Friday, April 28, 2006

Benedict XVI and Islam

The paragraphs below have been excerpted from a much longer article on AsiaNews, which is definitely worth the read.

Benedict XVI is probably one of the few figures to have profoundly understood the ambiguity in which contemporary Islam is being debated and its struggle to find a place in modern society. At the same time, he is proposing a way for Islam to work toward coexistence globally and with religions, based not on religious dialogue, but on dialogue between cultures and civilizations based on rationality and on a vision of man and human nature which comes before any ideology or religion. This choice to wager on cultural dialogue explains his decision to absorb the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue into the larger Pontifical Council for Culture.

While the Pope is asking Islam for dialogue based on culture, human rights, the refusal of violence, he is asking the West, at the same time, to go back to a vision of human nature and rationality in which the religious dimension is not excluded. In this way – and perhaps only in this way – a clash of civilizations can be avoided, transforming it instead into a dialogue between civilizations.

[…] First of all, he shows that there is no orthodoxy in Islam, because there is no one authority, no common doctrinal magisterium. This makes dialogue difficult: when we engage in dialogue, it is not “with Islam”, but with groups.

But the key point that he tackles is that of sharia. He points out that:

“the Koran is a total religious law, which regulates the whole of political and social life and insists that the whole order of life be Islamic. Sharia shapes society from beginning to end. In this sense, it can exploit such freedoms as our constitutions give, but it cannot be its final goal to say: Yes, now we too are a body with rights, now we are present [in society] just like the Catholics and the Protestants. In such a situation, [Islam] would not achieve a status consistent with its inner nature; it would be in alienation from itself”, which could be resolved only through the total Islamization of society. When for example an Islamic finds himself in a Western society, he can benefit from or exploit certain elements, but he can never identify himself with the non-Muslim citizen, because he does not find himself in a Muslim society.

[…] In a closed-door seminar, held at Castelgandolfo (September 1-2, 2005), the Pope insisted on and stressed this same idea: the profound diversity between Islam and Christianity. On this occasion, he started from a theological point of view, taking into account the Islamic conception of revelation: the Koran “descended” upon Mohammad, it is not “inspired” to Mohammad. For this reason, a Muslim does not think himself authorized to interpret the Koran, but is tied to this text which emerged in Arabia in the 7th century. This brings to the same conclusions as before: the absolute nature of the Koran makes dialogue all the more difficult, because there is very little room for interpretation, if at all.

[…] On July 24, during his stay in the Italian Aosta Valley region, he was asked if Islam can be described as a religion of peace, to which he replied “I would not speak in generic terms, certainly Islam contains elements which are in favour of peace, as it contains other elements.” Even if not explicitly, Benedict XVI suggests that Islam suffers from ambiguity vis-à-vis violence, justifying it in various cases. And he added. “We must always strive to find the better elements.” Another person asked him then if terrorist attacks can be considered anti-Christian. He reply is clear-cut: “No, generally the intention seems to be much more general and not directed precisely at Christianity.”

Bingo. Violence against Christians in Islamic societies is not so much directed at Christianity per se, but against anything that which is non-Islamic. Had there been large numbers of Taoists in the Middle East, they would have been the targets. If the Europeans believe they can accommodate the Moslem world by decoupling themselves from Christianity, they are sadly mistaken.

[…] The essential idea is that dialogue with Islam and with other religions cannot be essentially a theological or religious dialogue, except in the broad terms of moral values; it must instead be a dialogue of cultures and civilizations.

[…] This step towards cultural dialogue is of extreme importance. In any kind of dialogue that takes place with the Muslim world, as soon as talk begins on religious topics, discussion turns to the Palestinians, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, in other words all the questions of political and cultural conflict. An exquisitely theological discussion is never possible with Islam: one cannot speak of the Trinity, of Incarnation, etc. Once in Cordoba, in 1977, a conference was held on the notion of prophecy. After having dealt with the prophetic character of Christ as seen by Muslims, a Christian made a presentation on the prophetic character of Mohammad from the Christian point of view and dared to say that the Church cannot recognize him as prophet; at the most, it could define him as such but only in a generic sense, just as one says that Marx is “prophet” of modern times. The conclusion? This question became the topic of conversation for the following three days, pre-empting the original conference.

There is a key point here, I think. Since Islam is not just a set of beliefs and creeds, but a detailed pattern for an “ideal” society, it can’t be addressed in the same way that a Christian can address a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness. The political and the cultural are integral to the religion, and the goal of the religion is the total, complete, and final Islamization of the culture. And that goes to the heart of the bewilderment that European secularists feel when confronting Islam. Islam is not interested in being “part of the mix;” in Islam, there ultimately is no mix.

“it has been said that we must not speak of God in the European constitution, because we must not offend Muslims and the faithful of other religions. The opposite is true – Ratzinger points out – what offends Muslims and the faithful of other religions is not talking about God or our Christian roots, but rather the disdain for God and the sacred, that separates us from other cultures and does not create the opportunity for encounter, but expresses the arrogance of diminished, reduced reason, which provokes fundamentalist reactions.”

Benedict XVI admires in Islam the certainty based on faith, which contrasts with the West where everything is relativized; and he admires in Islam the sense of the sacred, which instead seems to have disappeared in the West. He has understood that a Muslim is not offended by the crucifix, by religious symbols: this is actually a laicist polemic that strives to eliminate the religious from society. Muslims are not offended by religious symbols, but by secularized culture, by the fact that God and the values that they associate with God are absent from this civilization.

There is often, I believe, a failure on the part of the press and the general public to distinguish friends from enemies. Secularists tend to assume they have the support of Islam in dechristianizing society. After all, they are making a place for Moslems at the great politically correct table of multicultural "tolerance." They have that support, however, only to the extent that the removal of a vigorous Christianity furthers islamicization. The secularists themselves are a larger, if not yet to be confronted, subject of Moslem hatred than Christians could ever be. The great threat to Christianity (in the West) is secularism, with Islam running a poor second. The great threat to the ultimate survival of the West itself, however, is Islam - which bides its time, waiting for its chance to pluck a ripe, secularist, emasculated Europe which has lost the will and moral justification to defend itself.

[…] Benedict is aiming at more essential points: theology is not what counts, at least not in this stage of history; what counts is the fact that Islam is the religion that is developing more and is becoming more and more a danger for the West and the world. The danger is not in Islam in general, but in a certain vision of Islam that does never openly renounces violence and generates terrorism, fanaticism. On the other hand, he does not want to reduce Islam to a social-political phenomenon. The Pope has profoundly understood the ambiguity of Islam, which is both one and the other, which at times plays on one or the other front. And his proposal is that, if we want to find a common basis, we must get out of religious dialogue to give humanistic foundations to this dialogue, because only these are universal and shared by all human beings. Humanism is a universal factor; faiths can be factors of clash and division.

[…] But, on the other hand, he has never fallen into the behaviour found in certain Christian circles in the West marked by “do-goodism” and by guilt complexes. Recently, some Muslims have asked that the Pope ask forgiveness for the Crusades, colonialism, missionaries, cartoons, etc… He is not falling in this trap, because he knows that his words could be used not for building dialogue, but for destroying it. This is the experience that we have of the Muslim world: all such gestures, which are very generous and profoundly spiritual to ask for forgiveness for historical events of the past, are exploited and are presented by Muslims as a settling of accounts: here, they say, you recognize it even yourself: you’re guilty. Such gestures never spark any kind of reciprocity.

At this point, it is worth recalling the Pope’s address to the Moroccan Ambassador (February 20, 2006), when he alluded to “respect for the convictions and religious practices of others so that, in a reciprocal manner, the exercise of freely-chosen religion is truly assured to all in all societies.” These are two small but very important affirmations on the reciprocity of religious freedoms rights between Western and Islamic countries and on the freedom to change religion, something which is prohibited in Islam. The nice thing is that the Pope dared to say them: in the political and Church world, people are often afraid to mention such things. It’s enough to take note of the silence that reigns when it comes to the religious freedom violations that exist in Saudi Arabia.

One thing that we tend to forget is that there are – given the current state of world affairs and the personal risks involved – a surprisingly large number of Moslems coming to faith in Christ. It is not huge, but it is definitely a trend. It is missed in the West because, by its very nature, it is an underground phenomenon that cannot show its face in public. Converts are persecuted, imprisoned, and too-frequently killed, and they therefore tend to keep their mouths shut.