Islam, Barack Obama and the Truth of Our Faith
19 February 2007

An American magazine reported recently that associates of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton had unearthed information that Senator Barack Obama had attended a Muslim fundamentalist school in Indonesia. CNN sent its senior international correspondent to Jakarta to investigate and he reported that this was not true. There was no evidence incidentally, as far as I know, that Senator Clinton had anything to do with this allegation.

What disturbs me most is not that political dirty tricks are played at election time but that any involvement with the Muslim faith is regarded as a handle with which to besmirch a candidate. I recall some 25 years ago telling a friend in Oregon that there were then 46 countries in the world with a Muslim majority. She exclaimed, ‘How terrible!’ Just last year I was emailed by another person who said, ‘When I passed through Heathrow there seemed to be only Pakistanis. I was so frightened.’

Such attitudes to other countries and other faiths saddens me. I long for people to know more about others who are different from them. I first visited a Muslim country, Pakistan, more than 50 years ago and even then knew that it was not the Christian faith that upset them but the lack of real faith on the part of some Christians. In 1953 a young Muslim friend from the Woking Mosque presented me with a copy of The Sayings of Mohammed. I still have it. In it he writes that he has just come back from Caux, the international conference center in Switzerland and ‘reads the words and deeds of the Prophet in a new light’.

I notice that the book has a foreword by Mahatma Gandhi, written in 1938. He writes, ‘I am a believer in the truth of all the great religions of the world. There will be no lasting peace on earth unless we learn not merely to tolerate but even to respect the other faith as our own. A reverent study of the sayings of the different teachers of mankind is a step in the direction of such mutual respect.’ With that in mind I have just read In the Footsteps of the Prophet by Tariq Ramadan, a leading Muslim academic from Oxford University. It is a fascinating view of lessons from the life of Muhammad.

In our papers in Britain, too, someone is trying to start a debate on whether an heir to the British throne could marry a Muslim or even convert to the Muslim faith. At the moment by our arcane rules he or she can’t even marry a Catholic. And I suspect that some of the motives behind spreading this story stem from a wish to spread alarm.

I am grateful to Prince Charles for his appreciation of the Muslim faith. I notice that last year in a speech in Maryland which didn’t get much coverage he said that some people portray the current tensions as a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Islam and ‘the West’, or worse, between ‘backwardness’ and ’modernity’. He believed this was a ‘wrong-headed and dangerously simplistic view’: ‘It is too easy to forget that many of the greatest scientific discoveries that underpin our “modern” Western world were made by great Islamic scholars. In the Dark Ages at a time when we Europeans were discarding much of the great works of ancient Greece and Rome, Islamic scholars, sometimes working together with their Jewish and Christian brothers, were preserving them and studying them – surely one of history’s greatest rescue operations and on that secured the very foundations of modern Western culture. At the same time it is worth considering that there are some things that trouble many people about Western modernity as it spreads round the world.’

I am just in the middle of writing a new book about forgiveness. Many of the stories that have come to my attention concern men and women of the Muslim faith. It is quite clear that Muslims interact with the demands of their faith as rigorously as I as a Christian do, whether it is in trying to ascertain the will of God in difficult circumstances or holding to moral standards at a time when they are being constantly lowered. They also dislike it as I do when actions are done by some in the name of their faith with which they disagree.

I think one of the biggest challenges for us Christians these days is to get to know Muslims individually and to realize that the attacks on Muslims are in essence an attack on the role of faith in society. Many secular-minded Westerners, particularly in Europe, have a real problem with ANY religion being taken seriously. For them, the only good Muslim is a non-practising one. And there's a refusal to believe that Muslims who believe in their faith and try to take it seriously can become part of modern democratic society.

The biggest challenge for many Muslims is how to contest in the public arena the jihadists who speak in the name of their religion, and practise many aspects of it, but ignore the basic command to respect the other. A friend of mine, Dr Juzar Bandukawala, an Indian Muslim and a distinguished physicist, says that he does not want Muslims to answer hate with hate. He writes, ‘It is a tribute to the Muslims of India that we have not responded with the weapon of terrorism, despite the provocation for the same. Osama Bin Laden is not the answer to the problems facing Muslims in India. His approach can be suicidal for us. His methods violate the basic precepts of Islam, wherein killing of innocents is an unpardonable sin.’

The United Nations has recently published Alliance of Civilizations, a report by a high-level group that included Archbishop Tutu and the former President of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, who contest ‘the misguided view that cultures are set on an unavoidable collision course’ and claim that ‘politics, not religion’ is at the heart of the growing Muslim-West divide. ‘The problem is never the faith,’ said Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary General, receiving the report, ‘it is the faithful, and how they behave towards each other:’ ‘We should start by reaffirming – and demonstrating – that the problem is not the Koran, nor the Torah or the Bible,’ he said. The report concludes that an honest look at the history of the twentieth century shows that ‘no single group, culture, geographic region, or political orientation has a monopoly on extremism and terrorist acts’.

Reprinted with permission from


Thank you for this interesting and very helpful article. Much food for thought for our community here in Regina Saskatchewan in Canada. We have an increase in refugees from countries such as Morocco, Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan. I have great admiration for their comming to our area as the weather is totally opposite to their countries. Yet the children are learning to play hockey, go sliding down our limited hills!! ( this is flat prairie country) . We in turn are slowly becoming friends with Moslem women and men through our Regina MultiFaith Forum. This was started in 1991 by Moslem, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Baha'i, and has included other Faith since then.
Gwen McLean, 20 February 2007

This article hits the nail on its head, as we Dutch say. Almost 70 years ago, while I was studying medicine at Leiden university I befriended a Muslim student from Indonesia, who also studied medicine. He now and than visited my home and got to know my family. One day he said to me: "The way you treated your sister yeaterday was not very Christian". He was right and I was surprised. He tried to help me to be a better Christian. It was my first accounter with a Muslim. It was shortly before Hitler's army invaded and occupied Holland for four years. My friend joined the Dutch resistance movement and contracted tuberculosis. He was cured after the war and married a Christian Dutch lady. We stayed friends till he died about twelve years ago from a resurgence of his earlier tuberculosis. He was my first Muslim friend. I now have many, both in Indonesia and in Holland. And I am still working for a change in society based on the ethical principles of the Christian and Moslem faiths.
Dick van Tetterode, 24 February 2007

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