Zain Ali: 'Love thy neighbour' maxim unites Muslims and Christians

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The survey revealed a number of surprising similarities between Muslim public opinion and American public opinion. Photo / AP
The survey revealed a number of surprising similarities between Muslim public opinion and American public opinion. Photo / AP

Michael Hewat's opinion piece on Islam makes two bold demands. The first is that Muslims should be more offended by the death of an innocent Christian than by the destruction of their holy book. The second relates to moderate Muslims, saying that if they want the West to start differentiating between them and their extremist brethren, it's time they speak out against those who persecute others and rein them in.

These demands seem reasonable enough. But the majority of Muslims would view them as being misguided, because most Muslims agree that, irrespective of faith commitments, it is wrong to kill an innocent person, and that a majority of Muslims also reject extremism.

Consider a Gallup world poll that carried out an extensive survey of public opinion in 35 countries that had predominantly Muslim or significant Muslim populations. The findings of this survey were published in 2006 under the title Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.

The survey revealed a number of surprising similarities between Muslim public opinion and American public opinion.

For instance, the study found that Muslims and Americans were "equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as being morally unjustified". In addition, the survey found that both Muslims and Americans "admire the West for its technology and its democracy". And it found that Muslims and Americans were most concerned about the "perceived moral decay and breakdown of traditional values" in the West.

Given the findings of the Gallup survey we may need to rethink the perceived dichotomy between the West and the Muslim world.

The data suggests there is much in common, especially in the arena of public opinion.

There are, however, differences and Hewat's piece brings these to light. For example, Christians in some Muslim countries aren't as free to practise their faith as Muslims are in most Western countries.

Then there is a question of whether Muslims, or the tradition of Islam, can allow for the freedom of religion.

I believe the tradition of Islam does allow for the freedom of religion, and can also allow for genuine respect toward those who do not share a Muslim outlook on life.

Proof of this view can be found in a document entitled "A Common Word Between You and Us". This document was released as a letter to Christian leaders in 2007, and has been endorsed by 400 respected Muslim scholars and intellectuals from across the world.

The document observes that Christians and Muslims make up more "than 55 per cent of the world's population, and that the relationship between these two religious communities is the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world".

There are important statements in this document that are worthy of further reflection. The first is that Islam and Christianity are both committed to the foundational idea of the love of the "one God, and love of the neighbour".

The document goes on to note that "justice and freedom of religion are a crucial part of love of the neighbour", and as a concluding statement, asks Muslims and Christians to be "fair, just and kind to each other and to live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill".

At face value, this document does endorse the freedom of religion as being fundamental, and perhaps foundational, to the tradition of Islam. If we take the document and the Gallup study into consideration, it is not the everyday, moderate Muslim who deserves to be under the spotlight - the spotlight should be on the ruling elite in the Muslim world.

The Arab Spring proved how frustrated people are with authoritarian regimes. Yet, as we see in Syria and Egypt, authoritarianism is a formidable enemy that cares little for human rights, let alone the rights of religious minorities.

Muslims, be they moderate, liberal or secular, are speaking out against injustice. I appreciate this isn't always obvious, but all one has to do is to look beyond the headlines.

Dr Zain Ali is the head of the Islamic studies research unit at the University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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