Coexistence in lights of Religious Pluralism

I am guided in my thinking about the subject of “religious pluralism” by an instruction from the Holy Bible. In his Letter to the Christians in Rome, the Apostle Paul writes “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).

Intellectual/spiritual integrity

I think that it is important for those of us who are concerned about how citizens of nations might healthily relate to one another across religious divides to be true to our own heritages. Whilst we may well discern values in common (as human beings and/or as people of faith), a healthy relating of people of different religious persuasions is not best served by trying to reduce differences of religious heritage to some minimal, agreed content. It is as convinced Muslims, Christians, Jews, Baha’is, atheists, agnostics etc. that we seek mutually beneficial relationship. I do not find the current humanistic, relativistic, reductionist, rampant secularism of Western societies very convincing.

I was a Christian representative on an inter-religious dialogue group that met regularly in Liverpool, UK when I was serving as a church leader there. One of the comments made to me by an imam on the group was by way of thanking me that he heard from me a convinced view of my beliefs about Jesus Christ and a reverence for the Holy Bible – something he felt was sometimes unhelpfully avoided by Christians in conversation with Muslims, for whatever good intention.

At the same time, within our own religious traditions, we need to be secure enough in our personal convictions to honestly face up to differences of interpretation about what our own “faith” might mean. It is not good enough to pronounce to members of other faith communities that certain expressions of our own faith are nothing to do with the faith we espouse. Christians need to confess that the mindset of medieval Crusaders or of some contemporary, fundamentalist-evangelical spokespersons has been and is a considered “Christian” view of some Christians. Muslims need to admit that an extreme interpretation of the meaning/validity of jihadism is a “Muslim” view held by some Muslims. Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, humanists similarly!

I was a Christian representative recently in a conference convened by the British Council bringing together Protestant Christians and Shiite Muslims for a consideration of “Faith in Modern Secular Society”. On the third day of meeting, the tenor of the exchange changed when various Christian delegates argued with one another about their views in front of the Muslim delegates; and various Muslim delegates (including ulama from Qom, Iran) argued with one another about interpretations of some hadiths in front of the Christian delegates. We Muslims and Christians respected and trusted one another much more from that moment!

In none of our faith traditions are we all perfectly agreed. Can we be honest about our contingency and lack of absolute certainty?

The privilege of being a host

I am an Anglican clergyman and, in the UK, part of the national church there. The British monarch is titular head of the Church of England and all Anglican clergypersons, upon ordination or appointment to an incumbency, have to make an oath of allegiance to the Crown plus a promise of obedience (“in all things lawful and honest”) to their diocesan bishop. As members of the national church, Anglicans in the UK are in a unique position to influence society – for good or ill. One of the areas in which lots of “good” has been achieved has been in the hosting, by Anglican clergy, of meetings with leaders of other faiths in order to help with understanding, integration and sharing of experience. Minority populations, such as Muslims in the UK, have been given a healthy national voice through the channel of the Christian/Muslim forum, plus regional and local exposure through various interfaith bodies, mostly organised by Christian leaders. Issues for Muslims in secular Britain have included things like inherited family law and customs, provision of halal food in state institutions, matters of conviction about “ethical” behaviour and practice in the worlds of education and healthcare, concerns about certain aspects of banking and finance etc. There is some good history of Anglican Christians, with their unique role in British society, being proactive in helping Muslim concerns be heard and, sometimes, acted upon nationally, regionally, locally.[1]

I would submit that an equivalent obligation might well be willingly undertaken by the dominant Muslim expression here in Tunisia. The initiative for welcoming, hosting, listening to and seeking to better those of different streams of Islamic or other religious expressions lies with the majority religious expression here. You set the tone for the communities of faith and for the nation as a whole in their self-understanding and in their view of the religious Other. Religious minorities here have concerns, I think, about how they might legitimately express or perhaps change their religious identity. I am not referring to foreigners but nationals. Can they freely congregate? Can they own/build/register places of worship? Can they legally marry without having to declare the shahada? Where can they be distinctly buried? These and similar questions need to be sought out, heard and represented by the religious majority to the authorities in the nation. Is there such practice presently, or even the will to do such? Forgive me for any errors in my understanding of current practices in Tunisia as I ask these questions.

Local and simple

When I was working in inner-city London, I ended up as “coordinator” of the Lambeth Multi-faith Action Group (LAMAG). We organised public meetings on issues of concern to people living in our area of London: crime, policing, health, ageing, poverty, youth issues etc. We comprised Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and more. The goodwill built up over years of such meeting largely prevented a backlash against Muslims in the Lambeth area of London, I believe, after the bombings and attempted bombings on the London transportation system in the summer of 2005. Members of LAMAG, and others, visited and stood in solidarity with their Muslim friends at that time; their gestures were gratefully received.

While there is value in interfaith, religious dialogue – especially if it is intellectually honest – it is often local issues, political issues, economic issues that can bring people together in solidarity. Acting in common over perceived problems can naturally allow people from different faith convictions to get to know one another in non-polemical contexts. Is there an encouraged climate in this country for people coming together to improve the lot of the poor or the marginalised in society to also be free to honestly declare their (maybe religious) motivations in such altruistic concern?

I need to say, in closing, that I loved my seven years living in Tunis, during a period in which the country came of age through the Revolution of January, 2011. I have witnessed the wonder and joy of Tunisians who have chosen to follow Jesus Christ in discovering, since 2011, the freedom in differing degrees of being recognised as valid members of society here. Moncef Marzouki’s initiative in 2011 of inviting religious leaders to break the fast with him during Ramadan meant much to those invited. The possibility of this nation being a lighthouse of what it means to live pluralistically, yet with integrity, in a complex, modern world inspires me and I wish you all well – in the endeavours of this Association – in being a catalyst for such rich living.

By The Rev. Dr Bill Musk
The Rev. Dr Bill Musk has worked with Operation Mobilisation, Living Bibles International, Middle East Media, former Area Bishop for North Africa Episcopal Area, and former Rector, St George's Anglican Church, Tunis. He is currently the minister of a multi-ethnic Anglican Church in London.
Dr. Musk is also author of The Unseen Face of Islam, Touching the Soul of Islam, and Holy War.

[1] See my essay “Promoting Other Voices?” in Steve Bell & Colin Chapman (eds) Between Naivety and Hostility: Uncovering the best Christian responses to Islam in Britain, (Authentic Media, Milton Keynes, 2011), pp263-276