by H.E. Mohammad Khatami
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Although the vast majority of human beings remain, as in the past, attached to their religious convictions, there is no doubt that in the world today, religious life, religious thought, religious language, and any religious behaviour or attitudes in general are contested and challenged. However, this phenomenon is not unique to our times, or to “our world”: opposition to religion is as old as religion itself. Important men of faith, such as God’s prophets and saints, devoted their lives to defending religion against its critics. This is related in the many religious books on the stories of the prophets, great saints and scholars. But, although opposition to religious thought and practices is very old, it is worth making a distinction between the present and the past. There are at least two significant differences.
The first difference is one of substance. Up until the modern era, opposition to the great men and to religious teachings was of the same hue and came from the same source as religion itself. Most of those who are cited as having been opponents of the great religions were, in fact, defending their own religions and their own gods in the face of a new religion ? they might have condemned the principles and precepts of that new religion, but they did so on the basis of religious convictions. As a social phenomenon, there was - with a few exceptions - no anti-religious movement, as we understand the term today. The anti-religious wave that we are experiencing today is something new, and the debate as to its origins and causes is one of the major questions confronting the “new theology”.
The other difference between the past and the present is the “form” of the opposition to religion: quite naturally, it has assumed the form and methods best adapted to today’s society and to the opportunities that it presents.
But what has changed in the spirits and lives of people today, to have allowed these new forms of religious opposition to emerge?
We have heard and read, time and again, that Greek philosophy was cosmocentric; that the dominant thought in the Middle Ages was theocentric; and that in the modern era, it is anthropocentric thought that governs science, art and philosophy.
What we should be asking ourselves, then, is what the word “cosmos” really meant in ancient Greece and in the Middle Ages, and how humankind related to the cosmos. The answers will require extensive debate about astronomy; Greek, Iranian, Indian, Chinese and Egyptian philosophy; Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Within the short time available, I would like to expand on this question a little. How did our ancestors represent the “world”, not in the astronomical sense, as a planet, but in the sense of the world in which we live?
It would seem that our ancestors’ concept of the “world” ? that is to say of a land in which peoples and nations lived ? could be described as both “indigenous” and “abstract”.
Indigenous in the sense that, in the absence of means of communication comparable to those we have today, the notion of “elsewhere” was only conceivable in relation to “one’s own world”, and the “world of others” and “our world” were in fact one and the same thing. If there were any differences, they were only in terms of meteorological characteristics, natural disasters, agricultural yields, arts and crafts, or mining resources.
The scarcity of knowledge about the lives of others and ignorance of any “other” led them to begin to think in new ways, developing ideas that, for lack of perspective, could only be abstract representations. They thought up an abstract idea of the other, on the basis of their experiences and by generalising from their own lives.
The emergence of new theories of astronomy dislodged the earth from its place at the epicentre of the universe, and humankind was suddenly thrown into an infinite, limitless vacuum. The anguish created by this “projection” found its expression in both the spirit and the soul as a sense of “being uprooted”, a feeling that had repercussions for theology, philosophy and art. Clearly, the limits of my speech will not stretch to providing an explanation of all these questions.
The development of communication technologies and travel has increased our knowledge of other peoples and nations both quantitatively and qualitatively – particularly for Europeans, who were at the forefront in this field. Sadly, this greater knowledge of the lands, cultures, science and religions of others has not always been directed towards peaceful and humanist ends. Up until the end of the nineteenth century the “white European male” was considered to be the benchmark for humankind, and so Europeans, having conquered land, sought to conquer others’ “cultures” and “souls”. In so doing, they were following the approach of the ancient Greeks, who used to call all those who lived outside Athens “barbarians”, and did not consider non-Europeans or non-whites to be human beings. It is as though that notion of Athens was extended, in colonial times, to the whole of Europe!
There are a number of possible explanations as to where this “eurocentrism” took root and what fed it most. But, whether we are Muslims or Christians, there is no question of us blaming Christianity.
And should someone try to prove the contrary, drawing on the writings of some Christian theologian on “euro-ethnocentrism”, “racism” or belligerent designs, by referring to the original teachings of Christianity in the Bible or in the writings of the Saints, we are in a position to show that those allegations are unfounded. Indeed, it is unthinkable that an accusation of that kind should be levelled against a religion in which love for others goes hand in hand with the love of God. The Christian God is, like the Muslim God, the God of all the universe and of all people. That is why neither Christianity nor Islam can belong to a given time, place or people.
want to come back now to the question I raised earlier about the “sense
of the world”, and will try to answer it.
Let me go back to my question.
The opposition to religion has taken on a “form” adapted to our shrinking world. We talk nowadays about a “global village”, and the metaphor is not without foundation. We all live in one village. But in a village people know each other well enough for relations to be generally peaceful and amicable, and when disputes do arise, even ones which do sometimes lead to war and killings, people are still able to “understand” the origin of the problem, its causes and the reasons that it has happened.
But in our global village, dear friends, we have to admit that we are incapable of understanding one another, and that is why we so rarely hear talk of peace and love. The people in this village have been struck dumb – and not only are we mute, we are also deaf. But that is not the worst: if only we were just deaf and mute, if only our ulterior motives towards one another were not so hostile and unwholesome! But, sadly, we can say with certainty that this is not the case.
Does this calamity not fulfil the prediction in the Koran that says, “if men have lost their way, it is because they have forgotten God”. Is it not this alienation that has led to this deafness and mutism, aggravated by blindness? And does not the cure involve a return to God and an invocation of God?
The future of religion and of faith depends on clear-sightedness, knowledge of our times, and relinquishing fanaticism based on an ethnic or communal identity, and a willingness to change one’s mental attitude. Only in this way will the very essence of religion be preserved and will the free spirit of human beings, who at the heart of their conscience are greatly attached to their faith, not turn away from religion. It is through understanding and openness of spirit that we will succeed in allowing these religions, beyond time and space, to regain their true dimension.
Fortunately, there have been promising steps in this direction on the part of clear-thinking scholars in both the Muslim and Christian worlds and in other religions.
In these circumstances, dialogue between civilisations, but also between religions, in particular between Islam and Christianity, has proved to be a vital, imperative and undeniable necessity. The elements that make the need for establishing such a dialogue all the more urgent are the following:
1. The anti-religious trend prevalent in today’s world presents a serious threat to the spirituality and gentleness of human life: dialogue between religious scholars could improve our hope of saving the spiritual life of humankind.
2. Religious dialogue should allow us to remedy the current deafness, mutism and lack of understanding. In this respect, I have to say that, unfortunately, the world’s powers fuel misunderstandings of this kind instead of reducing and eliminating them.
3. Dialogue between religions, in particular between Islam and Christianity, will perhaps open up a new field for researchers in the social sciences and philosophy, and prompt some journalists and radio and television producers to consider the idea of finding a “common language” by building a bridge of communication between the various peoples and nations of the world, rather than producing so many programmes that in the end only foster war and hostility between peoples. Then, instead of having articles and programmes that only talk about the conflicts between Islam and the West, between “Islam and Christianity”, between religion and human rights, we would be dealing with researchers humbly seeking the truth, who would understand that it is impossible to gain a profound and in-depth understanding of a religion like Islam or Christianity by referring simply to a few events or reading a few articles.
4. Religious life in today’s world will be able to surmount the obstacles and resolve problems through dialogue and understanding, as well as by sharing experiences. By expanding and strengthening the moral and religious foundations of our societies – a religion that calls for peace, peaceful coexistence and justice, not war, injustice and supremacy – we will be strengthening the hope for peace, justice and freedom.
This translation into English is based on a French translation from the original Persian.