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Building Bridging Social Capital Among Muslims

By: Ahmet Alibašić

April 4, 2022

Cultural and Religious Dimensions of Encounter

Global governance, as an aspect of the culture of encounter, will not emerge in a world of distrust that we live in today. Even national establishments are not trusted enough to be sustainable. Supranational and national governing structures are being eroded and fragmented because there is not enough social capital to support them. In fact, in a world of identity politics we have an excess of some forms of social capital and a deficit of others. We have an excess of bonding social capital that increases in-group solidarity and trust, which in itself is not problematic. However, our world is suffering from a chronic deficiency of bridging capital that could tie together various local allegiances into one big human family and provide a solid ground for the development of global governing practices.

Muslim communities are not immune to this imbalance. Nowadays many Muslims tend to perceive global developments through a binary Muslim/Non-Muslim optics–Us vs. Them. The Somalia, Yemen, Syria, and Gulf disputes, and many other crises, prove them wrong, but some Muslim discourses are oblivious to those realities. More needs to be done to affect changes in attitude. While the causes of this state of mind are many and not entirely subjective in nature, one of them is the disproportionate emphasis in popular Muslim discourse on some social relationships at the expense of others. Family and faith community are regularly promoted as circles of belonging that a Muslim has to maintain. That is not to say that enough has been done on those two fronts. More can and needs to be done, as the state of the Muslim communities around world testifies. However, far more can be done in raising awareness about at least three other circles of belonging: humanity, neighborhood, and contract-based relations. These are bases of moral obligations independent of the first two.

Every human being has a dignity which has to be respected irrespective of his or her faith. The Prophet Muhammad stood for a passing funeral of a Jewish woman, telling his reluctant companions that every human soul deserves recognition and respect. On other occasions he taught his followers that universal values override narrow loyalties of kinship or religion. Following that principle he participated in a civic organization called the “Alliance of Virtuous” (Hilf al-Fudul) before his mission started and spoke of it affirmatively afterwards. Its mission was universal and humanistic: assistance to homo sacer. He both received and accepted assistance from good-willing non-Muslims, including polytheists and Christians. He sent his two daughters into exile to Ethiopia because of a just king there. In the most delicate moment of his life, when escaping at the last minute from polytheistic Mecca, his guide through the stone deserts of Western Arabia was a Meccan polytheist whose human and professional integrity he trusted. Bringing forward the importance of common humanity could affect Muslim attitudes toward some of the most pressing global issues of today, such as environment, migrations, and justice for the oppressed.

Neighbors, which in Islamic tradition include neighbors at work or any other place–i.e., colleagues–have rights of their own, again independent of their religious affiliation. The care and kindness that the Prophet showed for neighbors and colleagues carries huge potential in this global village of ours.

Potentially the most significant in the process of constructing the bridging trust and establishing global governance are obligations stemming from various contractual relationships. Many Muslims are actually not aware of the importance assigned to contractual obligations in the Quran and Islamic tradition, be they peace agreements ending wars, social contracts establishing pluralistic polities, international agreements establishing codes of conduct for states, or permanent global governance structures. Many are surprised to hear that provisions of these agreements indirectly become part of the normative system that is mandatory for all Muslims who sign up to those agreements by themselves or via their governments. This is the strongest basis for the legitimacy of citizenship in Islamic jurisprudence and ethics. Similarly, the normativity of international standards of good governance is partially justified by reference to international agreements to which Muslims are a party.

Raising Muslim awareness about the multiplicity of circles of belonging and bases of mutual obligations could unlock huge reservoirs of support among Muslims for creating a culture of encounter, in general, and the construction of global governing structures and practices, in particular. Of course, there is nothing automatic about it. Forging global governance depends on many other conditions, but this one, while not sufficient, is certainly necessary. Working on it simultaneously with Pope Francis’ advocacy of a culture of encounter is crucial as changes of attitudes usually do not happen in the atmosphere of fear, but rather in an environment of trust that this initiative seems to be generating. May the Almighty show us the way!