It has been a pleasure working recently to package for publication Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) collection of six new case studies on Muslim-Christian cooperation, many of which are being featured on this site. Fifteen years ago, when I was at the Center for Mission Research and Study at Maryknoll, New York, I developed a keen interest in the threats and challenges inherent in contemporary Muslim-Christian dynamics, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The production of a co-edited Orbis book, Artisans of Peace (2003) spurred my interest in a set of comparative studies and reflections in countries that were either Christian majority, Muslim majority, or relatively even in their number of adherents. Nigeria was of particular interest, and its strategic importance is highlighted in Philip Jenkins’ 2002 work The Next Christendom.
One of the first places I travelled to after joining CRS in 2005 was Mindanao in the southern Philippines. CRS’ global workshop there was on interfaith initiatives, and it drew on what was already a decade of work engaging Christians, Muslims, and the indigenous Lumad population. There were stimulating presentations by Muslims and Christians alike, and a field visit to a slum in Davao where grassroots Muslims and Christians gathered on the floor of a simple hut to share their beliefs and their everyday concerns. This was more than research or study. It was informed reflection on committed practice in what has continued to be CRS’ flagship program in Muslim-Christian dialogue and action.
As I retire from CRS this year, I have the satisfaction of seeing case studies produced on the basis of truly significant projects in sub-Saharan Africa and Mindanao, as well as the Balkans and Egypt. I am grateful that an innovative CRS training manual on building skills and sensitivities for Muslim-Christian cooperation is nearly complete. And I have the pleasure of having helped put in place a CRS-funded cross-learning project, Advancing Interreligious Peacebuilding, that will encourage more systematic sharing of experiences, lessons, and best practices from one part of the globe to others, so that future initiatives can be even more effective.
Why is the promotion of Muslim-Christian understanding and cooperation so important? The need for greater peace and social justice in our world seems evident, and Christians and Muslims together make up over half of the global population. If we can jointly bring to bear our religious resources for good, the results could be extremely powerful. Muslims and Christians are jointly present in the vast majority of the world’s countries. Interactions over fourteen centuries have been marked by turbulence but also by places and periods of remarkable mutual thriving. Today, with grave concerns about perceived injustices, religious freedom, mutual intolerance, negative perceptions of the other, and horrifying acts by violent extremists, we are urgently challenged to increase interreligious understanding and to deepen ties of solidarity and cooperation.
Despite the historical and contemporary tensions, and beyond evident theological and doctrinal differences—not to mention the violence and manipulative mobilization of others by small minorities—Muslims and Christians have much in common. There are significant shared core values on social justice and peace in the scriptures and teaching traditions of both. There are common exhortations to compassion and forgiveness. There are myriad living examples of mutual respect and good will, from the diverse expressions of grassroots dialogue and cooperation exemplified in the CRS case studies to elite initiatives like the open message “A Common Word Between Us and You” signed by hundreds of Muslim leaders and positively responded to by many Christian counterparts (2009).
As the late Dutch scholar Jacques Waardenburg noted twenty years ago when Samuel Huntingdon’s facile “clash of civilizations” hypothesis was new, it is never Islam and Christianity as such which develop negative or positive relationships, but “particular interpretations and forms of Islam and of Christianity, found in specific Muslim and Christian groups, which in particular situations condition certain types of relationships” (1997: 15). Practical local issues and specific political and social interests play a crucial role in positive and negative dynamics, even as globalization reduces some of the traditional space between countries and localities. A more than superficial understanding of Muslim-Christian dynamics depends on probing concrete contextual sources of conflict, as well as the often unexplored patterns of coexistence, and it means promoting effective springboards to interreligious cooperation.
My experiences with colleagues during a decade and a half in this interreligious field have taken place almost entirely under the auspices of Catholic institutions—under the organizational umbrellas of Maryknoll and more recently CRS. Has this been a problem? Is Catholic identity not an impediment to building bridges and forging social cohesion? Does it not imply bias? Does it not stimulate mistrust or breed resistances among religious “others?” Would it not be preferable or more effective to have secular, religiously “unattached” platforms and entry points?
I don’t possess academic evidence with which to respond, but in my experience of interreligious peacebuilding being Catholic has not been problematic. Admittedly, the organizations with which I have worked have not embarked on religious conversion efforts, nor been exclusivist in hiring or programming (there are many countries, for example, in which a majority of CRS’ staff members are Muslims). Neither have I interacted with leaders of ISIL or Boko Haram or Al Shabaab or Abu Sayyaf (hardly fond of Westerners or Catholics), but these are minority extremists. There is at least latent affinity and mutual respect among vast numbers of believers around the world, whose specific creeds and religious practices may differ, but whose core outlook and ethical principles overlap. The questions of who, where, and how matter a great deal for relationships, of course. But I often remember the reflection of a CRS regional director assigned some years ago to the Middle East. “Wow,” he had pondered, “I will soon be representing a U.S., Catholic institution in the Middle East; this could be tough!” After a short time, he realized that that U.S. connection was indeed a challenge, but not the Catholic one.
Photo Credit: Philip Laubner, CRS