Where Do We Go From Here?

Catholic-Muslim Relations in the wake of the Pope's controversial remarks

As the firestorm of reaction cools to some sentences in Pope Benedict’s talk on September 12 at Regensberg University in Germany, the questions of the hour are: What lessons can be learned, and what impact will it have on Catholic-Muslim relations at-large?

The speech was in large measure a scholarly address criticizing the West for squeezing faith out the door in its love affair with reason, science, and technology. The section relating to Islam represented only three paragraphs, and came at the outset.

Pope Benedict began by recounting a conversation that took place between a 14th century Byzantine Christian emperor and a Persian scholar. “Show me,” he quoted the emperor Manuel II Paleologus as saying, “just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

In this brief introduction, Benedict also referred to the Islamic concept of jihad, which he defined as “holy war”, and said violence in the name of religion was contrary to God’s nature and to reason.

Personal Regret

Muslims leaders worldwide found the Pope’s use of the medieval quotation “provocative” and were joined by many Christians in judging it ill-advised, especially in light of Christianity’s own unfortunate history of violence.

In his expression of personal regret on Sunday September 17, Benedict said that the quotations from the medieval text “do not in any way express my personal thought.” Earlier statements by the pope would support this. Only days after his election, he welcomed representatives of other Christian churches and other religions. He said on that occasion, “I am particularly grateful for the presence in our midst of members of the Muslim community, and I express my appreciation for the growth of dialogue between Muslims and Christians…I assure you that the Church wants to continue building bridges of friendship with the followers of all religions, in order to seek the true good of every person and of society as a whole.”

A Defining Speech

A careful reading of the Pope’s speech at Regensberg shows that it wasn’t the broadside against Islam that it was initially perceived to be. The saddest part of it is that it was all so avoidable. The citation, unnecessary to his line of argumentation, could simply have been dropped with nothing essential lost.

Some church experts were expecting this to be a defining speech of his pontificate. One of the questions the Vatican is undoubtedly looking at is the process for vetting important addresses before they are given. According to the New York Times, several Vatican officials said they had seen the text and expressed concern before the speech was delivered that it might be negatively received by Muslims or be misconstrued by the news media as an attack on Islam. Whether their concerns came to Benedict’s attention before he gave the talk is not known, but they proved to be prophetic.

Damage Assessment

What is the assessment of damage on Catholic-Muslim relations? The early signs, at least in the American context, are that the relations forged in three regional dialogues—Mid-Atlantic, Mid-West, and West Coast—will prove resilient and withstand the test. A member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in the Vatican noted that on Saudi TV the Sunday following Benedict’s talk there were news programs saying that the U.S. is a model for Muslim-Christian dialogue and that this effort needs to be multiplied everywhere.

The various communiqués exchanged between representatives of Catholic and Muslim communities in North America carried a common motif: the proper response to the pope’s remarks is for Muslims and Catholics worldwide to increase dialogue and outreach efforts aimed at building better relations between Christianity and Islam.

In one such communiqué, Aslam Abdullah, director of the Islamic Society of Nevada, noted that this unfortunate episode also offers an opportunity for Christians to learn more about Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and the Islamic concept of jihad, one of the topics mentioned by the pope.

“It is time to move
on. We take Pope Benedict’s apology seriously and we urge American Muslims to take leadership positions to condemn religiously motivated violence and work more diligently
for building inter-religious cultures of peace and healing.”

“Jihad,” Abdullah said, “is a central and broad Islamic concept that includes struggle against evil inclinations within oneself, struggle to improve the quality of life in society, struggle in the battlefield for self-defense (e.g., having a standing army for national defense), or fighting against tyranny or oppression.’Jihad’ should not be translated as ‘holy war.’

Extreme Islamists

Unfortunately, the violent reaction orchestrated by extreme Islamists in parts of the world exerts a super-sized influence on the global perception of Islam. Critical judgment is needed in assessing any comprehensive statements about Islam. Not all Muslims are the same. Arabs, for example, comprise roughly 18% of the world Muslim population; the nations with the largest Muslim populations are Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India.

Iftekhar Hai, president of a west coast Interfaith Alliance, said, “It is time to move on. We take Pope Benedict’s apology seriously and we urge American Muslims to take leadership positions to condemn religiously motivated violence and work more diligently for building inter-religious cultures of peace and healing. We deeply regret the violence and the loss of life that has occurred. This is not acceptable. We also accept our inability to control the actions of 1.3 billions Muslims spread all over the world.”

A Call for Muslim Accountability

Despite their inability to control the actions of fellow Muslims, at least one Islamic organization is calling for accountability with regard to the violence and destruction that flared up in the wake of the Pope’s speech. On September 20 the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called on Muslims in America and worldwide to help repair the churches damaged in the West Bank and Gaza following Pope Benedict’s remarks by sending a donation to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association http://www.cnewa.org/ (earmark donations for “Palestine Damaged Churches”).

“Our campaign is designed to send the message that attacks on any houses of worship are not acceptable and will not be tolerated,” said CAIR-Tampa Executive Director Ahmed Bedier.

Model Relationship

Sherrel Johnson, assistant to the director for the CAIR in Southern California, also commented: “We want the participants of our Catholic-Muslim dialogues in Southern California and across the nation, to know how proud we are of the successful relationships we have established between our faiths. Over the past several years, we have built friendships and trusts that have become what we pray will be a model for relationship building in Europe and other countries. Let us continue in our prayers for understanding as we work toward justice and peace for all.”

In a speech I attended at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual congress in Chicago just nine days before the Pope’s speech in Germany, the former President of Iran Mohammad Khatami delivered a message that will only grow in relevance “There is a great opportunity of dialogue and cooperation among people of faith” he said. “But I mean people of true faith. I don’t mean extremists and terrorists.”

The discerning citizen of today’s complex world would be well-advised to make similar distinctions.