Could Islam produce a Martin Luther King?
From Brother Ivo:
As we ponder the significance of Dr Martin Luther King's famous 'I have a Dream' speech, the dreadful situation engulfing the Middle East sees an increasingly grim outlook for the poor, the weak, and the non-combatant. The rich can often escape; the committed will thrill to the lure of martyrdom rhetoric; and the ambitious will climb the bloody pole of power with their eyes on a prize of their own imaginings. In this all too familiar scenario we see an echo of conflicts in other parts of the world: however dreadful, there is little we see here that has not occurred elsewhere. Yet, somehow, the Middle Eastern situation seems especially hopeless.
Europe has little basis for feeling superior. Before we had Srebrenica, we had the Holocaust, and long before that, the Thirty Years War, the Wars of Religion, and even the Hundred Years War. Many in England have forgotten - or more likely never knew - that on a per capita basis, the English Civil War was more bloody than either the American Civil War or even the First World War.
It does not make the Middle Eastern conflicts any less appalling, but all commentary needs to proceed with caution, perspective and historical awareness.
Wars end in one of three ways. One side secures outright victory; the warring factions become war weary and prepared to compromise; or an outside overwhelming force suppresses the combatants.
The resources and religious implications of the Middle East render it peculiarly sensitive and intractable. The Arab League, the United Nations and so called 'International Law' have consistently proved themselves unfit for purpose in such a context, and the world's only superpower has a leader who is either too vacillatingly cerebral, obsessed with domestic campaigning, or weak. As some have observed, at least when his predecessor drew a line in the sand, everyone knew the consequences of crossing it.
When the President went to Cairo, puffed up by his Nobel Peace Prize, and offered to grasp the hands of despots if only they would unclench their fists, they did so - only to offer two fingers. Similarly, Tony Blair has been invisible in his his 'Middle East Envoy' role. Western charisma carries no weight in the region.
And so the agony continues, and, as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, even intervention does not mean the suffering ceases. One can suppress macro-scale violence, yet in the modern world the devasting micro-violence of the car bomb, the suicide bomber, and the IED can continue to wreak havoc on the innocent bystander.
We need to pray for anyone bearing responsibility or carrying expectation to improve the situation, while doing all we can to limit expectation. Confidence in our capacity to influence for the good may not be an asset.
Yet even if we were able to end the more appalling expressions of violence, it would probably prove temporary, for it is not guns or bombs or even chemical weapons that wage war, but men (usually men). And so, whatever the secularists may think, the key to creating peace in that region lies not politically, diplomatically, legally, or rhetorically. It is theological.
This is a region that runs on God-talk. The secularists may not care for it and bemoan that reality, but they need to lay their prejudices aside, recognising that not only do we have to start where we are, but that in this context Richard Dawkins has a readership of about 4 and dares not transpose his ideas into an Islamic context. Unlike Dr King, he fears to follow his beliefs into the areas of maximum danger, even from the comparable safety of England.
It may be that a similar fear grips the theologians of the region and one cannot altogether blame them, although in a region seemingly awash with martyrs for war, it is disappointing to have so few in authority willing to risk it for peace.
This leads us to ask why this might be.
Hinduism has its Gandhi, Buddhism its Dalai Lama, Christianity its Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. Does Islam have the capacity to bring forth its Martin Luther King?
Brother Ivo poses the question in that specific way for a reason. There is no doubt that Muslims - the vast majority at home and abroad - want to live in peace for themselves, their families and neighbours every bit as much as those of other religions and none. There are war-zone junkies in the ranks of fanatics, mercenaries, the press corps, and some politicians, but exposure to the reality of such conflict cures most of the malady.
It is one thing to speak in the abstract about wishing for peace, but it is quite another to hew it from the rough stone of entrenched opinion, self-interest and fear which are found on the ground. It is often through digging deep to find common foundation that lasting progress is made.
The key to ending the social acceptability of racial segregation in America's Deep South was the grasp of religious texts common to both the black and white communities, who had long tolerated the lop-sided doctrine of 'separate but equal'. Both sides had long simply accepted the status quo. Unlike the Middle Eastern situation, the problem was chronic but not acute. A gradual, measured destabilisation was possible in a calculated way.
A crucial part of the measured destabilisation was the use of the scriptures accepted by both sides of the racial divide.
The wisdom of Dr King, which was the reason for the success of the movement, lay in his selection of theological role model. He did not invoke the strength of Samson, the wisdom of Solomon or the victories of Gideon or Joshua. Inspired by the more recent successful example of Gandhi, he invoked the power of the suffering servant, and, like Gandhi and Christ himself, he laid down his life for his people.
That is a simple historical fact, and Brother Ivo does not mean it to be offensive but to make plain that this does make a difference in the way these things may have to be worked out.
Jesus and the Moor of Venice might have counselled their followers to 'keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them', but Mohammed offered a very different role model. He was not only a religious leader but became a warrior prince. Brother Ivo has seen the sword of Mohammed; it is on display in Istanbul. Nobody ever saw the sword of Jesus Christ. He may have used a sword metaphorically; Mohammed was more practical.
Furthermore, the message of Mohammed was submission - not spiritually in the quietness of one's heart, but publicly, practically, overtly and politically. It is submission to a God distanced from the grubbiness of this world, untainted by the all-too-human blood, sweat and tears of Calvary. Jesus was the willing victim, never God's executioner.
Mohammed is also presented as the very model of how a Muslim should conduct himself and rule his family. This makes it very tempting and easy for the less-than-humble and the less-than-peaceful to take up arms and demand of his enemy not compromise, but submission.
Matters are made more complex by the divisions within Islam of its divergent understandings of authority, which were fought early within Christian history but remain even more acute within Islam. Today, Roman Catholics and Protestants generally find much common ground in the modern world. They do not range against each other in power blocs anymore. We may witness this at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where the competing Christian zealots have entrusted the keys to a Muslim family. Generally we view this as absurdist theatre; not as a casus belli.
We are likely to find an ecumenical mixture of Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Protestant Evangelicals and Anglicans on both sides of theological disputes of the day.
It is therefore an easier context in which to seek the theological bedrock on which to establish discussion and arrive at a modus vivendi if not agreement.
Gandhi's gift to Martin Luther King was the insight that civil rights might be advanced against some civil authorities by disobeying law, but that disobedience had lawful consequences. The civil disobedience of Gandhi and Dr King was predicated upon an acceptance of suffering: it was the suffering which transformed the rebellion from crime to moral act. This is frequently unknown or overlooked by current protesters, who frequently resent and deny the legitimacy of the exercise of law against them.
Common ground and respect for the established basis of law was and is a sine qua non of successful civil disobedience.
Whatever the many and varied faults of the British Raj and 1950s America, both were philosophically capable of being shamed by the unjust conviction of the leader making peaceful claims for a morally just cause.
The prospect of an Islamic Martin Luther King arising in the current Middle East has many hurdles to overcome, not least of which is context. There is a relative paucity of regimes that would respond robustly but peacefully to such a figure - at least in the way the British and US governments did in these instances. There is still a sharp sectarian divide rubbed raw by recent atrocity on all sides.
Brother Ivo is therefore sceptical that we shall see such a figure arise any time soon. He cautions himself that it took a very long time for figures of the stature of Gandhi, Dr King and Nelson Mandela to arise, even in cultures where the necessary conditions were emerging. We must therefore not lose heart, but remind ourselves that, with God, nothing is impossible.
Brother Ivo is the Patron Saint of lawyers.