A debate between a Muslim and Christian leader in the Netherlands

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Thu, 2019-10-10
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Arab-West Report is in favor of any fruitful dialogue between peoples of different religions and convictions. But what should be the focus of a debate? Should we focus on beliefs that we know will highlight the divisions between parties or should we focus on themes that would show similarities in beliefs?  


Pulse Events, a Christian organization did the first. They invited two excellent speakers but provided the speakers with the theme “Jesus, Islam and Christianity” which resulted in two expected traditional opinions of Christians and Muslims that confirmed what we already know: that Muslims and Christians differ in their views about Jesus. The October 6 meeting in Delft was well attended with around 300 people, mostly Christians. The atmosphere was good. It, however, did not bring the parties or audience to any improved understanding of the positions of Christians and Muslims about Jesus. 


The first Muslim-Christian debates started soon after the arrival of Islam in previously Christian countries such as Syria and Egypt. They often focused on the figure of Jesus Christ. Such debates were also held in the 19thcentury, often involving Christian missionaries. Famous are the debates between Ahmed Deedat (1918-2005) and Josh McDowell (1939 - present) but what did they bring? They both confirmed their faith for their own constituencies and both failed to convince people not belonging to their religion. Both were apologists. Both accept their own scriptures as the word of God and seeing the scriptures of the opposing believer as a human product. Both would make use of text criticism of the holy book of the other but would be on the defense of their own scriptures.



                               Gert-Jan Segers                                           Yassin Elforkani


The October 6 debate between Gert-Jan Segers, party leader of the Christian Union and imam Yassin Elforkani of the Blue Mosque in Amsterdam, followed in this tradition. Ahmed Deedat did not fear polemics and could be quite fierce and did not hesitate to offend Christians if he believed that to be in the interest of his argument. Debates with such language would more likely add to tensions instead of building bridges. That is fortunately neither the style of Gert-Jan Segers not that of Yassin Elforkani. But did it bring Muslims and Christians closer? It rather confirmed existing views.

The October 6 debate was initiated by Dr. Cornelis (Kees) Dekker, a Dutch physicist and Distinguished University Professor at the Technical University of Delft who is known for his research on carbon nanotubes, single-molecule biophysics, and Nano biology (https://ceesdekkerlab.nl/). 


“You cannot search for connections if you cannot point to any single positive point in Islam,” imam Elforkani concluded about this discussion after he had earnestly tried to convince Gert-Jan Segers to make a positive comment about Islam. Can a committed Christian seek connections with committed Muslims, the Dutch Nederlands Dagblad questioned? (Nederlands Dagblad, October 7, 2019).


Gert-Jan Segers does not recognize himself in Elforkani’s comment in the Nederlands Dagblad. He stated this evening that he is impressed by the dedication of Muslim believers, the daily rhythm in faith through which everything in life is seen through the eyes of faith. This, however, the Nederlands Dagblad did not report.


Imam Elforkani explained to the audience that he loves to visit old churches and feels in this the spirit of God. He also said he had read the Gospels and is inspired by the Gospels and Jesus. Elforkani expressed that Muslims believe that Jesus will come back to earth at the end of times. He further praised the Netherlands for its religious freedom, having given permits for the building of around 500 mosques (the total number of mosques may be larger). 


Gert-Jan Segers lived between 2000 and 2007 as a Christian missionary in Egypt and is deeply aware of Islam. Segers chose to focus on who Jesus is for him, explaining his personal faith. He is not the only Christian leader who sees positive elements in Islam. Many years ago Coptic Orthodox Bishop Athanasius of Beni Suef, a staunch defender of the Christian faith, stated that he appreciated that Muslims pray five times per day and wished that Christians would pray as much. 


Muslims do indeed often speak about the importance of Jesus but the Qur’an provides very little information about his life, only once when he speaks in his cradle to defend his mother Mary after she had been criticized for having a baby without a father. “O sister of Aaron, your father was not a man of evil, nor was your mother unchaste. So she pointed to him [Jesus]. They said, "How can we speak to one who is in the cradle a child?" [Jesus as baby in the cradle] said, "Indeed, I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I am and has enjoined upon me prayer and zakah [zakāh] as long as I remain alive. And [made me] dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me a wretched tyrant. And peace is on me the day I was born and the day I will die and the day I am raised alive." That is Jesus, the son of Mary - the word of truth about which they are in dispute” [Qur’an 19: 28-34, Al Sahih International translation].


This is very different in the Gospels that provide much information about his life. The Qur’an is interpreted through the hadiths or the biographies of the Prophet that were written centuries after the Qur’an. But if one would try to read the Qur’an without that knowledge one comes to the conclusion that the Qur’an could be easily read as a commentary about the Bible and thus many stories about Jesus and other Biblical figures are supposed to be known to the audience the Qur’an was addressing in the 7th century AD.


The debate between Segers and Elforkani was good, however a Muslim-Christian debate could, in my view, be more fruitful if the representatives of both religions would have been asked to speak about themes of mercy, compassion, love and opposition to violence.  


Muslims and Christians often tend to compare their beliefs to the practices of other believers but this is a fruitless attempt. The ideals are always more lofty than the practices. This applies to people of all religions. Another problem is that religions in general, including Islam and Christianity, have been deeply influenced by politics throughout the centuries. Both religions do not deal with fixed theological concepts but concepts that have fluctuated throughout the centuries. These factors should also be taken into consideration.



October 10, 2019


Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-chief Arab-West Report