Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Pope, Islam and Future of Interfaith Dialogue

Pope, Islam and future of interfaith dialog

The Jakarta Post, 21 September 2006

Muhamad Ali

Pope Benedict XVI's controversial comments on Islam at the University of Regensburg, Germany, despite his prompt apology, has left us some crucial issues to rethink in terms of promoting interfaith dialog.

I have tried to understand why the pope made a reference to Islam when he was talking about Christian belief, reason and Western civilization, and now better understand why he was upset by the unexpected reaction to his comments and later regretted his words.
Before becoming pope, the then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in 2004 that Christianity should be revitalized amid a secularizing Europe and West. The Hellenistic civilization influenced Byzantine, and led to the establishment of a continent that would eventually become the basis for Europe.

For Benedict, there are spiritual and rational roots in Europe and the West in general that should be defended and revitalized. In his controversial speech, Benedict intended to put into context the historical connections between those great civilizations and Western Christian civilization, and he found this context in a 14th century conversation between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian scholar representing a rival civilization of the time. In his speech, the pope seemed to be trying to bridge the gap between secularists and Catholics.

Adel Theodore Khoury, the editor of the book Polimique Byzantine contre l'Islam, said what the pope quoted was actually an advocation for genuine harmony among Abrahamic believers. According to Khoury, "Membership in the posterity of Abraham can foster an open encounter between the faithful of the three Abrahamic religions."

"...Rather than being an object of dispute and wrangling between the three faiths that claim him, Abraham can become the initiator and the guarantor of a serious dialog between them and of a fruitful cooperation for the good of all humanity."

Thus, in my reading, the pope's selection of the quote was more likely motivated by his intention to provide a context, not an opinion.

For many Muslims, however, the problem with the speech was that the selected quotation failed to portray a complex relationship between Islam and reason, merely for the purpose of reasserting the compatibility of Catholicism with Hellenistic rationality.
In retrospect, the pope could have quoted other phases and sides of history which provide more complex and diverse experiences of the relationship between Muslims and Christians in connection with faith and reason.

In the medieval history of Islam, many Muslim scholars, philosophers, Sufis and theologians believed in the compatibility between Islamic belief and reason, progress and humanism, despite others who believed otherwise. There are also the histories of peace and coexistence between Muslims, Christians and Jews in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and all over the world. In fact, shared and connected civilizations have long existed in parts of the world.

Religion is a complex historical and theological phenomenon. Catholicism, Islam, Judaism and other religions (and secular ideologies) have dark histories -- of polemics, conflicts and wars -- that everyone should realize and understand as part of world history. Religious believers keep the faith that their religions are essentially good. Yet, double standards have occurred: many Catholics may emphasize the normative ideals of their religion while pointing to the bad practices of other religious communities. Many Muslims say and write about the normative ideals of their religion, while at the same time criticizing the bad practices of Christians and Jews. Self-criticism is a very rare practice among believers, although it is crucial in terms of bridging the perception gaps and creating peaceful coexistence.

The pope's speech was not his first on Islam. In Cologne on Aug. 20, 2005, Benedict delivered a speech to the Muslim community. His major concern was the spread of terrorism in the name of religion, and he said, "I know that many of you have firmly rejected, also publicly, in particular any connection between your faith and terrorism and have condemned it. I am grateful to you for this, for it contributes to the climate of trust that we need. The life of every human being is sacred, both for Christians and for Muslims."

He reaffirmed 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" (L'Osservatore Romano, April 25, 2005).

For Benedict, the Magna Carta of the dialog with Muslims remains the Second Vatican Council: "the Church looks upon Muslims with respect. They worship the one God living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to humanity and to whose decrees, even the hidden ones, they seek to submit themselves whole-heartedly, just as Abraham, to whom the Islamic faith readily relates itself, submitted to God ..." (Declaration Nostra Aetate, n.3).

Not to repeat the mistakes of the Crusades should not mean not learning from and studying the history. Many studies on the Crusades have uncovered many revealing facts as well as mysteries. The Crusades have tended to be viewed from partial perspectives, from the Muslim side or from the Christian side (Carole Hillenbrand, The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives, 1999).
There are certainly more theological and ethical issues that Muslims, Christians and all others need to discuss in facing the complex challenges of modern or postmodern times. As Benedict said in 2005: "Dear Christians and Muslims, we must face together the many challenges of our time. There is no room for apathy and disengagement, and even less for partiality and sectarianism ... interreligious and intercultural dialog between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is in fact a vital necessity".

The great historian Arnold Toynbee once said that the fate of a society always depends on its creative minorities. Muslims, Christians, Jews and others, in their respective countries everywhere, should play their roles in helping the world into peace and prosperity.
The future of interfaith dialog is still bright if everyone is sincere and serious, and Pope Benedict XVI has given a very valuable example for everyone about sincerity, empathy and seriousness in dialog and mutual understanding.

The writer is a PhD candidate in history, a fellow at the East-West Center and a lecturer at State Islamic University, Jakarta. He can be reached at

A Reader's Response to the Above Article

The Pope and Islam Saturday, October 07, 2006

It is a sweet irony that while according to some the Pope's Regensburg address is suggesting that there may be a contradiction between Islamic faith and logos, the most reasonable reaction so far, in my opinion, has come from an Islamic intellectual, Muhamad Ali.

My congratulations to him. At least someone has really read and understood this controversial lecture. Of course there is always room for interpretation and reading between the lines, like some ideologists eagerly do.

Nevertheless, a less sweet irony is that while the lecture was about the relation between faith and reason, many Muslim religious and political leaders have angrily condemned the Pope for "insulting the Muslims" and have repeatedly asked for an apology.

If they condemn someone without really knowing the facts, then where is "reason"? And wouldn't that make the Pope's lecture very relevant too? Separate faith from reason, add a media which seems to rather play the role of "news and sensation maker" instead of "reporter of facts", and hatred, distrust, violence and even the killing of an innocent nun results.

Another interpretation of the Regensburg address is that it accuses Islam of promoting violence. So what were those people, who call themselves Muslims, who reacted violently, trying to prove? Right, there is some basic rationality, logos, missing in their reasoning.

Now let me say in honesty -- and the truth sometimes hurts but we can learn from it -- that many people in Europe have gotten a less favorable opinion about Islam and Muslims as a result of the reactions (including those of respected leaders) to the Pope's lecture.

People like Muhamad Ali, the majority of Indonesian Muslims, as well as the rich scholarly tradition of Islam and science, prove that Islam, reason, tolerance and peacefulness can go together perfectly.

Furthermore, Muslims have the right to ask the same questions substituting Islam by Christianity or Western secularism and they do. For example, we are regularly reminded of the crimes of the Crusaders, Western (Christian) colonization, the present day suffering of Muslims in for instance the Palestinian territories, Southern Thailand, Chechnya, Kashmir and the inability of the West to deal with this. They are right to do so. But similarly, non-Muslims should have the right to remind Muslims of their dark pages in history as well as the suffering in Darfur, the long Shiite-Sunni conflict, Papua, and with -- what they perceive as -- the inability of the Muslim world to deal with terrorism and fanaticism which are just as well factors in the deadlock of several conflicts.

It should be clear that they are talking not about Islam as a faith but about something completely different. Muslims should acknowledge that and respect that too. In fact, it would be helpful if they would realize that the real insults to Islam are those people or entities who claim to be Islamic but practice un-Islamic acts.



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