Civilization in the Balance
An Interview with Michael Nazir-Ali
In the August heat of Karachi in 1949 a boy was born into a Shia Muslim family. Pakistan was only two years old, a fledgling and chaotic nation, free of British rule and trying to find its own way in the world. Michael Nazir-Ali’s mother could not have imagined that her son would one day sit as a member of the British House of Lords.
Nor could she have imagined that in the early twenty-first century, her son would become one of the most outspoken defenders of Christian civilization. Her child was to become a prominent Anglican bishop and an eminent Christian thinker, schooled in Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard.
Dr. Nazir-Ali was Bishop of Rochester until his retirement in March 2009. He still lives in Kent with his wife and two children and now ministers to persecuted Christian minorities abroad. He speaks pleasantly, each word enunciated with a trace of a soft Pakistani accent.
Nine years before Nazir-Ali was born, London came under attack by the Luftwaffe. The vicar’s house on Giltspur Street in central London, where I interviewed him in February 2010, was hit by a Nazi bomb. In 1940, Churchill spoke these immortal words:
I open the interview by referring to Churchill’s words.
Rory Fitzgerald (RF): Do you believe that Christian civilization is in peril now, as in 1940?
Michael Nazir-Ali (MNA): I used to speak of a moral and spiritual vacuum that was created by the catastrophic loss of discourse in terms of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in the public place. I think that vacuum is now giving way to a hostility to the Judaeo-Christian worldview, in terms of family, respect for the beginning stages of life, and respect for the end of life.
I am pursuing a twin track on this: On the one hand, you have to uphold the Judaeo-Christian tradition as a basis for making the most important moral decisions that need to be made: just-war criteria, ethical decisions on the dignity of the human person and family.
At same time, I am conscious that if present trends continue, we need another strategy, which is the Alasdair MacIntyre strategy, which is what happened in the last Dark Age, when Christian communities preserved the gospel learning, and a kind of humanism, so that there were lights in the darkness. I think it would be wise for the churches also to build strong moral and spiritual communities that can survive and flourish in the darkness, and indeed attract other people to themselves.
RF: As part of the general trend toward a “new dark age,” would you say political correctness and the EU are actors and movers toward that?
MNA: Oh yes, absolutely. The EU is the source of so much legislation in this country which refuses to respect the Christian conscience, which has weakened a public doctrine of marriage, [and] which has compromised the dignity of the human person at its earliest and latest stages in life. A lot of this has its origins in European directives, and we haven’t seen the last of it, either.
RF: Do you think that in a “broken society,” many things—from anti-social behavior, to the banking crisis, to abortion, and so on—are symptoms of a single national spiritual crisis?
MNA: I think that’s right. A lot of what you’ve noted is due to the jettisoning of a Christian understanding of the family, which has resulted in alienated young people. [The effect of] the civil partnerships legislation has been to disown any public doctrine of marriage in this country. It is a peculiar situation where a country has no view about its basic unit of society [the family].
RF: I was recently reading C. S. Lewis on “the problem of evil.” Evil is a dirty word these days, even in Christian discourse. Where do you see elements of evil in -society?
MNA: I think if you look at what has happened to the family: that is an unmitigated evil for this society. It has destroyed security for children, prevents their proper development, and the flourishing God wants for them. It has also had very undeniable social consequences; seven million abortions since the passing of the abortion acts—that is an evil.
RF: I was just in St. Bartholomew’s Chapel, founded 1123 during the Crusades, and a thousand years later we have the same disagreements! Do you see them being healed in the coming decades, or do you feel that good fences might make good neighbors, or how would it work?
MNA: The whole issue is grounded in the classical [Muslim] view that there is the house of Islam, the dar al Islama, and the house of war, the dar al Haab, and the duty of good Muslims is to extend the dar al Islam into the dar al Haab, not only through armed jihad but [also] through propaganda and preaching and so on.
Now, the only exceptions to this were cases where there was a truce or a treaty. A truce by nature is temporary, and the treaty was always taken by Muslim lawyers as if the presents at the signing of the treaty were tribute from the non-Muslims to the Muslims. Now, this is not a basis for the future. This is why Muslims have found it so difficult to be minorities in different situations.
RF: As regards Muslims, that incompatibility has sometimes been expressed violently, with Buddhists in Thailand, atheists in China, tourists and Hindus in Bali, Hindus in India—the incompatibility is certainly not specific to the West. How could you see that being healed?
MNA: I’m so glad you’ve outlined those other situations because it is absolutely vital for world peace that Muslims should develop a way of being at peace with the non-Muslim world that is permanent, that is not seen as capitulation by the non-Muslims to Muslim power. Now, of course there are many Muslims who would agree with us about this. But the legal tradition, the Sharia tradition, has to develop formally so that it is recognized that Muslims can be a loyal minority in a non-Muslim polity. That, as far as I know, has not happened.
When Islam first became the temporal ruler of Medina, it promulgated a constitution—the Sahifa de Medina—which recognized the Jew, the pagan, the Christian, and the Muslim. The old Islamic state [could] be a paradigm.
On the other hand, we know of the conflicts: the way in which the Jewish tribes were exiled later on, and liquidated indeed. The reduction of the Jews to where they were allowed to continue with their profession, which was agriculture, provided that half of their produce was given to the Muslims. That became the basis for the treatment of Jews and Christians and later Zoroastrians and others within the Islamic world. Now, which paradigm will they choose, the dhimmi paradigm or the paradigm of the constitution of Medina?
RF: I thought Medina was superseded because it was earlier?
MNA: That’s true. And that’s the question for Muslims to answer. Some very courageous scholars have said that Medina supersedes Mecca, so that it’s not that the later supersedes the earlier but that the earlier has priority. Well, if that can be done . . .
RF: We have a chance at peace? So the only shot at peace, if you like, has to come from within the Islamic community itself?
MNA: I think certainly that, but it’s also what other countries do. For instance, in Britain it is very important to emphasize that there is one law for all, and that the law is the same, and all people and all the communities should have equal access to the law.
RF: There are some Evangelical theologians who say that Allah is not the same God, if you like, as the Judaeo-Christian God. What do you say to that?
MNA: (At this question, Michael becomes visibly uncomfortable. He pauses a long time, formulating his reply. The terrifying truth in Britain is that his life may depend on how he answers this question. He has received death threats, and he and his family have been under police protection in the past. He speaks very slowly and carefully.) I think [in the Quran] there are certainly accounts of God’s dealings with the people of Israel, or even with Jesus and his followers, that bear a striking resemblance to what’s in the Bible. On the other hand, Christians are also accused of lying and of blaspheming precisely in their doctrine of God. Certainly there are whole suras that can be read as a polemic against the Trinity.
RF: Of course, the Jewish tradition doesn’t accept the Trinity, yet it is accepted that our God is the same.
MNA: Yes, but we share a common Scripture, which is a big difference. I would say that Islam has a sense of the God of the Bible but, for various reasons, understands the nature of that God, and God’s action in the world, quite differently. And in a way you can say that about everyone, because the Bible says that God has not left himself without witness anywhere. So people must have some sense of a God who has created the world and who has given us our consciences.
RF: So you would regard it as an open theological question as to whether they are the same?
MNA: I don’t think that they are the same. Muslims, like everyone else, have some sense of the One God, who has made the world and has given us our consciences, but the way in which they understand the nature and the work of that God is very different from the Judaeo-Christian way, and certainly from the Christian way.
Bishop Kenneth Craig, who is a very sympathetic and lifelong student of Islam, has pointed out that the fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity is its attitude to power. That while Islam wants to take power to change the world, Christianity is about turning away from power to change the world. And that has to do with a view of God. We have a God who, in Philippians 2, humbled himself and took the form of a slave, and accepted death as witness—and that is the source of Christian power, the Cross. So, clearly, [between] any Christian view of polity and Muslim view of polity, there must be a radical difference.
RF: Would you say the future of mankind is largely Christian?
MNA: It’s losing ground demographically to Islam, as Muslim population is rising faster in almost every part of the world. That makes for this confrontation as well, because in places like Nigeria, where the Christians are more or less equal [in number] and in some countries like Lebanon, the demography has changed in my lifetime from a Christian majority to something quite different.
RF: Some even say that France and Holland might be majority Islamic—by 2050 or 2060?
MNA: Yes, well, that’s the combination of the falling away of Christian belief, decreasing indigenous population, and increasing Muslim population. So I think there is going to be more tension, because these are the two great missionary religions in the world, which is why it is very important for Christians and Muslims to come to some common view about how to live together.
RF: It seems that if there is a Christendom in the world today, it is the United States. Do you agree?
MNA: In a strange way yes, because . . . Christian discourse in the public square is everywhere; politicians use it, perhaps overuse it, but they do use it. Moral debate has a tremendous Christian influence. However I think that in the “culture wars” in the foreseeable future that they’ll go more or less the way Europe has gone, on things like abortion, stem-cell research, assisted suicide, marriage and family, homosexual rights, gay marriage—all those things. Mutatis mutandis.
RF: What do you say to American people who don’t want their country to end up like Continental Europe and the rest of us? What can they do?
MNA: The first thing is to work together. I’ve been very encouraged by the Manhattan Declaration, where a number of denominations came together to make a joint declaration about the issues.
RF: America has a long tradition of lots of different groups coming together in a “free market” of Christianity. Does America have a special role as we navigate our way through the coming decades, in the Christian tradition?
MNA: Well, it is a powerhouse of Christian ideas, and both the Catholic Church and Pentecostalism, which must be the two great global realities in the Christian world, are very strong in the U.S., so yes, I think that it’s very significant.
I thank Dr. Nazir-Ali for his time and walk out into the old streets, where people have lived since Roman times. On the Tube [subway], a kind old Muslim man shows me the way.
Time magazine called the decade just past the “decade from hell.” Things are not the same as they were, nor are they better. Therefore, it is true to say that they are worse. There is a sense of unease abroad, and nobody is queuing up to call our era a golden age, or even a gilded age. But a new Dark Age?
For better or worse, the ancient faiths meet and collide in this beautiful behemoth, London.
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“Civilization in the Balance” first appeared in the September/October 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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