Abrahamic religions have a patrimony of persecution. Over millennia, Judaism has been persecuted by history, Christianity by the Romans, and Islam by Samuel Huntington. Victimisation has been not simply the cost of difference. It has been the price exacted for faith.
The 20th century has seen a change that would have been unthinkable 100 years ago. Religionists have moved away from defending their beliefs or reinforcing their religious conviction with revivalist movements. Instead, they have followed modern medical practices. They have inserted stents to improve the flow of the corpuscles of thought and the platelets of ideas within their own systems.
The result of this reinvigoration has been a quickening of interest in interfaith communications as realists began to acknowledge a truth: if you cannot lick them or to join them, at least talk to them. Hence, interfaith dialogue. Interfaith conferences are to the 21st century what post-Second World War peace conferences were to the 20th century — valves designed and engineered to relieve pressure before it accumulates and explodes into confrontation.
At the highest level, after centuries of doctrinal and ecclesiastical dissensions, the various Christian churches which followed the same Saviour decided to reach out to one another. From the 1960s onwards, particularly, the heads of the Church of Rome, the Church of England, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Coptic Church, and the Russian Orthodox Church (to name only a few), met and in doing so for the first time addressed each other as equals.
In 1965, Pope Paul VI and the Greek Orthodox patriarch Athenagoras made a Catholic-Orthodox joint declaration by which they regretted past mistakes and lifted the mutual excommunication that had been their weaponry against each other for over 800 years.
Since then, interfaith communication has found a number of voluntary flag-bearers. Perhaps the best known in recent years has been Ms Karen Armstrong, a former nun who, since turning her back on her convent, has achieved fame (and fortune) publishing books on comparative religion. She has created a niche market for her well-researched and readable summaries of the world’s major religions and their founders.
She has divined that her readership prefers its religion in small doses. Her pithy products remind one of those mini-jars of breakfast marmalade, enough for one serving at a time, but for which the customer pays more for the package than its content. The nearest equivalent to Karen Armstrong in Islam would have to be Dr Akbar Ahmed. As an author he is as prolific, and he is equally articulate and persuasive as a speaker. His commitment to the promotion of interfaith understanding lies as deep as hers.
Ever since he turned his back on the constrictive seminary he had joined in 1966 — the Civil Service of Pakistan — Dr Akbar Ahmed like Karen Armstrong has found a new career for himself. In fact, not one but a number of careers. He has been Pakistan’s high commissioner to the UK and more productively, he now serves as an ambassador for Islam in the US where he lives and teaches.
In his hands, religion is like a Rubik’s cube. He can rotate it with dexterity. With each flick of his wrist he is able to present a fresh configuration, similar to and yet different from a previous pattern. His television series Journey into America (2009) was a carefully crafted outreach programme in which he took Islam to places in the US where other faiths do not always reach.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, no education was regarded as complete unless one had done a Grand Tour of Classical Europe. Modern television has replaced the rigours of that sort of cultural foot-slogging. Through such series as Civilisation hosted by Kenneth Clark in 1969 or Dr Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973), culture like fast-food is now canned and home-delivered.
Dr Ahmed’s television series provides his sedentary audiences with the same convenience. He knows he cannot convert them to his faith. It is his conviction though that he can at least carry them to an intermediate stage of thought, even if he cannot transport them to the destination of belief.
Dr Ahmed’s latest book The Thistle and the Drone is a step away from his usual path. It is an interesting, provocative application of the tools of academic anthropology to modern politics. In it, eyeless drones are pitted against the indomitable thistle of tribal victims. A few days ago, after receiving an honorary doctorate from Forman Christian College University (his alma mater at Lahore), Dr Akbar spoke about it to an audience of academics. He lectured as he always does, mellifluously and with feeling, about the need for Muslims to reach out to co-religionists and to other religionists.
One was reminded immediately of the talk on similar lines by Karen Armstrong a few years ago. She had spoken in the ballroom of a five-star hotel; Dr Ahmed gave his talk in the auditorium of a private Christian university. There was no danger at either venue of hostile invective being hurled by a radical lurking in the hall. The surroundings in both places were as safe and secure and risk-free as swimming in a Washington think tank.
The need for interfaith understanding today remains unarguably acute. It is sharpened by the polarization that has infected regional and international politics. For it to succeed, though, it needs desperately to move beyond the singularity of interfaith monologues.
The writer is a Pakistan-based author and art historian. www.fsaijazuddin.pk.