Basic Divisions Emerge When the Catholics and Muslims got together.

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By John F. Cullinan

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of a three-part series. The first two pieces can be read here and here.

How exactly does Pope Benedict XVI view his own role and responsibilities in his dialogue with the Muslim world? What are his overall aims?

Benedict has two aims, one immediate, the other for the longer term. His immediate aim is to ease the plight of hard-pressed Christian minorities in the Muslim world. Simply by calling attention to their suffering, Benedict makes their existence known to a world that would otherwise overlook them. Iraqi Christians in particular regard the pope as their only ally in an otherwise indifferent or hostile world.

One of several means to that end is interreligious dialogue, of which this month’s talks are just one track. But interreligious dialogue is a painfully slow process; its results are mainly indirect and slow to mature. In the Catholic view, it’s above all a search for common ground supporting an ethic of coexistence. Hence the Catholic insistence on an agenda specifically addressing “the dignity of the person and mutual respect,” ethical imperatives that don’t require theological agreement.

Benedict reinforced that point earlier this week in a rare letter to Italy’s newspaper of record, the Corriere della Sera, praising a forthcoming book by his 2006 co-author, Marcello Pera, the noted philosopher and prominent member of the Italian Senate. In his brief letter, Benedict endorsed “intercultural dialogue that thoroughly examines [approfondisce] the cultural [i.e., concrete] consequences of basic religious ideas,” while noting that “inter-religious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible.” This essential qualification simply means that while purely theological agreement between Christians and Muslim is in fact impossible (consider only the Trinity versus the oneness of Allah), practical initiatives aimed at peaceful coexistence and mutual respect are both possible and necessary.

Here’s how Catholics understand interreligious dialogue. It begins with each side giving an authoritative account of its own faith, so that Catholics thus understand from Muslims what Muslims themselves believe and vice versa. The next step is to identify — and hopefully correct — each side’s misperceptions of the other. What follows is the search for common ground by applying agreed principles to concrete concerns. For Catholics, this means above all insisting on all full religious freedom for all religious minorities everywhere, both in principle and increasingly as a matter of reciprocity and justice.

But the final step in this process, as Benedict pointedly remarked in his brief address at the conclusion of the talks, is “to ensure that the reflections and positive developments which emerge from Muslim-Christian dialogue are not limited to a small group of experts and scholars, but are passed on as a precious legacy to be placed at the service of all, to bear fruit in the way we live each day (emphasis added).”

By these measures, the results of the talks were decidedly mixed. In his closing address, Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University, the Muslim delegation’s co-leader, deliberately reinforced widespread Muslim misperceptions of “aggressive proselytizing” by Christians in Muslim-majority states: “You and we, we both believe in religious freedom, but we Muslims do not allow an aggressive proselytizing in our midst that would destroy our faith in the name of freedom any more than would Christians if they were in our situation.”

This clumsy effort at moral equivalence is factually incorrect. None of the historic Christian churches in the Middle East — all of which predate Islam — engage in proselytism, rightly understood as taking advantage of the vulnerable through force or fraud. These churches actually discourage or even turn away potential converts, since these individuals inevitably face ostracism or worse, while the churches themselves fear agents-provocateurs seeking to stoke conflict. In fact, these same churches almost always oppose the presence of other Christian denominations without historic local ties (most often Evangelicals), which they regard as unwelcome interlopers offering the answer to a question that nobody’s asking. Mustafa Cherif, a Muslim intellectual, former Algerian government official and Common Word signatory, offers a much more accurate picture:

Our Catholic friends in Algeria, who have been here for fifty years [since Algerian independence], have never tried to convert anyone, although they do have the right to witness to their faith. This, in spite of the fact that the current pope frequently recalls the central nature of the evangelizing mission for the Catholic Church.

Similarly troubling is this blithe assertion: “Certainly we cannot claim that violence is the monopoly of only one religion.” Whatever this claim’s historical or theoretical merits, religiously-inspired violence today is not a Christian phenomenon, nor does holy war play any role whatsoever in modern Christian thought and life
Finally, there are Nasr’s unfortunate and offensive remarks to the media belittling the immense suffering of Christian minorities and Christian converts from Islam: “The difficulties of these Christians are nothing in comparison with what Muslim peoples have suffered over the centuries at the hands of Christians, and today especially at the hands of Israel and the United States.”

None of these inaccurate and provocative claims was matched by similar comments from the Catholic side. But they’re a useful reality check and fair measure of the difficulty of arriving at a true meeting of the minds.
It also happens that the results of this month’s meeting received little or no press coverage in Muslim-majority states, according to La Croix correspondents in Cairo, Rabat and Djakarta. Asked for comment, the editor of Cairo’s Al-Arabi daily responded simply, “We haven’t received any information at all on this subject.” For this silence, responsibility ultimately rests with the talks’ Muslim participants and their sponsors.

Little wonder that Benedict’s longer-term objective for Catholic-Muslim dialogue seems even further from fulfillment. Simply stated, his ultimate aim to encourage a dialogue within Islam about facing up to the challenges posed by modernity. These include the fact of pluralism — within Islam as well between Islam and the West — coupled with respect for human dignity in all its dimensions. In an important post-Regensburg 2006 address to the Roman Curia, Benedict posed this challenge as follows:

In a dialogue to be intensified with Islam, we must bear in mind the fact that the Muslim world today is finding itself faced with an urgent task. This task is very similar to the one that has been imposed upon Christians since the Enlightenment, and to which the Second Vatican Council, as the fruit of long and difficult research, found real solutions for the Catholic Church.

According to Benedict, this challenge is two-fold: “one must counter a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the community and from public organizations” and “one must welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognize these also as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion.”

As in the Christian community, where there has been a long search to find the correct position of faith in relation to such beliefs – a search that will certainly never be concluded once and for all -, so also the Islamic world with its own tradition faces the immense task of finding the appropriate solutions in this regard.

In his concluding remarks, Prof. Nasr briefly acknowledged this challenge, leaving the door ajar for further exploration of this theme:

The encounter of Christian with modernism including secular humanism and rationalism associated with the Enlightenment has also been very different from the experience of that encounter with Islam. Perhaps we can each learn something from the other in this very significant matter.

This particular challenge is more widely recognized outside the Islamic world than openly acknowledged within it. Three years ago, I framed the issue as follows:

The Muslim world … lacks a theology of religious pluralism that recognizes the equal dignity of every human person. Its historical experience is one of Muslim domination and non-Muslim dhimmitude (legally enforced inferiority in every sphere of life). Despite some welcome political changes now taking place in the Middle East, it remains unclear whether Islam has the theological resources to develop — and the institutional capacity to apply — an authentically new understanding of its own tradition.

Yet this debate is now taking place between some leading Muslim thinkers in Europe, where there’s far greater freedom of inquiry than in the Muslim world itself. Two figures personify this debate. One is Tariq Ramadan, pictured here at the Vatican this month with Benedict. According to one thoughtful critic, Ramadan’s ultimate “project is not the modernization of Islam, but the Islamification of modernity.” The other is Bassam Tibi, the prominent Syrian-born German scholar, who maintains precisely the opposite view: “Either Islam gets Europeanized, or Europe gets Islamized.”

Is there any doubt where Benedict stands?

— John F. Cullinan, a regular NRO contributor, is an expert on international religious freedom.

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