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Controversy over Faith! Where do we go from here?
Only through education and interaction can bias and exclusiveness be dispelled. - HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal, Edinburgh, 4 February 2002

25 September   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Four paragraphs in an eight-page lecture on "Faith and Reason" delivered by HH Pope Benedict XVI at Regensburg University in Germany last week provoked huge reactions amongst Muslims worldwide. From Morocco to Pakistan, Iran to Turkey, Palestine to Indonesia and Iraq to Afghanistan, Muslim leaders and grassroots alike voiced their concern - and at times vented their bile - at the Pope for quoting a 14 th -century Byzantine emperor who claimed that the Prophet Muhammad had wielded the sword to bring to the world "things only evil and inhuman". Manuel II Paleologus (1391-1425) made this remark circa 1400 CE as he fought to keep the Turks from overrunning his empire - which finally fell in 1453 - at a time when most Muslim rulers treated Christians in their midst better than Christian rulers of Europe treated their own minorities.

Those four paragraphs led theologians, politicians, writers, experts and pundits to join in the fray as they tried to decipher the real intent behind the Pope's words. After all, some of them pointed out, had this Pope not spoken out in 2004 against Turkey joining the EU because he considered this Muslim country "in permanent contrast to Europe"? Moreover, at a meeting with Muslims in Köln, Germany, last year, had the pontiff not also urged joint efforts to "turn back the wave of cruel fanaticism that endangers the lives of so many people and hinders progress toward world peace"? Many commentators opined that he is much more hawkish on Islam than his late predecessor John-Paul II who had met with Muslims over sixty times during his pontificate and had been the first pope to enter a mosque in Syria in 2001.

The insertion of those paragraphs in an otherwise tightly-packed academic critique of Western tendencies to separate reason from faith was both ill-advised and ill-considered - especially since the central theme of the Pope's lecture was to stress that religion and violence do not go together, whereas religion and reason do so. In view of the tensions between faiths across the world - namely between a more assertive Islam and a largely secular and relativist Europe - it might have been advisable for the pontiff to avoid such a choice of reductionist words. This is even more so since Benedict XVI today is no longer Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, lecturer in theology, but the leader of well over 1.1 billion Catholics. And as Karen Armstrong also reminded her readers in the Guardian daily broadsheet last week, neither Muslims nor [many] Christians have truly forgotten the ugly excesses of a crusader era that blemished the pages of Christianity.

Some of us who read the lecture might perhaps have sensed that the Pope was highlighting the privileged relationship between the Greek rationalist tradition and the Christian religion that together have forged an exclusively European identity - one that is Christian by faith and Greek by philosophical reasoning. Whilst this may well be true, the lecture angered many Muslims by denying any validity for such a relationship in Islam. After all, this is not only factually questionable, but its impact would relegate Islam to the status of the total 'other' - therefore rendering it irrational and violent. Nonetheless, I believe that the Pope's position on faith and reason also aspired to shift the dynamics of inter-faith relations by calling for a sincere and frank dialogue of equals between Islam and Christianity in order to examine not only theosophical and transcendental issues but also those equally pressing ones of reciprocity. Indeed, many 'mainstream' Christians have often expressed their frustration at what they deem a lack of reciprocity in inter-faith relations. One recurrent complaint is that Saudi Arabia contributed toward building the largest mosque in Rome while Christians cannot build churches in the Saudi kingdom or have their priests leave the oil-industry compounds or embassy grounds without concern at being stopped by the religious mutawa police - a practice described by one believer as "reminiscent of the catacombs", with another demanding that Christians "drop the diplomatic silence" about persecutions. Moreover, the Pope's lecture also denounced violence, in itself a stance that put paid to the unfounded accusation that he was launching a crusader-like attack on another faith.

But if the lecture did not intend to insult or offend Muslims, which it did quite clearly, surely a dialogue is the best motor forward. But such a dialogue should also debar any violence since such belligerent acts are not only irreligious, but also reinforce negative stereotypes about each other and foment further alienation. This is why I deplore the recent attacks and street demonstrations against Christians as they tended inter alia to reinforce a viewpoint that Muslims cannot engage in reasonable debate and that verbal aggression and physical violence are more the rule than the exception. Regrettably, such attitudes ineluctably demean the framework of our shared values by exposing a radicalism that is not only incompatible with the Almighty but is being increasingly associated with Muslims in the Western collective psyche.

In this context, however, it is vital for the non-Muslim, essentially Western, world to realise that what they see, hear or witness of Muslim so-called "jihadi-driven" and "al-Qa'eda-styled" brutal acts or disfiguring statements that are tantamount to intolerance, extremism, incitement or violence do not in my opinion reflect at all the broad face of Islam. Nor are they the overall history and legacy of this faith, with its rich grouping of rationalist thinkers from al-Farabi to Ibn Khaldun and Al-Ghazali whose contributions have enriched Europe's heritage and core values over many centuries. Indeed, there is a much larger space in Islam that dissociates itself from nihilistic bigotry, but that space is shrinking in the present alarming mood of vitriol and volatility. Yet, I can think of many leading Muslim intellectuals, scholars and practitioners striving to foster understanding and heal rifts between faiths, the likes of the late Sheikh Dr Zaki Badawi, Principal of the Muslim College in London, Dr Mohammad Al-Sammak, Secretary-General of the Muslim-Christian Committee for Dialogue in Lebanon or Dr Ahmed Bader Al-Deen Hasoon, Grand Mufti of Syria. But another leading educationalist who has ceaselessly contributed to those inclusive efforts is HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan. He has dedicated a lifetime dispelling myths about Islam, shoring up moderate and middle ground, promoting dialogue, education and inter-faith as much as inter-cultural understanding. Heading numerous organisations worldwide, Prince Hassan has painstakingly endeavoured to promote the concept of centrism or wisatiyya that can motivate and mobilise civil society rather than lead to greater polarisation. His is an Islam that searches the common ground, one that undergirds a cadre for mutual respect and genuine neighbourliness.

So as we consider this much-needed trend for a transparent and equal dialogue between faiths, including one between Christianity and Islam, that transcends diplomatic niceties and mutual back-patting, it becomes perhaps also necessary to ponder why an increasing number of Muslims are resorting to forms of violence against those who disagree with them.

One reason is the disenfranchisement and disempowerment of large cross-sections of Muslims across the world, either by their own power-hungry governments or by the distressing foreign policies of the West, that has resulted in their regression into that unassailable space called religion as a way of compensating for the failure of their societies to deliver their basic and inherent rights - whether in terms of statehood, socio-economic conditions, human rights or freedom. Whilst many other peoples who are in comparable situations express their protest through drugs, mob violence, hooliganism, sex, crime or even apathy, Muslims resort to their faith instead as the all-protective (and oftentimes insular) bastion from such disparities.

Another reason is that many Muslims do not view their religious affiliation as a matter of sheer intellectual adherence to a set of abstract principles - as some Christians do - but rather as one of identity that incorporates faith. Once this issue of identity gets coupled with the rampant and excessive secularism of Europe challenging the divine and temporal natures of Islam, it becomes clearer that the radicalisation that rejects the 'other' is a reaction - at times comprehensible, at others unacceptable - by a small but growing cross-section of Muslims who do not see the world through those same lenses.

To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Indeed, this law of physics is an illustration of how the adherents of all faiths can fiercely misread each other. I would suggest that they could follow one of two approaches. The first is to simply ignore anything perceived as an insult to their tenets since faith is stronger than such attacks or criticisms and could therefore repel let alone withstand them. Alternatively, and more sensibly, the followers of monotheistic and polytheistic faiths would educate their own constituencies and their 'neighbours' about those traditions. In that sense, they would help raise awareness and contribute toward eliminating the tensions that often degenerate into bloody violence - as we have witnessed against Christians in the past week, and against Jews, Christians and Muslims over many centuries. But such an education cannot gestate in a vacuum, and it becomes the universal responsibility of those men and women of faith who are in positions of able leadership to re-double their efforts and guide us all toward mutual understanding and acceptance.

In Europe today - and after all, let us not forget that this Pope is concerned to a large measure with the future of Europe - it is critical for Muslims to accept that the whole world cannot subscribe to their beliefs and practices, and that people feel free to express their opinions without undue duress, harassment, menaces or violence. This is why, much as this academic episode stoked the fires of discontent amongst some Muslims and Christians, I would still suggest that Pope Benedict XVI helped - perhaps in an unplanned way, and with an indelicate style - catalyse the need to take forward by another concrete notch this process of inter-faith dialogue. After all, if we desist from being too polite, we would agree that there are rudimental - even unbridgeable - differences in dogma, interpretation and approach between the major religions. We should acknowledge those divergences within our diversity and move forward in a conciliatory spirit that is open to the other - whether the other is a neighbour, member of the same community and society or someone who is simply related to us through our common humanity. Otherwise, and if we simply insist upon reacting negatively to those challenges, we could well head toward the clash of religions, civilisations, cultures (call it what you will) that we all say we dread so much.

As a Middle Easterner involved with inter-faith dialogue on multiple tracks, I realise vividly the grave damage such a statement from a prominent Christian leader could do to the indigenous Churches of the Middle East as they pursue their dialogue of life with Muslims. It is therefore my concluding hope that the West would benefit from a millennia-long tradition of conviviality, wisdom and experience that has taught those churches to be true to themselves ... and also open to others.   

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   25 September


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