Muslim-Christian Relations:
Marking Time
Nelly van Doorn-Harder

This article will reflect on some of the main trends in the current dialogue between Muslims and Christians. The field by itself is obscure and ever evolving. There are as many Muslim as there are Christian points of view concerning the need and expediency of pouring ones energy into this exercise, especially in a day when extremist voices resound on both sides. For Lutherans, this undertaking involves a theological challenge as we struggle to read the signs of God in a pluralist world while staying faithful to our own beliefs. In my view, there is as much reason for despair as there is for hope.

A Polarized World

It is all about money,” said a lower-class worker from Britain on National Public Radio this January when asked about the current situation with his Muslim co-citizens. When seen from his point of view, religion and money are indeed closely connected. From his perspective and that of the rest of Europe, the world seems to have landed in an ongoing dialectic. One end of the globe pours money into projects of integration and acceptance, while on the other side calls grow louder—especially from extremist Muslims—for separation from all others in the world.

Countries such as Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands have allotted inordinate proportions of their resources to help new citizens from Muslim countries catch up with the prevailing levels of education and prosperity. The original idea was that if the new immigrants could learn the language, understand their new environment, and live in comfort, the next natural step would be smooth integration into their new homelands.

We seldom hear of the success stories resulting from these integration approaches. We mostly see the negative side of bombings and other attacks perpetrated by extremists, some of whom grew up in the cities they hoped to destroy: 3/11 in Madrid, the 11/2 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, the summer bombings in London, and scores of other attacks that were prevented. For Europeans, the closer the violence came to home, the more homegrown it seemed to be. Muslim children born and raised in European countries relished in thoughts of passing into paradise by blowing up their fellow citizens. So it is understandable that a lower-class Briton who first saw social security programs cut, then witnessed academic standards in her childrens school decline, and finally did not get a job because the new immigrants had priority, is now fostering less than lofty opinions about the Muslim citizens.

Beyond Europe, intense waves of polarization are pitting groups of people against each other. In my first contribution on Muslim-Christian dialogue to The Cresset (Michaelmas 2000), I reported on remarkable initiatives in Indonesia, especially those inspired by the philosophies of Abdurrahman Wahid, one of the most influential Muslim leaders Indonesia ever had. Now, after holding the presidency of his country for less than two years (October 1999 – July 2001), Wahid has more or less retired to the background. His time in office was marred by inter religious violence. Although his voice is seldom heard, he continues to inspire young liberal Indonesian Muslims with his writings. Unfortunately, those holding the daily headlines are Muslims of Arab-Wahhabi-inspired radical opinions who see moderate Islam, Christianity, and Christian attempts to entertain dialogue between the religions as the core enemies of Islam.

Wherever we look, from Nigeria to Indonesia, from former Soviet countries to Europe, polarization between Muslims and Christians, between moderate and radical Muslims, and between moderate and radical Christians has taken center stage. This reality forces those involved in projects of inter religious dialogue to rethink their approaches and methodologies. The question I have heard most over these past two years is: Why should we spend our energies on inter religious dialogues, and if we should, how should we go about it?Over the past year, I have been invited several times to discuss this issue in my own country, the Netherlands, where people still are reeling from the murder of Van Gogh at the hands of a Dutch-born young Muslim who, because he was living on the dole, had enough time to develop his radical ideas via the Internet.

A slew of reconciliation efforts followed the Van Gogh murder, including neighborhood dinners in Amsterdam, meetings in churches and mosques, and public debates on topics such as Is Islam compatible with secularism?However, all these attempts to pacify the angry Dutch are overshadowed by the local press, which insists on carrying an anti-Muslim discourse that adds to tensions in society and makes those involved in inter religious dialogue feel even more obsolete.

On the Muslim side, the Wahhabi drive to preach a puritanical version of Islam, which began in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, is maturing and profiting from disarray and political instability in Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Nigeria. It rides also on the waves of fear of Western influences, especially secularism and atheism, and is influencing the discourse of imams preaching in European mosques and the minds of adolescents and young adults. We are in the midst of what René Girard dubbed the global mimetic rivalry.

After painting this rather bleak picture, are those dialogue efforts still of use and, if so, how should we proceed? And what went wrong in the dialogue business?

Necessity of Dialogue

When returning to the basics, let us remind ourselves why we Lutherans want to be involved in inter religious dialogue with those of other faiths. In a World Council of Churches publication, the theologian S. Wesley Ariarajah underlines the importance of dialogue by comparing it to a public health program. While it cannot always resolve immediate conflicts, he argues that the core goal of dialogue should be to build a community of conversation,” a community of heart and mindthat reaches across racial, ethnic, and religious barriers and helps people to understand and accept otherness(Ariarajah, 12–13).

An international group of Lutherans from the Lutheran World Federation met July 27–31, 1995 in St. Paul, Minnesota, to define what dialogue means. Agreeing on the observation that Christian intellectuals had grown weary of the traditional process of Muslim-Christian dialogue, they proposed a new approach from the Christian theo-logical point of view (Lutheran World Federation, 161–180). The weariness was ascribed mostly to the fact that the balance of inter religious initiatives tips to the Christians, who have undertaken far more efforts to discuss faith with their Muslim neighbors than the other way around. Muslims consider their religion as the last one revealed and thus overriding the others. A sentiment that I first heard over a decade ago I now hear all over the world: we need to move to more engaged and serious level of communication between Muslims and Christians. To reach this new level, we need to search for new methods and approaches. The time for men to sit in rooms discussing issues of faith is over. There is more at stake than ever. Lack of communication between Christians and Muslims can lead to violence, such as the riots between members of the two faiths in Alexandria, Egypt, this past October.

Turning the Tide

So what is being done and what can be done? The LWF group suggested identifying concrete topics and practical areas of concern within local communities (LWF, 174). The group proposed discussions on the position of women, the role of the family, freedom of religion, secularization, and the plight of migrant workers (LWF, 180). Looking at projects around the globe, we observe that since the early 1990s Christian communities in Muslim countries have launched many practical initiatives to counter growing extremism in their societies. Many of these initiatives—especially those focusing on education—have received eager responses from moderate Muslims who fear losing their children to extremist groups.

In summary, deadlocks and increased hatred can be broken when dedicated individuals teach their children about the other and when youth are involved in all steps in the process of reconciliation. When we are willing to learn from the insights of peace studies, and from successful reconciliation efforts such as those in South Africa, we can create new forms of communication in communities. We also need to stay open to non-conventional approaches while accepting the fact that we live in an imperfect world in which Muslims and Christians will be in perpetual competition and will never fully agree. Finally, these efforts need to evolve on several societal levels, ranging from political and religious leaders to youth, although religious leaders in particular have a responsibility to stem the tide of radicalization.

In Egypt, the local Christians, or Copts, have focused on education and youth to improve relationships with Muslims. They opened schools that stress ethics and English language studies instead of religion. By avoiding Arabic—the language of the Quran—and by stressing what unites humans, the schools form a new generation of citizens whose religious allegiance is first to Egypt and only second to their religion.

What was instilled during childhood is followed up by the Bishopric for Youth Affairs where, under the guidance of Bishop Mousa, study and discussion groups for adults are multiplying. Adolescents and young adults invite Muslims of the same age to discuss challenges facing them in daily life such as the lack of jobs and housing.

The goals of these efforts are surprisingly realistic. Copts understand that there are extremists who intend to kill anyone not belonging to their group,” but they also know that there are extremists who refrain from killing. Young Copts focus their efforts on these non-violent extremists. They try to find these individuals and talk with them to stop the process of de-humanizing the other that is necessary for the formation of a suicide bomber.

In Indonesia, moderate Muslims have reacted with a large range of initiatives to counter the extremist agendas. A leader of a large organization for Muslim women, Lily Munir, who is also a cousin of Abdurrahman Wahid, has developed a curriculum about inter religious tolerance and pluralism especially for the madrasahs (pesantren), or Islamic schools where future Muslim leaders are trained. This curriculum was followed up with another on basic human rights, focusing on the rights of women, children, and non-Muslims.

Inspired by these kinds of individual projects, several Islamic state universities—where the alumni of pesantren continue their studies—have started to teach courses about freedom of religion, human rights, and inter religious tolerance. Realizing that high schools have become recruiting centers for extremist Muslims who entice students when schools let out, the Islamic universities now offer these curricula in post-graduate courses to high school teachers.

These activities are in-line with the advice of Abdelfattah Amor, the United Nations special observer on freedom of religion or belief: Rather than focusing on differences, the education should demonstrate a basis for solidarity and understanding across all borders of faith and culture. For instance with human rights education we can build a solid basis for freedom of religion or belief. With religious education in school there is always a danger of focusing too much on the particular identities of the pupils and hence on what separates instead of what unites us as human beings. We must avoid the ghettoapproach(Amor).

The bottom line in Muslim societies is that many of their citizens, whatever their religion might be, are loathe to see their communities destroyed by ideas carried and acted upon by extremists. In order to protect the ideals of a healthy civil society, they try to create new spaces for encounter and discussion. These spaces are no longer filled only by male leaders, but now also by women, children, and youth. From the field of peace studies we learn the importance of this approach for true reconciliation.

Peace studies specialist John Paul Lederach, for example, sees the social dynamics of relationship building and the development of supportive infrastructures for peace as a pre-requisite to preventing violence (Lederach, 20–21). Lederach distinguishes between peace-makingand peace-building.Peace-making is the role of governmental and other official agencies, while peace-building includes grassroots activities including the work of religious leaders and institutions and the actions of local religious communities. He argues that incidents of violence often are met with diplomatic, state-level solutions. This approach ignores the community processes that result in violence. Those involved in conflicts might be tied less to citizenship in the state and more to their ethnic, racial, or religious affiliations (16). People involved in conflicts are driven by human perceptions and emotions such as deep-rooted prejudices, animosities, and fears that state-level approaches tend to ignore. Informed by this reality, Lederach proposes that we move away from a concern with the resolution of issues … toward a frame of reference that focuses on the restoration and rebuilding of relationships(24). In this new framework, relationships are the foundation that carries reconciliation work. By reaching for reconciliation via relationships, reconciliation no longer constitutes a lofty, unrealistic goal, but becomes a process of encounter and a social space (29).


For those of us teaching at the undergraduate level, these findings have important implications. The majority of programs addressing inter religious issues are currently taught at the graduate level, such as at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. From the experiences and studies quoted here, we learn that it is crucial to address these issues earlier in a students education. The world religion programs that colleges—including Valparaiso University— offer are important for raising awareness about other faiths. Although courses on Hinduism, Islam, Confucianism, etc., can help students completely change their frame of reference about the other, in our consumption-oriented society, we are continually at risk that students consider these studies yet another option for consumption—for tastinga few bites from what others believe. Those of us teaching world religion courses must learn from the experiences of those struggling for inter religious dialogue around the world. Our students must come to understand that learning about the otheris not just an academic exercise, but an opportunity to make a difference in the world. At times, it can even mean the difference between peaceful co-existence and violent strife.

Nelly van Doorn-Harder is Surjit S. Patheja,M.D.,Associate Professor of World Religions and Ethics at Valparaiso University. Parts of this essay are taken from a presentation delivered at the Nineteenth World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions, Tokyo, March, 2005.


Abdelfattah, Amor. How to Follow up on Madrid: Aims and Challenges.Teaching for Tolerance and Freedom of Religion or Belief. Edited by Lena Larsen and Ingvill T. Plesner. Oslo: Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief, 1992.

Ariarajah, Wesley. Not without My Neighbor: Issues in Interfaith Relations. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1999.

Lederach, John Paul. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2002.

Lutheran World Federation. Summary Report from the Working Group on Islam.Theological Perspectives on Other Faiths: Toward a Christian Theology of Religions. Documentation from a consultation held in Bangkok, 10–13 July, 1996. Edited by Hance A. O. Mwakabana. Geneva: LWF Documentation, 1997.

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