Pope Benedict and Islam:  One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Pope Benedict and Islam:  One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

by Sheila Musaji


This Pope is very confusing and mysterious.  On the one hand he has accepted a plea by Muslim scholars for dialogue, and set up a team to plan this dialogue.  On the other we have his Regensberg address, some unusual Vatican appointments, and and now the high profile Easter Sunday Baptism of converts to Catholicism including that of Magdi Allam, a non-practicing Muslim journalist who is known for making incendiary statements about Islam.  What are Muslims to make of these conflicting signals.

When Benedict was still a Cardinal, before he became Pope, he opposed Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, saying it belonged to a different cultural sphere, adding that its admission would be a grave error against the tide of history.  He also identified Europe as “Christian”.  Not surprisingly, once he was elected Pope Muslims watched carefully to see if his Papacy would continue working towards dialogue or if he would step back from the positive direction of his predecessor.

When Benedict was elected Pope in 2005, I said  “Whether Islam and the Vatican will be rivals or partners may depend on the results of discussions on whether dialogue and interfaith efforts are necessary or productive.”  I also expressed my initial ambivalence “As far as Islam and Muslims are concerned there is room for cautious optimism, but also a lot of questions that will only be answered over time.  Before this Pope was elected even the National Catholic Reporter listed Islam and relations with the Muslim world as one of the three key issues that would be faced by the next Pope.” 

I was not alone in this “cautious optimism”.  Farish Noor noted that:  “Observers and scholars of the Catholic faith are now asking the question of where the Vatican is heading politically and theologically. The Vatican II council marked a crucial turning point in the doctrinal evolution of the church itself, opening it up to a multicultural world with a host of co-existing religions and belief-systems. Does the election of Cardinal Ratzinger signify the continuity of this spirit of accommodation and pluralism, or will he re-assert Catholicism’s monopoly of truth? Ratzinger’s critics do not doubt where the new pope’s loyalties and priorities lie. They point out that he stated (in 1997) that Buddhism was merely a form of ‘autoerotic spirituality’ bereft of ‘concrete religious obligations’ and described Hinduism as ‘morally cruel’ and offering only ‘false hope’.”

In March of 2006, the Pope received a delegation from the American Jewish Committee at the Vatican, and during that interview he said“Judaism, Christianity and Islam believe in the one God, creator of heaven and earth.  It follows, therefore, that all three monotheistic religions are called to co-operate with one another for the common good of humanity, serving the cause of justice and peace in the world.  This is especially important today when particular attention must be given to teaching respect for God, for religions and their symbols, and for holy sites and places of worship.”  This was a very promising statement.

In September of 2006 came the Regensberg speech raising ancient prejudices against Islam.  This was another step backwards in Muslim Catholic relations.  Thirty eight Muslim scholars issued an open letter to the Pope regarding the Regensberg speech.

It was not only Muslims who wondered at the time of the Regensberg speech just what Rome was trying to accomplish.  Even the Protestant theologian, Martin E. Marty expressed some concerns about the possible damage this speech might do to fledgling dialogue movements.    “His Holiness must have underestimated how useful such words would be to extreme fightpicking Muslim clerics and right-wing American talk show folk. His people now stress that he did not intend to offend Muslims, but his plea for “genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today” will be set back and out-shouted by those clerics and rightists. What sounds at least half appropriate in a history-and-theology classroom sounds different when spread to a billion Christians and a billion Muslims, as words such as these will be. The only thing that will be remembered from the pope’s new call for reason and dialogue is the unreasonable and monological citation that Muhammad contributed only “evil and inhuman” speech and action in human history.”

Thousands of articles were written at the time, Pope Benedict issued a clarification and made an apology for offending the Muslims, the apology was accepted.  But, there was still doubt as to exactly what Benedict’s stand was.  Of those thousands of articles a few of particular importance were by scholars who ultimately were signatories to the Common Word document issued by Muslim scholars to ask for dialogue.

Shaikh Kabir Helminski    “Perhaps it is time for the Pope, if he is sincere, rather than lobbing rhetorical hand-grenades into the Muslim street, to sit down with a few contemporary Muslim men and women of wisdom and explore the common ground that might be found in these notions of faith and reason. The Dalai Lama met with world leaders of Islam in San Francisco in April of 2006, warmed their hearts, acknowledged their good intentions, and in so doing formed connections of compassion and understanding which will help to marginalize the extremists.”

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.  ...  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.”

Tariq Ramadan  “This profoundly European pope is inviting the peoples of the continent to become aware of the central, inescapable Christian character of their identity, which they risk losing. The message may be a legitimate one in these times of identity crisis, but it is deeply troubling and potentially dangerous in its reductionism.  This is what Muslims must, above all, respond to; they must challenge a reading of the history of European thought from which the role of Muslim rationalism is erased, in which the Arab-Muslim contribution would be reduced to mere translation of the great works of Greece and Rome.  The selective memory that so easily forgets the decisive contributions of rationalist Muslim thinkers like al-Farabi (10th century), Avicenna (11th century), Averroes (12th century), al-Ghazali (12th century), Ash- Shatibi (13th century) and Ibn Khaldun (14th century) is reconstructing a Europe that practices self-deception about its own past. If they are to reappropriate their heritage, Muslims must demonstrate, in a manner that is both reasonable and free of emotional reactions, that they share the core values upon which Europe and the West are founded.”

Some Muslims who initially took a positive view of the Regensberg address like Dr. Robert D. Crane later became more ambivalent after the appointment of Archbishop William Levada to replace the current Pope Benedict XVI as the Vatican’s guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy.  Dr. Crane said:  “The question now is whether the Vatican is moving toward or away from religious pluralism as the surest way to counter the anomie of existential relativism and to overcome the primordial fear in the modern world that causes and sustains both terrrorism and terroristic counter-terrorism.”

Even with some concern as to how this might be received, in October of 2006 Muslims scholars sent an open letter to the Pope (and Christian leaders of all the denominations).  Full text at http://www.islamicamagazine.com/ 

Although Protestants were the first to respond, ultimately the Catholic Church did respond, and a delegation of Muslims met with church officials at the Vatican to set up a formal dialogue meeting to be held in the Spring of 2008.

While these arrangements were being made, and just days after Osama bin Laden issued a threat against Europe that included an accusation that the pope was involved in a “new Crusade” against Islam, and in the same week that there was talk about a first Catholic Church being built in Saudi Arabia,  Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born newspaper editor famous in Europe for his harsh statements about Islam, was baptized by the pope during Easter celebrations at the Vatican, in a high profile public ceremony seen by millions around the world. 

Why the selection of such a high profile critic of Islam for this public display?  What message exactly is this supposed to send?  Magdi Allam is not just a Muslim converting to Christianity.  He is a very controversial figure (Time called him Italy’s answer to Ayaan Hirsi Ali) who is by his own statements was never a practicing Muslim.  In many headlines about this incident Allam is referred to as a “prominent Muslim” - not quite accurate, more like a prominent newspaper editor.  Based on his own public statements he has not been a Muslim for a long time.  An Egyptian-born critic of Islam would be more accurate.  But, a high profile critic, at least in Europe.  There were seven people who converted in this ceremony, but he is the only one who generated thousands of news articles.  Certainly the selection of candidates for this very public conversion ceremony was carefully thought out, it was not an accident.  Someone made a decision, and that decision is the question.  What message is being sent?  What will be the effect on Muslim-Catholic relations? 

Some of Allam’s statements are particularly worrisome.  For example:  “... the root of evil is innate in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictual.” (1)  Allam has denounced multiculturalism,  supports a ban on building mosques in Italy, and refused to accept the Common Word Letter.  He also said in Corrierre dela Serra that he has been “liberated from the obscurantism of an ideology which legitimizes lies and dissimulation, violent death, which induces both murder and suicide, and blind submission to tyranny”. (2

I can understand Allam’s motivation.  He is not a person who has had a spiritual awakening and discovered Christianity as the path he wishes to follow, but a man who is filled with hatred for the religion he was raised in and wishes to make that point in any way that he can. 

I cannot understand the Vatican’s motivation.  Why with preparations for dialogue underway (even after the strains of the last several years) would the Pope revive antagonism in this way?  It seems as if the Pope himself is not certain whether he wants to build bridges or tear them down, and is doing both at the same time.  What is needed now is clarity of vision and not confusion.

An Italian Muslim leader, Yahya Pallavicini, who has been involved with Vatican-Muslim dialogue, expressed surprise“As a European Muslim, there was no reason to deny his religion of origin in order to love better or more the Christ figure or Christianity.”

Aref Ali Nayed, director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Amman, Jordan, (and a participant in the recent Vatican talks to improve Catholic-Muslim relatiions) criticized what he called “the Vatican’s deliberate and provocative act of baptizing Allam on such a special occasion and in such a spectacular way.”  “It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points,” Nayed said in a written statement.  He added that the baptism came “at a most unfortunate time when sincere Muslims and Catholics are working very hard to mend ruptures between the two communities.” 

Because I believe so strongly that dialogue is the critical need of our time, I pray that those who hold in their hands the power to make this happen do not allow this opportunity to slip from between their fingers.

As the Muslim scholars said in the Common Word Letter:  “If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants.  Our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.”


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