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Bishops tackle extremism and ‘daily business of dialogue’

31 July 2008

by Pat Ashworth

Line up: Dr Williams at the Bishops’ photo call PAT ASHWORTH

Line up: Dr Williams at the Bishops’ photo call PAT ASHWORTH

WESTERN ATTITUDES, seen in events such as the publication in Denmark of cartoons depicting Muhammad, have generated misconceptions and clashes with Muslims, the Bishop of Lahore, Dr Alexander Malik, said this week.

“In your context, it is press freedom; but the Islamic Muslim concept is a little different. And, to some extent, Christians in Pakistan also feel that this should not have been done,” he told a press conference on Monday, when the theme was “The bishop, Christian witness and other faiths”. Most of the clashes had come after 9/11, when people thought there had been no justification for war in Iraq, he said.

Dr Malik, who has been honoured twice in Pakistan for his contribution to interfaith dialogue, also criticised what has been perceived as inaccurate reporting from the West.

“The situation on the ground is that the majority of the Muslims are very good people.” He recalled that the West had supported the mujahidin in Afghanistan as freedom-fighters, when Russia was invading. But later, these were “those very people whom the Western world were describing as terrorists. . . So the West has a part in producing that extremism and terrorism.”

The Bishop said that 9/11 had created both difficulties and opportunities for dialogue. “All Muslims are not terrorists, nor all Christians Westerners. The dynamic of interfaith differs when Muslims are in a minority and when they are in a majority. In the context and perspective of religious extremism, dialogue does become very difficult, but not impossible.”

He suggested that the difficulty lay with a misunderstanding of dialogue. “Many Christians feel that dialogue is a betrayal of mission and evangelism, which it is not. Others feel that dialogue is a debate about your positions, which it is not. Some people feel that dialogue is a compromise, watering down your own religious commitment.

“I have been a bishop for 28 years in Lahore. I have found that interfaith dialogue is an excellent way of communicating the love of God expressed in Christ. . .

“We have to respect each other’s religious beliefs. Dialogue is for us a daily business, a dialogue of life. . . It is always a very small minority that disturbs the relationship.”

Christians in the West could act as advocates for the victims of violations, which the Bishop described as “like a hanging sword on the minorities”. He suggested that Muslims living as a minority in Britain should “go ahead with dialogue, and assimilate the values of the culture which they have opted to adopt”.

The Bishop of Southwark, Dr Tom Butler, told the media that the various religions in Britain had been allies in trying to rebuild community through all the tensions from 9/11 to the war in Iraq. “It’s because we know each other rather well as faith leaders that we can play our part in being the glue that holds society together.”

The recent report by the Anglican Communion Network for Interfaith Concerns, Generous Love (News, 15 February), sets out a particular Anglican approach: “Our way is being there, being a presence in every community of whatever sort: we’re there for the long term, to both witness to our faith but also to work with others for the common good in serving the community,” Dr Butler said.

“The presence of all the other major faiths on the platform of the London march gave us greater authority to speak to the politicians of the world. . .

“The flipside is any Prime Minister of Britain is more comfortable when he is addressing faith matters to a group of faith leaders rather than any particular denomination. We are stronger in pressing our case, and I believe he is more relaxed in responding — a very, very good example of how interfaith work can work for the common good.”

Where tackling extremism was concerned, policy in Britain reflected the experience of extremism in Northern Ireland over the decades. “I think we realise you can’t judge the whole of faith communities on the basis of small numbers of extremists. So our policy has always been to try and support and build up the influence of mainstream faith leaders so they are better able to tackle extremism in their own faiths, including our own.”

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