Muslim and Christian communities have a long and diverse history of living side by side in mixed cities. Some of these experiences have been wonderful and respectful and full of joy. Many of them have been emotionally painful, and at times violent, and full of misunderstandings and false assumptions and stereotypes. Some of these misunderstandings and false assumptions have been unintentional. All of these factors continue in our relations as communities today.
Generalisations and stereotypes between the members of different communities are not just academic misunderstandings. They are laden with emotions, memories and senses of injustice that can lead people to avoid, be angry at, and live in fear and insecurity among the members of other groups. Like for example, avoiding an area where a particular community live, or a colleague at work who’s a member of a certain community, or being suspicious of a sister’s husband who’s a member of another community.
The Arabic al-Mawarid dictionary defines a stereotype: “Something that repeats in an unchanging way … or the mental image that the members of a group share in holding, that represents a simplified view to the level of excessive distortion or an emotionally laden stance“.
It is in the nature of the stereotypical views someone has towards a person or community that their view is full with subjective feelings, and what feel like correct intuitive feelings to them, that are laden with personal emotions that are difficult to change, or easily disprove. Memories of things done against a community by the other in the past, or the idea that one group are trying to usurp the rights of the other, or are expanding their political, religious or cultural control at our expense, can raise many emotions like sadness, anger and fear.
In an academic session on generalization and religious stereotypes between communities in Beirut, a student said that in his opinion, the problem comes from the Christian side more than from the Muslim side. Another student also shared that, in his view, the problem lies more with the Muslim than with the Christian, and he supported his point of view with some personal experiences.
Perhaps we can notice the distorting stereotypical views that others have about us, more easily than we can recognise the distorting stereotypical views we have about them. Perhaps we feel the pain in what we hear people speak about us more than we know the pain we can cause them to feel in how we speak about them.
While the words ‘Muslims’ and ‘Christians’ might suggest two homogenous communities, there is much greater diversity than this between members of the Muslim communities and Christian communities.
People of different ethnicities are Christians or Muslims. For example, some of the population of Beirut are Armenians. They are Armenians and they are also Christians too. Some of Cairo’s residents are Copts who are also Christians.
A son born to an Armenian father will be both an Armenian and a Christian, and the daughter of a Druze father will be Druze and considered to be Druze legally and religiously. These ethnic, religious, cultural and legal identities do not necessarily define his or her beliefs but shape their social relations with the rest of society in broad and deep ways. We could mention history and experiences of Armenean-Arab relations, or Druze-Sunni relations, politics, food, racism etc that are more holistic than doctrinal beliefs at a theological level.
An adequate understanding of these identities and the relations between members of different ethnic and religious communities in a mixed city cannot be reduced to simply Islamic and Christian doctrines. There are also cultural, linguistic, and historical differences on many levels.
In these mixed cities, the formation of communities of believers in Christ inherently involves us engaging with the mixed ethnic, cultural, and religious communities and the nature of their relations, including ourselves, for reconciliation in Christ to be worked out in real life. For indeed, this is inherent to the good news about what God has accomplished for all people. As the Apostle Paul said:
“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near”
(Paul’s Epistle to the Believers in Ephesus 2:14-16)
Announcing this good news is also about living this out in life.
Questions to discuss together
How does this relate to your life, your relationship with others, and your relationship with God?
Why do you think sectarianism/racism, with its fear and superiority, is so appealing to people?
Have you experienced people viewing you in a stereotypical way? How do you feel about this?
Are there areas in your life and at a psychological level where you’d like to know more peace in engaging with ‘Muslims’ and ‘Christians’ around you?