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Islam and Christianity around the globe

The Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) has posted a lecture on "Islam and the West: a historical perspective" by Jeremy Black, Professor of History, University of Exeter (UK) )and Senior Fellow of the FPRI. We have selected a passage in which he stresses the importance of geography, a discipline which is flourishing in England. (Incidentally, WAISer David Hooson, a geographer trained in Oxford, should have noticed that the Oxford geography department was just rated the best in he UK). Professor Black says: "One of the most important problems relates to the need to distinguish between long-term perceptions of Islamic power and more short-term (but still pressing) developments. In particular, there has been a tendency to exaggerate the centrality of conflict with the Western world in Islamic history.This is at the expense of three different tendencies, first, the need for Islam to confront other societies, secondly the importance of divisions within the Islamic world itself, and, thirdly, the variety of links between Islam and the West. The last point can be related, more generally, to modern revisionism on the multiple nature of Western imperialism, a theme I have probed in my Europe and the World 1650-1830 (New York: Routledge, 2002).

To turn to the first point, throughout its history, Islam has interacted not only with Christendom but also with other cultural areas. Our own concerns on the relationship between Christendom and Islam appear to be underlined by the map with its depiction of an Islamic world stretching into the Balkans and the Western Mediterranean. However, if the conventional map - an equal-area cartogram - is replaced by an equal-population cartogram (see my Maps and Politics Chicago University Press, 1997), then a very different perception of Islam emerges. It becomes a religion not primarily of the Arab world but of South Asia: Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Iran. In some respects there is a parallel with Christendom, which is now more prominent in the Americas and (increasingly) Africa than in Europe.

This geographical reconceptualization is linked to a focus on different challenges than those from Christianity. In particular, the clash between Islam and Hinduism proved a major aspect of political tension in South Asia and this became more pronounced after the end of British imperial rule. Thus, Kashmir is a major faultline for many Muslims, while there is considerable concern about increasing Hindu militancy in India and the difficulties the Congress Party faces in maintaining a secular approach. In Central Asia, the challenge came as much from Chinese as from Russian expansion. The importance of the eastern world of Islam is such that areas of conflict with the "West," at least in the shape of Christendom, include the Philippines and Timor".

RH: When a Westerner thinks of Islam, he refers primarily to the Arab world, where it originated. In fact, Christianity and Islam circle the globe, with the Christian circle lying generally north of the Islamic one. All along the line there are the frictions to which Professor Black refers. We are well aware of the differences among Christian groups, less so of those among Islamic groups. The recent posting on the Ismailis illustrates this. The frictions along that line seem destined to continue. The posting "Uninterested in religion?" pointed out the close relationship between Christianity and Islam, the main difference being disagreement about the divinity of Christ, whom both revere, one as god the other as prophet. The basic question is this. Will the friction lead to greater understanding of the other religion? That does not seem to be the case in the areas where the two co-exist (France, Indonesia, etc). At the other extreme is the possibility of a general war with Islam, triggered by a conflict with Iran. The middle possibility is that humanity will continue to live along the faultline, with occasional earthquakes. It is a dangerous habitat.

There is a historic tie between Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, and the present US rapprochement with India indicates that they have in common the struggle with Islam. The area in conflict in China is contiguous to Orthodox Christianity and marks the eastern end of the faultline. Christianity and Islam: war or peace That is the question. My own choice would be more a peaceful dialog between Christian and Muslim leaders. Unfortunately there are few signs of such a dialog.

Ronald Hilton - 5/26/03