Christmas in Islam


Asia BibiThe Gospels describe Christmas as a time of great happiness that a saviour has been born. But they also intimate the murderous business through which salvation will come. Not only the star but also the shadow of Herod stands over the place of birth.

This Christmas many Christians in predominantly Muslim nations will also be shadowed by fear.

In Iraq, churches have recently been bombed and Christians murdered. In Pakistan, Asia Bibi (pictured) awaits hanging, accused of insulting the prophet Mahommad. The Pakistan Government has backed off its feeble attempt to provide some measure of justice in the process. Meanwhile the United Nations will consider a resolution that endorses similar laws against religious defamation.

Middle Eastern Catholics have expressed disappointment at the response of Western Christians. This response ranges from helpless and embarrassed attention that quickly modulates into neglect, to an ideological assault on Islam.

The latter sees the sufferings of Christians as the expression of the mortal struggle between Christianity and Islam, and as a demonstration of the innate militancy of Islam towards those whom it classes as infidels.

Neither response respects duly the Christians who suffer. A proper response must consider first the complexity of a situation which cannot be reduced to religious difference. Antipathy to Christianity is fuelled by resentment against Western powers that are identified with Christianity.

This grievance can be traced back to the Crusades. But the militant forms of Islam that have corroded tolerance for Christians in many Islamic societies owe more to contemporary history. Western support for Israel and the humiliation both of the Palestinian people and of surrounding countries have favoured the spread of a more narrow interpretation of Islam.

The United States invasion of Iraq has been catastrophic for Iraqi Christians. Under Sadam Hussein they lived in relative peace. As a result of the invasion, they have been identified both with the United States as Christians and as clients of the Sunni.

The antagonism between Sunni and Shiite and the cooptation by Iran and Saudi Arabia of radical groups has hemmed in the space for happy co-existence.

It is easy for politicians and local landlords to draw on this potent mixture of religion and prejudice to inflame local grievances about property or power. Christians are a convenient scapegoat to focus resentment.

This complexity explains in part why the response of Western Christians is so muted. It shows that they do not have a detached standing point from which to look at the suffering of Middle Eastern Christians. Western Christians, as indeed all Western people, are complicit in it. We inherit the consequences of the Crusades, our policies towards Israel and the Palestinians, our participation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, the sufferings of the Palestinian Christians are not only factually complex but emotionally complex. They forbid us to set them in a detached ideological framework, but invite us to work out a more complex form of solidarity.

The 'we' that links Western Christians and Christians living in Muslim societies involves a double set of relationships. The first relates them as groups of fellow Christians. The second relates them as members of Western and Islamic polities, requiring Westerners to acknowledge the often discreditable history of their dealings.

The proper relationship between Christians whose life is stable and those whose lives are precarious is clear. It is adequately described in the early church. One the major thrust of Paul's mission was to collect money to send to the impoverished church in Jerusalem. This was echoed, too, in the care and responsibility that larger churches offered to the martyrs in far off places.

But leaders of Western churches are unlikely to press for such solidarity, or Christian congregations to hear it, unless Western Christians own their complex history with Islam. Solidarity with Christians in the Islamic world cannot be built unless it is accompanied by solidarity with Islamic peoples as well.

It is contradictory to embrace Christians as the victims of Islam while ignoring the way in which both they and Muslims in the region have been the victims of Western depredation and invasion.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Islam, muslim, Christmas, crusades, Asia Bibi



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Existing comments

An excellent article.
kind regards and a joyous Christmas.
Bob Burgell

Bob Burgell | 20 December 2010  

No it is not complicated at all:
1. The Crusades were a response to an Islamic regimes refusal to allow Christians to make pilgrimages to the Holy Places, and the destruction of the Holy Sepulcre.
2. 6-800 odd years or is a long time to hold a grudge.
3. And if it is legitimate to go back that far, what about the unprovoked Islamic invasions/occupations/attempted invasions of Africa, Spain, France, Byzantium, Turkey....and I could go on. 4. The association of Christianity with Western enemies would be a lot more plausible if it weren't for the fact that Christianity is indigenous to this region! Asia Bibi is hardly a representative of either the US or the West.
5. Most Islamic countries don't have any problem with being a member of the UN, which, after all, was the body that actually created Israel. So why should unfortunate indigenous Christians cop the blame?

I'm not suggesting for a moment that all has been good on the part of one side, all bad on the other. Of course it is much more complex. But that doesn't explain or excuse the current upsurge in Islamic persecution oc Christians.

Kate | 20 December 2010  

Two points, if I may -

First, Father Hamilton traces the grievance and antipathy of Muslims towards Christianity back to the time of the crusades. As history, this will not do. Muslim hostility towards Christianity goes back to the very origins of Islam itself. As soon as it exploded out of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, Muslim military power attacked and progressively destroyed the Byzantine Empire (culminating in the capture of Constantinople in 1453), obliterated the Christian communities along North Africa, continually raided the Mediterranean coast of Europe, sacked Rome itself on several occasions, conquered Sicily, invaded France, occupied the Iberian and Balkan Peninsulas for centuries and were at the gates of Vienna in 1683. True, North Africa and the Middle East came under Western European imperial domination in the 100 years from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries but that was relatively brief and benign. Muslim aggression and conquest has been directed at Christianity for one and a half thousand years. Christians in Muslim lands today are undoubtedly coming under renewed pressure because they are seen as agents of the 'Christian' West but the story of Muslim hostility is much, much older.

Second, the response of the Western media towards the sufferings of Christians in the middle east has been muted, if not nonchalant. This might seem odd given the Western obsession with human rights. If the victims were homosexuals, women or Jews, the response would be rather different. It shows how the Western media is dominated by a radical, secularist, neo-atheist Christophobia, ceaslessly undermining and denigrating Christians in the West and being indifferent to the sufferings of Christians in the East.

Sylvester | 20 December 2010  

This article is painful for both Muslims and Christians to read. Then again, the truth hurts.

Irfan | 20 December 2010  

We will never be able to express solidarity with Middle Eastern Christians while we have such antipathy towards their compatriots of whatever faith, as expressed in our bipartisan policies against asylum seekers. Comments are often as informative as the original article, informing us of our society's response to current affairs both domestic and international. Irfan's balanced comment indicates his broader perspective on the Middle East. We can be saddened, angered, even feel called to action by the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. But ultimately we are frustrated by our inability to find directions for resolution. This Jesuit e-mag speaks of persecution of Middle Eastern Christians and recently "The Australia-Israel Review" featured a story about Jewish refugees from Iraq and Iran. However, in Iraq and Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the majority of victims from attacks on explicitly religious targets - as places of worship and religious parades - are Muslims. Andrew's article encourages us to look inwards to our part in forming and maintaining the morass that engulfs the Abrahamic faiths, especially in the Middle East. Such introspection and candid admission of participation in the problem is often the circuit breaker which opens the door to negotiation towards resolution.

Ian Fraser | 21 December 2010  

Thank you Kate and Sylvester for your comments! I must say that the anti-Christians (western atheists) have found a friend (common enemy) in Islam.. On a brighter note (but not for our Christian brothers and sisters in the middle east) Merry Christmas to all!

Michael | 21 December 2010  

Fr Hamilton would do well to read articles by ex-Muslims. The following excerpts are taken from their "about us" page of "Faithfreedom International is a grassroots movement of ex-Muslims, those Muslims who asked prohibited questions and on that account lost their faith. We left Islam because we found it divisive. We realized that the author of the Quran was none but Muhammad, who like a ventriloquist put his own words into the mouth of his imaginary god, and with a promise of a carnal and orgiastic paradise (just for men) and threat of hell, goaded his followers to raid and slay innocent people under the pretext that they were infidels." It goes on, "To eradicate Islam, all it takes is to read the Qur’an and then tell the truth. It’s that simple. This was not possible before, but with the help of the Internet, it is now. The absurdity of Islam is glaringly obvious. The truth about Islam is out. With truth and reason alone we can demolish this tall tower of lies." These ex-Muslims know Islam. They do not look to the crusades, Israel, Western imperialism or any other PC reason to account for Islam's hatred of non-Muslims. They see hatred from the very beginnings of Islam, sown by Mohammed, its founder. Fr Hamilton is well wide of the mark in identifying the cause for the ongoing persecution of Christians in Islamic countries.

John Ryan | 21 December 2010  

'So, the sufferings of the Palestinian Christians are not only factually complex but emotionally complex. They forbid us to set them in a detached ideological framework, but invite us to work out a more complex form of solidarity.' Well said! I'd like to know more about the solidarity, co-existence, and enrichment that's been possible in small windows of history - windows of less competition for power and oil. The people of faith involved in that complex business then certainly built on relationships, shared interests, and not stereotypes.

Katharine | 22 December 2010  

John Ryan clearly does not know many Muslims. The clear-felling wide invective of those who leave their faith is equalled only by the fervour of the recent convert. With Christmas approaching and Eid ul Fitri not so far behind us, I am reminded of mutual greetings with Muslim friends on that most holy day in their calendar, greetings to be reciprocated at Christmas, one of our most holy days. I am also reminded of the ardour with which my Muslim colleague explained her firm faith in the virgin birth of Jesus. And the words of a Muslim cleric during my latest visit to Indonesia, that good works and belief in God are far more important than which religious tradition we happen to follow. Kate, Sylvester, Michael and John can see the bloodstains on Islam. Can they also see the bloodstains on Christianity, similarly associated with political conquest and religious extremism? The hateful words that are found in the Qu'ran reflect the hateful words in several books of the Old Testament. But the bloodstains and the hateful words are not the totality of Islam or Christianity. Extremism is the poison within all religions, the poison which causes much of modern atheism.

Ian Fraser | 22 December 2010  

Certainly, Ian Fraser, I acknowledge the blood stains on Christianity. I think of the violence and genocide associated with the Iberian conquest of the Americas. However, looking at Christian-Muslim relations specifically, the weight of warfare and aggression is, factually, on the Muslim side - as illustrated by my catalogue several postings up. Christian attacks on Islam have been few and far between. Historically, Christian Europe's stance has been defensive. The crusades, despite what a recent Hollywood film of the same name would have us believe, were undertaken to take pressure off Europe and secure Christian access to the Holy Places. The Christian naval victory over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571 was likewise defensive as was the miliary action by King John III Sobieski of Poland at Vienna in 1683, also against the Turks. It is true that Eurpean colonial powers dominated Muslim lands in the later 19th and early 20th centuries but this was a very brief period in history compared to the centuries of Arab and Turkish aggression against the Mediterranean coast of Europe and imperial occupation of the Iberian and Balkan peninsulas respectively. These facts need to be restated and underscored at a time when political correctness insists that Islam is a religion of peace and Christianity a religion of bloodshed.

Sylvester | 22 December 2010  

Sylvester, the discussion of Christian-Muslim relations should not be reduced to an accounting exercise. Leave it to the historians to argue about who is the aggressor, who the defender. Leave it to the atheists to emphasise the wars and persecutions conducted in the names of most of the world religions.

The essential point of my comment, argued in the majority of my 200 words, is that the violent militarism of the modern-world extremist fringe is NOT the totality of Islam.

As Catholics, we are justly defensive when the brutality of the Inquisition and the cruel suppression and eventual exiling of Jews and Muslims from 15th - 16th century Spain are held up as the full picture of Catholic Christianity. We should share some of that defensiveness in support of the most vilified religious community in the world today.

Hasn't Jesus (respected and loved by Muslims as the prophet, Isa) given us enough teaching in his parables and his own life to enable us to open our eyes to see the shared Abrahamic traditions and shared humanity of our Muslim cousins-in-faith?

Ian Fraser | 23 December 2010  

I open with best wishes for Christmas and New Year to all reading this discussion. May all find the peace of Christmas in the opportunities presented in 2011.

I guess my earlier response to Sylvester's analysis of warfare between Christian and Muslim nations got lost in the temporary downturn of the ES site. So to repeat.

Christian-Muslim relations cannot be based on the accounting of spilt blood. I honestly don't know who spilt the most blood. The majority of my 200 words above was to argue that brutal extremism is NOT the totality of Islam.

As Christians, we are validly defensive when anyone equates all of Christianity with the brutality of the Inquisition and the cruelty of 15th-16th century Spain, both in its imperial conquests and at home in the persecution and eventual exiling of Spanish Muslims and Jews.

Surely, we can spare some of that defensiveness to support our Muslim cousins-in-faith in the face of vilification from those who identify the militaristic extremism of the fringe as the totality of Islam.

Muslims also respect and love Jesus, whose message included love and peace on earth. Sometimes people in both religions forget that. It is time we all remembered.

Ian Fraser | 24 December 2010  

Your attempt to escape out the back door won't do, Ian Fraser.

Whatever about reducing a discussion of Christian-Muslim relations to an accounting exercise, the discussion about the history of those relations must surely be based on the facts - otherwise there is no point in having it - and the historical facts, speaking as an historian, are that along the geopolitical faultline between Islam and Christianity throughout the Mediterranean basin in history, Islam has (for the most part) assumed an expansionist, aggressive posture and Christianity has (for the most part) fallen back on containment and self-defence.

It is important that this point be asserted at a time when political correctness holds that Islam is, essentially, a religion of peace and Christianity, essentially, a religion of violence.

I have not suggested that the violent militarism of the modern-world extremist fringe is the totality of Islam. However, Christianity is the most persecuted faith in the world today and one cannot help but notice that Islamic states are in the front line of this persecution and that Islamic leaders in Western countries are remarkably silent about this while themselves enjoying the tolerance of Western, Christian-influenced societies.

Merry Christmas - I'd get in trouble for saying that in a country like Saudi Arabia.

Sylvester | 25 December 2010  


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