Dr. Yvonne Haddad Speaks at Al-Hewar Center
About Christian-Muslim Relations

On December 17, 1997, Al-Hewar Center in metropolitan Washington, D.C., had the privilege of welcoming Dr. Yvonne Haddad as guest speaker. Dr. Haddad, who is a professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, spoke about the globalization of Islam, especially its growth in the West, and Christian-Muslim relations. The event was moderated by Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah.

Dr. Haddad began by examining the history of Christian-Muslim relations. She noted that Islam spread into Christian territory right from the beginning. Its first encounter was with the Byzantines (i.e., the Greek Orthodox Church) who treated the Muslims as a Christian heresy. The Byzantines had spent five centuries combating the Nestorians, the Aryans, and every other "Christian heresy" that had surfaced, and in their view, Islam was just another one. So this colored the Christian view of Islam from the beginning, said Haddad.

The second major encounter between Islam and Christianity was with the Catholic European Church. This encounter was more bloody, said Haddad, because when the Crusaders came to the East, they weren’t interested in dialogue or theological debates, they were more interested in acquiring property, establishing colonies and controlling the area. They accomplished this by killing everyone, including Eastern Christians (except those who collaborated with them), both in Antioch and in Jerusalem. They perpetrated huge massacres, and eventually sacked Constantinople itself.

The other encounter between the Catholic Church and Islam, which was very major and still has repercussions, was in Spain with the "reconquista." There, said Haddad, the Muslims were given three options: convert, leave or die. A lot of them left, some converted, and some apparently converted only in outside form exercising taqia (dissimulation). In fact, said Dr. Haddad, she had recently read an article about a group of Muslims students who established a Mosque in Spain a few years ago. When they announced the prayer, several hundred people walked in off the streets and just started praying – they had been practicing Islam secretly for five hundred years! After the fall of Muslim Spain and the beginning of the expansion of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, there was a period of empowerment of Europe, which began to contain Muslim countries and control their economies in various ways.

The third major encounter between Muslims and Christians took place in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the growth of Protestantism. The missionaries focused on converting rather than killing people; however, they still didn’t like anybody in the East, said Haddad, again, including Arab Christians. They were convinced that they had the only truth and that everybody should be like them. Unfortunately, though, even if people converted, they still weren’t considered equals because of ethnic and racist considerations.

All of this history feeds into what is going on today, said Haddad. She called this current period the Judeo-Christian era, but stated that she is still trying to find an appropriate terminology. This era is characterized by the hegemony of the United States, she said, which is in a sense very publicly anti-Muslim even though official State Department statements recognize Islam as a religion (but, it is the only religion recognized by the American government, which, again, works to set it apart). In addition, the U.S. has a special policy toward Islam, distinguishing between "moderate" Muslims "fundamentalists," and so on.

Haddad warned that we should pay attention to the policies coming out of the United States government, such as restrictions on immigration of people from the Arab world – Muslims specifically, and the containment of Arabs via harassment, such as passenger profiling at airports. She urged the community to speak out to their Senators and Congressmen and let them know that these policies are unacceptable.

Another issue that has surfaced lately is that of the plight of Christians in the Middle East. This all came out of a study recently released by the Israeli government which claimed it had just discovered that Christians were leaving Palestine. The Israelis stated that the Christians were leaving after living under the Palestinian Authority for the last four years, and not because of their fifty years of suffering under Israelis: including dispossession, the taking of their homes, lack of jobs, prevention from studying, etc.! When Israel took over Jerusalem in 1967, said Haddad, there were 28,000 Arab Christians living in Jerusalem. Today, there are less than 4,000. Israel is trying to use the Christian population in order to demonize Muslims. It is important to note, she said, that the American journalists who are making a big deal about this story, are not part of a conspiracy, but rather are participating in an up-front policy of Muslim-bashing.

Besides the issue of Palestinian Christians, the issues of the Lebanese Christians and Coptic Christians in Egypt are also being exploited, although their situations are very different. The Lebanese came out of a civil war which they lost, and are experiencing the acute feeling of no longer being the dominant community and having to deal with a whole new order. Some people are manipulating the situation in order to "prove" that Christians and Muslims cannot live together. The Coptic issue goes back to the early 1970s when Anwar Sadat decided to clamp down on the Copts in order to appease the Muslim Brotherhood. The Copts have a number of issues that they want addressed, and they have a large active group in the U.S. that fans the flames.

Because of all of this, legislation is now being considered in the United States to deal with "Muslim persecution of Christians." It is interesting to see who supports it, said Haddad. The American Muslim Council has managed to force legislators to pay attention to the persecution of Muslims by the Chinese. So that will become part of the legislation. The Catholics are interested in China, so the Catholic Bishops support the legislation. The National Council of Churches, on the other hand, is lobbying against it. Of course, the Christian Right and the Jewish community support this legislation.

There is a great deal of hatred in the Christian right toward Islam, said Haddad. After the 1967 war, these Christians began to theologically consider Muslims to be the "anti-christ," who want to bring about the final solution of the Jews. Fortunately, however, there is an evangelical group that supports the Palestinians, and is encouraging evangelical Christians to go to the Holy Land in order to see for themselves what is really happening to the Christians there.

The left-wing churches, that is, the churches in the National Council of Churches, are slightly different. They have always been supportive of a two-state solution and an Arab capital in Jerusalem. However, some of their members have gone through a kind of transformation as a result of guilt over the Holocaust, said Haddad, who warned that this is a serious matter because it is causing a shift in their entire theology to the extent that she considers some of them to be teaching not Christianity, but "Holocaustianity." This is very serious, because what they are saying theologically is that the defining even in history, rather than being the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, is the Holocaust. Haddad says she has had discussions with people who believe this and has asked them why the Japanese and the Chinese and the Africans are responsible for European hatred of Jews. Their reply is always that "everybody" is guilty. This theology, then, naturally takes on the pattern used in Christian theology of death and resurrection, but it becomes the Holocaust and the resurrection of the state of Israel. The state of Israel, thus, becomes very central to these Christians’ understanding of who they are, and survival becomes very important for the salvation of Christians because without Israel there is no salvation. This is heresy, says Haddad, for if one looks at Christian theology throughout the centuries, there is no such doctrine. Nevertheless, there are Christian seminaries today that are actually teaching this theology. This, of course, just leads to more conflict between Christians and Muslims.

Complicating all this is the movement of Muslims to the West. One way of looking at it is simply the movement of people in general, for a variety of reasons (political and religious freedom, economic benefit, etc.), but for some reason, all of sudden there is a great fear in Europe of the coming of the Muslims to the point that the European countries recently decided that they are not going to put Turkey even on the waiting list to join the European Union.

Islam is now the second largest religion in Europe, which makes it a European religion whether they like it or not. But these countries have different policies as to how they deal with Islam and immigrants. For example, said Haddad, Germany, Austria and Switzerland do not give citizenship to people who are immigrants, even if their children are born in that state. They are always considered guest workers that will one day leave. Holland started out this way, but then decided that the best way to "contain" the Muslims would be to organize them. So they started building mosques and bringing in Imams, all paid for by the state. But, rather than teaching them Arabic, the language of Islam, they taught them Turkish! And Turkish history. All in an effort to get them to identify with Turkey and eventually to go back. Then they brought in Moroccan Imams with the same intention.

They are now awakening to the fact that these people are not going back, so they are trying to contain them by encouraging Muslims to form "Islamic bureaucracies" or hierarchies of sorts, that can be manipulated.

With the presence of Muslims, some Christians are rediscovering their Christianity, but it is taking the form of a rising Christian identity against the Islamic identity. The two issues with which the Europeans and the Americans are most concerned with respect to their growing Muslim populations are security and culture, said Haddad, including security for both the Muslim community and for the countries in which they are living.

The issue of culture is very interesting because Muslims and the Western societies use it as a way to identify the other. Haddad gave the example of a reporter from The New York Times who told her that the paper was going to do a series about Muslims in America. The reporter kept saying, "They don’t belong here. Why don’t they go back where they came from?" Haddad asked him why, and he replied because "they have different values." When she asked him to explain, he mentioned things like they don’t drink, they don’t believe in pre-marital sex or gay marriages. She answered him that many Christian and Jewish groups believe the same things, and asked him what should be done with them. After some talking back and forth, the reporter eventually admitted than when the Jews started coming to the United States in the 1920s, the New York Times, itself, had published an article that said these people don’t belong here because they have different values. As a result of the conversation, he began to think more deeply about the issue and realized how easy it is to use culture to isolate groups by identifying them as "the other" that doesn’t belong. He ended up writing a very interesting article.

Muslims also use culture as a way of distinguishing themselves. Many Muslims are self-consciously re-inventing Islam to mean the clothes they wear or the way they behave. For some it is more a cultural thing than a theological or belief system. It has become very important in preserving the identity, said Haddad, but at the same time, it is seen by the host cultures as a threat to change the society.

The question, then, is where do we go from here? It is important, although difficult, to answer this question, said Haddad, because tensions are growing and there are people who have great interest in propagating these tensions. She concluded by encouraging a discussion about what Christians and Muslims can do together to change the situation.

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