Dr. Chris HewerResponses
The Letter is Welcomed by Young Individuals
Regarding the recent released letter by Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hewer in an exclusive interview with Taqrib News Agency (TNA) delineated his viewpoints about the event which, in his line, has been welcomed by Muslim youths.
1-Can people consider the Iranian leader’s letter as a new trend in the Islamic Republic of Iran for interfaith dialogue and to promote understanding between cultures?
Ayatollah Khamenei’s letter comes as a welcome message to young Muslims growing up in the West. To many people in the West, the Iranian Republic is an unknown quantity and people’s ideas are formed on the basis of media and political perceptions; it is therefore to be welcomed that Ayatollah Khamenei has written directly so that people can hear the views of the Supreme Leader of Iran for themselves. The letter is noteworthy because it addresses all Muslim youth and not just Shi’a young people; indeed the letter makes explicit that readers are free to follow whatever reading of Islam they chose but still, the views of Ayatollah Khamenei are a benefit and illumination to all. The depth of Islamic and pre-Islamic Iranian culture is unknown to most people and, for those who lived through the 1980s, the image of Iran is built around the rigorous reforms of the Iranian Revolution. There is a manifest need to promote a better understanding of Iranian culture and, most probably, to promote amongst Iranian people a better understanding of the depth of European culture. Ayatollah Khamenei rightly points out the debt which Europe owes to the Islamic civilisation of the 9th to 13th centuries, as a vehicle for transmission of Greek thought and the richness of Persian and Indian civilisations; all of which had been substantially enhanced by their passage through the multi-cultural and multi-religious Abbasid Empire. Any serious inter-faith dialogue needs to be based on sound scholarship and an empathetic understanding of “the other”. The Shi’a intellectual history is not only rich and deep but also, being based on reason and philosophical structures, readily accessible to people in the West who have been trained in philosophical thought. A further addition to the authority of Ayatollah Khamenei’s letter for British Shi’a youth would have been achieved if it had been counter-signed by the marjas who are followed by the majority of them; in this way it would have carried more legal and theological weight and been less open to be dismissed on political grounds.
2- How much can an understanding of real Islam prevent Muslim youth from being radicalised?
A sound understanding of Islam, based on the sources of the Qur’an and Sunna of the Prophet, is essential for every Muslim. It is sadly true that many adults and young people growing up in the West have a limited knowledge of Islam based on the sources. Such ignorance leaves them wide open to be fed propaganda instead of authentic teaching. Many do not have access to a learned scholar, who has good communication skills and can understand the life of people living in this quite different context to Iran or any Muslim majority country. In the absence of a sound teacher, they turn to the internet and to acquaintances, which appear to know more than them. This is a great danger as they lack the necessary knowledge to distinguish true Islam from distortions. A deep, reasoned and well-articulated knowledge of Islam must surely go some way to prevent them from being radicalised by those who wish to deceive them and do great harm to Islam and the world.
3-Can Islamophobia in the West be stopped by western youth after studying Islam carefully?
Islamophobia unfortunately has many roots. Like any other phobia, it is based on irrational fear and not on reasoned argument. It can be fuelled by those who wish to sow discord between peoples. It can be made to serve political, religious and economic ends. A well-grounded knowledge of Islam on the part of Muslim youth will enable them to be advocates of a truly Islamic way of life in the West. More than that, however, is needed: no human being living in today’s world can consider her/himself to be “educated” without a knowledge of Islam and the other principal religions of the world that shape our global society. It is thus crucial that ways are found to communicate the message of Islam to non-Muslims rooted in the West for the sake of their education and for world peace and not just as a means of seeking converts. The most powerful tool in the hands of young western Muslims is to live a life based on the true teachings and spirit of Islam so that others may observe Islam in action and thus be engaged to learn more, so putting an end to ignorance and distortion.
4- Which factor or factors are more important in spreading Islamophobia in the West? (Lack of understanding Islam, politicians, media)
Ignorance is the most important factor in spreading Islamophobia in the West. We can think first of ignorance of what it means to live a whole way of life based on a religious understanding, a sense of living in the presence of God and of being accountable on the Day of Judgement. Many in the West are ignorant about religion in general and not just Islam. A media that serves sensationalism and economic ends rather than seeking knowledge and portraying it accurately undoubtedly fuels the spread of Islamophobia. It is unfortunately true that there are many dreadful actions and words that defy the teachings of Islam but are committed under that label; such give plentiful scope for media misrepresentation. Islamophobia can be stimulated by those who seek to make political, economic or religious gain from it. In a world in which the human life of “the enemy” has been cheapened and in which nations and others have access to weapons of terrible magnitude, and it seems the motivation to use them, the present state of ignorance and other forces that drive towards wrong interpretations of Islam and the Muslim way of life, on one hand, and equally the ignorance and false interpretations of “the West”, on the other, must be regarded as some of the most serious issues facing modern global society.
5-All Abrahamic religions and God-sent prophets have come to lead people towards an ethical life and obedience to God. How much can dialogue among religions, civilisations and cultures help humankind to eradicate war and violence and promote better understanding and friendship?
The only way to eradicate war and violence is to change the heart of human beings. No amount of external laws or resolutions of international bodies will achieve this end. The motto of all the prophets of God might be written: “Good people make for good societies”. Dialogue takes place on four levels. We can think first of people working together to create a way of life in their society in which human life can flourish; this requires true dialogue as “talking things through” in which everyone is prepared to learn from the other. Second, people improve the world in which we live by cooperating to go to the help of those in need, to relieve the hunger and sickness of the poor, and to promote education and better mutual understanding. Such joint action demands that we see beyond our own selfish ends and also that we learn to work together. On the third level, we are intelligent beings possessed of reason and thus our scholars need to sit together, build mutual trust and eradicate misunderstanding. God is one and the human family is one, thus we need to be able to hear God speaking to the human condition through the faith tradition of the other. Finally, if we take God seriously, dialogue must have a spiritual dimension, in which we weigh carefully in our hearts before God the spiritual truths and practices of others and seek to allow God to direct us all in this process. We can never reduce another community worshipping the one God to a cultural expression and deny the divine-human relationship at its centre.
6- It seems that western media and politicians don’t like to talk about dialogue between civilisations. Can the elite, preachers and western thinkers try to inform the youth about this message and mention the necessity of studying about and negotiating with the real Islam?
It is the duty of all people of good will to work to eradicate ignorance and promote harmony between peoples. Dialogue is too important to be left to politicians or specialists in the field. Many non-Muslim religious people and the thinkers of society lack the knowledge and will to promote a better understanding of Islam. We must realise the truth of the saying that, “There can be no peace between peoples without peace between religions, and there can be no peace between religions without a deep understanding of religions other than one’s own.”
Dr Chris Hewer comes from a background in Christian theology, education, Islamic studies and inter-faith studies and has worked in the field of Muslims in Britain and Christian-Muslim relations since 1986, first at the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Selly Oak in Birmingham and from 1999 to 2005, as the Adviser on Inter-Faith Relations to the Bishop of Birmingham. From 2006-2010, he was the St Ethelburga Fellow in Christian-Muslim Relations inLondon, with a brief to deliver adult popular education courses, study days and talks around Greater London.
Source: Taghrib News Agency