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The Politics of Canons and Borders

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The conflict surrounding the Orthodox church in Ukraine has moved irrevocably beyond the purely intra-ecclesiastical agenda. Experts, political scientists, and journalists have plunged headlong into the subtleties of canon law, the history of intra-Orthodox relations and discussions of the psychological profiles of the church hierarchs. As a rule, they consider the situation in a rather limited political context, assessing its consequences either for Russia–Ukraine relations or for Russia’s relations with the West.

At the same time, the problem of autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is far broader than the question of the future of Orthodoxy in a particular country or its relations with its neighbours. It would seem that a more extensive analysis of the current processes is possible using the approaches employed in the modern theory of international relations, which acknowledges the existence in global politics of denominational actors with their own objectives and principles [1]. Such a post-secular take will make it possible to delineate the interests of secular and religious actors and assess the balance of power on the political and religious map of the world (that overlap, but rarely coincide).

Orthodox Centres of Power in Global Politics

In recent history, the Roman Catholic Church has long been the only significant religious actor of in the international arena. Historically, the Holy See was sufficiently independent of secular authorities, and had the structure and resources that allowed it to harbour global ambitions. In the 20th century, the Lateran Accords made it possible for the Roman Catholic Church to retain its secular extra-territorial authority. In terms of “religious economy,” the Roman Catholic Church, as the world’s largest denomination, was bound to perceive itself on a global scale, which it does, seeing all countries and continents as its “religious market.” Other religious movements lacked either the requisite strength of numbers or a requisite structure acting on behalf of its followers, or were subordinated to secular authorities, which made it impossible for them to entertain similar ambitions. This applies to autocephalous Orthodox Churches that either viewed themselves as regional actors or simply struggled for survival.

The first window of opportunity for the emergence of independent Orthodox centres of power appeared with the fall of the Russian and Ottoman Empires, the two states in which virtually all the world’s Orthodox population was concentrated. The Patriarchate of Constantinople immediately seized the opportunity afforded by the weakening of control over the religious sphere and attempted to use its status as the “first among equals” to take the leading positions in the family of Orthodox Churches. In 1922, Patriarch Meletius II of Alexandria declared Phanar’s right to govern the parishes of the so-called diaspora (that is, the parishes outside the territories of local Churches), and in 1923, he attempted to hold and chair a “Pan-Orthodox Congress.” Moreover, same year, taking advantage of the difficult situation of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), Meletius II hastened to spread his influence on its territory as well. He took the Orthodox population of Estonia and Finland under the governance of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and also interfered in the affairs of the Church in Poland. The ROC’s independence at the time was so fleeting that the growing demands of the Phanariotes encountered virtually no resistance.

As the USSR grew stronger and the Soviet Empire emerged, the opportunities of independent Orthodoxy were shrinking and finally collapsed when the world split into two global ideological camps. Orthodoxy found itself in the part which did not presuppose any independent ecclesiastical institutions. It should be noted that the provisional “restitution” of the ROC’s canonical territories which took place as the USSR moved West, was the result of the secular authorities, not the ecclesiastical authorities, realizing their interests.

The situation changed radically with the collapse of the USSR. About 185 million Orthodox Christians, over 90 per cent of their total number, lived in the countries of the former socialist bloc (primarily Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Kazakhstan). For the first time in modern history, large Orthodox communities that emerged on the ruins of the Soviet Empire had their own ecclesiastic bodies independent of the secular authorities. The actual, rather than the nominal separation of church and state (which in the post-Soviet and post-Imperial reality mostly meant that the state would not interfere in the affairs of the Church) allowed the ecclesiastical hierarchy to reconsider the significance and purposes of the institutions they headed. As soon as they became accustomed to the new situation of religious freedom, as soon as this part of the “market” that previously had been excluded from the global religious economy was opened, the struggle to define roles, boundaries and common goals intensified within Orthodoxy.

The process of shaping a new system of international ecclesiastical relations was launched in the Orthodox world. The word “new” here essentially means “first.” The Orthodoxy did not have its “Westphal” capable of serving as the starting point for defining common canonical rules and stable canonical boundaries. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, where intra-ecclesiastical relations are regulated by a codified and regularly updated canonical law system enhanced by the efficiency of its hierarchical organization, Orthodox Churches do not have a uniform canonical law for intra-Orthodox relations. The most recent Ecumenical Council took place in 787, and the most Local Council, whose provisions were included in the Orthodox Canon Law, concluded in 880. The majority of key documents on church governance date to the 4th century. Such distance in time inevitably creates room for various readings and interpretations. Local Churches regularly accuse each other of misinterpreting a particular rule to fit their interests. The lack of more modern documents that are recognized by all churches is largely due to the above-mentioned limited international agency of Orthodox Churches.

The “great powers” of the Orthodox world – Constantinople and Moscow – took shape during this process. Of all the Churches, they are the only ones with sufficient resources (although they are of different nature), hierarchs of the requisite mindset and, mostly importantly, with the desire to fight for the right to format the “Orthodox factor” in global politics. As for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, its principal and essentially only resource is the “symbolic capital” of its “first among equals” status. The ambitions of the Phanariotes are determined by the conditions of their survival: without the Pan-Orthodox status and inclusion into the global “religious market,” the ecumene of the Ecumenical Patriarchate will dwindle to 3000 Istanbul parishioners, which even the western media never fail to mention. The Patriarchs of Constantinople cannot afford the role of leaders of a national church, the role most Orthodox leaders assume, because they do not have a national church.

Moscow’s stance is based on an entirely different logic. Even without Ukraine, the ROC’s parishioners account for over a half of all Orthodox believers. The Russian Orthodox Church also inherited from the Russian and Soviet empires the largest and most well-developed infrastructure and an established system of relations with today’s Russian authorities: these are resources that other churches lack. The idea of Moscow as the “Third Rome,” as the holy keeper and defender of global Orthodoxy, is inheritance that the ROC received from its “symphony with the state.” This self-perception of both church hierarchs and large proportion of parishioners, multiplied by their numbers, prompts the Moscow Patriarchate to define its global strategy.

“Phanarian Papism” vs. “Council Confederation”

The differences between the models that Moscow and Phanar offer to the rest of Orthodoxy turned out to be fundamentally opposite. Based on the nature of its resources, the Patriarchate of Constantinople banked on unifying the Orthodox world along the lines of the Catholic model, striving to transform its primacy of honour into unquestionable primacy. The course Meletius II set in the early 20th century was continued by his successors in the late 20th century. Thus, one of Constantinople’s first acts following the collapse of the USSR was to establish ecclesiastical bodies in Estonia parallel to those of the ROC. For obvious reasons, other Orthodox Churches gave Phanar’s ambitions the cold shoulder. It should be noted, however, that Constantinople made a rather effective use of its “symbolic capital” outside Orthodoxy proper, converting it into recognition of the Patriarch as the spiritual leader in the eyes of the West. Such was the purpose of the frequent meetings that the Patriarchs of Constantinople held with Popes, the inclusion of environmental issues on the agenda and the other tactical moves aimed at establishing themselves in the role of Orthodoxy’s principal speaker in the western media space.

The model proposed by the Russian Orthodox Church can be provisionally termed a “council confederation” model. The ROC strove to enshrine the existing areas of canonical influence and set clear rules of the game based on making decisions at councils following the principle of a consolidated position. The ROC probably counted on retaining the leading role through its qualitative and quantitative superiority over other churches. At the same time, the Moscow Patriarchate demonstrated certain flexibility: internal mobilization of resources and centralization of power go hand in hand with the readiness to grant broad autonomy to individual parts, and conservative rhetoric in Russia coexisted perfectly within the framework of establishing contacts with Catholics and Anglicans.

Ukraine as the Point of Collapse

The problem of the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church would have never grown to its current scale had it been solely a matter of the independence of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. A competitive environment formed in Ukraine that made it possible for various religious organizations to co-exist in the country regardless of anyone’s recognition. Canonical law does not affect issues of property or worship. Those of Ukrainian Orthodox hierarchs who wanted absolute independence from the Russian Orthodox Church could opt for non-canonical bodies. A significant number of bishops would still prefer to remain part of a larger community with another scale of interests. This desire can hardly be explained by some external pressure, more likely, it is testimony to their similar views on the role and strategy of the Russian Orthodox Church. Ultimately, it should be kept in mind that Ukrainian hierarchs account for nearly a third of Russian Orthodox bishops, and nearly a third of delegates at the 2009 Council that elected Patriarch Kirill of Moscow were Ukrainian citizens.

The current actions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople are based on its own interests, which could only be implemented in today’s international situation. The increasing struggle between the ROC and Phanar took its final shape in 2016 with the collapse of the Pan-Orthodox Council that had been in the works since 1961; for the Orthodox world, it would have become the Eighth Ecumenical Council. With the refusal of the Russian Orthodox Church and several other Churches to attend the Council, the issue of determining a universally acceptable system of international ecclesiastical relations was driven into a virtual impasse. The opportunity to determine the map of the Orthodox ecclesiastical world through negotiations was missed. The further logic of the process demanded a conflict that would serve as a catalyst for the public uncovering of contradictions and setting down the real balance of power.

The conflict surrounding Orthodoxy in Ukraine proved to be just such a catalyst. The Patriarchate of Constantinople used a local coincidence of its interests with those of the Ukrainian authorities and the geopolitical situation to move to the active stage of the conflict. Phanar declared the territory outside Russia that was of great importance for the ROC to be its canonical demesne. Additionally, by lifting the anathema from the leaders of Ukraine’s schismatic churches, Phanar practically confirmed its vision of itself as the final judicial body of the Orthodox world. It does not matter whether the Ecumenical Patriarchate will grant autocephaly to a specific religious body in Ukraine or whether it will look for ways to formally subsume the Ukrainian Church. In any case, its key objective is to remove this territory from the area of Moscow’s influence and to stake out its own presence there thereby enshrining the new balance of power.

A Schism or Disintegration?

The conflict between Moscow and Constantinople has reached a new level. Its further development will determine the future of the world Orthodoxy and affect, at the very least, the position of Christianity in Europe, where some 257 million Catholics and about 200.5 million Orthodox Christians live. If the contradictions between the principal centres of power are not resolved, then the risk it that Orthodoxy may cease to exist in its current form. Without the Russian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox world loses any qualitative significance. And without the “symbolic power” of the rest of the Orthodox world, the Moscow Patriarchate is no more than Russia’s national religion, which may sit well with some politicians and hierarchs, but contradicts the internal logic of the Church and Christian universalism.

The current situation encapsulates the failure of both the Phanar and Moscow models, and their revitalization appears unlikely. Subsequently, events may follow one of two principal scenarios. The first scenario will be determined by the disintegration of the family of Orthodox Churches. Granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian church sets a decisive precedent for triggering the atomization of Orthodoxy. The protestant principle of “one state, one church” will deal a blow not only to the ROC, but also to other Orthodox churches, including the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The scale of disintegration will increase through the collapse of the unified legitimation system and, consequently, through the multiplication of Orthodox sects and the increased personal ambitions of individual bishops who would want autocephaly for themselves or at least autonomy within their states. Ukraine will be the first on the list; ultimate canonical confusion there will create all the requisite conditions for an explosive growth of the number of self-proclaimed patriarchs. Atomization will entail marginalization and relegation to the periphery of the religious world map. Emasculating and adapting the Church doctrine to the new realities, essentially an Orthodox “Reformation” and the end of universal Orthodoxy and the Diptych as its symbol will be the final chord in this scenario.

The second scenario is slightly less dramatic. The conflict between Phanar and the ROC will end with Orthodox Churches splitting into two camps with centres in Moscow and Istanbul. Other Orthodox Churches will try to remain neutral, but the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow will force them to pick a side. Orthodoxy will be plunged in its most deep-running split since the Great Schism. Long-term, neither party is likely to win. The schism will either evolve into disintegration, or return to the starting point of the 1990s. The struggle between the two camps will effectively remove Orthodox Churches from global religious politics; the Roman Catholic Church will boost its standing in global Christianity and ardent Protestant denominations will be far more visible on the religious map than Orthodoxy.

Under both scenarios, a way out of the crisis is possible if new charismatic leaders emerge who are capable of offering new integration points for the Orthodox world. Ethnic or country affiliations will have no special significance; what is going to be of far greater importance is the ability to sweep along the believers who are tired of the canonical confusion, militant rhetoric and the feeling of conflict. One could suppose that the project of “Orthodox reboot” will go beyond the boundaries of the current Orthodox borders. Both Ancient Eastern churches (often counted when calculating the total number of Orthodox churches) and individual non-Orthodox Churches (such as the Armenian Church or the Anglican Church) may also be involved.

Under any scenario, the current situation decreases the level of autonomy of Orthodox Churches while increasing their dependence on secular authorities as their potential sponsors or allies in the struggle against the opposing camp. Given the experience of church–state relations within Orthodoxy, the religious sphere is under threat of politicization, while the influence the Church has on political processes will shrink. Globally, it entails the dwindling of “religious multipolarity” as a factor in maintaining the political multipolarity.

  1. 1. See, for instance, Wilson E. After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 222 pp.

First published in our partner RIAC

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The sunset of the West and Islam: From US bombs to the return of the Taliban

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With regard to the issue of Islamic proselytism in Europe, where some countries (Belgium, Great Britain, France, etc.) have large minorities of Muslim believers – who, according to many, should be Americanized with sheriff’s hats, miniskirts and reducing the faith to smartphone apps – some clarifications must be made regarding the ignorance that leads newspapers, television and social networks to absolutely not understand what Islam is, i.e. a religion that does not look at races, but aims at the universalism of the God of Abraham.

The Muslim law is a legal science of ancient tradition based on the Holy Koran. Islam is a religious, political and legal system of a reality that is a whole: dogmatic, moral, ritual, pertaining to private and public law (according to our Roman law categories).

A whole – as said above – stemming from the same sacred sources and bearing the overall name of šarī’a (following the straight path revealed by God), which, being based on the Old and New Testament (prophets of Islam: Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mary, Muhammad), can be “translated” correctly into religious law of divine origin.

This is of absolute importance and it must be kept in mind – as a peculiarity of Islam – that this religion regulates – with very detailed positive precepts – every manifestation of the life of believers, even in those areas that might appear to be the farthest from the field of religion, according to the parameters of secularism.

The science of law (‘ilm al-fiqh) according to the Muslim jurists (fuqahā’, sing. faqīh) has a first bipartition in the sources of law (usul al-fiqh, sing. asl al-fiqh): the Koran, the Sunnah (ahadīt, sing. hadīt: sayings of the Prophet), the ijmā’ or consensus of the community (ummah) and the qiyās or deductive analogy.

The šarī’a, in turn, is divided into ‘ibādat and mu’āmalat. The former includes the five pillars of faith: acceptance of God, daily prayer, legal almsgiving, fasting and abstinence until sunset in the month of Ramadān (9th), pilgrimage to Mecca and its surroundings in the month of Dû l-Hijja (12th). The second covers all other aspects of the social, economic and political life of the community, and can be adapted to the varying needs of times and places, provided the results do not deviate from the word and spirit of the šarī’a itself.

Prof. Giorgio Vercellin (1950-2007) recalled that Westerners have always pretended not to see this fact, for contingent interests, first of colonial expansion – in trying to impose their own laws and exploit territories – and then of attempted internal assimilation (cancellation of national and fideistic individuality), and

«in essence, therefore, the Muslim world, and particularly the Islamic Near East (and in the manuals there is no trace of the presence of numerous and active Christian and Jewish communities in those territories over the centuries) is described as having an autonomous history worthy of attention only in the remote past. It is not by chance that the pages on Muhammad and his immediate successors follow the much more copious pages describing the Persians – i.e. the Achaemenids – the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Phoenicians, etc. In other words, Islam and the Muslim world are presented on the same “archaeological” level (and therefore devoid of evolution until today) as the ancient Greeks and Romans. […] The real crux is that the Society of Italian Historians has considered the “Muslim world”, so to speak, automatically as part of the “ancient world».

Instead, it is contemporary and present. Muslims are men and women of faith, and for them religion is also pure lawfulness. Islam is not just a confession, but a culture, a multicontinental and cross-sectoral civilisation, a way of life in which the relationship with the divinity is spiritual and temporal at the same time.

The history of Western thought, from the age of Enlightenment to the present day, is marked by the conflict between faith and science: there is a constant loss of ground of the areas of influence of religion in favour of the side hegemonised by technology.

By this we mean secularisation, rationalisation, relativism, etc. The most striking manifestation of all this is the recognition of the right to ‘believe’ but also to ‘not believe’. Tout court, it is the right to atheism, which Muslim jurisprudence – which, as seen above, is identified with faith – does not admit and which the West tries to impose with the violence of American weapons and with the soppy and cloying European do-goodism and political correctness. Whatever some well-meaning sociologists may say, Islam does not distinguish between religion and politics, between confession and law.

The trend that is being strengthened in the Islamic world consists in a reaffirmation of both regulations and general Shariah principles, which have been established either through legislation or as a practice in Muslim and Islamic countries, i.e. the places from where migrants come.

In the Islamic tradition, the principle that Islam as such must be both religion and State (dīn wa-dawla wa duniyā), and that the term secularism (‘ilmaniyya) is synonymous with atheism, materialism, permissiveness, moral decadence, etc., is fundamental, especially in the countries allied with the West (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, etc.), and in those which are not allied with it. In each of them the institutional presence of other faiths is rarely allowed – and this from a purely legal viewpoint.

The illusion with which weak-minded or mean-minded people (to say the least) and others pursue the so-called multiculturalism has no basis in the experience and beliefs of the other party. Therefore, imagining a Muslim who adheres to the canons and principles of the liberal system – which is atheist insofar as it turns faith from a value into a subjective choice or into an “evangelical” sociological solution and welfarism for the desperate or destitute people – is a deadly naivety: a historical suicide on the part of a society that no longer has anything to offer and on the part of a production system that is leading the planet to destruction.

Any person, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, who puts forward his or her own viewpoint – either in writing or in a speech, which subsumes his or her thinking – clearly believes it to be right and true, and does not accept – on principle – a contrary or different opinion.

It is practically the parallel of a Westerner who, for various reasons, moves to a Muslim country and ex abrupto denies his way of thinking and living. Sometimes you do not understand whether this candid hope is the result of the Westerner’s ignorance or, worse, the absolute malice of a few, since cheap and profitable workforce and caregivers are much more needed than ethics, respect and safety and security of our citizens.

This shows that it is not the West that tolerates the Muslim presence in Europe, but the opposite. In a society such as ours – in full social and environmental deterioration (see the Laudato si’ by Pope Francis), which has denied the sacred and has mixed genders; which is based on consumerism, servitude to money, exasperation of profit, the race for the useless, the triumph of technologicism, the race for pleasure, hedonism, the reduction of the ruling class and of politicians to zero; which has relegated women to the role of sexual icons and has reduced the sense of heroism to fiction; a society in which liberal-free market thinking generates embarrassing choices – the believers, including Catholics, Christians in toto, Jews and Muslims here, are instead tolerating the system that hosts them.

This is proved by the fact that the criminal horrors and atrocities we witnessed on November 13, 2015 were carried out by an infinitesimal percentage of Muslims present on our continent – on top of it, European citizens and not emigrants, i.e. legal children of those States where they committed crimes. It is not for me to explain why they have done so. In a millennium and a half, what has been happening for the last sixteen years, since the “humanitarian” bombs began to devastate the Afghanistan of the Taliban in the past and of the Taliban today, has never happened.

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Muslim-Evangelical alliance strives to create religious and political middle ground

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A recent unprecedented alliance between Muslims and Evangelicals takes on added significance in a world in which human rights are on the defensive, religious groups tend to forge political as well as ideational partnerships, and the role of the clergy in multiple Muslim-majority countries has come under scrutiny.

The alliance potentially could create a platform for voices in the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East, in which significant segments of the youth who constitute a majority of the population, increasingly reject state-controlled, ritualistic forms of religion and distrust clerics subservient to the government.

It could also offer a middle ground on which elements of the secular centre-right and centre-left could meet based on shared faith-based values in deeply polarised parts of the world, particularly in the West.

International affairs and inter-faith scholar Michael Driessen suggested in an email to this writer that the recently forged alliance between Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), one, if not the world’s largest Muslim civil society organization, and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), fits a pattern of partnerships between diverse religious groups that goes beyond seeking to protect minorities to promotion of social cohesion and fraternity.

Speaking at a virtual meeting of the Interfaith Forum of the Group of 20 or G20 that brings together the world’s largest economies, Tunisian Islam scholar Nejia Al-Ourimi seemed to anticipate the alliance when she argued that reform of Islam would have to be bottom-up and originate in civil society rather than top-down and directed and controlled by autocratic rulers who see it as a way of branding themselves and their nations as well as and one way of ensuring survival.

Ms. Al-Ourimi reasoned further that genuine inclusivity was precluded in much of the Middle East because most Arab constitutions assume that the state has a religion. She went on to say that “what we need to do is reframe the traditional approaches of linking religion to legislation. We must find leaders who are willing to withdraw from the traditional way of participating in the public sphere—through the legal and legislative dimensions—and return from a ‘values’ perspective to guide ethical efforts.”

In a contribution to a recently published report on Human Fraternity and Inclusive Citizenship issued by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and the Beirut-based Foundation for Diversity, Solidarity and Human Dignity (Adyan), Ms. Al-Oumiri points to a series of lofty, lovey-dovey inter-faith statements issued in the past decade by different combinations of Arab Muslim and non-Muslim clerics, religious and secular intellectuals, and politicians.

The statements constituted attempts by Muslim religious authorities and autocratic governments to keep ahead of the curb of youth aspirations and project themselves as voices of moderation by emphasizing religious freedom, religious pluralism, and inclusive citizenship irrespective of religious belief.

The statements include the 2012 Statement on Basic Freedoms issued by Al Azhar, Islam’s Cairo-based oldest institution of Islamic learning that has long been swayed by Saudi and United Arab Emirates financial support, the 2016 Marrakech Declaration that called for the development of a jurisprudence of that enshrines the concept of inclusive citizenship, and the Document on Human Fraternity signed in the UAE in 2019 by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.

Referring to the 2012 Al Azhar statement, Ms. Al-Oumiri highlighted the fact that the statement was issued in the wake of popular revolts that in 2011 toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Saudi and UAE manoeuvres helped roll back the revolts’ achievements in all of the countries except for Tunisia.

The manoeuvres did not roll back what Ms. Al-Oumiri described as a “new awareness” among “all the components that participated in the protest movement, secularists, liberals, Christians, Muslims and others, (that) became aware of the fact that the bilateral polarization and exclusionary relations prevailing at that time were the main reason for the dispersion of forces capable of inducing positive change and extricating Arab society from its chronic crisis.” It is an awareness that expresses itself today among others in changing youth attitudes towards religiosity.

Ms. Al-Oumiri’s ‘new awareness’ is one factor that hampers autocratic efforts to shape a moderate form of Islam that serves the needs of social change and economic diversification without conceding democratic freedoms, projects autocrats as religious moderates as part of their nation branding and furthers their quest for religious soft power.

The ‘new awareness’ is borne out by research and opinion polls that consistently show that the gap between the religious aspirations of youth and state-imposed interpretations of Islam is widening. The polls and research suggest that youth are increasingly sceptical towards religious and worldly authority. They aspire to more individual, more spiritual experiences of religion.

As a result, Nahdlatul Ulama’s opportunity to turn its alliance with the WEA into a vehicle of change in both the Muslim world and the West is enhanced by the fact that religious reform in rival contenders for religious soft power like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Egypt is top-down by decree or changes in common or civil rather than, more sustainably, bottom-up and anchored in religious law and jurisprudence.

The point was highlighted when Nahdlatul Ulama’s religious leaders took the first step towards reform of religious law and/or jurisprudence in 2019 by replacing the notion of the kafir or infidel with the concept of muwathinun or citizens to emphasize that Muslims and non-Muslims were equal before the law.

Leaders of the group say that they intend to tackle other outdated, intolerant, or supremacist concepts such as the dhimmi or People of the Book, and slavey that remain reference points even if large numbers of Muslims do not heed them in their daily life, as well as eventually blasphemy and apostasy.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s opportunity is further both bolstered and complicated by the fact that autocratic Muslim rulers wittingly or unwittingly reinforce Islamophobic tendencies in multiple ways by their often brutal abuse of human rights at home and their support of policies in various parts of the globe that encourage negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims.

These policies include the blurring in countries like France and Austria of the lines between political Islam and piety as well as autocratic Muslim acquiescence, if not endorsement of the crackdown on Turkic Muslims and Islam in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang.

Nahdlatul Ulama, despite its tangible adherence to principles of democracy, human rights, and tolerance, has yet to clearly distinguish itself from autocratic religious soft power rivals when it comes to its shared rejection of political Islam and identity politics. In other words, how it handles Islamophobia is likely to be a litmus test for Nahdlatul Ulama as well as its alliance with the Evangelicals.

Making that distinction clear is likely to also enhance the Nahdlatul Ulama-WEA alliance’s ability to bring together elements of the centre-right and centre-left could meet based on shared faith-based advocacy of human rights, democratic freedoms, and tolerance at a time that democracy is on the defence.

The linkage between the Nahdlatul Ulama-WEA alliance’s opportunity to serve as a bridge in both the religious and political domain is evident not only when it comes to countering religious supremacism but also far-right extremism. It is that linkage that adds a geopolitical dimension to the alliance’s potential.

Germany, where ultra-nationalist supremacists, despite recent electoral setbacks for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), have infiltrated the security and armed forces, spotlights the importance of creating a religious and political centre that is driven as much by shared values as it is by interests.

Security services recorded more than 1,400 cases of suspected far-right extremism among soldiers, police officers and intelligence agents in recent years. The German defence ministry last year disbanded a whole company of special forces after explosives, a machine gun, and memorabilia of the Nazi’s SS were found on the property of a sergeant major.

The geopolitical significance of developments in Germany is enhanced by the fact that some German ultra-nationalists and members of the far-right are believed to have links to Russia and /or far-right Russian nationalists.

In the latest German incident, prosecutors are investigating an official of Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, suspected of helping plan the assassination of a Chechen dissident as part of a campaign across Europe that targets critics of Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the Russian republic of Chechnya. Mr. Kadyrov is widely viewed as an associate of President Vladimir Putin and maintains close ties to Middle Eastern autocrats.

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Defining moderate Islam: Muslims and Evangelicals forge an alliance

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A major Muslim and Evangelical organization joined forces this week to significantly advance hitherto state-backed ceremonial inter-faith dialogues that seldom go beyond platitudes and lofty statements.

This week’s launch at a Washington DC mosque of an inter-faith alliance and a book published by the Institute for Humanitarian Islam and the Germany-based World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) as well as the Center for Shared Civilizational Values constitutes an Evangelical endorsement of Humanitarian Islam.

It also amounts to a rare Muslim celebration of an Evangelical authority, WEA secretary general Archbishop Thomas Schirrmacher, who played a key role in building a relationship between the Evangelical group and Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, one, if not the world’s largest Muslim movement.

“Dr. Schirrmacher’s decision to engage with the Humanitarian Islam movement may prove to be singularly consequential, and perhaps even historic, in its ramifications for the relationship between Christians and Muslims,” the editors of the book, Thomas K. Johnson and C. Holland Taylor said in their introduction.

Entitled ‘God Needs No Defense: Reimagining Muslim – Christian Relations in the 21st Century,’ the book is an anthology of essays written by preeminent Muslim and Christian scholars.

Based in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, the Institute for Humanitarian Islam was established by Nahdlatul Ulama to advance globally its humanitarian interpretation of the faith.

Nahdlatul Ulama sees the concept as an alternative to state-backed less developed and less tolerant and pluralistic notions of a moderate Islam as propagated by countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well expressions of political Islam represented by Turkey, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Nahdlatul Ulama was founded almost a century ago in opposition to Wahhabism, the austere interpretation of Islam propagated for decades by Saudi Arabia until the rise in 2015 of King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Indonesian group positions Humanitarian Islam as advocating genuine religious reform rather than self-serving social and rhetorical change advocated by rulers eager to implement long-overdue economic and social reform and project themselves as genuine religious moderates in a global battle for Muslim religious soft power and the soul of Islam.

The differences between Nahdlatul Ulama’s Humanitarian Islam and the interpretations of the faith put forward by its conservative monarchical and republican Islamist soft power rivals are stark and raise fundamental questions about what constitutes genuine reform and how it can sustainably be achieved.

The differences pitch an independent civil society group, albeit one with close ties to the state, against states themselves.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s independence has allowed it to start a process of real change rooted in religious law and jurisprudence rather than a ruler’s decree or opinion issued by subservient clergymen.

The group challenges outdated, intolerant, or supremacist concepts such as the kafir or infidel, the dhimmi or People of the Book, and slavey that remain reference points even if large numbers of Muslims do not heed them in their daily life, as well as eventually blasphemy and apostasy.

The group’s religious leaders took the first step in 2019 by replacing the term kafir with the word muwathinun or citizen to emphasize that Muslims and non-Muslims were equal before the law. “The word ‘kafir’ hurts some non-Muslims and is perceived to be theologically violent,” Nahdlatul Ulama cleric Abdul Moqsith Ghazali said at the time.

Independence also enabled Nahdlatul Ulama to embrace the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, parts of which are exempted by its religious soft power rivals. That is not to say that liberals may not take issue with some of the interpretations of the declaration by Nahdlatul Ulama, a socially conservative movement.

The differences raise questions about Nahdlatul Ulama’s ability to succeed beyond the significant inroads that the group has made among political and religious elites in the United States, Europe, the Vatican, and parts of Africa and Asia.

The launch in Washington of the unprecedented alliance and the book is together with Nahdlatul Ulama’s association with the Centrist Democrat International (CDI), the world’s largest grouping of political parties, the most publicly visible evidence of its success among elites.

The alliance puts flesh on the skeleton of recent inter-faith dialogue by bringing together two of Islam and Christianity‘s major groups. Nahdlatul Ulama has tens of millions of followers while the World Evangelical Alliance says it represents 600 million Protestants and national evangelical alliances in 140 countries. The alliance with Nahdlatul Ulama casts a different light on Evangelicals as opposed to Evangelists, who particularly, in the United States have often come to be identified with Christian nationalism and Islamophobia.

The alliance aims “to prevent the political weaponization of identity; curtail the spread of communal hatred; promote solidarity and respect among the diverse people, cultures and nations of the world; and foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being,” the Institute for Humanitarian Islam and the  Nation’s Mosque in Washington, said in a press release.

With the creation of the Center for Shared Civilizational Values, the alliance also constitutes an effort to create a platform for a dialogue that moves beyond elites to nurture a grassroots movement in favour of religious reform across major religions that emphasizes inclusivity, pluralism, tolerance, and common values rather than exclusivism and supremacy fueled by identity politics. (In the spirit of transparency, this writer has been invited to be a member of the centre’s advisory board).

In doing so, the Center hopes to build on Nahdlatul Ulama’s substantial popular base in Indonesia, the WEA’s reach across the globe and a range of contacts and interactions with Catholic, Jewish, and Hindu groups and personalities.

The choice of Masjid Mohamed, the Nation’s Mosque, as the venue of the launch, suggests an outside-in strategy in trying to garner grassroots support in the Muslim world. Located in Washington’s historic African-American Shaw district, Masjid Muhammad is the first mosque in the United States built by descendants of slaves.

As such, the launch constitutes an outreach to a minority Muslim community in a Western democracy that despite upheaval in the United States as the country struggles to come to grips with its history of racism is likely to be more accessible and perhaps more open to Humanitarian Islam’s message than significant segments of the population in Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan or the Middle East where many see what has long become a global faith through the lens of its Arab origins.

The alliance takes on added significance in a Western world that despite the electoral defeat of former US President Donald J. Trump and setbacks in Europe suffered by populists and ultra-nationalists has in recent years increasingly mainstreamed prejudice, bias, and authoritarianism.

“Rather than the world becoming more like the United States, as so many of us expected after the Cold War, the United States has become more like the rest of the world—in particular, its authoritarians,” noted foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook, debunking the projection of the US as a beacon of liberty and freedom.

In a twist of irony, Nahdlatul Ulama’s book publication coincided with a more narrowly focused and transactional Saudi-backed launch in Lebanon of a book, ‘The relationship between the Maronite patriarchate and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’ Written by Maronite Father Antoine Daw, Saudi support for the book and outreach to the Maronites was part of the kingdom’s effort to counter Iran’s regional influence and engage the Islamic republic in direct and indirect issue-oriented dialogues.

The launch in Bkirki, the Maronite patriarchate’s episcopal see, followed a call by Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi, Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric, for a meeting with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world.

The patriarch urged Hezbollah, one of Lebanon’s most powerful groups that played a key role in Iranian support for the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad to move towards a position of neutrality in a bid to salvage Lebanon that is teetering on the brink of economic and political collapse.

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