Self-criticism is the mother of dialogue


These days, Judaism and Christianity are often presented as kindred souls who stand for democracy and human rights, while Islam is cut from a wholly different cloth. This essay by Tom Kenis argues that the books and practice of the three religions barely support this contention.

The Arab revolutions appear to make a mess of the stereotype that Islam and democracy cannot be reconciled, or that Arab countries are populated by sheer medieval zealots. What we’re seeing on our screens are pluralist revolutions: young and old, women en men, bearded, shaven, veiled and otherwise, seeking more control over the societies in which they live.

The revolts are a problem for the Geert Wilders of this world who still see a fundamental incompatibility between Islam and democracy, and the Judeo-Christian tradition, seen as a beacon of liberty and enlightenment. The anti-authoritarian revolutions indicate a rather more blurry picture: Israel and the West were all too happy with the dictatorships of Mubarak and co because it served their interests. Those who study the three holy books and how they’re practiced, find an ever-murkier picture.

Common roots in the square

Abraham rocked, as a collective spiritual ancestor, the cradle of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The three traditions originated from a kind of fusion between the philosophies of ancient Greece and the monotheistic innovations among the Late Bronze Age Canaanite tribes. The three have made God an eternal, supernatural creator, the source of moral and legal standards, omniscient, omnipotent, and at times a tad condescending or even bizarre -witness God’s wish to see Abraham only son sacrificed, psyche! This is obviously a God who demands total submission.

Despite the large overlap, the faiths found themselves more often than not on a ramming course. Both between and among each other: Judaism, Christianity and Islam soon split into countless flavors of theology, philosophy and law. Nevertheless, some trends can be discerned.

Jewish learning

The halacha or Jewish law, handed down through Noah and Moses, plus interpretations and interpretations of interpretations, are applicable to all aspects of human life: marriage, divorce, sacrificial rites, dietary laws, as well as humdrum criminal law. According to these writings you may be stoned for, among other things, swearing, rebelling against your parents, or even witchcraft.

Incest is punishable by death through molten lead poured down the gullet of the damned. Halachic laws are regarded traditionally as more or less hand-delivered by God and immutable. As such the Jewish scriptures are heavily reminiscent of the Islamic idea of justice, with its hard core of immutable, divinely inspired decrees.

Jewish practice

During the Diaspora, halakha ruled the various scattered Jewish communities as enforceable religious and civil law. However its sharpest edges, like the death penalty, fell into disuse in the early centuries of the Common Era. Since the European Enlightenment most Jews, at home everywhere and nowhere at once, appropriated a lot of the secularizing trends of their adoptive countries.

In modern Israel orthodox rabbinical courts still dominate the laws on family and personal status in a way that would be unpalatable to, say, secularist France. Marriage as a civil institution for example, does not exist. This results in a number of highly complex issues surrounding illegitimate children, marriages among secular Jews and between different religious communities.

Hence a Canadian, recently converted to Judaism, was not entitled to Israeli citizenship because the Orthodox rabbinate did not accept his conversion at the hands of an unauthorized Canadian rabbi. The same Orthodox rabbinate hinders marriages between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. Non-orthodox and secular Israeli Jews often end up marrying in Cyprus or elsewhere.

On another plain, discrimination against non-Jews, in the form of systematic underfunding of predominantly non-Jewish towns, is jarring. The Book of Susan Nathan, who chose to live in an Arab village in Israel, indicates that a strict separation between state and synagogue is far off still, despite the secular inclinations of a majority of the population. “We have to take the heritage of our ancestors back to the Israeli nation,” said the Israeli minister of Justice Yaakov Ne’eman in 2009. “The Torah offers a complete solution for all questions that concern us.”

New Testament: render unto Caesar

Despite the famous quote from Jesus, widely interpreted as a plea not to mix religion and politics, Christian churches throughout history rarely tended exclusively to the spiritual needs of believers. One thinks of the power struggle between papacy and kings in medieval Europe, countless religious wars, one more gruesome than the next, and churches’ frantic clinging to relevancy and control over rapidly secularizing societies of the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Although the New Testament, unlike the Old one, does not lay any literal claim to worldly power, it hasn’t stopped Christian religious institutions from pretending over the centuries that it does.

Christian practice

The separation of church and state in countries with Christian majorities began only in the course of the nineteenth century. It is far from completed today. The program of the Dutch Christian theocratic party SGP, present in the national and European parliament, states among other things that states’ legislation and administration shouldn’t hinder the preaching of the gospel, but in stead promote it. “Man [is] the head of woman, and for women to serve in political bodies is perpendicular to their vocation.”

Western secularism, individualism and women’s rights are relatively recent phenomena. In the U.S. there seems even to exist a certain return of religion in worldly affairs. Secularism is generally understood as protecting the state against religious interference. The Biblically oriented Founding Fathers aimed more or less for the opposite, namely the protection of a religious community against the secularizing, almost malevolent state.

Today ideological heirs such as Sarah Palin are engaged in a culture war for Protestant piety and against “big government”. In the fight against moral decay and godlessness they see a greater role for religious symbolism and practice in schools, courts and legislative bodies. More religion at home is paradoxically paired with an almost belligerent stance against a religion perceived as laying too big a claim to worldly power elsewhere.

Islamic jurisprudence

A clash of cultures is not forthcoming. It has been going on for centuries. The challenge is to stop it.
Islam makes no distinction between moral and legal precepts. A frequently cited example is Sura 4, verse 59: ” Believers, obey God and obey the Prophet, and those in command among you.” Yet sharia; the rules contained in the Koran, plus Muhammad’s utterances as relayed by others, and interpretations, rarely served as the exclusive source of worldly rule. Soon after the establishment of the caliphate the first caliphs, governors and sultans began to promulgate laws on matters not dealt with by sharia such as financial transactions, taxation and trade.

In addition, compliance with supposedly universal religious law differs greatly from century to century and even Caliph to Caliph. For instance, twelfth-century Spain, with its enlightened science and religious tolerance bears little resemblance to the seventh-century Bedouin encampments where Muhammad was born. And what to think of the secular Tanzimat? This nineteenth century reform movement shook the Islamic Ottoman Empire to the core, from which later a hyper-secular Turkish constitution would arise.

Islamic enlightenment

Economic decline often goes hand in hand with religious and social stagnation. From the fifteenth century, and later with the advent of Western colonial domination in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, a deep crisis emanates. Local potentates brusquely import Western codified law, inspired or coerced by European powers.

In an initial response Hassan Al-Banna, founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, rails against European colonialism but for certain Western ideas in tandem with far-reaching religious reforms. Islam, as he saw, had to adapt to the independent modern nation states to be. The Islamic enlightenment of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with its strong nationalist dimension, is suppressed and radicalized by colonial governments and their indigenous authoritarian successors. Instead of reforming what Islam is, a plea ensued for a return to the kind of pure Sharia that never existed.

Towards a free market of ideas

Contemporary Muslim reformers are often caught between secular or nominally Muslim dictators and conservative clerics on whose silence the status quo is based. Until recently in any case.

It is still early to assess the impact of the current upheaval in the Arab world on Islam and politics. Perhaps paradoxically, political liberalization will initially bring more Islam into the public sphere. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Only there, far from the torture chambers of Mubarak, Ben Ali, and others, can new ideas and interpretations develop.

The coming debates will touch upon the place of Islam in modern society, but more broadly, the nature of Islam itself. A genuine free market of ideas, if you will. It would be naive to expect that this process will necessarily produce a “western” outcome. Nor the inverse for that matter. Egyptian and Tunisian Muslim Brothers refer ad nauseam to the Islam-democratic model that turned Turkey into a regional steam train over the past decade.


Judaism, Christianity and Islam have rarely been the best of chums. No single religion carries all or none of the blame. Jews and Christians never had it easy under Islamic rule. The odd Caliph enforced distinctive garments, imposed conversions and slavery, even the occasional pogrom. Researchers however, tend to agree that this was the exception rather than the rule. Christian violence against Jews, culminating in genocide at the hands of Nazi Germany and its accomplices, are a different matter altogether.

Jewish-Christian Alliance

The link between Judaism and Christianity, asserted by some, is a relatively recent phenomenon, not drawn in an obvious way from religious texts or history. It cropped up in the seventeenth century and has since adopted many different guises: Jews converted to Christianity, liberal efforts against anti-Semitism in the nineteen thirties, as battle cry against communism in the fifties…

Since the attacks of 9 /11, by terrorists claiming Islamic inspiration, the Jewish-Christian alliance alludes to a radical rejection of Islam in all its social and political aspects. Although this vision is rooted in American, Protestant and Puritan soil, its tenets are increasingly adopted by European politicians and pundits. They see Muslim minorities as a threat or contemplate electoral gain by such claims. The Judeo-Christian paradigm is reinforced by an understandable sense of contrition among Christians for past anti-Semitic excess - specifically the Holocaust.

Finally, the alliance offers the perfect backdrop for the realpolitik engaged up by resource-poor, yet resourceful countries to the detriment of an oil-rich Islamic Middle East. Even though that approach faced major internal contradictions: the defenders of democracy and human rights were all too happy supporting military dictators that represented their interests. Today the people of the Middle East clamor for democracy and human rights, the Western values that the West itself had so far refused to defend.

Unholy trinity

Interaction between three religions, each laying claim to universal truth, is inherently problematic. Nonetheless one shouldn’t eschew mutual criticism. An exchange of ideas between representatives of different religions based on knowledge of one’s own heritage, a healthy dose of humility, and devoid of demagoguery, benefits all. But most of all, self-criticism should be the norm.

Religions collide: from Catholics to Protestants, Sunnis and Shiites, from anti-Semitism to Islamophobia. The recently, carefully spun politically correct “against Islam, not against Muslims,” ignores the often rather unsophisticated audience of populists. A politics of division based on a selective reading of history and religion is a dangerous game. It’s new, moral nor democratic. There is no alternative to the laborious, complex path of dialogue, or rather trialogue. A clash of cultures is not forthcoming. It has been going on for centuries. The challenge is to stop it.

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Over de auteur

  • Schrijver, publicist & vertaler

    Tom Kenis heeft een achtergrond in Islamstudies en Internationale Betrekkingen. Hij woonde en werkte vier jaar in het Midden-Oosten en in Berlijn.