and Persia, who were subjugated to foreign rulers, Islamic rule meant an exchange of rulers rather than a loss of independence. Many in Byzantium willingly exchanged Greco-Roman rule for new Arab masters - fellow Semites - with whom they had closer linguistic and cultural affinities. Christians and Jews were regarded as "People of the Book" (those who had possessed a scripture/revelation from God). In exchange for allegiance to the state and payment of a poll (head) tax, these "protected" (dhim-mi) peoples could practice their faith and be governed by their religious leaders and law in matters of faith and private life (family laws).

Thus, Islam proved more tolerant than imperial Christianity, providing greater religious freedom for Jews and indigenous Christians; most local Christian churches had been persecuted as schismatics and heretics by a "foreign" Christian orthodoxy. As Francis E. Peters, writing about the early Muslim empires, has observed:

The conquests destroyed little: what they did suppress were imperial rivalries and sectarian bloodletting among the newly subjected population. The Muslims tolerated Christianity but they disestablished it; henceforth Christian life and liturgy, its endowments, politics, and theology, would be a private not a public affair. By an exquisite irony, Islam reduced the status of Christians to that which the Christians had earlier thrust upon the Jews, with one difference. The reduction in Christian status was merely judicial; it was unaccompanied by either systematic persecution or blood lust, and generally, though not everywhere and at all times, unmarred by vexatious behavior.

The rapid spread and development of imperial Islam produced a rich Islamic civilization, which reflected religious and cultural synthesis and exchange. With significant assistance from Christian and Jewish subjects, Muslims collected the great books of science, medicine, and philosophy from the West and the East and translated them into Arabic from Greek, Latin, Persian, Coptic, Syriac, and Sanskrit. The age of translation was followed by a period of great creativity as a new generation of educated Muslim thinkers and scientists made their own contributions to learning: in philosophy, medicine, chemistry, astronomy, algebra, optics, art, and architecture. The cultural traffic pattern was again reversed when Europeans, emerging from the Dark Ages, turned to Muslim centers of learning to regain their lost heritage and to learn from Muslim advances in philosophy, mathematics, medicine, and science.

From the Crusades to European Colonialism

Few events have had a more shattering and long-lasting effect on Muslim- Christian relations than the Crusades. For many in the West, the specific facts regarding the Crusades are but a dim memory. Few remember that it was the pope who called for the Crusades, and that on balance the Crusaders lost. For Muslims, the memory of the Crusades lives on as the clearest example of militant Christianity, an early harbinger of the aggression and imperialism of the Christian West. If many in the West have regarded Islam as a religion of the sword, Muslims through the ages speak of the Christian West's crusader mentality and hegemonic ambitions.

For Muslim-Christian relations, it is less a case of what actually happened in the Crusades than how they are remembered. Each community looks back with memories of its commitment to defend its faith and with heroic stories of valor and chivalry against "the infidel." Both Muslims and Christians saw the other as militant, somewhat barbaric, and fanatic in religious zeal, determined to conquer, convert, or eradicate the other, and thus an enemy of God.

A second far-reaching and influential event affecting the relationship of Islam to the West is the experience of European colonialism. Its impact and continued legacy remain alive in Middle East politics and throughout the Muslim world today. No one who has traveled in and studied the Muslim world can be oblivious to the tendency of many Muslims to associate their past and current problems in large part with the legacy of European colonialism.

European colonialism abruptly reversed a pattern of self-rule that had existed from the time of the Prophet. The vast majority of the Muslim community had possessed a sense of history in which Islam had, over the centuries, remained triumphant, and Muslims lived under Muslim rule. As the balance of power and leadership shifted to Europe, much of the Muslim world found itself either directly ruled or dominated by the Christian West, threatened by "crown and cross." On the other hand, many Europeans believed that modernity was not only the result of conditions producing the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, but also due to the inherent superiority of Christianity as a religion and culture. The British spoke of the "white man's burden" and the French of their "mission to civilize" as they colonized much of Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia.

The external threat to Muslim identity and autonomy from European Christendom raised profound religious as well as political questions for many in the Muslim world: What had gone wrong? Why had Muslim fortunes been so thoroughly reversed? Was it Muslims who had failed Islam, or Islam that had failed Muslims? How were Muslims to respond?

Western Neocolonialism and the Islamic Resurgence

The creation of Israel and the politics of the cold war were regarded as signs of a new colonialism in the post-World War II period, a hegemonic chess game between the United States and the Soviet Union that threatened the identity and integrity of the Muslim world.

Israel was considered a European/American colony in the midst of the Arab nation. For Arab leaders, Palestine provided a cause that they could exploit to buttress their power domestically and internationally. The struggle against Israel symbolized the battle against imperialism, provided a common cause and sense of unity, and distracted from the failures of many regimes. Both the secular and the religiously oriented - Arab nationalists and Islamic activists-found common ground in their focus on liberating Palestine, the great jihad ("struggle," holy war) against Western imperialism.

The Iranian revolution of 1978-79 focused attention on "Islamic fundamentalism" and with it the spread of political Islam in other parts of the Muslim world. However, this contemporary revival had its origins and roots in the late 1960s and early 1970s in such disparate areas as Egypt and Libya as well as Pakistan and Malaysia. The ongoing failures of many of these countries' economies, the growing disparities between rich and poor, corruption, and the general impact and disruption of modernity spawned disillusionment and a sense of failure within modern Muslim states. In addition, American ignorance of and hostility toward Islam and the Middle East, often seen by Muslims as a "Christian Crusader" mentality influenced by Orientalism and Zionism, were blamed for misguided U.S. political-military policies: support for an "un-Islamic, " authoritarian Shah of Iran, massive military and economic funding of Israel, and the backing of an "unrepresentative" Christian-controlled government in Lebanon. These crises reinforced a prevailing sense of impotence and inferiority among many Muslims, the product of centuries of European colonial dominance that left a legacy of admiration (of the West's power, science, and technology) as well as deep resentment (of its dominance, penetration, and exploitation).

For Islamic political activists, Islam is a total or comprehensive way of life as revealed in the Qur'an, God's Word, mirrored in the example of the Prophet Muhammad and the first Muslim community-state, and embodied in the Shariah, Islamic law. Thus, for Islamists the renewal and revitalization of governments and societies require the restoration or reimplementation of Islamic law, which is the blueprint for an Islamically guided and socially just state and society. While Islamists reject the Westernization and secularization of society, modernization through science and technology is accepted. However, the pace, direction, and extent of change should, they believe, be subordinated to Islamic belief and values, so that the penetration and excessive dependence on Western values can be avoided.

In the 1990s, Islamic revivalism has developed from small radical groups or organizations on the periphery of society to a significant part of mainstream Muslim society. This "quiet revolution" has produced a new class of modern, educated, but Islamically oriented elites and organizations that exist alongside their secular counterparts. They have become part and parcel of mainstream religion and society, found among the middle and lower classes, educated and uneducated, professionals and workers, young and old, men, women, and children. A new generation of Islamically oriented leaders may be found in Egypt, the Sudan, Tunisia, Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, Yemen, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

Islam & the West: Challenge or Threat?

According to some, Islam and the West are on a political, demographic, and religio-cultural collision course. Past images of a Christian West turning back threatening Muslim armies are conjured up and linked to current political as well as demographic realities. Immigrants and immigration have become an explosive political issue in Europe and. America.

If the 1980s were dominated by fear of "other Irans" or of underground terrorist groups, the emergence of Islam's "quiet revolution" has increased fears of political Islam. Its global force is now seen not only in the Islamic Republics of Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan, but also in the emergence of Islamists as effective political and social actors in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Yemen, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Governments in the Middle East, both Arab states and Israel, play on such fears, warning of the dangers of "fundamentalism," domestically and internationally. Often their appeals conveniently obscure their own domestic political, economic, and social problems and causes for opposition and instability. The "fundamentalist" threat, described monolithically and equated solely with radicalism and terrorism, becomes a convenient pretext for crushing political opposition, nonviolent as well as violent, and backing away from previous commitments to democratization or greater political participation. For example, Tunisia' s Zeine Abedin Ben Ali used such an excuse to "decapitate" his Islamic opposition (the Renaissance party which had emerged as the leading opposition in elections), as well as to silence secular opposition and thus win the elections of 1993 with 99.91 percent of the vote. With the end of the cold war and the threat of communism, a similar mission with a new threat, "Islamic fundamentalism," has become a primary excuse for Israel and Egypt to attract foreign aid or excuse human rights records of abuses. Fear of fundamentalists coming to power has often influenced European and American attitudes toward Turkey, Bosnia, Chechniya, Central Asia and, more broadly, the promotion of democratization in the Muslim world.

At the same time the record of Islamic experiments in Iran, Sudan, Pakistan, and, most recently, Afghanistan has reinforced fears of the export of terrorism. Reports of the forced veiling and seclusion of women, militant attacks against Christians in Egypt and Sudan, and discrimination against the Bahai in Iran and the Ahmadiyya in Pakistan exacerbate concerns about the rights of women and minorities. While many modern Muslim states granted equality of citizenship to all regardless of religious faith, the contemporary resurgence has resurrected pressures to reimplement classical Islamic laws which inform traditional attitudes and values that have remained operative in the minds and outlooks of many traditionally minded Muslims. Legal change implemented or imposed from the top down by a minority elite has not in many cases significantly changed popular culture and values.

In recent years, there are those who speak of a clash of civilizations, a clash between Islam and "our" modern secular (or Judaeo-Christian) democratic values and culture. Those who contrast Islamic civilization or culture with "our" modern Western culture conveniently slip into an "us and them" mentality that obscures the diversity of both sides, and implies a "static, retrogressive them" and a "dynamic, progressive us." Several things should be kept in mind. The history of religions demonstrates that all three Abrahamic faiths (as indeed all religions) change; the issue is not change but degrees of change. All three traditions have within them divergent orientations: orthodox, conservative, reformist, fundamentalist, "secularist," etc. Judaism and Christianity, responding to pressing modern political, social, economic or cultural challenges/realities, experienced their reformations, but with diverse responses that continue to be reflected in their differing communities. For example, think of the vast diversity that exists between Orthodox and Reform Jews, Southern Baptist and Unitarian Christians on issues ranging from evolution to abortion.

Islam is experiencing, sometimes in similar and sometimes in dissimilar ways, the tensions and conflicts that accompany the interactions between tradition and change. The West, and Judaism and Christianity, experienced centuries-long struggles as a result of the political revolutions that accompanied the emergence of modern states and societies to the Reformation (which included warfare as well as theological disputation). Islam and Muslim communities have been severely limited by a lack of freedom and autonomy, first because of European colonialism and more recently, in many countries, by authoritarian governments. As with the Western experience, this political, social, and religio-cultural reformation or revolution is at times one of radical change whose experiments and progress can in the short term degenerate into violent revolution and radicalism, provoked by both political and religious authoritarianism and demagoguery.

Most Muslims are not Islamic political activists. In fact, such activists constitute only a minority, albeit a significant minority. Moreover, we must distinguish between a violent minority, bent upon the overthrow of governments, and a majority that, given the opportunity, will work within the system to bring about change. Even more difficult, of course, is distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate uses of violence. When are revolutions just? When is violence or warfare defensive rather than offensive? When is it just or unjust?

Islam in the West

The remarkable growth of Islam in Europe and America, where it is now the second- or third-largest religion, has raised fears about whether Muslims can be loyal citizens and even whether they will bring "fundamentalist" violence to the West. The World Trade Center bombing as well as bombings in Paris and France help to feed such fears. France has insisted on integration, not multiculturalism. Muslims have experienced levels of discrimination in society and the media in Europe and America that would simply, not be tolerated by Christians and Jews.

Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is a religion that provides a framework of faith and meaning that has transformed lives and societies. At the same time, again like Judaism and Christianity, it has been used or abused to justify violence and oppression. We can speak equally about militant Judaism and Christianity as we can about militant Islam. Part of our problem of interpretation is that when a Jewish extremist murdered Muslims at prayer in the Hebron mosque or assassinated Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin, or when Christian extremists, calling themselves the army of God, blew up an abortion clinic, we reflexively distinguished between the mainstream faith of Jews and Christians and the twisted use of religion by fanatics. Making an equivalent distinction with regard to Islam does not regularly occur. Similarly, while some do not object to the mixing of religion and politics in Israel, Eastern Europe, or Latin America (liberation theology), they will do so in a blanket way when it comes to Islam.

As Jews faced the challenges of preserving a sense of identity, community, and faith within an American society dominated by Christian culture and values, Muslims today as a religious minority face a similar challenge within a Judaeo-Christian or secular America. Real understanding can begin when we, the majority, come to realize that, despite our differences, there is a common Judaeo-Christian-Islamic heritage shared by all the children of Abraham, and that Islam is not a "foreign" or Middle Eastern religion any more than Judaism and Christianity. The Muslim presence in America spans centuries, not decades, and with a population of at least from 4 to 6 million, Muslims are indeed "us." The failures of our educational system to make us aware of these facts and our media's presentation of present Islam and Muslims only through "headline events" have distorted or obscured these realities.


This is an exceptionally dynamic and fluid period in Muslim history. Diverse voices in the Muslim world are grappling with issues from scriptural criticism and exegesis, modernism, democracy, and pluralism to women's rights and family values. The voices for substantive change are a minority and themselves divided, much as was the case, for example, in Roman Catholicism in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century regarding modernism, pluralism, biblical criticism, and dissent. The days of excommunication, silencing, or banishment, the index of forbidden books, the easy consignment of "others" to hell, the struggle between the religious establishment and the laity may be in large part gone, but are not all that far behind us. For Muslims, who struggle with similar problems in many societies where political participation and freedom of expression have been restricted, and authoritarianism, patriarchy, and violence all too common, the battle can be especially contentious.

The fundamental question or issue for contemporary Muslims, one which affects Muslim-Christian relations as well, is the direction of Islamic revival or reform. Will it simply be a process of restoration of classical law, or will it be one of reformation: a reformulation of Islamic law that distinguishes between the immutable and the mutable, between that which is divine and that which is the product of human interpretation? For believers everywhere, this is an all-too-familiar question.

Contemporary Islam challenges us all to know and understand the richness and diversity of the Muslim experience. Followers of Christianity and Judaism are specifically challenged to recall or to become aware of the faith of Islam, to acknowledge their Muslim brothers and sisters as children of Abraham. Muslim governments are challenged to be more responsive to popular demands for political liberalization and greater popular participation, to tolerate rather than repress opposition movements (including Islamic organizations and parties), and to build viable, democratic institutions. At the same time, new Islamic governments and movements are challenged to demonstrate by word and action that they acknowledge the rights of others, that pluralism and human rights are not valued only when Muslims seek access to power but also when they are in power. Self-criticism and the denunciation of religious extremism, intolerance, and authoritarianism are the only means by which Islamist claims can be credible.

Western powers are challenged to stand by the democratic values they embody and to recognize authentic populist movements and the right of the people to determine the nature of their governments and leadership, whether they choose a secular or a more Islamically oriented path.

And finally, as Christians and Jews, or their secular counterparts, view the changing specter of Islam, they need to remember their own histories. Moreover, they must seek to understand before they judge, not to excuse, but to be sure that their judgments, which have implications both internationally and domestically, are fair and informed.

John L. Esposito is professor of religion and international affairs and director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modem Islamic World, Esposito's other publications include The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? and Islam: The Straight Path (all Oxford University Press)