EFI General Secretary Rev. Richard Howell March Editorial


Evangelical Fellowship of India>> March 2006, Issue I, Editorial by Rev. Richard Howell, General Secretary

I believe Jesus Christ is not only my personal Saviour but also the Saviour and Lord of the whole universe. He was crucified on the cruel cross of Calvary but rose again from the dead on the third day. The cross portrays shame and abandonment as also the self-giving love of God for sinful humanity.

Jesus commanded his followers to, “Love your enemies and pray for them that persecute you” Matt. 5:44. By teaching us not to retaliate, Jesus keeps us from taking the law into our own hands. By loving and praying for our enemies we can overcome evil with good. Only if we love our enemies and treat them well, will we truly show that Jesus is Lord of our life. This is possible only if we give ourselves fully to God, because only he can deliver us from natural selfishness. We must trust the Holy Spirit to help us show love to those for whom we may not feel love.

Down through the ages Christ has been caricatured and slighted which offends my faith sensibilities but my belief in Christ as Saviour and Lord gives me confidence. Christ does not really require my violent reactions to protect him. Nevertheless I will respond to what I believe is the truth about Christ but I am duty bound to do so in love. I have to be a Christian in my actions and reactions as well.

In as much as caricatures of Christ don’t amuse me I reject desecrations of all faiths. Yet I have to defend the freedom of speech and expression in the public space even when it offends me. I have also learnt from experience that the public space has the capacity to challenge and correct my many untested assumptions about people and ideas.

The Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad, whom Muslims venerate as a prophet, for some may be a momentary form of satirical entertainment, for others, it is an attack on Islam. No-one knows what Muhammad looked like. Images of him found today were produced within a few hundred years of his death in the 7th Century. Islam bans pictorial representations of humans or animals to discourage idolatry.

There are two issues intertwined in the cartoon controversy, first the Islamic ban on any pictorial representation and second the veneration for the person of Muhammad. It is the satirical intent of the cartoonists, and the association of Muhammad with terrorism, that has offended the vast majority of Muslims. For as Bernard Lewis has remarked “Most Muslims are not fundamentalists, and most fundamentalists are not terrorists, but most present–day terrorists are Muslims and proudly identify them as such.” Islamists have consistently and aggressively promoted their world view and have attacked liberal democratic values, not only in the West but across the Arab and Muslim world as well.

Islam teaches it is the duty of Muslims to exert strenuously “in the cause of God” against both personal ungodliness and the enemies of Islam. Muslims consider themselves as comprising the Dar al-Islam, “the household of submission,” and the rest of the world’s peoples as the Dar al-Hard, “the household of warfare,”

It is the duty of Muslims to extend the Dar al-Islam by means of missionary activities and in some cases even by military jihad, if necessary towards the ultimate goal of a worldwide Islamic community embracing all.

A local Danish dispute is quickly elevated to the level of a global conflict, because the internet and satellite broadcasting are being diligently used by Islamist activists across the world to drum up support for the doctrine of a universal Muslim nation up against, what they term “an aggressive and imperialist West.”

Yet there are voices of dissidence as well, like the one of Ms Hirsi Ali the Somali-born Dutch MP who describes herself as a “dissident of Islam.” She has backed the Danish newspaper that first printed the Muhammad cartoons. Ayaan Hirsi Ali said it was “correct to publish the cartoons” in Jyllands Posten and “right to republish them”. Her film-maker colleague Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim extremist in a case that shocked the . Ms Hirsi Ali, speaking in Berlin , said that “today the open society is challenged by Islamism”. She added: “Within Islam exists a hardline Islamist movement that rejects democratic freedoms and wants to destroy them.” Ms Hirsi Ali criticised European leaders for not standing by and urged politicians to stop appeasing fundamentalists.

On 14th February a German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel depicted the Iranian football team dressed as suicide bombers. immediately demanded an apology. Malte Lehming, comment editor said, the caricature was meant for “a German audience.” Asked whether it had been unwise to print it, he said: “The problem is where you draw the line? Cartoons have to be satirical and mean. We are very sorry if we have hurt the feelings of any Iranians. But we have not apologised.” It is the ideologies that determine where the lines are drawn.

The World of Ideologies

Looking at the cartoons, a non-Muslim wonders how they could possibly have given such offense that it has become a global crisis. One reason is that ’s war on terror is still largely perceived in the Arab world as a war on Islam – a perception reinforced by the fact that it is happening exclusively in Muslim countries, namely and . Parts of the Arab media describe it as a modern crusade. Many Arab columnists often speak of a campaign to distort and discredit Islam.

One hardly hears protests against the grotesque caricatures of Christians and most especially, Jews that are broadcast throughout the Middle East on a daily basis. “If this is the case then why can’t others have the right to criticise Islam,” question some critics.

The issue is also of the huge gap between liberal values in the West and the predominantly religious outlook of Middle Eastern Muslim societies. Lamin Sanneh has given some very helpful comments on ideologies which aid in our understanding the reactions of communities and cultures as perceived threats. “Ideologies are mental canopies that set the horizons of what is acceptable in the world of ideas and values, and that do not allow circumstances to question their own values. It’s a linear, uncomplicated universe, illuminated by only one shaft of light: first do to others what they are not allowed to do to you.”

In public space plurality of opinions must be allowed to express them. However the capacity of a single religious opinion to have monopoly in the public space depends upon the degree to which the state uses coercive force to regulate the religious or secular views. To the degree public space is unregulated, it will tend to be very pluralistic.

Another example of a fundamentalist ideology reigning supreme is the removal of Mr L.K. Advani from the presidency of B.J.P because he called Jinnah the founder of , a secular. This was interpreted as a deviation from the hardcore RSS ideology to make a Hindu state. The result was inevitable Advani had to resign from his post. It was a clash of free speech and RSS ideology which does not permit space for plurality of opinions to prevail within its camp.

The world needs initiatives to defuse this situation which has left a trail of mistrust and misunderstanding and stop the spiral of hatred and anger which in itself constitutes a threat to international peace and security.

Freedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of democratic systems and we must never relinquish it. But there are no rights without responsibility, and with respect for sensibilities. Laws in themselves are not enough to ensure peace in the world. We need to cultivate peaceful co-existence, which is only possible when there is interest in understanding the other side’s point of view, for that which it holds most sacred.

The need is also for communities and governments to keep their heads; we will eventually overcome this explosive moment into a different one where a genuine reconciliation is possible. The Church of Jesus Christ is called to be an agent of reconciliation in the midst of a strife torn world.

Richard Howell