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The journal > Year 2 N.4 September 2006 > Observations on the Upset Triangle

Observations on the Upset Triangle

Something changed /5. The system of relationships between Islam, Christianity and the West was revolutionised that day five years ago. Although the attack cannot be attributed to the Muslim world as a whole, it can be interpreted as a lucidly violent expression of the great tension that part of that world experiences in relation to the United States of America and Europe.

Andrea Pacini | 01 September 2006

The terrorist attack on the Twin Towers on11 September 2001 certainly marked a significant moment in the relations between the West and the Islamic world, on the one hand, and between Christianity and Islam, on the other, but it also brought about a development in the relationship between the West and Christianity.
With respect to the relationship between the Islamic world and the West, 11 September expressed in a devastating way the decided hostility and the destructive intent felt by certain currents within the Muslim world and which they intend to express against Western societies and the values that these societies express. Here it is necessary to be aware that although Al Qaeda and other similar terrorist movements came out into the open with the attack of 11 September, this act nevertheless had a long political-cultural 'preparation' and expressed itself as a coming out into the open of a war declared on the 'enemies' of Islam. The previous cultural incubation can be identified in summarising fashion with the creation and growth of large fundamentalist currents within the Muslim world which find their reason for existence and root their political-cultural-religious project in a reading of reality and history that sees in the abandonment of Islam at a political-juridical level, and the giving way to Westernising forms of social and juridical modernisation implemented by Muslim countries, the cause of the evils that weigh upon societies with Muslim majorities and above all the reason for their political inferiority to Western nations. This analysis was developed from the 1930s onwards within the orbit of the Association of Muslim Brothers and became imbued with violent and radical tones thanks to the new interpretations that were later offered by ideologues such as Maududi (India) and Sayyid Qutb (Egypt). To the latter in particular is to be attributed a clear identification of the enemies of Islam who were identified as being present in the governments of Muslim countries and who, given that they actively promoted the modernisation of their countries, were identified as being directly responsible for the forgoing of the creation of Islamic states in which the Shari'a was applied and the political settlement was directly based upon Islam.1 As leaders of this political project, which included the active containment of fundamentalist movements, such governments were defined by Qutb as 'apostates' and this status of theirs made legitimate, as well as a matter of duty, the waging of a jihad against them. Violence and thus terrorism against the political leaders of countries with Muslim majorities, held guilty of not promoting the Islamisation of institutional structures and social customs, was thus legitimated at a religious and cultural level.
This interpretation of Qutb was a fundamental factor that would legitimate the birth of radical Islamic movements which would make the use of violence their main instrument of struggle. It may also be observed that the identification of the enemy against whom to unleash a jihad would undergo subsequent extensions: to Muslim governments seen as apostates, and then to the United States of America, held to be guilty of supporting such governments the 'American Great Satan', to employ Khomeini's definition and subsequently to all those Western states which in varying degrees would try to support existing governments in power in Muslim countries or to encourage political, juridical and cultural trends favourable to the modernisation and the strengthening of a democratic state based upon the rule of law. In this context, the appearance of Al Qaeda and the attack of 11 September can be seen as the extreme expression of this process, a process which exploded in a jihad declared against the West which was attacked at its most eloquent symbolic place of political, economic and military power. It should also be borne in mind that the cultural dynamics hostile to the Western world in the Islamic world have also found nourishment at a broader level not only in very widespread preaching that is characterised by anti-Western and anti-Christian tones but also in many Islamic teaching structures. These last, in general, concede little space to the exercise of critical thought and to a consequent openness to cultural otherness which always ends up by raising challenges and questions and is thus viewed with suspicion and as a carrier of instability.
Although the attack of 11 September was an expression of precise groups and certainly not to be attributed to the Muslim world as a whole, it can also be interpreted as a lucidly violent expression of the great tension that a part of that world experiences in relation to the West. It is certainly the case that 11 September caused a convergent adoption of positions both by Western governments and not only Western governments and by most of the governments of the Muslim world, both of which perceived in the struggle against terrorism a shared objective that required integrated strategies. In this sense, although the goal of the attack of 11 September was also to call for an Islamic anti-Western rising, this objective was not, in fact, achieved. This is because Islamic terrorism is a very grave problem for Muslim societies themselves. On the other hand, however, this attack also contributed to strongly disruptive dynamics, such as the war in Iraq, the contemporary civil chaos in the same country, and the activation at an international level of terrorist cells linked to Al Qaeda. It has also generated renewed anti-Western dynamics of Islamic origins in Iran. Lastly, it should be noted that 11 September and subsequent terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere led to the growth of major suspicion towards Islam by European and American populations, in relation to which it is rather difficult to present prospects for dialogue, even when this is conceived in a critical and committed way.
It is certainly the case that from this complex panorama there emerges an important need not only for policies that are strongly anchored in ethical values, and a deep knowledge of the situations to be found in those parts of the world that have a Muslim majority, but also the need to manage the tensions between the Islamic world and the West through a cultural initiative organised over a long period in which both state institutions and the components of civil society, and in particular religious bodies, are involved. It is necessary to develop a grounding in cultural dialogue, fundamental civil values, and the highest religious values those which avoid the political exploitation of religion and politics by religious institutions. This dialogue should be capable of really creating shared fundamental moral visions as a basis and context for the management of relations and for developing dialogue and interaction at all levels, beginning with the personal level and leading on to relations between states.

Rights for Christians
The set of events which are outlined in summarising form above has also influenced the relationship of Christianity with Islam. In its communiqués Al Qaeda does not fail to define its Western enemies as unbelievers and crusaders, thereby bestowing upon belonging to Christianity a negative value not only at a historical level but also in doctrinal terms, drawing thereby upon an Islamic theological-juridical approach in opposition to religious otherness.
The aim of bestowing religious legitimation on a jihad against a West identified with Christianity is evident in the language of Al Qaeda's Islam which encourages confrontation at all levels: the political, the religious and the cultural. On the other hand, important official Islamic religious leaders, and often local imams, as well as many Muslim representatives of the world of culture and politics, have firmly condemned terrorism and often this aversion to Christianity as well. However in the Christian world these stances, although appreciated, are also held to be insufficient in the face of the persistent marginality, and at times active oppression, to which Christians are subjected in many Muslim countries. In the Christian world an awareness has emerged that formal declarations of condemnation, which are certainly sincere, are not, however, sufficient, unless they are accompanied and followed by precise political and cultural commitments designed to assure the fundamental civil rights of Christians who are citizens of, or residents in, countries with Muslim majorities.2 This is the litmus test by which to test the desire for a serious dialogue at an intercultural and inter-religious level.
Amongst Christians in the West the request for 'reciprocity' has been emerging in an increasingly strong way in the face of a new and major presence in countries with Christian majorities of Muslim populations whose civil rights are rightly upheld. The centrality that the category of reciprocity is acquiring in common conversation has at times provoked questions about its gospel legitimacy, and this in the sense that in Church circles some critics have argued that in basing itself upon the juridical principle of 'giving conditioned by receiving' this policy is not consistent with the free giving required by the Gospel.
I believe that one can answer this objection in an effective way by emphasising that in the context of fundamental rights the request for reciprocity does not link the defence of such rights in Western countries to whether the same rights are assured to Christians in Muslim countries. The defence of the civil rights of Muslims in the West is assured as a matter of duty by states that are based on the rule of law and the Church is in favour of this defence. But specifically these same guarantees can and must be asked of states with Muslim majorities for the benefit of Christians and non-Muslims who are resident in such countries to assure their fundamental rights, amongst which may be listed religious freedom.
The request for reciprocity, in the context of a defence that has already bestowed and is not conditional, as occurs as regards fundamental rights in Western countries, far from being in contradiction with the Gospel becomes if anything an imperative at a moral level so that every man can be respected in his deepest dignity and can express that dignity in his private and public life. This is an imperative that is dictated by the requirements of charity at a personal and ecclesial level as well as of justice at a more civil and political level.

A More Critical Dialogue
On the other hand in Christian circles 11 September has raised questions about inter-religious dialogue, and this after the strong impetus in that direction begun by the Second Vatican Council and then promoted by John Paul II. Questions have emerged not so much about dialogue itself but about its method, its objectives, and the testing of its results. From this process of testing that is still fully underway it appears that a least two advances have been achieved. The first concerns the method of dialogue and the request here is that it should be more critical and demanding and not confine itself to expressions of intent which are not followed by concrete commitments. The second is that in order to be effective inter-religious dialogue must be strongly rooted in a more broadly cultural context because the problems of the day are not primarily dogmatic in character but concern ethical, social, juridical and political aspects. These are spheres that certainly also have a theological basis or a specific status that theology attributes to them but in relation to which there must be developed a dialogue and common commitment of a more broadly cultural character designed to involve a plurality of worlds without being limited to representatives of religious institutions alone, which, in the Muslim world, above all else, often have notable connections at the level of role with political institutions or institutions based on politics. It is certainly the case that people are aware that dialogue is a prospect that cannot be forsworn but also a prospect that is demanding. On a specifically inter-religious level dialogue, in order to be effective, requires a healthy possession of one's own religious identity, within which, alone, can one find the foundation for openness to others, listening to others, and appealing to others, and by which to develop in concrete terms that 'ministry of living together' to which Rev. Christian de Chergé, the prior of the trappist monks of Notre Dame de l'Atlas in Algeria, referred.3
It is certainly true that the intensification of the hostility of Islamic radicalism towards Christianity has directly or indirectly also provoked new experiences of martyrdom, such as that of the seven trappist monks of Notre-Dame, of ten years ago, or, more recently, of Don Andrea Santoro in Trebisonda, to cite only two eloquent examples. These are examples that show how real dialogue based upon the limpid and 'inoffensive' expression of one's own faith can become a cause of martyrdom because it rejects both the logic of violence and the temptations of a relativistic approach, to which perhaps a part of the activity of dialogue has given way in recent years. Now, it is clear that dialogue cannot be anything else but demanding unless, that is, it wants to fall into evident public irrelevance.
Lastly, 11 September has also had an important consequence for the relationship between the West and Christianity because a cultural movement that tends to revalue the Christian matrix of the West and the fundamental values that structure its civil and cultural order has been strengthened and has become more widespread. This has taken place within a general movement involving the restructuring of collective cultural identities which, as such, precedes 11 September one is dealing here, in fact, with a long-term phenomenon connected with the spread of modernity and then with globalisation but which certainly found in this event, and more in general in the spread of a strong Islamic identity, a factor of further cohesion and development. This is a process that, on the one hand, has developed within the ecclesial context which, when faced with a general religious and cultural pluralism (and this last is not without strong relativistic negative trends), emphasises the importance of recognising its own cultural and religious roots so as to know how to retrieve them and to draw strength from them so as to draw up effective visions of personal life and life in associations. On the other hand, this process encounters parallels, at times of notable dimensions, also in secular cultural currents that have been developing in the West. Without coming to an adherence of faith to Christianity, they nonetheless see it as constituting a shared root of values and culture to be appreciated and developed as an important dimension for the formation of individuals, education in citizenship, and to form a basis for social and political systems that are open to difference but not relativistic. This is a cultural phenomenon that is not without ambiguity because it runs the risk both of reducing Christianity to ethics, as liberal Protestantism did in the nineteenth century, and of leading, through some of its outcomes, to self-referential positions of identity that exclude otherness. However, this phenomenon can open up itineraries of dialogue on new bases between secular cultures and cultures of Christian inspiration and ecclesial realities. If this dialogue is critically developed so as to avoid the risks mentioned above, from it can spring interesting opportunities for the drawing up of effective prospects as regards associations in which overcoming both clearly relativistic negative tendencies and the rejection of cultural and 'believing' otherness pluralism and identity are dynamically inserted in a shared fundamental context of values which must always be located and declined in history.


1. See Gilles Kepel, Le prophète et le pharaon. Aux sources des mouvements islamistes (Seuil, Paris, 1993); Andrea Pacini (ed.), Dibattito sull'applicazione della shari'a (Dossier Mondo Islamico 1, Edizioni della Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli, Turin, 1995); I Fratelli Musulmani e il dibattito sull'islam politico, (Dossier Mondo Islamico 2, Edizioni della Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli, Turin, 1996).

2. Andrea Pacini (ed.), Comunità cristiane nell'islam arabo. La sfida del futuro, (Edizioni della Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli, Turin, 1996), in particular pp. 1-28; Maurice Borrmans, 'La contribution des communautés arabes chrétiennes au devenir des états arabes: dynamiques et perspectives', in Andrea Pacini (ed.), Les communautés chrétiennes dans le monde musulman arabe, numéro spécial de la Révue Proche-Orient Chrétien, tome 47, 1997.

3. Comunità di Bose (ed.), Più forti dell'odio. Gli scritti dei monaci trappisti uccisi in Algeria, (Piemme, Casale Monferrato, 1997); L'écho de Tibhirine, Chemins de Dialogue 27, April 2006.

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