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The issue of religion has become a volatile one not just throughout the Muslim world, but globally, and religious crises are emerging at a faster rate than ever before. Is this truly the “century of religion” as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once predicted?

The most recent crisis took place just as the dust was beginning to settle over US Pastor Terry Jones’ call for Qurans to be burnt in commemoration of the 9/11 attacks, when a patriarch of the Egyptian Coptic Church, [Secretary for the Coptic Ecclesiastical Council] Father Bishoy, made comments about the Quran. Father Bishoy was quick to deny that his remarks were insulting to Islam or Muslims. Head of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria made a personal appearance on Egyptian television to address Egyptian Muslims and non-Muslims in the most police of terms and express his “apology” for any offense caused to the feelings of Muslims by Father Bishoy’s statement. In an interview with a state-run Egyptian television channel, Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria said “I am sorry if our Muslim brother’s feelings were hurt,” adding that “religious dialogue should focus upon shared points on common ground.” However Pope Shenouda also went on to say that “debating religious beliefs is a red line that should not be crossed.”

In contrast, the statement made by the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb, in which rejected the comments attributed to Father Bishoy, displayed the resolute nature of Egypt’s most important religious institute, for he managed to reject these comments while maintaining a notable sense of responsibility and ensuring not to inflame the situation further. Dr. a-Tayeb said that given the tense environment, it was not acceptable to add fuel to the fire and cause a rift in Egypt’s national unity, especially since Egypt is at a stage where it is in dire need of strengthening this unity.

Just a few days ago, the entire Gulf media flared up following a statement issued by a young Shiite cleric attacking Sunni beliefs; this prompted the Kuwaiti government to ban counter-demonstrations and strip the provocative Shiite cleric, Yasser al-Habeeb, of his Kuwaiti citizenship.

Prior to this, civil unrest brewed after a satellite television channel, aiming to produce a Sunni – Shiite debate (in the name of dialogue) claimed that senior Iraqi Shiite Marja, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had branded Sunnis as infidels. This prompted the office of the famous Marja to issue a clarifying statement, denying this and confirming that al-Sistani believes that Sunnis are members of the Muslim faith.

Prior to this, Saudi preacher Mohammed al-Uraifi had launched a religious attack on Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, causing political unrest in Iraq and elsewhere. The situation was particularly dangerous since this attack coincided with a particularly sectarian election. Al-Uraifi was criticized by a number of Sunni intellectuals for his inflammatory statements, although he also received support from other preachers.

Sectarian and religious bickering is not limited to the Islamic framework. We can all remember the major religious crisis ignited by Pope Benedict XVI following a lecture he delivered at a German university in September 2006. The Pope quoted a text from the Middle Ages, which provoked Muslims due to its negative depiction of the history of Islam. As a result of this the Vatican rushed to clarify that he did not mean to “make this opinion his own in any way.”

The Pope was criticized by leading religious and political figures in the Muslim World, such as the then Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Mohammed al-Tantawi. Reuters News Agency reported that during a meeting with a Catholic Church representative in Cairo, al-Tantawi said that the Pope had remained silent for a lifetime, and then uttered profanity. Even the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did not pass up the chance to criticize the Pope on this occasion.

In fact, many political and religious figures in the Muslim World did the same thing.

The above was a quick summary of some of the news that has taken place over the past few years, ending with the events of this week. This shows the extent of the crisis that we are facing, as the means of dialogue between cultures has been severed. This is a complicated problem. Any religious belief considers itself to be the absolute truth, and therefore considers all other beliefs to be false. Therefore this crisis is one that would only worsen and become endless if religions were to “collide.” The only solution is for every religion to maintain its independence, in the manner of “you have your religion, and I will have mine”. In the end, the matter cannot be resolved in this life, and the only thing that we can do is search for points of common ground. This is the essence of dialogue between religions and cultures, rather than a clash of civilizations, which could begin with provocative statements, before developing into armed conflicts. An ancient poet [Nasr Ibn Sayyar; governor of Khorasan under the last of the Umayyad Caliphs] wrote that “verily fire is kindled by two sticks, and verily words are the beginning of warfare.

This raises the following question; what does the Grand Imam of al-Azhar mean by saying that we should not fuel the fire [of unrest] and risk a rift in national unity? And what does Pope Shenouda III mean by saying that discussing religious beliefs is a red line that should not be crossed?

They both mean that the homeland is the overreaching or all-compassing framework for all classes of society. This is the basis upon which everybody stands, and the common identity that brings everyone together. This situation reminds me of the slogan adopted by the pioneers of the Arab renaissance [al-Nahda], which was “Religion is for the Almighty, and the homeland is for everyone.” This is a slogan that many advocates of fundamentalist discourse have attacked and denounced. This attack was supported and welcomed by a broad spectrum of the Arab public, until we finally woke up to the dangers of religious unrest and sectarian violence that are wreaking havoc and which can potentially cause even more destruction.

What more evidence do we need to realize that citizenship is the foundation that must be built upon, and the framework for an effective relationship between ruler and subject? Without the concept of citizenship, we would be facing cycles of social disruption and sectarian violence between followers of different faiths and creeds, and we can all see the signs of future sectarian wars.

Religious and sectarian tension has returned with a vengeance, and this is clear proof of the failure of national patriotism in the Arab world. This is proof of the inability of Arab and Muslim societies and countries of disengaging from the ideology behind religious and sectarian violence. Europe has suffered greatly as a result of ideology such as this, and much blood has been shed in Western history between Catholics and Protestants. Even in our region, we realize how conflicts such as this have exhausted the Muslim and Arab worlds, both in the past and the present.

Advocating national identity and civil awareness is not just a matter of speeches and lectures. It goes beyond the decisions, plans and projects set up and launched by rulers, even if they are sincere in their intentions. I believe that raising awareness of the concept of citizenship, and the social contract [with the state] is a social and historical necessity. This something that can only be brought about after much pain and suffering, for as the saying goes: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Yet this is a worst-case scenario. We don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel and suffer the way others have suffered to realize that it is imperative to make citizenship the basis of future relations in society, either vertically or horizontally. Citizenship must form the basis of interaction between members of society on the one hand, and between those members and the state on the other.

Until that time comes, the wise and experienced in any religion around the world must show even more patience, paying special attention to what they say; because whatever words they utter could potentially ignite the scene.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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