Interfaith Guidelines on Human Rights, Pluralism, Democracy, and Authority

Interfaith Guidelines on Human Rights, Pluralism, Democracy, and Authority

by Dr. Robert D. Crane


  One must be careful in dialogue with Christians and Jews or anyone else not to buy into un-Islamic concepts merely to show that one is friendly and moderate, because then one would lose the respect of others and even one’s own respect for oneself. 

  As the Director of the Dialogue Commission of the leading interfaith organization at the urban level in the world, the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington (IFC) in the mid-1980s, I brought together the most outstanding leaders of interfaith dialogue to learn from their experiences and to prepare a manual on the do’s and don’ts of dialogue.  The number one rule was never to seek agreement for the mere sake of agreement, because this would produce only least-common-denominator platitudes and lead to nowhere.  This cowardice, in turn, would give dominion to those who have a self-serving agenda incompatible with the search for truth and wisdom. 

  In the course of a series of monthly dialogues and especially in the effort to achieve consensus on interfaith guidelines, I learned from the domineering tactics of the leading Jewish representative that it is better to abandon the dialogue than accept ultimatums from any participant.  Most difficult was the effort to adopt a single paradigm for our approach.  This hard-charging Reform Jew forbid us ever to mention the word “spiritual,” which all the others had held as the framework for all of our work. 

  We learned another lesson from a Jewish woman who headed a network of 2,000 “sisters” every one of whom made it her goal in life to join Christian groups at the local level in the Mid-Atlantic states in order to recruit Christians to support God’s will in the Holy Land.  The message that I derived from these interchanges was that our vertical relationship with God must inform our lateral relationship with one another, which means that the political agenda should never trump the spiritual. 

  The most important lesson for Muslims from this entire experience, however, was the need to be careful during dialogue with Christians and Jews or anyone else not to buy into un-Islamic concepts merely to show that one is friendly and moderate.  When a member of any faith does this, one loses the respect of others and even one’s own respect for oneself.  The purpose of dialogue is not to agree but to learn from one another.  Agreement is merely a bonus. 

  A perfect example of what not to do is illustrated by the following quote from a Muslim participant in interfaith dialogue: “Moderation in Islam is not incompatible with human rights, nor is Islam incompatible with pluralism and its corollary, a secular state. Muslims are enjoined to respect democracy and respect authority.”

  Let us start with human rights.  A more productive approach would be to point out that the classical Islamic scholars (from the third through sixth centuries anno hegirae) invented human rights in the form of the maqasid al shari’ah.  The phrase “not incompatible” used in the above quote is a very defensive position, because it accepts Western secular thought on human rights as the base or standard of what is good and then says that Islam is not all that bad. 

  One might add, of course, in order to maintain objectivity, that this field of thought died out in most of the Muslim world six hundred years ago, and usually was suppressed by various Muslim tyrants, who imprisoned not a few but all of the great Islamic scholars for their crime of daring to present the true teachings of Islam.

  The same warning applies to pluralism.  Most Americans embrace Islam because it is the only one of the Abrahamic religions that supports pluralism as its entire framework of thought.  The so-called Eastern religions do support pluralism but not specifically as a requirement of faith.  Its de facto pluralism explains why many Americans have become Buddhists. 

  America is not a pluralistic society, much as we would like to believe it is, as shown by William R. Hutchison’s recent book, published by Yale University Press, Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal.  This was reviewed in Part II, entitled “From Tolerance to Pluralism,” in the lengthy review article, “Taproot to Terrorism,” which was published on June 19, 2005 in http://www.theamericanmuslim.org and in somewhat shortened form in the Islamic Foundation’s The Muslim World Book Review.
  The well-known scholar, David Hollinger of U.C. Berkeley, writes that, “This is the most ambitious book yet from the dean of historians of religion in the United States: a wonderfully discerning exploration of how Americans have variously confronted and tried to evade the challenge of religious diversity.” The conclusions of this book are directed toward America’s failings toward its own citizens, but the framework of analysis fits also America’s failings toward the rest of the world.  In a single sentence, this book can be summarized in the assertion that America leads the world in naivete about its own superiority as a pluralistic society.

  Of course, again, in order to show objectivity, which is essential in any interfaith dialogue, one must balance one’s teaching that Islam is the world’s preeminent religion in its pluralist foundation by admitting that most Muslims are no more pluralistic than are most Christians and Jews.

  The most serious problems in the above quotation by a Muslim in the context of interfaith dialogue concern the statements on democracy and the secular state.  It is terribly defensive to state that Islam is compatible with a secular state, unless one means by that a government that does not favor any one religion over others.  This, however, is not the popular definition of the term secular (unlike in India where a new English language has developed).  Secularism in America implies active hostility to religion, especially in the public square.  This runs counter to everything that the founders of America, especially Jefferson, taught.  He and George Washington and all the other Founders fervently believed that America or any other society can remain free only to the extent that it is infused in both private and public life with reverence for God as the ultimate source of all truth and guidance.

  The term “democracy” is another no-no.  Everyone of America’s Founders condemned democracy as the worst possible form of government.  They founded a republic, which differs from a democracy because it respects a higher authority than man.  Majority rule is a good technique of government, but definitely not a source of truth and wisdom.  The institution of the judicial system as one of the three branches of government was designed expressly to check the deviations that majority rule might introduce from the founding principles.  The supreme court is supposed to decide what is and what is not consistent with these principles.  The legislators are supposed to accept this authority and then legislate how best to implement the constitutional guidelines.  And the executive branch is supposed to carry out the will of the legislators. 

  Of course, secularists would deny everyone of these basic constitutional principles.  Problems would arise if the court itself became secularized and denied any source of law higher than the will of the mob, because then we would have a true democracy where the demos or people hold the ultimate sovereignty over the head of God, astaghfiru Allah.

  Finally, one must be very careful in discussing authority and revolution.  Most Muslims, led throughout the centuries by the Sunnis, have emphasized obedience to human political authority as the highest command of God.  Muslims are indeed required to respect authority, but only if it is just.  The same limitations apply that were developed by the Islamic scholars in the international law of the just war.  The Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, said that whoever fails to oppose a tyrant is guilty of tyranny.  This, of course, was never popular in Sunni Islam and almost never is cited today except by radicals, although it is a sahih hadith and is perfectly obvious from the entire content of the Qur’an.

  The two most profound guidelines for interfaith dialogue are pluralism and praxis.  The highest guideline for interfaith dialogue is respect for pluralism.  Pluralism means that we listen to others because everyone has so much to offer.  Most Muslims have a lot to learn from Christians and from many Jews, but we Muslims also have a lot to offer and should not fail to do so.

  The second most important guideline is praxis.  Talk is cheap and totally useless or even distracting and counter-productive unless it results in action in the pursuit of peace through justice.  Freedom and democracy are great slogans, but they are empty unless they serve not as ends in themselves but rather as means to the higher purpose of justice. 

  Justice may be defined as the Will of God.  Justice can be understood only by reliance on divine revelation and on rightly guided human reason.  Justice consists in respect for human responsibilities and rights and is the very purpose of all civilization.

  The first meeting of the Dialogue Commission in 1985 addressed this very issue.  The first task that I gave to the Commission was to devise a schedule of monthly seminars on key current issues.  We all agreed immediately that the first gathering should address the issue of prophecy and the role of prophets.  Then a Methodist bishop turned to me and said, “The next issue should be human rights.”  He looked around the table and then stared me in the face and said, “Of course, you would have nothing to say on this topic.” 

  I was overjoyed at this recommendation and exclaimed, “Human responsibilities and rights should be the framework for every one of our meetings because what we have most in common, according to the Prophet Muhammad and every other prophet, is the profound wisdom that every person is made in the image of God.  Our task in this Dialogue Commission and throughout our lives is to explore what this means.”


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