I HAVE spent much of the past three years writing Christianophobia (Rider Books), a
chronicle of discrimination and persecution faced by Christians
around the world. Two points were clear from the start. First, that
much anti-Christian prejudice and violence - in China, India,
Vietnam, North Korea, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cuba, or Israel, among
other places - has nothing to do with militant Islam; and, second,
that a number of grievances felt by Muslims are reasonable.
For example, I believe (in line with the clearly broadcast views
of most church leaders around the world) that the Iraq invasion of
2003 was a serious mistake, and have a keen sense of the West's
part in promoting the sense of injustice felt by many Arabs in
Nevertheless, of the 13 societies I surveyed in detail, seven
have Muslim majorities or large Muslim populations. This obliged me
to confront a sensitive but critical question. Is there a problem
with Islam as such, or is the trouble more a matter of
contingencies? (After all, large parts of the Christian world were
saturated with unsurpassed levels of violence 70 or 100 years
Part of the answer to this question is theological. There is a
theory that the idea of jihad is more deeply embedded in Islam than
related notions in the other world religions - and therefore that
Islam is more susceptible to violent extremism - because of the
martial context in which Islam took root.
It does not help that, for the first half of the Muslim era,
Muslims thought of themselves as being on top, both culturally and
in terms of military power, for understandable reasons.
Defence advocates tend to reply that the Prophet Muhammad's
ministry took place in a hostile context, and that Islam's matrix
was connected with the need to defend the community against
dangerous opponents from the start. Supporters of this argument can
sometimes turn the tables on Christianity by suggesting that,
although the New Testament is saturated in the language of peace,
Christ's followers would in time become extremely violent towards
non-Christians and perceived heretics.
Thousands of "witches" were murdered in early modern Europe and
America; Thomas Aikenhead was executed in Scotland for blasphemy as
recently as 1697. This is to say nothing of earlier inquisitions,
or of the anti-Jewish pogroms that took place later in Christian
Nor is Christian-backed violence a thing of the past. In the
1970s and '80s, Lebanese Phalangist militias were dominated by
Maronites in communion with the see of Rome. During the '90s,
Orthodox Christians (and former Communists who used their religious
heritage as a flag of convenience) were guilty of extreme
aggression against Muslims and Roman Catholics in the Balkans.
AS WITH the Bible, selective quotations from the Qur'an are
unlikely to advance the discussion: it contains both the
aggressive-seeming "sword" verse (9:5 - "When the sacred months are
over slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them,
besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them. If they repent
and take to prayer and render the alms levy, allow them to go their
way. God is forgiving and merciful") and the tolerant-seeming "Let
there be no compulsion in religion" (2:256), which is traditionally
seen as underlining the right of non-Muslims to convert freely.
A more solid account of the Muslim position would focus on its
concentric understanding of faith, with Islam at the centre; Jews
and Christians, so-called People of the Book, in an intermediate
position; and the representatives of shirk (polytheism)
and kufr (those who reject religion out of ingratitude) at
I have noted that in Muslim polities, Jews and Christians were
traditionally given the status of dhimmis. They paid a
special tax and enjoyed qualified rights. Notwithstanding the
inequality of this relationship - and, of course, its monotheistic
bias - it is reasonable to hold that the dhimma
arrangement was a precursor of the public international law that
did not evolve in Europe until the early-17th century.
Another important consideration is that some Muslim jurists were
prepared to extend the definition of People of the Book to cover
Hindus, because of the scriptural status of the Bhagavad
Gita. The Mughal empire had an enormous non-Muslim population
of Hindus and others.
CHRISTIANITY's trajectory has been very different. It did not
develop a formal understanding of interfaith toleration, despite
the ethic of radical self-giving love towards all that is set out
in the Gospels. Landmarks in the history of Europe such as the
Treaty of Westphalia (1648) are reminders of how long it took for
the principle of toleration to be accepted even between the
Nevertheless, as the anthropologist Jonathan Benthall has
suggested in an important essay on the history of religious
toleration, Christianity eventually became more self-critical - and
subversive of its own apparent strictness - than Islam. One fruit
of Jesus's special emphasis on the poor and marginalised has been a
tradition of positive discrimination in the modern era.
In Islam, the right to criticise the dominant faith rarely
extends to the forces of shirk and kufr who are
condemned so comprehensively in the Qur'an. It is also significant
that Islam never evolved into movements analogous, say, to Liberal,
Reform, and Orthodox Judaism.
Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), a Grand Mufti of Egypt, and Muhammad
Iqbal (1877-1938), who ministered in what is now Pakistan, were two
significant reform-minded thinkers whose ideas failed to take wing.
Today, Christians and others are surely right in calling on liberal
Muslim intellectuals to show greater robustness in confronting
awkward questions, including the crisis of institutional authority
Yet, as Benthall emphasises, the situation should not be
considered static. The lesson of the past is clear:
Islam has proved to be just as
flexible as Christianity in accommodating popular forms of belief
and practice. Second, its scholars were able to recognise Hindus as
People of the Book, though on most objective criteria they would
have fallen more naturally into the category of shirk. If this leap
of toleration could be made for the Hindus, albeit for reasons of
state, why not today for other belief systems such as the
indigenous cosmologies of Africa, Indonesia and Malaysia?
From "Confessional Cousins andthe Rest"
Just as Christianity has evolved, then, there are reasonable
grounds for thinking that Islam will do so, too. It seems right to
finish on an eirenic note by emphasising that the points of contact
between the two traditions are at least as significant as the
differences. When they are true to their guiding principles, both
faiths insist on the sanctity of the person as a seeker of God, and
from this should duly follow a recognition of religious freedom as
the first of human rights.
Whether this awareness will spread is not for me to predict. For
the Christian, it is hope - not more malleable impulses towards
either optimism or pessimism - that really counts. Hope, in St
Augustine's resonant words, "has two beautiful daughters: their
names are anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they
are. Courage to make them the way they ought to be."
Rupert Shortt is Religion editor of The Times
Literary Supplement, and a Visiting Fellow of Blackfriars
This is an edited extract from Christianophobia: A
faith under attack, published by Rider at £20 (CT Bookshop
£18); copyright © Rupert Shortt 2012.