Mostly Unseen Problems in the Christian-Muslim Interreligious Dialogue

Mostly Unseen Problems in the Christian-Muslim Interreligious Dialogue

Gottfried Hutter

Psychotherapy has been deeply influenced by the ideal of dialogue outlined by the physicist David Bohm. The aim: to overcome prejudices and destructive misinformation. By freeing the mind from socio-cultural accretions, a free space can be created in which something new can happen.

This ideal can, however, be hard to live up to since intercultural dialogue has throughout history always been characterized by the dominant power structures of that time.

Even as late as 2002, when the famous interreligious Alexandria Declaration was formulated one of the Egyptian participants did not dare to sign. If I sign this today, I will be a dead man tomorrow. This the son of one of the other participants told me only last week.

Dialogue naturally creates a bond between two parties. When they are talking about a third party, they will tend to create a distance in relation to that missing party.

Thus, Christians and Muslims in dialogue naturally tend see the Jews in antagonistic terms.

Dialogue between Christians and Jews tends to isolate and scapegoat the Muslims in like manner.

And dialogue between Jews and Muslims tends to scapegoat Christians.

My research into the history of the Middle East has shown up this tendency up again and again.

All too often the dialogue partners are barely aware of this automatism.

Thus, there is a risk of them agreeing that they have a problem with the missing third party.

Because of the natural tendency of dialogue partners to develop loyalty to one another, there are not so many people keeping up contacts with both sides of a crucial issue.

Mostly we find persons who are well known for their contribution to Christian-Muslim dialogue or Christian-Jewish dialogue or Muslim-Jewish dialogue.

At the time of Reconquista when the Jews were driven out of Spain along with Muslims, they were welcomed by Muslims in Egypt and in the area of today’s Turkey. The Christians were the enemy.

When the new State of Israel was founded there were rather close relations between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land. Israel was the enemy.

And in today’s West there is all too often a Jewish-Christian bond in which the Muslims are the enemies.

One famous example of the exclusion of one partner from dialogue is the letter “One Common Word”, written by the Jordanian Prince Ghazi about the most important word in the Bible: love. The letter was adressed to the Pope and high Christian leaders. It completely excluded the Jewish Rabbis, even though the one common word originates in the Jewish Bible.

But let me go back to my first statement:

Throughout history any interreligious dialogue has always been characterized by the dominant power structures of the time.

As long as the Jews were dominant in the first and second century CE, Jews would occasionally complain to the Roman authorities about Christians. As a result, Christians were in danger of persecution – a very early cause for antisemitism.

When the Christians became dominant during the rule of the Emperor Constantine, the Christians not only removed the traditional Roman temples in Jerusalem, they also showed their dominance over Judaism by demonstratively leaving the area of the former Temple of the Jews in ruins – they even used it as a garbage dump. Had Constantine’s mother Helena cherished the Temple as the Apostles had, she would have built a memorial there – and that would have made a considerable difference for the Caliph Omar, when he conquered Jerusalem, and for the entire Muslim world up until today.

In 614 CE, when Persian troops under Jewish influence conquered the Holy Land and took it from the Byzantines, they removed Christians from all positions of power and destroyed many churches. After a couple of years, the Persians became aware of the problem and reinstated the Christians in their former roles.

Another feature of dialogue came into play when the Muslims became the dominant power. They had a famous rule of tolerance: indigenous non-Muslim populations had to submit to Muslim dominance. They had to sign a treaty, the so-called “dhimma”. Once subdued, they had a right to be protected by Sharia-law. And then there was no problem in dialogue.

As long as they respected their subordinate role as dhimmis they could live in peace and thus there was [mostly] interreligious peace throughout the time and the area of Muslim rule.

Jews and Christians could live in peace with each other and with the Muslims. They could even take very high positions in the state.

The end of the Ottoman empire after WWI brought about fundamental changes in the power structure. That change was aggravated with the founding of the Jewish State of Israel. As soon as the Jews had their own state, they naturally refused to be regarded as dhimmis – while the Christians in their minority position in the Middle East tended to continue to live as they were accustomed to: as dhimmis.

But the Jews refused and from that moment on they were regarded as enemies of Islam.

Today this is hardly ever talked about anywhere.

Today, in any talk about politics a strict dogma must be upheld: religion has no role in politics. This is the effect of today’s power structure.

Thus, the Middle East conflict is seen as a purely political conflict. Consequently, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is seen in purely territorial terms.

The rationale behind this is the idea that, as soon as the factor of religion is included, the conflict becomes insoluble.

This rule has its merits, because religion has indeed caused much trouble in politics.

Yet, some features of the conflict will remain inexplicable and inextricable as long as religious motives are tabooed.

As long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is explained as a purely territorial conflict the question remains, why then has it not been solved long ago – like all of the major territorial changes following WWI and WWII.

Today, nobody is talking seriously about foreign colonization of German territories in the East or colonization of Greek territories in today’s Turkey or of the German speaking region of South Tyrol. So, why are people speaking of Israel colonizing Palestinian territory?

In my view, the Muslim complaint against the Jews is not so much related to the fact that the Jews have taken territory from the Palestinians (as I just said, after WWI and WWII much territory has been taken from other people with little complaint), it is related far more to the fact that the Jews refused to subordinate themselves under the rule of the leading culture of the Middle East, and were thus regarded as an enemy of its people – by the people of Gaza, for instance, even after the Israelis had ended their occupation.

The Christians on the other hand are in many ways still acting as dhimmis and thus are forming an alliance with the Muslims – against the State of Israel – because the Jews are refusing to subordinate themselves.

Christians did not protest when in 1949 Jerusalem came to be a part of the Kingdom of Jordan. They rather protested when Israel conquered Jerusalem in 1967 – even though the Israeli government actively guaranteed freedom of access to all religious sanctuaries – which the Jordanian government had not guaranteed before.

So, in Christian-Muslim dialogue the old dhimmi rule still matters, and it is creating alliances and declaring the third party to be the enemy. That I have felt over and over again in my talks with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.

Since dialogue is the subject of this conference, I chose these special aspects to be my subject.

But now, please see this new book of mine:

100 Years of Middle East Conflict – Honorable Peace. How Can Lasting peace be Secured between the Muslim World and Israel”

The entire book is a book about interreligious dialogue, laid out in its consequences for the reality of the life of people in Israel and Palestine – always keeping in mind that there are three parties to what is a trialogue.

If people want their lives to be normal, they will need an Honorable Peace! They will need what you will find in this book.


hp | 2019


The Author of ‘Honorable Peace’

Gottfried Hutter

The author studied Catholic theology, history and political science. Originally from Salzburg, Austria, he went to live in San Francisco for five years. There he gained a sense of human beings’ potential, especially in terms of spirituality and civilization. This, in turn, motivated him to learn about other cultures and religions. He moved to Egypt and stayed for one year in
Cairo, mainly experiencing the spiritual depth of Islam. Back in Europe, teaching Catholic religion in schools and studying Shamanism and native religions, he trained to become a psychotherapist. Working with psychiatric patients, he wrote his first book, Resurrection – Before Death. How to Use Biblical Texts in Psychotherapy. In his therapeutic practice he is now mainly working with severely traumatized Middle Eastern refugees. More ->

Member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts

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