Catholic World News News Feature

Taking Islam Seriously March 01, 2005

The bombing of a Darfur village by Khartoum military aircraft in late January, did not augur well for the successful implementation of an April 2004 ceasefire and a subsequent peace accord struck in Nairobi in the same month to end a separate conflict in southern Sudan (see story, page 42). Javier Solan, a representative of the European Union, said he was shocked by the bombardment in Darfur-all the more so because it was carried out the day after his meeting with Ali Osman, the deputy president of the Sudanese government, who had given his earnest assurance that the Khartoum government was committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Darfur.

Bishop Macram Max Gassis of El Obeid, in southern Sudan, acknowledged that within the signing of an accord to bring peace to that region “some very healthy air was breathed.” But Bishop Gassis told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera that he still was uneasy. He asked: “How can one have confidence in people who on the one hand keep on slaying civilians in Darfur and on the other hand strike a peace deal with us?”

The Deputy Speaker of the British House of Lords, Baroness Caroline Cox, is much more critical of the regime to which she pointedly refers as “the so-called government of Sudan.” Baroness Cox never calls the Khartoum regime a “government,” without the pejorative adjective, because “it wasn't elected, it doesn't represent more than about 5 percent of the people of Sudan and it continues to kill while it talks peace.” She concludes simply: “You cannot trust that regime.”

When Baroness Cox says that “the regime in Khartoum is bombing innocent civilians,” she speaks as an eyewitness. As a prominent member of an international relief organization operating in Sudan, “I used to spend hours in foxholes,” she recalls, “sheltering while aircraft have been circling overhead, bombing innocent civilians.”

Baroness Cox was created a Life Peer in 1982 and Deputy Speaker of the British Parliament's House of Lords in 1985. She is Chancellor of Bournemouth University and Vice President of the Royal College of Nursing and President of the Institute of Administrative Management. Baroness Cox is heavily involved with international humanitarian and human-rights endeavors, serving as director of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation and president of Christian Solidarity International and Christian Solidarity Worldwide (P.O. Box 99, New Malden, Surrey, KT3 3YF, England), as a trustee of MERLIN (Medical Emergency Relief International) and the Siberian Medical University, and as chief executive of HART (Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust). Her humanitarian work has taken her on numerous missions to conflict zones, including Armenia, Sudan, Nigeria, the Burmese jungles, and Indonesia. She recently visited North Korea to help promote parliamentary initiatives and medical programs and has been instrumental in helping change policies for orphaned and abandoned children in the former Soviet Union.

Together with Dr. John Marks, Baroness Cox has authored The West, Islam, and Islamism, whose aim is to encourage reconciliation and mutual understanding between Islam and the West. She herself was the subject of the 1998 volume Baroness Cox, A Voice for the Voiceless, by Andrew Boyd, who travelled with her to Sudan to buy back slaves and expose the existence of slave trade. As a committed Christian, Boyd noted, Cox is motivated by “her concern for the oppressed, the repressed, and the vulnerable-those least able to articulate their needs and their rights.”

[TEXT]

How did you develop your interest in and concern for the plight of the oppressed, downtrodden, and destitute?

Baroness Caroline Cox: As I started visiting the people who are suffering oppression and persecution in many parts of the world, I began to become increasingly concerned about the rapid growth of militant Islam.

Three main kinds of major religious persecution are in the world today:

First there is the residual Communist and centralizationist persecution, in countries such as China, Laos, Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba, and Burma (which is not Communist, but has a socialist military junta).

Second there is the caste system of Hinduism and related faiths, which is not expanding and does not proselytize.

Third is the rapid growth of militant Islam-which is much more dangerous than Communism, since for the latter God did not exist and nobody would have been prepared to sacrifice one's life, unless fighting or in a Gulag, as is done by Islamic suicide bombers in the hope to be rewarded with their paradise.

I believe that the growth of militant Islamism is a real threat to our spiritual and cultural heritage. We have an obligation to act as a watchman, to warn the rest of Christendom and the rest of the world. This threat is typified not only by the rise of al Qaeda terrorists, but by evidence I witnessed in Sudan, Nigeria, and Indonesia, where I have been countless times. In all three places there is jihad taking place against Christians and moderate Muslims, and efforts are being made to introduce Shari'a law. That is really a death knell for Christianity. Christians out there are trying to hold a front line of faith for freedom to practice Christianity and often feel very beleaguered, very unsupported, and very vulnerable.

Moderate Muslims are also targets for the extremists. In Indonesia, Muslim leaders who have signed peace agreements with Christians have found their homes bombed and cars stoned. It is therefore incumbent on Christians to offer a real hand of friendship to the moderate Muslims who wish to promote reconciliation and reconstruction.

One particular visit to Bahr el Gazal in Sudan was one of my worst experiences in terms of sheer scale of horror and depression. Just a few days earlier, the National Islamic Front regime's forces had swept through the area, slaughtering civilians and burning villages. It was reduced to an area of sheer carnage: human bodies, cattle corpses, burned homes, a scorched-earth policy. I felt most challenged by the words of a Christian catechist whose brother and brother-in-law had been killed and whose sister had been captured as a slave. His church had been attacked, Bibles burned, crops destroyed. He told me that while the Sudanese regime spends $1 million a day on the war, the Christians have nothing. “Worse than that,” he said. “We feel completely on our own. You're the only Christians who have even visited us for years.” Then came the words which turned that knife in my heart. The catechist asked: “Doesn't the church want us anymore?” I sat under a tree and wept.

It challenged my faith deeply. If we believe in a God of love, why such carnage? While the West keeps a comfortable Christmas, most of the time we choose to forget the massacre of the innocents. At the time when Mary was beginning to care for her son, the Christ child, the other mothers were weeping for the deaths of their sons. And why? The slaughter of innocents really challenges one's faith.

But amidst such suffering, I had also countless inspirational stories of faith. Take Ma Su, a Karen refugee from Burma. The Burmese army had shelled her camp in Thailand. Everything was burned and destroyed. Her hut was burned and she had been shot by a Burmese soldier. I asked how she felt about the soldier who shot her, and her response: “I love him. It says in the Bible we should love our neighbors, so of course I love him. He is my brother.”

That having been said, of course it's a wonderful privilege to be able to speak in a house of the British Parliament, particularly to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak themselves, on behalf of forgotten people, forgotten masses, and of Christians suffering persecution around the world and in many, many countries.

You are famous for unearthing abuses and atrocities that nobody else seems to be able to discover-for example the fact that in Sudan Christians have been crucified, unbelievable as that sounds in the 21st century. Can you elaborate on that?

Cox: My purpose is to try to reach people who are cut off from other aid and advocacy organizations. The reason why people may be cut off is because the big organizations like the UN High Commission on Refugees, UNICEF, Save the Children, Red Cross, and so forth can only go to places with the invitation of the sovereign government. If the sovereign government is victimizing a minority inside its borders, and is denying access to those major aid organizations, they can't go. But I regard it as part of our mandate to reach those who are most cut off, most isolated, most bereft of aid and advocacy.

Thus in Sudan we've been particularly targeting those areas designated by the regime in Khartoum as “no go” areas for the UN and the Red Cross and so on. And so we have been going up to some of those prohibited areas, on the borderland between north and south: areas where clearly there had been systematic and frequent raids by militia from the north, who were armed in ways which the southerners are not traditionally armed. They descend in large numbers on the townships and villages, and they usually massacre the men. The women and children they round up and take as slaves to the north. Old people they usually just maltreat, beat up, often leave them for dead. Then they burn and pillage, take the livestock, kill what they can't take, burn the crops.”

What would you answer those who say that Islam is a religion of peace?

Cox: That simply it's not in the Qur'an! I always make a de facto distinction between Islam and Islamism, namely its militantly ideological version. It's important to do that to reassure people that you are not Islamophobic. You obviously put on your caveats, your qualifications, but as a matter of fact the authentic traditional teaching of the Qur'an itself is that it's not a religion of peace. The most orthodox do not see Islam as a religion of peace. It's Islamic teaching, too, that the world is divided into two, until there will be one single world under Islam, and its teachings are not teachings of peace.

Islam actually means “submission” and when they say Islam is a religion of peace, it's a religion of peace if you agree with it. If you don't, then it's a totally different matter.

We also need to realize the complete sort of asymmetry on the whole question of freedom of religion. If you want to become a Muslim, that's very easy, but if you want to leave, that's a totally different matter: it's apostasy, akin to treason, and the penalty is death. People don't know that it goes completely counter to the United Nations declaration on human rights, article 18, on freedom of religion.

This is something which now I think the Church leaders in Europe are coming to understand and to begin to say. If you remember the Helsinki process, back during the Cold War, where they had this treaty about missiles and nuclear weapons and there was “basket three,” about human rights, and they wrote in these things and the Soviets agreed to it. But that was used as a pre-emptive treaty to try to increase human rights within the Communist empire. It's virtually the same thing with Islam; whenever we want to give aid to a Muslim country, we ought to have a “basket three,” where it's said that you should be able to build churches, or to sell Bibles or whatever it is. This might be a way to change the situation and educate the population. Much of Islam actually runs counter to that universal declaration on human rights. Suffice it to think of the issue of slavery, still practiced in certain Muslim-dominated areas.

But as far as it's known, Shari'a also collides with the UN declaration on human rights, doesn't it?

Cox: Exactly. And there is a tremendous pressure to promote the expansion of Shari'a law in different parts of the world, for example in Canada. In northern Nigeria 12 states are now subject to Shari'a law. What is also fundamentally incompatible with the universal declaration on human rights under Shari'a law is the above-mentioned prohibition of freedom to choose and change one's religion, but also the fundamental problem of equality before the law. We all know that in Shari'a there is no such thing as equality before the law, with special regard to the status of women and non-Muslims as against Muslims. There is a big debate in Canada about the introduction of Shari'a in parts of Canada. The pressure is on the civil courts, which have allowed Jewish communities some license to settle some of their disputes among themselves according to Jewish traditions; Muslims are now demanding the same right. But there is a big difference: Jews are normally a minority and Jewish tradition does not clash with the UN declaration on human rights, whereas Shari'a does. We should educate ourselves in order to know, understand, and be able to argue and defend what we would regard as the fundamental principles of freedom.

Moreover, all the countries in the world who have joined the UN have signed the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, except Saudi Arabia. They are legally required to respect human rights, and the UN needs some substantial revision in order to bring them back to its original principles of respect for those values.

As you know, Turkey will soon commence to negotiate its bid for membership in the European Union. Do you have any comment on that prospect?

Cox: I have very great reservations indeed. There are the obvious reservations, like Turkey's current situation vis-à-vis its human rights record. For example it's continuing its illegal blockade of its neighbor Armenia, it's refusing to recognize anything resembling Armenian genocide, which means it's very difficult to get any kind of feeling and genuine reconciliation with its neighbors in the region, and also I think it's not good for any nation to live a historical lie, which it is doing.

As far as the internal aspects of Turkey and its current policies, there would be a lot I would wish to see put right before admission to the European Union is granted. But also I have serious reservations about the influx of a large nation with a large population, whose spiritual and cultural heritage is not characteristically European, has nothing to do with our Christian heritage, or what we traditionally call Europe. I think that could be a very serious issue. For example, the Armenian community in Paris is deeply concerned about the possibility of Turkey's joining the European Union, particularly in view of a relatively recent policy adopted by the education minister in Turkey, whereby they have rewritten primary and secondary schools textbooks in which they categorically deny anything resembling an Armenian genocide. Competitions are also made to encourage pupils at schools to write the best possible essays they could write, again denying the Armenian genocide. And these initiatives are not only used in Turkish schools-and that is already bad enough, because the teachers are lying, and it's no good for your future-but also in the schools of the faith communities. So the ancestors of those who died in the genocide-and not just Armenians, but also other Christians who suffered then-would be forced in school to deny the faith of their ancestors. That is a move in a very bad direction. I would say the opposite direction is what Turkey should be heading towards for it to be an acceptable member of the EU.

Many equate Muslim fundamentalists to Christian crusaders. What's your opinion on that comparison?

Cox: The Crusades were a response to 400 years of aggression and expansion of Islam by war. While actions were carried out by both sides which are unacceptable by the standards of modern Western societies, it is important to understand them in context. They were a long-delayed military response to centuries of conquest by jihad in which many Christians were martyred and lands which had been Christian for centuries-such as Byzantium and much of the Mediterranean-were conquered and ruled by Islam

As recently as early February, an uproar was caused in Italy by the release of a Moroccan terrorism suspect, thanks to a controversial preliminary ruling that he is a guerrilla fighter and not a terrorist. An expulsion order issued by the ministry of the interior was quashed twice by the judge concerned. If this is to be construed as a sign of the increasing clout of Islam also on western societies, what is the situation in the United Kingdom?

Cox: I think that in the UK much of our leadership is already more or less in dhimmi status, and nobody dares to speak out, for fear of intimidation, for fear of retribution, and because it's not politically correct. This situation of dhimmitude describes the subordinate status of Jews and Christians under Muslim domination, which today, under the influence of global jihad, is becoming a worldwide reality.

For example, in The Muslim Weekly British energy minister Mike O'Brien describes the Labour government as the “best friend” of Muslims and openly boasts that the government has introduced measures against religious discrimination and hatred after requests from the Muslim Council of Britain.

Our attitude must be moderate and not confrontational, but I think we do need to be seen to take militant Islam seriously-not to generate Islamophobia, but unless we do there will be an Islamophobic reaction, because Islamic terrorism does create fear, and terrorism creates fear by definition, and fear does not make distinctions, and so unless we are seen to be taking militant Islam seriously, there will be a backlash against Muslims… and so there will be much more generalized Islamophobia. There are Muslim moderates who are trying to constrain their co-religionaries, for example in Indonesia, where traditional Muslim leaders are trying to make reconciliation and reconstruction in the Moluccas. Many of them are brave people, because they do suffer at the hands of the jihadists. We must, must, must take the agenda of militant Islam very, very seriously. Enough is enough, and much has already been conceded to those who abuse the freedoms of democracy to destroy that democracy.

Would you be inclined to view the spreading of militant Islam as a local uncoordinated phenomenon or perhaps the result of a more wide-ranging plan?

Cox: Let's take the situation in Nigeria, where I have been many times, for example the northern part of the country, the Kano-Kaduna-Bauchi state, and now very tragically Plateau and Joss states. When we were there, there was a lot of intercommunal conflict associated with the implementation of Shari'a law, which is a very serious issue, and a lot of fighting, and the Islamic combatants in that fighting are now internationally resourced. There are many international mercenaries there, and they're Francophones, they're not Nigerian people, and they are so well supplied with sophisticated weapons that the Nigerian security forces and the police cannot defend the local Christian communities. So they just flee. So there is clearly the international dimension there. And indeed when Shari'a was first implemented in Zamfara state (now it's in 12 states in Nigeria) there was an international celebration with representatives of other Islamist regimes, such as Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. You could see clearly that it was an internationally financed and internationally supported and inspired strategy.

So I think we're now seeing an international dimension here of a more systematic jihad, rather than just local conflicts, and I think that is something which could have very far-reaching implications.

The lesson to be drawn from these incidents is that when you get enough incidents, you begin to see patterns, and when you begin to see patterns you begin to see strategy and you begin to see international funding, and these are things I think that do worry us a great deal. It's one of the reasons I think it's important to begin to raise awareness, but for an appropriate spiritual and strategic response. We really have to pray for guidance, wisdom, and discernment, to cope with what I see as the greatest threat to our heritage today.