Faiths in Conflict?: Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World


Crosscultural communication and interconnection have never been greater in the history of the world. Yet the potential for intercultural conflict accompanies every advance. And religious belief, which lies at the heart of most cultures, often appears to contribute to such unrest and at times even to violence.

In this fascinating and ground-breaking study, Vinoth Ramachandra explores the complex nature of conflict among the major world religions of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and ...

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Crosscultural communication and interconnection have never been greater in the history of the world. Yet the potential for intercultural conflict accompanies every advance. And religious belief, which lies at the heart of most cultures, often appears to contribute to such unrest and at times even to violence.

In this fascinating and ground-breaking study, Vinoth Ramachandra explores the complex nature of conflict among the major world religions of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, and also between them and the rising tide of secularism.

Challenging stereotypes built up on every side, he raises questions about the seemingly inevitable clash of cultures due to their respective religious commitments. He puts to the test the belief that a secular society that rejects universal truth claims can sustain a truly tolerant and pluralistic society. He passionately demonstrates how the distinctive message of Christianity concerning the uniqueness of Jesus Christ actually provides a basis for a truly democratic and multicultural society.

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Editorial Reviews

Bill Dyrness
"This book is a superb treatment of critical issues facing Christians today. Both its angle of vision and its tone are just right to help us begin a conversation about religious pluralism and crosscultural apologetics. I am adding it to my required reading for a course by that title and recommending it warmly to friends!"
Howard Peskett
"Ramachandra writes with eloquence and irony. . . . His writing is an extension of his life: an adventure of discovering and helping others to discover—in a divided world, disfigured by evermore appalling conflicts—the joys of friendship with God and with people of all sorts."
J. Andrew Kirk
"This book is wide-ranging, refreshingly bold, starkly honest and often unexpected as it advocates the power of the message of Jesus Christ to overcome many actual dilemmas, and highlights the many failures of Christians to follow consistently their high calling."
Colin Chapman
"A remarkably perceptive and stimulating study from an author who is rooted in a Third World context and understands how issues of faith affect real issues in the lives of individual nations."
William R. Burrows
"Faiths in Conflict? is a powerful, enlightening book which explodes the myth that religion has been and continues to be the major cause of conflict. . . . Christians of all denominations and men and women of good will of all religious traditions must read it. It brings interreligious interchange and the challenge of Christian mission to an entirely new level of maturity with honesty, love and insight."
Scott W. Sunquist
"Ramachandra has taken one of the most important issues for the twenty-first century—the conflict of faiths, ideologies and cultures—and shattered our easy assumptions. . . . Avoiding simplistic secular and relativist arguments, this book takes seriously both the radical nature of the life and teachings of Jesus and the complex nature of our contemporary conflicts. It could reshape Christian thought about culture and bring Christians, East and West, to a new type of unity."
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Drawing from his London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity series, Ramachandra, the South Asia regional secretary for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, skillfully demonstrates his view that Christianity alone provides the foundation for a multicultural society. Ramachandra discusses in depth the social, cultural, historical and religious components that make up Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity, noting how each major religion is unique and how these religions and their followers often promote negative stereotypes about the others. In his third chapter, "The Jesus Enigma," Ramachandra intensely scrutinizes Jesus Christ, describing Jesus' controversial practice of accepting Jews, non-Jews, women and outcasts into his company. Jesus' outlandish claims about himself, says Ramachandra, were balanced by his humility, though both extremes only served to further alienate him from the religious leaders of the day. Asserts the author, "... this combination of an other-oriented lifestyle with self-directed claims is what makes Jesus of Nazareth utterly unique." Ramachandra discusses how conversion and culture relate to each other, and how readers might proclaim the Christian message to others of different faiths. While carefully written, only scholars or other erudite readers will appreciate the dry, detailed explanations of the world's religions and their divergent belief systems. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780830815586
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2000
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Vinoth Ramachandra lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He holds both a BS (summa cum laude) and a PhD in nuclear engineering from the University of London. An Anglican lay-theologian, writer, teacher and human rights advocate, he combines multiple interests in his international work with IFES, a global partnership of over 150 university-level Christian movements.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Islam and new religious wars?

The `Clash of Civilizations' argument

Samuel Huntington's book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking ofWorld Order is an ambitious, influential and highly acclaimed attempt toarticulate a framework that would make sense of our post-Cold War world.Huntington is a professor at Harvard University and has served as adviser oninternational relations to US governments. So his work is, at one and the sametime, a political narrative and a blueprint for American foreign policy in thenew millennium.

    Huntington's main thesis is straightforward. `In the post-Cold War world,'he writes, `the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological,political, or economic. They are cultural.' In this new world order, `the mostpervasive, important and dangerous conflicts will not be between socialclasses, rich and poor, or other economically defined groups, but betweenpeoples belonging to different cultural entities.'

    As the dominance of the West declines, other ancient civilizations asserttheir global influence. A civilization is the broadest level of cultural identitypeople have, and religion is a central characteristic of all civilizations.`Civilizations are the biggest "we" within which we feel culturally at home asdistinguished from all the other "them" out there.' Huntington identifies sixmajor contemporary civilizations that have increasing political influence inthis new `multipolar' world order: Western (Europe and North America), Sinic,Japanese, Hindu, Islamic and Orthodox. Five of these civilizationshavedominant `core states' (USA, China, Japan, India and Russia) but Islam doesnot. While states remain the key actors in global politics, they increasinglydefine their interests in civilizational terms. Non-Western civilizations rejectWestern values in favour of their own cultural norms, and as the materialsuperiority of the West diminishes its cultural appeal for non-Western peoplesalso fades. He writes:

Spurred by modernization, global politics is being reconfigured along cultural lines. Peoples and countries with similar cultures are coming together. Peoples and countries with different cultures are coming apart. Alignments defined by ideology and superpower relations are giving way to alignments defined by culture and civilization. Political boundaries increasingly are redrawn to coincide with cultural ones: ethnic, religious, and civilizational. Cultural communities are replacing Cold War blocs, and the fault lines between civilizations are becoming central lines of conflict in global politics.

    The political scenario that emerges from this is clear. Conflicts are likely tooccur in what Huntington calls `cleft countries' — states which contain peoplefrom two or more different civilizations, as in the Ukraine — and along `faultlines' which divide one civilization from another. Conflicts that take placeacross lines dividing different civilizations are likely to be complex andinterminable as local antagonists rally support from their brethren belongingto the same civilization. The chief danger lies in the possibility of a `fault-line'conflict within a core state escalating into an inter-civilizational war involvingseveral countries.

    Huntington is as concerned about the `Islamic resurgence' and the `AsianAffirmation', as much as he is about the Western belief in the universality ofWestern culture. While the rise of East Asia has been fuelled (until recently) byspectacular rates of economic growth, the resurgence of Islam has been fuelledby equally spectacular rates of population growth. Both China and Islamrepresent what he calls `challenger civilizations' to the West. In the case ofIslam, the demographic explosion, historic and ingrained animosity towardsthe West, and the absence of a strong core-state combine to create a highpotential for violent conflict. `The dangerous clashes of the future', hemaintains, `are likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance,Islamic intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness.'

    What is required, then, is a mutual accommodation between diverse civilizationsand the refusal on the part of Huntington's `core states' to interfere inconflicts based in other civilizations. `In the emerging era,' he maintains, `theclashes between civilizations are the greatest threat to world peace, and aninternational order based on civilizations is the surest safeguard against worldwar.' Huntington's civilizational paradigm has the merit of simplicity. There isalso much in his book that is insightful, and his arguments are presented withgreat anecdotal skill and memorable sound-bites (as, for instance, hisobservation that `in Islam, God is Caesar; in China and Japan, Caesar is God; inOrthodoxy, God is Caesar's junior partner'). His analyses of `fault-line'conflicts and `cleft societies' are often intriguing. And I agree with his rebuttalof the common belief that modernization is tantamount to Westernization andleads to a convergence of all cultures.

    Why does his thesis carry a prima facie plausibility? We all know frompersonal experience that cultural differences can breed mutual suspicions andmisunderstandings. Moreover, almost all the major events we read about inour newspapers seem to involve different cultural identities: the US andMuslim Iraqis; Hindus and Muslims in India; `Western' Croats, `Orthodox'Serbs and Muslim Albanians in the Balkans; `Orthodox' Russians andArmenians fighting Muslim Chechens and Azerbaijanis; Arabs and Jews onthe West Bank; China and the West over human rights, and so on.

    However, despite its insights and initial plausibility, Huntington's thesis is, Ibelieve, seriously flawed. The `clash of civilizations' is an unreliable guide forunderstanding the world in which we live. It is also a dangerous blueprint forWestern foreign policy. Rather than attempting a detailed refutation, I shallillustrate my dissatisfaction with the whole approach typified by Huntingtonby focusing on the treatment of `Islam' as a civilizational category — andsituating the discussion around a wider perception, increasingly common inWestern and Islamic circles alike, of mutual confrontation. I shall then go on toraise some specifically Christian concerns about Muslims and Islam, arisingfrom both Western and non-Western societies.

The Islamic threat?

For those in the West who seek new demons, the communist threat has beenreplaced by the ideological, political and demographic threat of Islam.

    When the Oklahoma City bomb exploded in April 1995, the immediateresponse of both the police and the media was that the blast was the work ofIslamic terrorists. Men of `Middle Eastern complexion' were summarilyarrested; there were calls for pre-emptive strikes on Middle Eastern countries,and a wave of attacks took place on both mosques and Muslims across theUnited States. The British papers quickly followed the American lead. Thetabloid Today ran the banner headline `IN THE NAME OF ISLAM', while the DailyMail said that the carnage bore `all the hallmarks of the work of Islamicfundamentalists with a fanatical hatred of America'. (On 24 August 1998, thesame popular newspaper carried a front-page headline `MOSLEM FANATICS INGERM ATTACK THREAT', warning of an imminent plot to strike Western citieswith biological and chemical weapons. This was, presumably, to justify the USmissile attacks, four days earlier, on the elusive Saudi-born Osama bin Laden'salleged training bases in Afghanistan and Sudan.)

    Identical prejudices, conspiracy theories and ludicrous stereotypes of the`West' are found in the media of Middle Eastern countries. Both popular andintellectually serious Islamic publications repeatedly describe what are allegedto be Western plots to humiliate Muslims and undermine Islamic traditionsand culture. When the Americans sent troops to the Saudi Arabian desertfollowing Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, a communiqué issuedby the Palestinian Islamic movement, Hamas, declared it to be `anotherepisode in the fight between good and evil' and `a hateful Christian plotagainst our religion, our civilization and our land'. Following the death ofPrincess Diana, the Libyan leader Colonel Qaddafi openly accused the Britishsecret service of having engineered the car crash in order to prevent themarriage of British royalty to a Muslim. Other demagogues in the Middle Easttook up the charge: this was yet a further example of Western hostility towardsIslam and part: of a conspiracy to silence the voice of Muslims.

    At first glance, all this may lend credence to Huntington's thesis. Are we notwitnessing the latest manifestation of atavistic and irreversible animositiesbetween the civilization of the `West' and what is commonly called `the worldof Islam'? But none of the examples quoted above is exactly representativeof any civilization, ancient or modern. Terrorism, jingoism and racial stereotypingare neither uniquely `Islamic' nor uniquely `Western'. Moreover, what isoften presented in the language of `ancient and fundamental differences' are,in fact, concoctions of recent political and social origin. `Civilizations',`nations', `traditions', `communities' — terms that claim a timeless reality andauthority often turn out, on closer inspection, to be both less rigid and moremodern than we thought.

    Much confusion surrounds the rhetoric of both Islamists (or `Islamicfundamentalists', as they are popularly, but misleadingly, called) and theircritics in the non-Muslim world. Much of this confusion has to do with the way`Islam' as a way of life, a system of beliefs and practices, is conflated with`Islam' as a specific, timeless, social and political programme. The claim ofIslamist movements and Islamically oriented governments is that the latter isderived from the former in a way that is logically necessary and historicallyuniversal. `Islam' is then presented as a monolithic, unchanging reality; and allprogrammes for social and political change are justified in terms of this`Islam' (Islamic economics, Islamic computing, Islamic dress codes, and soon). This is what distinguishes Islamists from other Muslims.

    Huntington plays into the Islamists' hands by basically accepting theirredefinition of Islam. The threat to the West does not come from a small groupof extremists on the lunatic fringe, but from `Islam' itself. He writes: `Theunderlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, adifferent civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of theirculture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power." On thisassumption, he tries to explain the dealings of contemporary Islamic societieswith the West in terms of the enduring civilization of `Islam'.

    However, whenever groups of people invoke religious texts to justifyspecific political action, they are reflecting particular forces within theirsocieties. These groups are responding to specific, historical problems, often ofa social and political nature, not engaging in some universal crusade againstother peoples. Whether in Iran or Algeria, Pakistan or Sri Lanka, the rise ofreligious nationalisms has been directed less against direct foreign dominationthan against the post-colonial state that has failed to resolve the problems ofthe society it rules. The inability of these states to meet either the economicexpectations or the cultural aspirations of their people has been the context inwhich Islamist movements have emerged.

The Islamic resurgence

The term `the Islamic resurgence' or `the Islamic revival' has come to beapplied to the re-emergence of Islam as an ideological force in Muslim politicssince the late 1960s. From Morocco to Indonesia, governments in Muslim-majoritycountries and opposition movements have increasingly sought tolegitimate their policies and muster popular support by appealing to Islam.Islam has been invoked in nationalist struggles and resistance movements inAfghanistan, in the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Central Asia, inKashmir, and in the communal politics of Lebanon, India, Thailand and thePhilippines. Islamist organizations have become the major opposition groupsin Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey, Morocco, the West Bank and Indonesia. TheIranian Revolution of 1979, the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, and the Rushdieaffair have not only sent shock waves throughout the Muslim world butbrought Islam and Islamist movements to the centre stage of the world'smedia.

    In any appraisal of Islamist movements, the local context is of primaryimportance. The many studies of the social origins of the activists in thesemovements reveal a profile that is fairly typical: they come from the lowermiddle class; they have a university education, usually in the natural sciences,engineering or medicine; and although they are city-dwellers when they jointhe organization, their origins are usually rural.

    This is how Azmy Bishara, a philosophy professor at the Bir Zeit Universityin the Occupied Territories of the West Bank, explains this profile:

Young adults who have left the villages usually live in slums on the outskirts of the metropolis. There, in the mosques of the suburban slums whose very architecture proclaims a terrible loss of identity, the migrants find a welcome and begin organizing themselves. Structural barriers keep these embittered students from integrating into the affluent classes that are reaping the fruits of modernization. But modernity itself, higher education, the demand for political organization — these are what provide them with the means to do battle against the status quo. They take up an offensive posture, looking back to a past utopia. This escape is not conducted as a retreat but as an attack. Those who espouse it are not conservatives but rather a unique product of modernity: modern individuals with a split and alienated consciousness, enlightened persons alienated from `enlightenment'."

    None of these problems — whether they have to do with rapid urbanization,competition for educational and employment positions, the growing authoritarianismand corruption of the state, or the changing status of women — isspecific to the Islamic world. If one wishes to understand the rise of Islamistmovements in Algeria, Afghanistan, Egypt, Indonesia or elsewhere, it would bemore fruitful to begin by examining the problems facing the populations ofthese countries, rather than by studying Qu'ranic texts or invoking the generalinfluence of Islam. For that would be to play the same game as the Islamists. If,in Western Europe, immigrants from various Islamic countries have come todefine themselves increasingly in Islamic terms, this may be not so much areassertion of some global Muslim identity as a response of fear engenderedby growing racist attacks, employment discrimination and social alienationthat they experience in their adopted countries.

Islam in danger?

Some of the most incisive and balanced observations on these themes comefrom the pen of Professor Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics.Halliday is the author of a number of outstanding analyses of Middle Easternsocieties as well as of immigrant communities in Britain. In his book Islamand the Myth of Confrontation, he points out that `Myths of "Islamic threat",like myths of legitimacy or nationalism, are part of the rhetorical baggage ofpolitical struggle, employed by both those who wish to remain in power andthose who aspire to attain power.'

    The fact that most Muslims are not supporters of Islamist movements isobscured, as are the conditions under which people who are Muslims do turnto this particular option. The myth of the `Islamic threat' fails to distinguishbetween the militant stridency of the few and the legitimate aspirations of themany. As with other political myths, however, once these ideas are propagatedthey gain a certain reality — for those whom they are designed to mobilize, andalso for those against whom they are directed. The myth of confrontationpertaining to Muslims is taken up by Islamist movements to justify their owncauses.

The opponents and proponents of the Islamic movement were in agreement that `Islam' itself was a total, unchanging system, that its precepts operated over centuries, in all kinds of societies, and determined the attitudes of diverse peoples towards politics, sexuality and society. Both sides shared the view of a historically determined, essential `Islam', which is supposedly able to account for all that Muslims say, do, and should say and should do. Khomeini, Turabi, the Muslim Brothers and the rest are as insistent on this score as any anti-Islamic bigot in the West. Whatever else, the image of a timeless `Islam' is not just the fabrication of fevered Western minds.

    Memories of Western imperialism and exploitation, followed by continuedsupport from the West for autocratic and oppressive regimes, have left deepscars and resentments in the psyche of many Arabs and Iranians. These`became both easy excuses for societal failures and combustible materials inMuslim politics. If there is an Islamic threat, many Arabs and Muslims believethere has also been a Western threat — of political, economic, and religio-culturalimperialism, a political occupation accompanied by cultural invasion.As a result many in the Muslim world, like their counterparts in the West, optfor easy anti-imperialist slogans and demonization. At its worst, both sideshave engaged in a process of "mutual satanization".

    Many of the phenomena identified as specifically Islamic are not unique tothe Islamic world, whether they be tribal regimes, fragile democracies, religiousbigotry, oppression of women, or intolerance of minorities or of politicaldissent. The particular form which the Islamist movement in a particularsociety takes is determined by the problems that society confronts. Forexample, although neighbours, Iran and Afghanistan produced very differentIslamist movements. Iran's Islamism was urban-based and led by traditionalistclergy, acting through mass political mobilizations; Afghanistan's wasrural-based, but led by modernized intellectuals acting through guerrilla war.

    Halliday also reminds us that most Islamist movements are concerned withwhat is going on within the Islamic world and with competition betweenIslamic states and parties, rather than with the outside world. `It is worthrecalling that Ayatollah Khomeini's rhetoric was not one calling for a jihad toconquer or convert the non-Muslim world, but was a cry of concern: "Islam isin danger." If there is any common thread running through these movements,it lies here.'

    This sense of Islam being in danger and at risk of corruption is felt amongmany of the older immigrants from Islamic countries to Western Europe. Thetightening of immigration controls has made it evident to those now residentin Europe that they are there to stay. The rise of racist attacks in Britain, Franceand Germany have led many, especially second-generation immigrants, to giveup all hope of full integration in their countries of reception. Internationalevents such as the Iranian revolution, the US attacks on Libya and allegedterrorist targets in other Islamic states, Indian army atrocities in Kashmir, andthe genocide in Bosnia, have also served to encourage increasing religiousidentifications among such immigrants. This greater religious visibility has ledto campaigns on issues such as special Islamic schools for Muslim children,the veiling of women and girls, the provision of places of worship and theavailability of halal meat. In France, Islamic organizations are already apolitical force, and that may be the way of Britain in the not-too-distant future.

    Many of these campaigns, however, reflect concern over how to maintaincontrol within the community, rather than over an external threat to thesurvival of Islam. Many of the self-appointed leaders of Muslim immigrantcommunities express anxiety over the extent to which the younger generationwill continue to respect the faith. Salman Rushdie's controversial novel TheSatanic Verses gave expression to the migrant's experience of alienation bothfrom his country of reception (e.g. his reflections on the racism of the Britishpolice) and from the customs and traditions of the country he has leftpermanently. As Fred Halliday notes, the reaction of outrage to the novel itselfgave expression to a sense of `erosion, real or imagined', for `Rushdie's mainchallenge to the Islamic world, beyond his Rabelaisian account of early Islam,is to have broken away from it'. Khomeini accused him of kufr, which canmean not only atheism or blasphemy but also apostasy. `It is this latter chargethat is the most serious since, in writing as he did of Mohammed, of doubt, ofthe profane masquerading as the religious, Rushdie represented a challengefrom within that embattled religious leaders, in Bradford as in Tehran, couldnot accept.'

What this suggests above all is that for all their assertiveness the Muslim communities in Western Europe feel themselves to be under threat: it is the fear of loss of social control that animates the activities of their leaders, traditional and new. Here, of course, their concern has been shared by many of the most vocal leaders of the Islamic world, including Khomeini. Aggressive and aggrieved as they may sound, theirs is a defensive cry ... Islam is `in danger', and it is seen to be under threat not so much from without, something that has always been the case, as from the loss of belief and of submission emerging from within.


Excerpted from Faiths in Conflict? by Vinoth Ramachandra. Copyright © 1999 by Vinoth Ramachandra. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

1. Islam and New Religious Wars?
2. Hinduism and the Search for Identity
3. The Jesus Enigma
4. Conversion and Cultures
5. Secularisms and Civility

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