Benedict XVI and Islam: the first year

Abdal Hakim Murad

Posted Sep 22, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Benedict XVI and Islam: the first year

Abdal Hakim Murad

In the immediate aftermath of the election of Joseph Ratzinger to the Papacy, Muslim reactions to the new pontiff were diverse and confused. Turks were dismayed by his very public opposition to their membership of the European Union, a view rooted in his conviction that ‘Europe was founded not on geography but on a common faith.’ Others pointed to the absence of any mention of Muslims from his inaugural address (a fact welcomed by the Jerusalem Post) as a hint that Vatican willingness to open minds and hearts to dialogue with Islam was now at an end. Despite this, however, some Muslims, most notably Akbar Ahmad, welcomed the appointment of a man of considerable seriousness and intelligence, in the hope that he would reinvigorate the world’s moral debate. This Muslim ambivalence seems set to continue, partly thanks to the fact that a year into his papacy, Ratzinger has not spoken or written in any substantial way about Islam, realizing, perhaps, that fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

His Polish predecessor had certainly recognized Islam’s immense importance, and had sought to encourage a friendly Muslim view of the papacy. This bore fruit in a remarkable outpouring of Muslim commemorations upon his death. The Shaykh al-Azhar described his demise as ‘a great loss for the Catholic Church and the Muslim world. He was a man who defended the values of justice and peace.’ The then Iranian president Khatami praised John Paul as a master of three spiritual paths: philosophy, poetry, and artistic creativity. Yusuf al-Qardawi commended his opposition to Israel’s ‘apartheid wall,’ and asked Muslims to offer their condolences to Christians. In Afghanistan, a Taliban spokesman said that ‘even though some have launched a Crusader war against Islam, the pope’s voice was for bringing peace to the world.’ Overall, the Muslim world’s affection for John Paul was clear.

John Paul had earned this distinction in multiple ways. Often impulsive, he could not be said to have maintained a distinctive ‘Islam policy’, but he made several significant gestures which indicated his awareness of the religion’s growing importance and its spiritual integrity. In 1985 he became the first Pope to visit a Muslim country, and in 2001 the first to enter a mosque, where he annoyed ultra-conservative Catholics by kissing a copy of the Qur’an. ‘Your God and ours is the same God, and we are brothers and sisters in the faith of Abraham,’ he told a Muslim crowd. His appeal, he said, was to ‘authentic religious Islam, the praying Islam, the Islam that knows how to join in solidarity with the needy.’ He distinguished this clearly from extremism, which he seldom failed to condemn.

To date, Ratzinger has shown few signs of continuing this theologically-unarticulated but sincere desire to reach out in affirmation. On the contrary, he has already shown himself to be sharply judgmental. He worried Muslims across Europe when, in an August 2005 meeting with imams in Germany who were worried about discrimination against their community, he made it clear that the only issue he wished to raise was ‘Islamic terrorism’. Apparently echoing a standard right-wing claim (made by Joerg Haider, Pim Fortuyn and Jean-Marie Le Pen in particular), he has said that ‘Islam is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of a pluralistic society.’ Another theme which he shares with the far right is his apparent belief that Muslims in Europe cannot be ‘assimilated’: ‘Islam makes no sort of concession to inculturation.’ (He does not seem to have noticed the immense differences in Muslim cultural style across the world.)

Such misunderstandings are the staple of Italy’s leading anti-immigration writer, Oriana Fallaci, who, at the time of writing, is in court on charges of incitement to religious hatred. Fallaci is the author of three anti-Muslim works popular in right-wing circles, and offers views of the usual xenophobic type: ‘Islam sows hatred in the place of love and slavery in the place of freedom.’ One of the most striking acts of Benedict’s papacy to date has been his unusual granting of a private audience to Fallaci in the papal palace at Castelgandolfo. The meeting was arranged discreetly, but was discovered by an Italian journalist, and later acknowledged by the Vatican press office. The content of the consultation was not made public, but Muslim sources noted that Fallaci, who had repeatedly condemned the previous pope’s commitment to dialogue with Muslims, has been consistently supportive of Benedict.

The Vatican’s apparent volte-face with respect to Muslims is not the work of Ratzinger alone. The sociologist Renzo Guolo, in his book Xenophobes and Xenophiles: Italians and Islam, notes a ‘turnaround in the Italian bishops’ conference in recent years.’ A new right-wing spirit has taken hold in many quarters. Cardinal Biffi of Bologna, for instance, has called for the closure of Italy’s mosques and for a new law banning Muslim immigration, ‘because these people are outside our humanity.’ So widespread is this kind of talk that even the traditionally anti-clerical party, the Northern League, is experimenting with the crusader’s sword. The Euro-MP Francesco Speroni, for instance, has called for a ban on allowing Muslims to enter Italy, prompting one human rights activist, Rinella Cere, to conclude that ‘a “pact with the devil” was clearly being made between sections of the Catholic church and the Northern League.’ And although the previous pope had made clear his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, many influential Church officials now seem to be supportive of Washington’s belief that Western models of government and society can be imposed through force of arms. Once, according to one Catholic journalist, Sandro Magister: ‘Vatican diplomacy did not separate itself from the policy of maintaining good relations with Arabic dictators, especially the secular and nationalistic ones. In the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, this policy obtained conditions of relative privilege for the Chaldean Christians.’ However, in the new atmosphere, ‘The Holy See … does not exclude the possibility that military forces could intervene as “missionaries of peace” when necessary. Present-day Iraq is one of these cases of necessity, in the judgment of Vatican leaders.’

That Ratzinger is part of this new hardening of attitudes towards Muslims may be deduced from some of his most significant reshuffles of Vatican officialdom. The generally eirenic Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, formerly head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and a well-known adversary of Ratzinger, has been sacked and demoted to run the papal mission in Egypt. Ratzinger has also moved to distance himself from Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the previous pope’s Secretary of State, who is widely regarded as pro-Palestinian, and remains a close friend of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah. Sodano’s likely successor is widely expected to be Cardinal Ruini, the former president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, who has been outspoken in insisting that Muslim children in Italian schools should not have the right to study their own religion, because, Ruini believes, this would involve ‘dangerous social indoctrination.’ In Palestine, two key appointments have added to the pessimism of the beleaguered Palestinians. Sabbah has been given a new auxiliary bishop, who will succeed him automatically in two years’ time: this is Fouad Twal of Jordan, regarded in Israel as far more acceptable than Sabbah, who has been a fearless critic of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. No less symbolic has been the choice of Pierbattista Pizzabella as bishop of the Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel. Pizzabella has regularly outraged Palestinian human rights activists by his outspoken support for Israel, and his appointment was loudly applauded in right-wing circles. One Anglican Palestinian leader calls him ‘very bad news’, and sees him as a sign that the Vatican is determined to draw a line under its former support for Palestinian rights, in favour of a pro-Israel strategy that will tie it in with wider right-wing aspirations for the Middle East. In making such an appointment, Ratzinger must have known very well the symbolic gravity of the step he was taking.

Ratzinger’s seeming harshness is regularly interpreted as a sign of a larger change of heart that has come over the Catholic church in recent years in response to the growing demographic significance of Islam in Europe, and the rise of Wahhabi terrorism. However he is not primarily a politician. His emerging Islam policy is ultimately rooted in a distinctive kind of theology. In particular, it should be taken in the context of his wider conservative conviction that Catholicism alone can guide human beings to true salvation, a view that his predecessor had seemed less anxious to advertise. Muslims may wince at his opinion of Islam, but his views on non-Catholic Christians have hardly been less trenchant. He was the leading contributor to the ‘definitive and irrevocable’ Catholic declaration Dominus Jesus in the year 2000, which insisted that non-Catholic churches ‘are not churches in the proper sense,’ and implied that non-Catholics are naturally destined for hellfire. He certainly subscribes to the traditional view that the ordination of Anglican priests is ‘utterly null and void,’ making most church-going in England a kind of theatre, a dim groping after a truth that may only be reliably found in Rome. In fact, his formal position, and his habit of mind, are far from any kind of pluralism, and his criticisms of Islam must be seen in this light. It is not quite correct to say, as some Muslims have done, that he has singled out Islam for a unique condemnation; he is, by the logic of his conservative theology, passionately critical of everything that fails to be ‘in communion with Rome’.

Among Muslim commentators there has as yet been little consideration of the ideas which drive this 78-year old Vatican insider, and which might supply a clue to understanding his view of Islam. Many Muslims think that Christianity in Europe ‘has lost its vision and is becoming a club for the elderly’ (Lord Carey’s allegation about the Anglican Church), in stark contrast to the American situation, where Christianity is politically dominant. Yet as the most significant survival from Europe’s religious past, and as an institution still immensely respected even by many secular Europeans, the Vatican is potentially an important interpreter of Islam to a Europe which now finds itself inhabited by twenty million Muslims, whose rights are increasingly under threat or actively denied by right-wing politicians and municipalities, and where Islamophobic violence is increasingly common.
Ratzinger’s knowledge of Islam is clearly patchy, and based on little practical engagement. The thinkers he prefers to hear tend not to be academic specialists in non-Christian religions, but activists and pastoral theologians. One advisor who has conferred with him on Islam, Joseph Fessio, believes, for instance, that ‘Islam is stuck. It’s stuck with a text that cannot be adapted, or even be interpreted properly,’ a view that Vatican Islam experts such as Daniel Madigan dismiss out of hand. Another rising star said to be close to Papal thinking is Piersandro Vanzan, a Jesuit professor at the Gregorian University in Rome. In early 2006, Vanzan co-authored a piece in the Catholic journal Studium which enthusiastically reproduced standard far-right discourse on Islam, complete with notions such as ‘moderate Islam, properly speaking, does not exist.’ Like Fessio, Fallaci and other self-appointed advisors on Islam, Vanzan has no expertise in Islamic studies, and is regarded as an embarrassment by the better-informed; yet this type of journalistic denunciation, unable or unwilling to distinguish the extreme from the orthodox, appears to be increasingly prominent in Ratzinger’s circle. The dismissal of Fitzgerald, a genuine Islam expert, is symptomatic of this tendency.

It helps to remember that Ratzinger is a European; more particularly, he is intensely Bavarian, and therefore not from a district with a long historic engagement with Islam (Poland, with its ancient and respected Tatar communities, seems to have been a different case). He is an accomplished pianist, a lover of Goethe, baroque sculpture and fine wine, who is less comfortable in other languages than his predecessor. The references in his many theological texts are mainly to the very introspective world of German theology; indeed, it is probable that he knows Lutheran theology better than he does the Catholic theology of the Third World. Bavaria lies at the heart of Europe; and indeed, was the beating heart of Nazism, the most intense of European attempts to reject non-white, non-European others.

Ratzinger is no Nazi; indeed, his thought is in large measure best understood as a reaction against the kind of modernity which produced the twentieth century’s great science-obsessed totalitarianisms. Yet he is deeply European. Faced with several Third World candidates, at the conclave in April 2005 the cardinals deliberately chose an icon of Europeanness, perhaps as an attempt to stem Europe’s drift away from Christianity. The appointment of a European was not really a surprise; what was more interesting was the choice of an icon of the anti-totalitarian reaction which saw the twentieth-century’s violence as a consequence of modernity, not as a strange aberration. Here Ratzinger parts company dramatically with other Catholic thinkers such as Hans Küng, a former friend, whose reading of the times is much more optimistic and upbeat than his own. Indeed, Ratzinger investigated and chastised such men during his time at the helm of his Vatican Congregation, the distant descendent of the Inquisition.

To understand the new pope, it helps to remember that despite this watchdog role he was once a leading light of the ‘moderate progressive’ wing of the Church. During the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s he collaborated with reformist figures such as Karl Rahner in pushing the Church roughly in the direction which had been urged by the Protestant reformers four hundred years before. The Tridentine Mass was scrapped, the notion of the clergy as a separate caste of human beings came under fire, many picturesque medieval traditions were banned, and space was given to lay Catholics in discussing issues once monopolised by the hierarchy. The backdrop was not, however, a stern bible-fundamentalism, but the curious idealism of the post-war years. Apparently oblivious to the threatening presence of a Soviet empire implanting nuclear warheads in silos across Eastern Europe, many in the West believed that it was time that religious conservatism gave way to a more ‘inclusive’ and affirmative attitude to human desires, which could allow Christians to participate in the playful culture of the modern West. Ratzinger, who in his early thirties cautiously committed to this view, repented suddenly when his students at the University of Tübingen’s Faculty of Catholic Theology, inflamed by Marxist ideas in the heady excitement of 1968, walked out of lectures shouting ‘Curse Christ! Curse Christ!’ From that time on he has solidified his position as a leading critic of what he saw as the naïve optimism of the 1960s, which had caused many in the church to read Vatican II as a populist moment. His abiding suspicion remains that Vatican II was a plughole through which faith and tradition drained, to be replaced by a liberal Protestant modernity.

Perhaps out of guilt at his own former flirtation with liberalism, for the remainder of his busy career as a bishop Ratzinger dedicated himself to a crusade against subversion by the secular, egalitarian culture of the West. He came to oppose the principle that regional bishops’ conferences might take decisions separately from the Vatican hierarchy. Most conspicuously, he used his position as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to defend the fortress of the Church from the barbarian liberal hordes without. Theologians who, despite the recent lessons of Hitler and Stalin, and the example of materialist secular culture, were influenced by a naïve modern optimism, were reproached, usually in private, but on occasion in the eyes of the world. This is why Küng, after being stripped of his licence to teach as a Catholic theologian, compared Ratzinger’s Congregation to the KGB. Liberation theologians in Latin America were too optimistic about the possibility of successful revolutionary activism on behalf of the poor. Liberals trying to ‘update’ the Church only seemed to do so with reference to a surrounding secular culture of change and triviality. Hence the lethal danger, as Ratzinger saw it, of allowing popular preferences to shape worship. ‘I am convinced,’ he wrote, ‘that the crisis in the church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy.’

Ratzinger’s idealistic opposition to modernity found expression in the pages of the journal Communio, which he helped to launch in partnership with his friend, the Swiss anti-modernist Hans Urs von Balthasar. Abandoning the unpleasantly liberal atmosphere of Tübingen, he moved in 1968 to Regensburg to launch a new faculty where he energetically trained dozens of neo-conservative thinkers. Many of these, like the American Joseph Fessio, have served as staunch buttresses against the rise of Protestant agendas and modernizing tendencies in the church, and were steadily recruited by John Paul II to fill the college of cardinals that one day would elect a new pope.

The theology which Ratzinger championed through this period was not the dusty repetitions of the thirteenth-century monk Thomas Aquinas that had dominated the Catholic world before Vatican II. Neither, however, was it the kind of subjective free-thinking which some feared would result from the Church’s convulsions in the mid-1960s. In common with many Catholics seeking renewal, Ratzinger returned to the fourth-century North African thinker St Augustine, and his medieval interpreter Bonaventure. Crisis, for Ratzinger, was not an excuse for inaction, but for a fearful recollection of human sinfulness; and Augustine and Bonaventure, with their heavy emphasis on original sin, the inherited defect with which they thought all humans are born, have often served as the foundation-stones of attempts to produce Catholic renewal. Ratzinger is certainly convinced of the radical sinfulness of human beings; and it is this conviction which underpins his onslaught on liberalism and liberation theology, and his scepticism about non-Christian religions. Without the sacraments of the Catholic Church, all is implicitly a form of wickedness, although it may contain broken fragments of the truth.

In his understanding of Judaism and Islam, Ratzinger is guided by the same Augustinian pessimism, which he finds ultimately in the letters of St Paul. Rituals of wudu and ibada are essentially worthless, as they lie outside the grace which is only mediated by God’s one true church. As he writes: ‘the law of Moses, the rituals of purification, the regulations concerning food, and all other such things are not to be carried out by us, otherwise the biblical Word would be senseless and meaningless.’ Such rituals are ‘slavery’, from which submission to the Church alone offers salvation. The Semitic principle is thus categorically inferior; Jews and Muslims, he seems to imply, are slaves, and their ability truly to please God must be Biblically doubted.

But it is not only ‘the Law’ which is ruled by sin; for Ratzinger, sin also dominates modernity, which represents the ‘human threat to all living things.’ It reduces everything, including religion, to blind cause and effect. Hence in modern eyes the Bible is not to be understood as a story leading to a conclusion, each of whose parts can only be read in terms of that conclusion, but as a series of disconnected fragments subjected to arguments over authorship. For the moderns, too, the idea of a medieval consensus as forming part of the sensus fidelium, the view of the community of believers (an idea resembling the Muslim principle of ijma’), is meaningless. But in the Pope’s eyes, the credibility of divine providence is hopelessly undermined by the Protestant idea that most past believers were radically mistaken. And if Catholics retreat from some previous certainties about doctrine and scripture, he believes, then there will inexorably be a retreat from others, until ‘finally, quite a number of people have the abiding impression that the church’s faith is like a jellyfish.’

Like many Muslim and Eastern Orthodox Vatican-watchers, the new Pope regards the Catholic Church as suffering from a deep crisis. Theology, despite attempts at firm control from the centre, has been wandering in the direction of subjectivism. The prohibition of the Tridentine Mass and its replacement with assorted forms of worship in local languages has not only cut congregations off from a source of unity, from centuries of devotion and from a language unpolluted by modernity, but has opened the floodgates to trivial experiments which can make worship resemble a form of entertainment. As he frankly says, ‘One shudders at the lacklustre face of the post-conciliar liturgy as it has become, or one is simply bored with its hankering after banality.’ Sexual abuse by clergy, and subsequent cover-ups by bishops, have gravely damaged the moral authority of the church in many places (two out of every seven graduates of one American seminary have died of AIDS; major newspapers claim that half of American priests are homosexual; several US dioceses have filed for bankruptcy in the face of claims for compensation by molestation victims). In Europe, the number of priests falls by one percent every year. All this amounts, in Ratzinger’s eyes, to ‘a dark and tragic night which has fallen upon the Church.’ ‘Everything,’ he feels, ‘is in a state of disintegration.’

There are Muslims who regard this as an opportunity for Islam; and it is certainly the case that conversions from Catholicism have increased in recent years, although numbers are still small in historic terms. Yet it is far from clear that the ‘crisis’, as the pope sees it, of the West’s most significant moral and spiritual institution, will be helpful to Muslim progress. Europe is sinking into a mood of increasing liberal intolerance of traditional values, as was shown earlier in 2005 when EU commissioner Rocco Buttiglione was forced to resign when he refused to condemn Catholic teachings on homosexuality. If liberalism is excluding religious believers from high office, there is reason to expect that a more thorough-paced persecution will follow, with the hounding of all those whose consciences prevent them from accepting homosexualist, feminist or other liberal beliefs. Ratzinger writes well about the ‘agnosticism which no longer recognises doctrinal norms and is left only with the method of putting things to a practical test.’ While he does not agree with his predecessor, Pope Leo XIII, that the separation of church and state is a heresy, he is clear that the radical indifference of national governments to religiously-grounded morals may result in a slippage into tyranny. Terrorism was invented by the French Revolution; in Bonaparte’s anti-religious empire it became the political norm of the first European Union. The danger is that a deep-seated secular indoctrination of Europe may in the long term produce a similar result. For Ratzinger, as in classical Muslim thought, the religious scholar is not to be the ruler; but neither is the ruler to be immune from counsel by the scholar or from the ethics set forth in revelation. Muslims may be nervous that religious authority in Catholicism is highly centralized and, in principle, monolithic (the point on which classical Muslim and Christian political theory most obviously diverge), but will need to welcome Catholic endeavors to hold rulers accountable to timeless moral absolutes. Catholicism is clear that the separation of church and state does not mean that governments are not allowed to be religious.

Sacred politics is the kind of area in which Ratzinger’s interpretation of Islam will need to be more fully informed. Perhaps assuming that Islam will take as long as Catholicism did to accept the idea of democracy, he is skeptical about the authenticity of popularly accountable government in Muslim societies. Here, again, he would benefit from studying major cases such as Turkey and Indonesia, where Muslim theologians were at the forefront of the democratization process and of opposition to authoritarian military regimes. There is certainly a difficulty in the idea, implicit in right-wing Catholic discourse, that Islam’s scholars operate in a democratic way to produce political authoritarianism, while the Church operates in an authoritarian way to support the idea and practices of political democracy. A reading of Noah Feldman’s study of Islamic discussions of popular sovereignty, After Jihad, would help the Vatican to resolve this apparent conundrum.

Ratzinger can also seem to be in the grip of a latent contradiction when he considers Islam’s powerfully conservative social instincts. In his book Salt of the Earth (1997) he notes that ‘Islam is opposed to our modern ideas about society;’ yet elsewhere he is famous for his insistence that Catholicism is itself radically opposed to many such ideas, and to the intellectual habits of modernity of which they are the expression. The same tension reappears where he writes, explaining the recent Islamic revival, that ‘in the face of the deep moral contradictions of the West and of its internal helplessness … the Islamic soul reawakened.’ His reluctance to speak at length about Islam, as opposed to holding private sessions with anti-Muslim activists, probably stems from a deep internal ambiguity about a religion which has conserved its liturgy and its family morality intact, which has no significant ‘gay lobby’, which is clear about the nature of men and women, and which reads scripture as an integral and authoritative whole in the way all Christians once did. If, as he suspects, the relativism in Christian theology, liturgy and moral practice which has become so prevalent is a sign of distance from God, then how is one to interpret Islam’s massive success on the same issues? Particularly disturbing, one may guess, is the realization that whereas Catholic decision-making since the First Vatican Council has been authoritarian and top-down, a method hardly challenged by John Paul II, Islamic ijma’ is a result of egalitarian debate among scholars over centuries of the kind Ratzinger would call ‘congregationalist’; and yet the internal integrity of liturgy and doctrine which an ultramontane, authoritarian church was meant to defend seems to have been better achieved, in many ways, by the apparently chaotic mechanisms of Islam. Catholic intellectuals who, in the wake of René Guénon, have converted to Islam often offer precisely this reason to justify their choice. Could it be that Vatican neoconservatism is hostile to Islam because it is privately impressed by it, not because it is primarily exercised by issues of ‘integration’ and democracy?

If so, we may be able to untangle one of the great mysteries surrounding Ratzinger’s Islam-talk. Rahner and the other script-writers of Vatican II approached Islam in terms of those issues that matter most to Muslims themselves. ‘Upon the Muslims, too, the Church looks with favor,’ they said, and the reasons they gave concerned Islam’s self-identification with Abraham, its reverence for Jesus and Mary, its concern with the Last Judgement, and its life of prayer and fasting. It is noteworthy that Ratzinger has hardly engaged with Islam on these levels, preferring, instead, to pick up the current rhetoric about the ‘crisis of Islam’. This is odd, given that he generally deplores the reduction of religious discussions to issues of sociology and politics. Here, perhaps, is a suggestion that Islam’s intactness is too large a fact for him to be ready to address, although he may well be preparing himself for some future statement.

Whatever the reasons for the new conservatism, Muslims must seek allies. The disliked and impoverished Muslim minorities of Europe, resembling in many ways fugitive monotheists in Roman catacombs, cannot muster the strength to campaign for a greater tolerance of non-liberal values. It is therefore crucial for Muslim communities to forge ties with other defenders of traditional humanity, and to wish them well. The Catholic church differs from Islam on some moral issues, such as contraception and divorce, but generally it advocates the set of ethics which is normal to sacred societies, and which underpinned the greatest cultural achievements of medieval Europe, both Muslim and Christian. Like Islam, it is not only a matter of private faith and worship, but of rules fixed in revelation (the pope has spoken against ‘the view that the Decalogue on which the Church has based her objective morality is nothing but a ‘cultural product’ linked to the ancient Semitic Middle East’). With Ratzinger holding the tiller, the church is unlikely to accept further concessions to the values of the secular establishment, still less to the Jacobin and Hitlerian demand that ‘priests should not meddle in politics’. The challenge will be to convince Muslim communities that it is conservatives, not liberals, who are our most natural partners in the great task of guiding Europe back to God, and that Ratzinger’s criticisms are grounded in respect, perhaps even in something approaching envy; not in any kind of racism or populist chauvinism. Whatever some Muslims may claim, the fact that far-right parties benefit from the new Vatican language about Islam does not mean that the Church is seeking to retrieve its former popularity in Europe by riding the tiger of the new xenophobia.

European Muslims are thus faced with an interesting dilemma. Should we support the Vatican because it advocates those traditional values which are the foundation of social and political stability, and develop the cooperation on social issues that Muslim and Catholic leaders have achieved in the past (the 1994 UN Population Summit was one example)? Such a collaboration might provide support to embattled traditionalists in bodies such as the Church of England, apparently on the brink of validating homosexual practices. This is an attractive notion; yet should we not be wary of a man whose sense of Europe’s true identity substantially excludes us? After all, if Turkey cannot join Europe because of its Muslimness, how far can Turks in Hamburg be accepted as Europeans? Tariq Ramadan has criticized the Pope’s Christian definition of Europe, on the grounds that ‘we must recognize that all the monotheistic faiths are part of Europe’s roots.’ His understandable fear is that Ratzinger’s ideas about Semitic religions will comfort the growing legions of European chauvinists and Islamophobes. However it is by no means clear that a generic monotheism of the kind Ramadan commends will be sufficient to defeat relativism in Europe.

Does this mean that Muslims stand to benefit more in an officially Christian Europe? American Muslims, ruled by an effectively theocratic administration in which presidential speeches are intensely Biblical and the state provides massive funding for Christian social movements (but not Muslim ones) would probably resist this notion. An increasing number of American Catholic bishops denounce the ‘accommodationist’ Catholic politicians who do not follow the Church’s line. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, for instance, complains that ‘too many American Catholics – maybe most – no longer connect their political choices with their religious faith in any consistent, authentic way.’ Yet a larger alliance between Catholics and the politically-dominant Evangelicals, a scenario sometimes predicted by American Muslims, in reality seems unlikely. Support for a violent response to Saddam Hussein, for instance, was strongest in Bush’s Evangelical constituency; whereas the Catholic bishops opposed it. The theological tensions between the two large sects of American Christianity have been intensified by Dominus Jesus, and the cooperation in issues of religious politics (on the abortion issue, most notably) has probably progressed as far as it can.

Europe cannot be like America; and a strong religious presence here will not have the militaristic consequences which American Muslims have witnessed with such dismay. The Evangelicals in Europe are far weaker, and think differently on political matters. A Europe defined in Christian terms is more likely to take its guidance from Ratzinger than from any reformed thinker (there are few Southern Baptists here, and as for liberal Christian thinkers, these typically do not differ from the secular consensus on moral issues, and are hence irrelevant). Moreover, there is no reason to suppose that the continent’s current coldness towards the claims of Christianity is a permanent condition. The increasing witness of Muslims may ironically trigger a Christian revival, as the Belgian novelist Jacques Neirynck has forecast. In that situation, the continent’s ethico-political domination by the Vatican would probably enhance the sense of security of the majority population, and this can only be in the interests of Muslims, for whom the threat is not the Church, but the far-right movements which may claim Christian principles, but will, we may reasonably hope, always be kept at a firm distance by Curial institutions that can never decisively reject the rulings of Vatican II.

Many Muslims have been uncomfortable with Ratzinger because of his public statements about Islam. Yet we should be wary of emotional responses; and act in our interests, which are also those of a well-integrated, tolerant and successful Europe. Benedict XVI may not quite intend it, but on balance, his policies are likely to be good for Islam.

This article first appeared in Q News.  Abdal Hakim Murad is working on an updated version which will appear in the next issue of Islamica Magazine.  (Editors note: if you do not already subscribe to Islamica which is the best Islamic magazine in print, please do so today.)