Muslims reply to this by pointing to the devastating Mongol invasions which destroyed the flourishing high cultures of the Islamic world even as the Crusades from the west brought unparalleled brutality and destruction to the Mediterranean coast. Christians say the Muslims know nothing about the consequences of religious war and barbarian conquest: the successive waves of barbarians who destroyed the Roman empire and its Carolingian successor states were more devastating and longer lasting. Christianity has absorbed harder blows than Islam, they say, survived more invasions and more disruptive ones over a long time period and doesn’t whine about them today. Islam took a softer punch and went down for the count.As for religious wars of aggression, the Crusades were an episode; Islamic wars of conquest against Christianity, Christians say, didn’t end until the late 17th century when the Ottoman Turks were finally stopped at the second siege of Vienna. And Christians, Christians like to say, are sorry about the Crusades with their massacres and atrocities. Muslims still celebrate their conquests and glorify religious aggression.Muslims tend to roll their eyes at this point. Christians, they point out, have been busy for the last 300 years breaking up Islamic empires, conquering Muslims, subjecting them to discriminatory legislation and making them second class citizens in their own countries. French and Italian conquests in North Africa; Dutch and Portuguese conquests in the East Indies and elsewhere, the British Empire which aggressively attacked Islamic rulers from Nigeria to Afghanistan and Malaya. Now it is the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, the joint western support for the Jews in what for 1,000 years was Islamic Palestine, and forms of cultural and political aggression which seek to remake the whole world in the image of the decadent, post-Christian west.Can any other religion, Muslims ask, show such a record of aggression, conquest, exploitation and discrimination as those who claim to follow Jesus Christ?Christians note at this point that the Muslims are simultaneously attacking Christianity as passive and weak while denouncing its brute strength and innate aggression. Surely only one of these charges can be true? Christians would read the history of the last three hundred years in a different way. Because of its openness and dynamism, Christian civilization gave birth to new ways of organizing human society and new technologies and economic institutions and ideas. These brought the Christian world to global predominance, but Christian individuals and cultures were slow to learn how to use their good fortune humanely and well.Today the extent to which the Christian world struggles to come to terms with the evils of the colonial and imperial expansions of the past, the slave trade, the displacement and massacres of native peoples in so much of what is now the English-speaking world and many other errors and crimes testifies to a new-found civilizational maturity.Muslims are likely at this point to point out that the Christians are also trying to have it both ways: they are using both their record of global conquest and their contemporary renunciation of conquest to claim civilizational and religious superiority. Can both of these claims really be true?
These discussions can go on for a long time, especially when the participants are even tempered enough to keep talking rather than stalking out in disgust. In my experience they generally end up close to where they begin. Muslims assert that the resistance of Islam both as a system of doctrine and as a living community of believers to the corrosion and discords of modernity points to the clarity of its message and to the superiority of Islam as a religion that can flourish in the contemporary world.Christians riposte by saying that the unique role of Christianity in bringing modernity into the world evidences the work of the Holy Spirit through the living body of Christ that is the Christian Church. Despite all the shortcomings and abuses of the process of technological and social development of the last 300 years, the healing of the sick, the end of slavery, the emancipation of women and the establishment of genuine religious tolerance and freedom of conscience represent fundamental triumphs of the human spirit that the Christian faith has brought to the world.Muslims disagree: that Christians can’t disaggregate the good and the bad from their own history (conflating for example commendable advances in medicine with the deplorable rise of sexual promiscuity and the commodification of women into one positive historical movement) just shows what an inadequate platform Christianity provides for serious historical thought and social action.I’ve grossly oversimplified here; there are Muslims more sympathetic to modernity and Christians more critical of life in the modern west than the two voices I’ve tried to channel. Mustafa Akyol and some of the Islamic intellectuals based in the Sufi traditions of a country like Indonesia, for example, would have a quite different line of discussion.But the fact remains that for many Christians, attempts to suppress religious liberty (especially for the poor workers from the developing world that the Gulf oil states import to do the work that their own citizens will have nothing to do with) indicate an unformed religious conscience and testify to a terrible spiritual blindness. And for many (though certainly not all) Muslims, these policies are exactly what the world’s most noble religion commands as the will of God on high.From Via Meadia‘s Christian perspective, the bishops have done the right thing in speaking up about the treatment of Christians on the Arabian peninsula and in the Islamic world as a whole. We can acknowledge that the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia is doing his duty as his conscience instructs, and accept that he speaks out of a rich and vibrant tradition and invokes a religious authority that has deep roots in the world’s second largest religion. But with all due respect, the Grand Mufti has made a moral mistake, and that is never a good thing.