Middle East Christians: a true bridge between the West and Islam

full_182501.jpgDr Marta Wozniak
In an interview with Victor Edwin SJ, Dr Marta Wozniak, a Polish academic specializing in the Middle East and assistant professor at the University of Lodz, reflects on the life of Christians and Muslims in the Middle East.

Victor Edwin SJ: Hospitality of a family from West Asia (Middle East) motivated you to learn more about life in West Asia. What struck you in the life of Christians and Muslims in West Asia?

First of all, I would like to be more precise and tell you what made an impression on me in Syria (where I was studying Arabic in Damascus from 2003 till 2004) because each country in West Asia I visited was different. Additionally, one should remember that Christians of the Middle East belong to many denominations, and a Muslim can be Sunni or Shia – these splits sometimes really matter when you try to understand certain behaviour.

Generally, I was struck by the similarity of Christian and Muslim life in Syria. I had thought that it would be easy to tell at once the difference between the followers of the two greatest religions but it was not the case. Even if they differ on the level of religious doctrine and practice (attended churches on Sundays or mosques on Fridays, fasted during Lent or Ramadan) and/or their appearances were different (for example, beautiful coiffures of Christian women in contrast to various Muslim hijabs, men wearing crosses versus men with tasbihs – Muslim rosaries), they were very similar psychologically and socially.

Both Muslims and Christians valued family with its patriarchal and hierarchical structure, as well as its unwritten rules (e.g. the older brother should marry before younger one), honour (virginity of unmarried women and ‘good conduct’ of all female relatives were of the highest importance), hospitality (incomparable to the European – they eagerly invited people whom they barely knew to their homes and served delicious cuisine), a sense of community (people did not like to be alone and they were not – they lived surrounded by three family generations and friends). Other characteristic features: they all avoided pork meat (though it is not banned in Christianity), were suspicious of Jews (not Judaism as religion, but Jews fighting with Palestinians), were afraid of mukhabharat (secret police), shared a specific kind of fatalism and patience in the face of unfavorable circumstances and last but not least, felt better than other Middle Easterners (and obviously better than followers of other religions). I could enumerate many more, but always bearing in mind that this is a generalization, and certainly there are exceptions.

This striking similarity sometimes appears to be syncretism. For example it is difficult to say who borrowed from whom, faith in the evil eye (this is pre-Christian and pre-Muslim belief) or prostration during prayer (I have seen Christian monks prostrating in the churches of Syria and Turkey – Syrian Orthodox Christians claim to have been doing it long before Islam). In other cases it might be extrapolated that Christians were inspired by Muslims, who in turn were inspired by Jews (as in the case of Orthodox nuns living in Maaloula, Syria, who were asking ladies-visitors, whether they were “pure” or “impure” meaning period – to allow or not allow them into the church).

Interestingly, the level of liberalization/westernization did not depend on concrete faith but rather on economic standards and/or attitudes of significant family members. Thus one may meet a very open Muslim and a Christian attached to the tradition – and vice versa of course.

To sum up, after my Syrian experience I started to perceive Christians of the Middle East as a true bridge between the West (Christian or post-Christian) and Islam – among whose followers they have lived for centuries, taking many of their habits. It is a pity that this bridge is more and more fragile.

Edwin: Poland has a very small Muslim population. When you met overwhelming Muslim populations in Syria and Egypt, what were your initial reactions?

My initial reactions were definitely positive. I was conscious that the country of my origin is a very homogenous one (ca. 99% are white, Catholic, Polish speaking), but on the other hand studying international relations I had Palestinian, Israeli and American lecturers; I had travelled quite a lot, worked in the US, visited Australia – these huge melting pots. That is why in Syria and Egypt I did not suffer from cultural shock. At first I was very cautious not to offend anybody (took off the shoes and covered the head entering the mosques, wore modest dress, said “shukran” – thank you – whenever possible, did not start political conversation, etc.). My efforts were always noticed and repaid by a very warm welcome. I tried to submerge in a new world and thanks to my Muslim hosts I started to notice beautiful aspects of Islam – external (melodic recitations of the Quran, decorated mosques, elaborated script), but also internal – a sense of community joined by religious practice (e.g. when people who had not known each other shared food after sunset in Ramadan). I understood why so many admire Islam – it gives them security, answers and feeling of being a part of something bigger.

At the same time, it was interesting to be a member of a minority – having to fit into society which starts working week on Sunday (that meant getting up at dawn to attend Mass, and then rushing to be on time for classes). Still, it was belonging to a well defined minority – when we were accepted into the Arabic Teaching Institute we had to declare our faith – Christian or Muslim – and there was no other option (like Buddhist, Hindu or atheist). My European colleagues, the majority of whom were agnostics, were suddenly forced to write “lapsed Christian” and felt strange. Being a believer I had a simpler situation; Muslims reacted positively when I wanted to go to church. They respected any kind of prayer addressed to God – of course the God of Abraham (Ibrahim), not any God.

On the other hand, they had an incomplete and/or distorted image of Christianity and did not know much about it. After Mel Gibson’s “Passion” was showed in Syrian cinemas I had to explain to some of my Muslim friends who Mary Magdalene or St John were. I was positively astonished that they wanted to listen (sometimes treating it as an opportunity to convert me but always in a delicate manner).

Edwin: You learnt Arabic in Syria. Can you share with us the Spirituality of the language that inspire a billion people around the world?

In my opinion, Arabic is a language of a spirituality, shaped by a severe natural environment. It was created by people who living in the desert experienced the fragility of life almost every day and had a predominantly oral tradition – you can still observe consequences of it in the vocabulary and melody of modern Arabic. What is striking is the extensive use of phrases like “insha Allah”, “masha Allah”, “alhamdulillah” (God willing, God has willed it, praise to God), which show a person’s submission to God. While in Poland we are taught “not to take the name of the Lord in vain”, Muslim religious textbooks for children, which I encountered, encourage them to begin each activity with the name of God (bismillah) and of course they learn this custom from their parents; speaking about one’s plans without “insha Allah” formula could be perceived as a sign of pride, refusing God’s blessing. Even these rare Muslims who have lost their faith still use the abovementioned phrases – it seems that living in the Middle East you cannot escape from being reminded several times a day that your fate depends on God’s will. If language is the mirror of a culture, Arabic is the language of civilization that has never separated divine and human, sacrum and profanum.

However, there is an important thing to be added, namely there is nothing like a definitive Arabic language – you have Classical Arabic (CA), in which the Quran was written (it was used from 7th till 9th century), you have Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), its direct descendant used today throughout the Arab world in writing and in formal speaking, and you have dialects used in everyday situations. The problem is that many people, especially women, know only dialects (which can be quite distinct from MSA) and cannot write nor read. Sometimes they hardly understand the Quran or imam’s preaching, yet they praise Classical Arabic – the language in which God spoke to Prophet Muhammad (all translations of Quran are considered to be commentaries). Thus there is a gap – the deepest spiritual meaning of the Islam is restricted to those few who studied Quranic language. It resembles, to a certain extent, situation in Europe when services used to be in Latin. Surely, it is not easy to argue with the ideas which are presented in an unintelligible language.

Surprisingly for Westerners, Middle Eastern Christians pray in Arabic too (sometimes also in Aramaic or other languages, but Arabic is the most obvious choice). That is why I learned to pray to “Allah”, because it means simply “God” and Christians use the very same word. But they may call God “Abuna” (Our Father), the title which Muslim do not use. Both can call Him “Rab” (Lord), and it is the name to be used during ecumenical prayers like in the Syrian Mar Musa monastery, where I spent very inspiring moments.

Edwin: Do you read the Qur’an? What aspects of the Muslim holy book challenges or upset you?

Yes, I read Polish and English translations, and occasionally original version. I cannot avoid the temptation to compare it with the Bible, especially with Old Testament (I have a few good books on this topic). I skip the issue of different structures (the Bible being more or less chronological, the Quran – not; the Bible consisting of many books written by many authors at various times, the Quran rather homogenous), to focus on the content. In both holy books you can find beautiful passages about peace and morality, but also very cruel fragments about the necessity of war with those “who are against us”, and about the inferior position of women. I am always more upset with such passages in the Bible because it challenges my system.

As for the Quran I perceive it from the outside – so it is easy to analyze it with a cold mind, finding excuses why such ayats (verses) like Ayat of the Sword have ever appeared. I read Muslim hadiths (i.e. Sahih Bukhari) and Muslim works explaining the Quran. I know what today can be seen from a Western perspective as backwards (like the fact that in court, the word of a man is worth the word of two women or that a daughter inherits one half of her brother’s share) but in the time of Prophet Muhammad this was progress – in fact, it was revolutionary even in comparison to medieval Europe.

However, the human behaviour is seldom motivated by individual words read in a holy book, but rather by the interpretation of certain parts of it and the latter is a delicate matter. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, the Egyptian thinker, who was arguing that the Quran should be interpreted in the historical and cultural context of its time, was declared an apostate and forced out of the country. The Quran is still perceived as the unchangeable Word of God, a miracle, proof, up-to-date and final answer for all the questions, whereas the Bible has been analyzed from all possible perspectives, also from a hermeneutics one (mainline denominations tend to be more open to historical-critical interpretations of the Bible than more fundamentalist or evangelical Christians). Still, generally Christians regard the Bible as the inspired Word of God, which has passed through human hands (so could be open to distortion). That is why, according to me, the core difference is not the content of the Quran and Bible but the attitude of the believers towards the interpretation.

Edwin: You have travelled and lived in Syria and Egypt. Both countries have significant Christians populations. How do you assess Christian Muslim relations in those countries?

They are definitely better in Syria. The local tradition is such that Christians and Muslims have been living on neighbourly terms. Christians are allowed to carry out important administrative and military functions, which they often do, and government has a very good relations with the patriarchs. Yet, it can be changed easily. Although nobody wants religious conflict, it is not impossible for the country to slide towards sectarianism – few slogans and some violence would be enough to fuel separatism.

In Egypt there is a significant Coptic minority (Copts had lived there long before the Arab conquered it in 7th century). Muslim-Christian relations in the Nile Valley were basically good, though periods of persecution happened. The situation has deteriorated in recent decades – there were more attacks on the Copts, hence many emigrated forming a diaspora. Despite the fact that during the Lotus Revolution in Cairo Copts and Muslims fraternized, the Egyptian Christians have reasons to be afraid – the bomb attack on the Coptic church in Alexandria in January 2011 showed that there are forces interested in harming this ancient community.

Of course, being a European Christian in these two countries is something utterly different from being a local Christian. Westerners are generally protected, their rights to religious worship secured.

Edwin: What are the elements that in Islamic cultures that impress you?

I appreciate that elderly people are treated with true respect (there are almost no nursing homes in the Middle East, each family has a duty to take care of it seniors). You cannot see drunk people in the streets (due to an Islamic ban on alcohol), which makes it safer to go out. There are also less drugs. Last but not least, people, especially in Syria, but also in smaller cities and villages of Egypt, are very helpful – they always try to show directions and sometimes even go a long way in order to show you where you want to go. They always think about others, first about family and relatives, then friends and people in need; one pillar of the Islam is zakat – giving alms (2.5% of one’s possessions to charity, generally to the poor and needy). Muslim economics with interest-free Islamic banking system were thought as tools to assure more equitable distribution of wealth, which is an interesting idea.

Edwin: How do you see Muslims today in Europe in the light of your experience in West Asia and Western/Eastern Africa?

In North Africa and the Middle East I saw many Muslims cultivating their traditional values, operating within the framework of their own society, hard-working and honest. It is sad that coming to Europe in search of a better life some of them have lost these noble features and gone astray. Just as Westerners have stereotypes about people from the Middle East, the latter have their own biases. Europe is generally perceived as a continent which is rich, but immoral, godless, so being there one does not have to behave as he or she would in the Muslim country of origin. This causes clashes, firstly among the Muslims themselves, secondly between the immigrants and their hosts.

On the one hand, Europeans feel guilty for the colonialism and need cheap labour, but on the other hand they are afraid of people who bring long forgotten values perceived as an unnecessary burden. Muslims in general do not want to be changed, to be westernized, to be taught how they should behave. They want to have a better standard of living and more personal freedom than they had in their homelands. In Europe, they often feel rejected, treated as inferior and this leads to bitterness.

Certainly, there are cases of personal success and positive examples, but I think that much has to be done yet – on both sides – to ensure a good future.

Edwin: How do you assess the future of Christian-Muslim relations in Europe?

Just as I said a peaceful and prosperous future should not be taken for granted. I am afraid that there will be more tensions, as there is a basic difference of interests. Muslim emigrants in Europe want to stay Muslims with benefits (access to Western technologies, a higher standard of living) while Europeans want them (if not openly, than subconsciously) to turn into a group without political or social demands, agnostic, and satisfied with performing physical or menial works.

The Europeans do not want to share. They live in a post-Christian era, often denying the importance of Christian roots (devoted Christians become a minority), while Muslims still operate in the paradigm of Islam vs Christianity (their collective religious identity is much stronger than the European one). Thus one discourse in which both sides agree upon the terms does not exist, there are rather two distinct discourses grounded in different traditions. That is why dialogue is extremely difficult.

Nevertheless, I see the chance to avoid the potential conflicts by building personal Christian-Muslim friendships, but a true friendship needs an assumption that people involved are equal. Up to now both sides feel superior – Westerners as those “who rule the world”, and Muslims as “morally better”. These assumptions should be abandoned as quickly as it is possible if Christians and Muslim are to live peacefully side by side – in Europe or anywhere else.

Dr Marta Wozniak graduated from the Department of International Relations, University of Lodz, in 2006, receiving the Best Polish Student’s Award (“Primus Inter Pares”). In 2010 she successfully completed Ph.D. dissertation titled ‘Modern Assyrians and Arameans in Search for National Identity’ based on her research conducted in Syria, Turkey, Sweden, Germany and Brazil. She studied Arabic language in Damascus and Cairo, where she also worked in the Polish embassy. So far she has presented papers at about 60 conferences and published 30 articles. At present, she is working on a book on the political role of Copts, Egyptian Christians. She spoke to Victor Edwin SJ for Salaam.