Here is a little story (source, the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News website), one moral of which may be that hopes of any kind of meaningful interfaith dialogue between Christianity and Islam are pretty slim. On the other hand, it may simply mean that some Muslims are pretty over the top, so we need to talk to those who are not: if only, that is, we could discover who they might be.
A Salafi group (Salafism, according to Wikipedia, “has become associated with literalist, strict and puritanical approaches to Islam and, in the West, with the Salafi jihadis who espouse violent jihad against civilians) called the “Popular Egyptian Islamic Association” has warned Muslims against eating tomatoes on the grounds that they are a “Christian food” (I wonder if there are any Catholics so extreme that they won’t eat Muslim food (most of which, after a year working in a Muslim country, I can tell you is just delicious, and not a bit subversive).
This Salafi group explains its interdiction by the fact that a shape resembling a cross is revealed when one cuts a tomato in half (had you noticed that?) They published the warning on their Facebook page with a photo of a tomato cut in half, revealing a cross-shaped interior. The accompanying message reads “Eating tomatoes is forbidden because they are Christian. [The tomato] praises the cross instead of Allah and says that Allah is three. I implore you to spread this photo because there is a sister from Palestine who saw the Prophet of Allah in a vision and he was crying, warning his nation against eating [tomatoes]. If you don’t spread this [message], know that it is the devil who stopped you.”
Well, cor; having read that, and not wishing to be stopped by the devil, I thought I had better spread the message as instructed, and then eat a tomato (but not yet). A merry Turkish comment on the website asks “does this mean that the christians should not eat the crasont as it resembels islam ahhahahahahahha”, though I fear this quip reveals a sad ignorance of the origin of the croissant, which was invented in celebration of the crushing multiple defeat of the Sublime Porte after the raising of the Siege of Vienna.
It is true, of course, that some Catholics have a tendency to discern religious images in natural objects, a phenomenon known as Pareidolia, according to Wikipedia (where would we be without it?). “Publicity surrounding sightings of religious figures and other surprising images in ordinary objects,” we are told, “has spawned a market for such items on online auctions like eBay. One famous instance was a grilled cheese sandwich with the [face of the Blessed Virgin]” (I wonder if anyone bought it?).
All the same, this particular Muslim example does seem to fit particularly well with a contemporary variety of extreme Islamism, one which combines an oppressive and fanatical hatred of other religions – potentially violent, even deadly – with a ready credulousness. I wrote earlier this month about the case of an 11-year-old Christian girl with Down’s syndrome called Rimsha Masih who was arrested and charged with the crime of blasphemy after it was alleged that she had burned pages of the Koran. This is a common charge against Christians, all too readily believed by rampaging and sometimes murderous mobs, though in previous cases the burning has nearly always shown to have been done by Muslims, or by mentally unstable people.
I said above that the moral of the story of the intrinsic and offensive Christianity of the tomato might be that hopes of any kind of meaningful interfaith dialogue between Christianity and Islam are pretty slim. On the other hand, I continued, it may simply mean that some Muslims are very extreme, so we need to talk to those who are not: if only, that is, we could discover who they might be. Who might they be in Pakistan, for instance? Well, they do in fact exist and therefore ought gratefully to be acknowledged. Accoding to the Pakistani website Dawn.com,
“Allama Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, said if Rimsha… were found to be innocent, her accusers should face justice. The cleric said protesters who demonstrated to demand punishment for Rimsha … were following the ‘law of the jungle’… Ashrafi urged the government to take action to protect Christians in the poor Islamabad suburb of Mehrabad, where Rimsha lives, and encourage Christian families who fled in fear after the incident to return.
“This is inhuman,” he is reported as saying, “that those who have nothing to do with the case or are not a party to it are also being harassed. It is just like the law of jungle that 500 people approached a police station and got a report forcibly lodged with the police.” Ashrafi said Rimsha’s case should be a watershed for Pakistan’s blasphemy laws: “We demand an impartial and thorough investigation into the case. Strict action should be taken against all those accusing the girl … The government should make this case an example so that nobody will dare misuse the blasphemy law in future.”
Well, Allama Tahir Ashrafi is a brave man. Other influential Muslim Pakistanis who have publicly taken this view have not lived long thereafter. The governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was shot by one of his bodyguards, who told police that he killed Mr Taseer because of his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law. I fear for Mr Ashrafi’s life, and so must he.
The point is that such men do exist. Some of them are even described as “influential”. If Mr Ashrafi lives, and if his influence prevails, then we will be beginning to get somewhere near the point at which interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians might be worthwhile. But I fear that we are not there yet, even nearer to home, as the ill-fated talks between the Holy See and Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which you will remember suspended its long-standing dialogue with the Vatican in protest after the Holy Father’s demand for the protection of the Copts, illustrate only too well. Will Mr Ashrafi, that brave, brave man, prevail? Or will he pay the ultimate penalty for his courage? Even if he survives, I very much fear that in the end it is mob rule that will decide what happens in Pakistan.
And I have never hoped more that I will be proved by events to have got it wrong.