Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for December 2015

The Malaysian Church, in recent decades, was engaged in a prolonged legal battle with their Islamist-influenced government which prohibited non-Muslims from using the word Allah to refer to the supreme God and creator. Church leaders received directives stating that several words of Arabic origin, including Allah, Nabi (prophet) and Al Kitab (Bible) were not to be used by non-Muslims as Arabic was the language of Muslims. Usage by Christians would sow the seeds of “confusion”. The import of Malay Bibles printed in Indonesia (which used Allah) was effectively banned.

Christians countered by pointing out that Allah was the common term used to refer to the supreme God long before Islam came into existence in North Africa. Arab Christians continue to worship God as Allah and Malay-speaking Christians have also been using Allah for centuries. Far from sowing “confusion”, it has facilitated communication and promoted mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims.

Clearly this was more than a matter of official historical ignorance. Islamists fearful of the conversion of Muslims sought to deter the latter from reading the Bible by claiming that Christians and Muslims worship different Gods. They have been successful. Christians lost the legal battle, with dire consequences for the future of social justice and religious harmony in Malaysia.

How ironic, then, to find these Islamist arguments flourishing among ultra-conservative Christians in the USA.

Earlier this month, the authorities at Wheaton College, a prominent “evangelical” liberal arts college aligned themselves with the Islamists. They suspended a tenured professor for referring to Jews and Muslims as “people of the book” (a common Qur’anic expression, distinguishing Jews and Christians from polytheistic pagans), and stating that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God”. In the statement of suspension, the professor was accused of not “upholding theological clarity”. The obsession with “clarity” and fear of “confusion”- at the expense of other intellectual virtues such as desiring truth and tolerance of different theological opinions- have long been hallmarks of religious fundamentalisms.

The eminent logician Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) famously drew an important distinction between the referent of a word/phrase and its sense or meaning. He took the example of the planet Venus which is, paradoxically, described as both the “Evening Star” and the “Morning Star”. The two expressions have different senses or meanings, but they have the same referent, namely the planet Venus.

The earliest Christians, most of them Jews, found themselves worshiping Jesus as Lord and ascribing to him all the titles and functions that applied to Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew Bible. They were not bi-theists. Nor were they rejecting Yahweh. As they reflected more deeply on their experience, they eventually came to articulate a deeper and fuller understanding of who Yahweh is. They became Trinitarian monotheists.

Arab Christians share many beliefs in common with their Muslim neighbours. Not only do they both worship Allah as the unique creator and sustainer of the universe, but Christians accept most of the 99 Beautiful Names for Allah in the Qur’an. The differences, of course, are crucial and decisive. Belief in God as Trinity, as Incarnate as the person Jesus of Nazareth, as crucified for the salvation of the world… these are foundational to all Christian believing and living. It grieves Christians that these are misunderstood and rejected by Muslims (and Jews). Therein lies the great challenge to communication. Christians ascribe a different narrative identity to Allah and Yahweh. But if there were no overlapping areas of agreement, no dialogue between Christians and Muslims (and Jews) would be possible. (Indeed, even argument would be impossible because argument presupposes that we are arguing about the same subject matter). And Christians, Muslims and Jews have engaged in mutually fruitful dialogue for centuries in Europe, Africa and Asia (along with monotheist Hindus and Sikhs).

All the distinctive Christian truths are paradoxical. Christians, therefore, should be at home with paradoxical thinking and not shun it.

So, do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Yes and No. To use Frege’s terminology, the same referent but different senses.

But why is this question not raised in conservative American circles in relation to Jews and Judaism? (This is what makes many suspect that underlying this debate is fear or even animosity towards Muslims. If so, it would be deeply disturbing.)

The actions of the Wheaton College authorities, like much of what is done in the U.S., reach a global audience. I can imagine how they will be seized upon by Islamists around the world as ammunition to deploy against Christians. And how betrayed Malaysian Christians must feel.

American Christians- especially those studying and working in colleges and universities- cannot remain complacent with theological, historical or political naiveté. Wilful ignorance is inexcusable. Americans have ready access to a wide range of scholarly literature and the latest information technologies that the rest of us envy. They don’t have to watch Fox News or listen to the latest chauvinist or demagogue. Some of the finest biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers and historians are found in the American Church (sadly, it is not their works that are exported to the rest of the world).

Moreover, every American city is multi-cultural and multi-religious. You can meet Christians from all over the world, as well as thoughtful Muslims from every Muslim sect, Jews, Sikhs, Jains or Buddhists. You can have your prejudices dispelled, your viewpoints and worldviews enlarged through such encounters and friendships.

If American Christians do not avail themselves of the resources and opportunities on their doorstep, they will remain culturally marginal, intellectually lightweight, politically reactionary, and a deep source of embarrassment to the rest of the global Church.

Among the inconvenient truths about terrorism that European and American publics avoid facing up to is this: aerial bombardments with drones, cruise missiles and fighter jets are merely expensive, knee-jerk reactions by governments designed to give the semblance of “doing something” to their electorates. They have no clearly defined military or political end in view. If no conventional war has ever been won by air campaigns, how much less likely the unconventional war against ISIL (or al-Qa’ida).

The UK and US governments have clearly not learned from the fiascos in Iraq and Libya. These military adventures left over a million Iraqis killed and the region awash in advanced weapons that have fallen into the hands of new militias of which ISIL is the most dangerous. Indeed, ISIL could be called George W. Bush’s baby. The latter’s post-9/11 “war on terror” was the perfect global recruiting program for Islamist terrorists.

Prior to 9/11 the international community was threatened by a few hundred terrorists in the Hindu Kush mountains. Today there are tens of thousands, and these numbers are bound to swell as every child killed by French, American Russian or British jets becomes a propaganda victory for ISIL. Their leaders must be rubbing their hands with glee as Hollande’s and Cameron’s response to the Paris attacks is just what they sought. It bolsters their apocalyptic scenario of a final war of Islam vs West- and, of course, the ignorant Donald Trumps of the West play right into their hands.

I doubt if the French people, by and large, have any idea of who and what is being bombed in Syria and Iraq. The French President has not told us how many ISIL fighters are occupying the Syrian city of Raqqa with a population of around 200,000; yet this city has been bombed mercilessly by French jets since the Paris attacks. The bombing of oilfields by British jets will only hurt the millions of people who live in ISIL-controlled territory who need diesel for heating, transport and electricity. As for “putting boots on the ground”, I doubt if ISIL fighters are going to engage U.S forces directly; they will do what the Taliban did- melt into the towns and countryside and come back to fight another day.

Instead of bombing oilfields, Western powers could coordinate their national military intelligence services to find answers to such questions as: Who are the middle-men who are buying oil from ISIL and to which states do they sell it? Who is funding ISIL (some, I suspect, are wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that are Western allies!)? How can we better equip and support the Kurds who are the fighters most likely to inflict major causalities on ISIL? How can we help Turkey secure its long border with ISIL-held territory to prevent fresh fighters entering the area? How can we counter ISIL’s populist propaganda in the West and build better community relations in cities where the radicalization of Muslim youth is greatest? I pointed out in a previous Blog post that the Danish city of Aarhus has an excellent program of rehabilitating (rather than incarcerating) young Muslim Danes who went to Syria with romantic ideals of jihad, and came back disillusioned. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/11/denmark-rehab-isis-fighters_n_5798626.html)

Given that the UN Security Council is united (a rare event!) in denouncing ISIL as a terrorist threat, this is an opportune moment to bring regional and international pressure to bear on the Iraqi and Syrian regimes to accommodate Sunni demands for greater political participation. That would pull the rug from under ISIL which has claimed for itself the role of Sunni liberators. The political situation has changed dramatically now that Russia is also in the fray. Assad, like Saddam and Gaddafi before him, will have be constrained rather than toppled, however repugnant such a solution may be to all of us who care deeply about human rights.

David Cameron was right in telling the British Parliament that this was a battle against “intolerance and fascism”. But the same ideology is rampant across Europe and the U.S., and the EU is making shameful deals with Turkey to take all Syrian refugees (there are already over 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, living in abysmal conditions). Surrendering to collective fear, closing ranks against foreigners, and authorizing governments to sacrifice others for the sake of our “absolute security”- this is to show ourselves as morally bankrupt as ISIL and its supporters. Addressing “intolerance and fascism” at home is the best way the West can show that it retains some aspects of its Christian heritage. At the end of the day, this is a battle between fundamental narratives concerning how we conceive both divinity and humanity.


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