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Religion and Society

Towards a Humanist View of Religious Freedom

Dr Khaled Abd ar-Ra''ûf al-Jaber

This is the unabridged version of the lecture given on June 23 in Amman by Dr Khaled Abd ar-Ra'ûf al-Jaber on the occasion of the Oasis Scientific Committee.


Our words risk sounding ambiguous if we do not manage to overcome the obstacles that separate us. This is because these words start from a set of truths which each one of us assumes from his/her own history and his/her own projection towards the future. Therefore to speak of truth will remain - to an extent so large as to perhaps being substantial - coloured by our own colours: we shall then use these truths as masks behind which to hide in the hope they could throw a bridge across the abyss of fear which we inhabit. We want first of all to survive and then to keep some historical acquisitions; certainly, we would also want to bring about a certain rapprochement between us - yet one that coincides for each one of us with the desire of getting the others closer to the truths in which, at the end of the day, we believe.


First of all we acknowledge that the dialogues witnessed by the twentieth century between the Christian and the Muslim religions or, to be more precise, between the followers of these two religions, have not achieved any concrete results. We may even concede that the dialogue between the members of these two religions embodies the future of mankind, contrary to Huntington's argument on the clash of civilisations and in answer to Fukuyama's idea of "the end of history" (on which he has successively had second thoughts). These two arguments are examples of extremism at its most extreme, in that they pose a boundary between themselves and the future and converge in shaping Armageddon, the great war that separates the three religions.


If this dialogue is to have an effective role, this lies in the possibility to transform the clash, considered inevitable by some, into a real dialogue that may lead to the end of mankind's long history of suffering and open a long era of good, love, encounter and action, to the benefit of one human civilisation where each religion may have its place and each culture its subjective and objective value.


Our efforts towards this dialogue may perhaps be compared with swimming against the tide: it is a difficult dialogue whose course is hard and steep. It is necessary that all who believe in its inevitability for the good of the whole mankind should also know that they will encounter many difficulties along the way and that sometimes they will be forced to change in order to realise the objectives of the dialogue and achieve its purposes. At some particular moments in history, such conviction has been pivotal in the lives of prophets, saints, friends of God and pious men, despite the attitude of their contemporaries who tortured and denied them, killed some and declared others heretics and infidels; and also despite the politicians of those times, who exploited some ignorant people in order to make the religious discourse serve their private interests and worldly desires, in contrast with the interest of mankind, both within and without their own societies.


We, esteemed audience, are running counter an historical flux which is rooted in the minds of many followers of the Abrahamic religions and against a direction imposed onto this very history the way in which it is designed by those in charge of the current international policies. In this context, can we achieve anything, however small? And if so, how?


1. The dialogues of the past: a vicious circle


Past dialogues between members of the [various] religions - I do not say between religions, as there is one root to the Abrahamic dynamics, while the dialogue is between persons who diverge - started from some postulates agreed on by all parties or, better, from some truths rooted in them. In fact, in the early days of the dialogue in the 1960's the Vatican insisted that the Muslim delegation should sit together with the followers of pagan religions.


This means that the followers of each religion approach the dialogue with the members of any other religion starting from the truths they possess or by which they are possessed. Therefore those truths - which might be mistaken, or limited, or incomplete, or altered representations - become obstacles which prevent the dialogue from achieving any conclusion. If we wanted to describe them for what they are we would say they are racist separation walls, despite their religious nature or somehow supplied by religion. Consequently, the dialogue remains perhaps limited, in its purposes or in its results, to nothing more than knowledge: a knowledge, by each part, of the truths dear to one's interlocutor and adopted by others.


In the dialogue, to move from the above-mentioned starting point makes it, metaphorically, "a deaf men's dialogue": in the cases of maximum openness it remains limited to the search for points of convergence and encounter among religions; in the cases of maximum extremism it focuses on the points of divergence and opposition. In such a way the dialogue takes on either the function of improving or that of worsening. But how can this be a dialogue? How can it give fruits that may contribute to change the course of history - a history behind which many religious followers are entrenched?


Perhaps to look for the roots of such historical movement and discuss this in a scientific, calm and exhaustive way might contribute to a certain extent to lifting that veil which prevents people from really seeing what their world could be if they were able to first of all change their souls and take steps towards a change of the movement of history, be it even just by the word.


The importance of the dialogue between the Christian and Muslim religions in this phase in the history of mankind lies pre-eminently in this aspect and in the fact that a dialogue can found a new and different relationship between the followers of the two religions. And if it is true that history fulfils itself in helping religious followers bring about some historical categories through their concrete activities, such categories do not derive, nevertheless, from an absolute divine decree, or in any case the way they are brought about is not established by an absolute divine decree. Therefore it is in this very region that the dialogue between religious followers operates. This region is limited indeed, and it is bordered by the reality behind us in our remote history and the reality before us in our distant future: or so I hope!


So this dialogue is transformed into a powerful struggle against history or against what many people imagine to be their history and the future for their children and grandchildren. A history which in the past has granted the creation of hatred and a future which imagines every aspect [of itself] having been decided by that same hatred, by removing and eliminating the other, to one's own benefit and that of one's own children and grandchildren.


2. True dialogue: the starting point and the point of return


Whether the Abrahamic religions are one as to their root, as many say, or whether they are concentric waves, as others maintain, their starting point is one. This is the first truth we must admit. Otherwise the dialogue between the followers of these religions would have no sense, as not to admit this truth would destroy the foundation on which to build the dialogue and would bring back to the original form of the question: if you do not recognise the legitimacy of my life as a believer in a certain religion there is no way we can meet!


If, then, the source of these religions is one, that is, God, and if even their purpose is one, that is, to bring about happiness for man as an analogy to his happiness in the next life, the first encounter between religions must focus on the following two aspects: the starting point and the point of return, which constitute the two limits enclosing man's movement on earth from the moment his earthly existence begins to the moment his next life begins.


To talk about the region which separates and joins the starting point and the point of return is equivalent to talking of the history of human life, which includes long struggles, authentic tragedies and catastrophes caused by man's activities but also the flourishing of human civilisations on the face of the earth, from nation to nation, religion to religion, across different geographical areas. This temporal region which separates and unites embodies - and keeps embodying - man's efforts in two contradictory directions: the desire to fulfil himself as both an individual and a community (with the ruthlessness and savagery that this sometimes


implies and at other times by the development of rules and ordinances), and the tension towards solving many of the difficulties originating from this very same desire, both in the relationship with himself and in those with society, humanity, life and the universe.


The true dialogue which can take place among people of different religions must free itself from the impurity which is typical of man's activity in the region which separates and joins, and must instead concentrate on the origin and return points, for they are free from all the shades of colour implicit in the middle region. They take man back to his primeval nature, to that pure humanity represented in the words of the Most High: "O men, in truth We have created you from one male and one female and have appointed you as different peoples and tribes, so that you may come to know one another; verily the most noble among you is the most God-conscious ." (49:13) and "you are all children of Adam and Adam is created from the dust." These [words] then take man towards his final nature, expressed by Muhammad, peace be upon him, "O son of Adam, from the earth you were created and to the earth you shall return" (hadith), the same word about our Lord the Messiah, peace be upon him.


3. Truth of Freedom… Freedom of Truth


Between these two expressions there is a paradox which perhaps goes back to their different usage in different linguistic contexts - but such paradox does not imply a contradiction between them, as they share the same path, in that one is the fundamental condition for the other.


If we talk about the freedom of truth our enquiry goes to the root of the movement of man's existence, as well as its purpose. The freedom to reach truths is the climax of the social, political, economic and religious movements among men. So far we have not had a single human law which may grant people in any civilised or underdeveloped society the freedom to reach the truth in an automatic way. In fact, in most cases truths are defaced, falsified, hidden or eliminated. This happens because to manifest truths to people and enable people to contemplate them is subordinated to the elimination of the political, religious, economic and social hierarchy, which is based on bringing about the interests of the upper classes in any human system. In this context we could talk about the men of religion who conceal their knowledge, the politicians who hide their plans and strategies, those in the financial world who circulate truths among them in their conviction that they concern only themselves, even though this cause the destruction of poor people's property.


The greatest difficulty faced by the believers is to hide the truth or deny, falsify or deface it: this takes us back to the two processes mentioned at the beginning of this paper, that is, the process of improving and the process of worsening, i.e., to present the truth belonging to the followers of one religion as more attractive and to present the truth belonging to the followers of another religion less attractive. Yet, these diverging truths are only the work of men themselves and therefore they are not truths but pseudo-truths or half-truths, or sometimes non-truths, if they are founded on a misunderstanding or on historical categories deriving from particular conditions which cannot be applied and generalised outside them.


The freedom of truth in its movement must lead to the truth of freedom. Such process can come about by freeing religions from pseudo-truths, half-truths or non-truths. This can only happen by freeing them from all human understanding that depends on historical, temporal, local, human conditions in order to return to the conditions of their beginnings (the nature of their origins) and those of their eventual end (the point of return).


4. The Truth of Freedom: the itinerary of the dialogue.


Here we shall start from two postulates: the first is a saying handed down by tradition about Alî Ibn Abî Tâlib (may God honour his face) "Whoever adores God out of fear, this is a slave's adoration; whoever adores God out of desire [for the promised goods], this is a merchant's adoration; whoever adores God out of love, this is a free man's adoration". The second is another saying, also by Alî , and it is found in the investiture of Mâlik al-Ashtar, when Alî sent him as governor of Egypt. Together with him the khalif sent the text of the investiture ceremony, which contains the following words: "Be informed, o Mâlik, that men are either your brethren in the faith or similar to you in that they are created: both have rights and duties."


The first saying expresses the fact that freedom is organically connected to love in the adoration or, better, to the adoration made out of love. It constitutes the original point of nature and fulfils its final return. On it are built human life on earth and in the Next Life. As to adoration out of fear or by [desire for the promised goods], these are organically liked with the human disputes which have led to the mastery of desire, over man, to injustice, to wars, to the hardships and tragedies of history. In fact, slavery is typical of man, and so is commerce. What they have in common is the attempt to submit the other person and seize his goods, and both are among the worst regimes of injustice which mankind has known. There exists, instead, a relationship of brotherhood in faith and there exist a wider relationship of similarity in humanity, that is, equality.


The second saying highlights our argument, i.e., that religions can be obstacles as they colour mankind in a variety of shades and because the fact that mankind takes them as starting points - after the defacement of many of their truths - makes them into walls of separation and religious discrimination. However, the saying also includes the other fundamental aspect brought about by the human encounter: "similar to you in that they are created", in the humanity through which God has honoured them regardless of the faith they belong to or the race in which they appear, and also regardless of their material or social level, their gender (male - female), age (adult - child), intelligence (reasonable - mad) or bodily perfection (healthy - disabled).


All religions have come to correct man's journey on earth and provide him with guidance by clarifying the most direct and safest ways to achieve his spiritual and bodily happiness, whether at the individual's level or at the level of a society defined by geographic and political boundaries, or again human society as a whole. Religions admit the equality of all human beings before God their Creator and God represents love, mercy, justice, equality and fraternity. Among his fundamental attributes there is the fact that He does not accept injustice: "Verily your Lord is not unjust towards his servants." They fulfil their freedom through realising their service to Him and abolishing any other service to anyone other than Him, as service to anyone other than Him makes them unjust to one another: "But men, they themselves are unjust". In fact, the hadît qudsî has put together these two concepts as the divine saying: "O my servants, verily I have forbidden injustice to myself and have made it forbidden among you. Do not therefore be unjust to one another". Hence, any unjust relationship is radically foreign to any form of knowledge and faith and cannot have the just God as its source.


Submission is an unjust relationship, colonisation is an unjust relationship and so are the divisions between classes and between the rich who have everything and the poor who have nothing. The relationships of discrimination based on race, religion, sex, class, age, category, party and opinion are unjust. The relationship of a tyrannical and dictatorial ruler with his oppressed citizens, that of dominant states with weakened peoples, that of the majority in power with the marginalised minorities are all unjust. The same applies to a polygamous relationship or the fact of forcing a believer to leave his land because of the negative attitude the members of another religion have towards him. <again, the same applies to the generalisation of a negative judgment expressed towards a category of followers of a religion, which includes all these followers.


If we want to follow the truth of freedom we should turn our efforts to remove injustice in man. By "man" I mean any human being of any religion, race, colour, nationality, opinion, party, category, sex, age or social group.


What makes a dialogue credible is that it should meet two conditions: the first is that all should recognise to each and everyone humanity as a datum that precedes any considerations on the purpose, the limitations and the conditions of the [dialogue]; the second consists in the effort made by everyone to remove injustice from man, without looking at his origin, religion, colour, sex, opinion, party or age.


In brief, what we would like to see in this world of ours does not seem to depart widely by the word of the Most High: "May there be no constriction in the Faith: the right path is clearly distinguishable from error" (2,256). This is true, even though this line distinguishes between two human categories: those who are well guided and on the right path and those who err and wander vainly. But God has left to Himself the task to operate this distinction in the Next Life, when He has confirmed that He will be the judge of mankind on the Day of the Resurrection, for what concerns their divergences. He has attributed to Himself the capacity to indicate the right path when He said: "It is not you who leads those you would want to lead but God leads the ones He wants to".


With a similar conception we would perhaps present religions to the people in a totally new form, not far from the desire to strengthen their spiritual aspects by instilling peace in their hearts. This conception, however - and this is perhaps its first aspect - will act towards removing injustice and persecution, by taking a clear position against all those who promote unjust relationships.


I would like to conclude by observing that religions, as they are represented by men of religion as well as by the experts, have withdrawn from the above-mentioned role. They have renounced their greatest function, that of bringing about human happiness on the face of the earth, a human paradise on earth, and have left it to men, the prey of passions and desires. So men have turned to reciprocal exploitation and to colonisation. They have looted, killed, dominated, expelled, robbed, fought against other men by using those who shared their same skin, society, religion… Religions have withdrawn from their task and have limited themselves to the spiritual aspects (the man-God relationship), leaving the organisation of human relationships to others - who, in most cases, were ignorant and interested. Religions will not really re-enter man's life, so as to fulfil the truth of freedom, if not when they resume the role they have renounced.