Monday, April 23, 2007

Pope Benedict, Islam and the Prospect of Reform

Sandro Magister's column this week -- on "The Real War is Inside Islam" -- touches on some questions that I've been thinking about in recent weeks:

What is the nature of our present conflict with Islam?
Can it be characterized as a "clash of civilizations"?
Is it a war with Islam per se, or only a variant thereof?
What is the true nature of Islam?

A Perpetual War with Islam?

A prevalent view of Islam, and of Christianity and Western (European) civilization's encounter with Islam, is one of perpetual and necessary conflict -- which asserts that the state of affairs as we witness it today is simply the norm so long as there are practicioners of Islam on this earth.

The website ProphetofDoom.com, for example, provides a "timeline of Islamic terrorism" that starts in the 1960's, with the assassination of Jordan's prime minister by public bombing ("It remains the primary form of regime change in the Islamic world"). An author by the name of Howard Bloom goes a step further with Islam's War to Save the World, presenting the history of Islam as "1,300 Years of Struggle" against the West.

2006 saw the release of the documentary: Islam: What the West Needs to Know, produced by Gregory Davis (Religion of Peace?: Islam's War Against the World, 2006). Among the contributors to the film are Bat Ye'Or, author of Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis (2005) and Islam and Dhimitude: Where Civilizations Collide (2001); Robert Spencer, founder of JihadWatch.org and author of The Truth about Muhammad and The Myth of "Islamic Tolerance".

[Full disclosure: Robert Spencer and I tangled over this very issue on this blog back in 2003 -- Differing Interpretations of Jihad Nov. 4, 2003). At the time, Mr. Spencer protested that he: "never . . . said or written anything that characterizes ALL Muslims as terrorist or given to violence." I wonder if that remains the case today?]

Billing itself as "an examination of Islam, Violence, and the Fate of the Non-Muslim World," the authors of Islam: What the West Needs to Know intend to challenge the erroneous notion that "Islam is a peaceful religion and that those who commit violence in its name are fanatics who misinterpret its tenets," insisting rather that "Islam is a violent, expansionary ideology that seeks the destruction or subjugation of other faiths, cultures, and systems of government." The chief points made by the film:

  • In contrast to Christianity, the employment of violence and coercion is not an anomoly to Islam, but rather inherent in its very nature -- endorsed and approved of by its very founder, the warlord Mohammad himself.

  • The goal of jihad is to bring the rule of Islamic law to the world -- if not directly by force, then by assimilation. Muslims in Western nations who are not openly engaged in violent opposition to the West are thus rendered suspect, and are no less complicit in the struggle:
    Islamic theology divides the world into two spheres locked in perpetual combat, dar al-Islam (House of Islam - where Islamic law predominates), and dar al-harb (House of War - the rest of the world). It is incumbent on dar al-Islam to fight and conquer dar al-harb and permanently assimilate it. Muslims in Western nations are called to subvert the secular regimes in which they now live in accordance with Allah's command. Due to political correctness and general government and media irresponsibility, the danger posed by observant Muslims in the West remains largely unappreciated.
  • Islam, then, is not so much a religion as a form of totalitarianism, a violent, all-encompassing ideology "analogous in many ways to Communism". It recognizes no distinction between the religious and the secular/political -- and our "war on terror" is not so much with a radical perversion of Islam ("Islamic terror", "militant Islam", "Islamic fundamentalism", etc.), as with the religion of Islam itself.
Needless to say, this perception -- a reduction of Islam to little more than a violent, totalitarian ideology -- regards dialogue with Muslims, and the prospects of reform within Islam itself, with utmost skepticism. One only has to carry this line of thinking to its ultimate conclusions to understand why:

If it is indeed the case that Muslims are "locked in perpetual combat"; if it is "incumbent on Muslims" to subvert and ultimately assimilate the West, any attempt to dialogue would not only be pointless, it would be delusional.

One does not dialogue with the enemy. We would no more expect the West to "dialogue" with or tolerate (much less reform) Islam than we would expect to do so Communism or National Socialism or any other violent, rabid ideology. The existence of Muslims within the United States constitutes a threat, and the only good Muslim is one who has renounced his faith.

Pope Benedict on the prospects of Dialogue and Reform within Islam

The question I would like to explore in this post, and which I pose to my readers for discussion:

Does the aformentioned view of Islam as an irreformable, violent totalitarian ideology conform to that espoused by Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church?

There is no doubt that Pope Benedict has faced Islam's propensity towards violence head on. He has made the treatment of Christian minorities under Islamic countries a major concern of his pontificate, raising the subject in a meeting with Muslim ambassadors only weeks after his provocative Regensberg address:

In his brief talk, the pope hit all the anticipated notes: dialogue, peace, mutual respect. He also, however, pointedly quoted John-Paul II's 1985 address to Muslim youth in Casablanca: "Respect and dialogue require reciprocity in all spheres, especially in that which concerns basic freedoms, more particularly religious freedom."

Benedict did not elaborate. But the fact that he singled out this lone quotation from John Paul's vast body of speeches and messages on Islam, in a session carried live on Al Jazeera and widely seen as his best chance to quell anger in the Muslim street, indicates there were will be no retreat from the reciprocity challenge.

(Source: National Catholic Reporter Oct 13, 2006).

It cannot be said, however, that Benedict has a completely negative perception of Islam. In March 2002, Pope Benedict addressed the question of whether one could speak of the 'superiority' of Judeo-Christian culture:

Cardinal Ratzinger: It is a minefield, but I don´t want to avoid the question. When we speak of culture, we must distinguish the values of its historic realizations. The truth of the Christian faith appears to us in all its depth, but we mustn´t forget that, sadly, it has been darkened many times by the concrete behavior of those who called themselves Christians. Islam has also had moments of great splendor and decadence in the course of its history.

Q: Hence, one cannot speak of the superiority of one culture over another?

Cardinal Ratzinger: Naturally, we can and must say, for example, that the values of monogamous marriage, of the dignity of woman, etc., undoubtedly demonstrate a cultural superiority.

It is true that the Muslim world is not totally mistaken when it reproaches the West of Christian tradition of moral decadence and the manipulation of human life. ... This imposes on us a serious examination of conscience. What is important is to go to the roots of the values proclaimed by the different religions. It is here where a real interreligious dialogue can begin.

(Source: Cardinal Ratzinger Highlights Christian Challenge Following Sept. 11 March 3, 2002). In Benedict XVI and Islam (AsiaNews.it April 26, 2006), Samir Khalil Samir, SJ Muslims and our Pope share a similar concern for the infiltration of relativism and a lack of spiritual moorings in Western nations:
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.

This is also my experience, when I chat every once in a while with Muslims who live in Italy. They tell me: this country offers everything, we can live as we like, but unfortunately there are no “principles” (this is the word they use). This is felt very much by the pope, who says: let’s go back to human nature, based on rationality, on conscience, which gives an idea of human rights; on the other hand, let’s not reduce rationality to something which is impoverished, but let’s integrate the religious in rationality; the religious is part of rationality.

In this, I think that Benedict XVI has stated more exactly the vision of John Paul II. For the previous pope, dialogue with Islam needed to be open to collaboration on everything, even in prayer. 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.

When I blogged on the "Regensburg Rage" of September 2006, I had pointed out that an understanding of the Pope's view of Islam would do well to read his address to the Muslim community of Cologne, Germany in August, 2005. Permit the lengthy excerpt:

Dear friends, I am profoundly convinced that we must not yield to the negative pressures in our midst, but must affirm the values of mutual respect, solidarity and peace. The life of every human being is sacred, both for Christians and for Muslims. There is plenty of scope for us to act together in the service of fundamental moral values. [...]

Only through recognition of the centrality of the person can a common basis for understanding be found, one which enables us to move beyond cultural conflicts and which neutralizes the disruptive power of ideologies. [...]

Past experience teaches us that, unfortunately, relations between Christians and Muslims have not always been marked by mutual respect and understanding. How many pages of history record battles and wars that have been waged, with both sides invoking the Name of God, as if fighting and killing, the enemy could be pleasing to him. The recollection of these sad events should fill us with shame, for we know only too well what atrocities have been committed in the name of religion.

The lessons of the past must help us to avoid repeating the same mistakes. We must seek paths of reconciliation and learn to live with respect for each other's identity. The defence of religious freedom, in this sense, is a permanent imperative, and respect for minorities is a clear sign of true civilization. . . .

Benedict went on to cite the relevant passages on Islam in Nostra Aetate, which he described as the "the Magna Carta of [Muslim-Catholic] dialogue." He concluded:
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. We must not yield to fear or pessimism. Rather, we must cultivate optimism and hope.

Interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is in fact a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends. [...]

I pray with all my heart, dear and esteemed Muslim friends, that the merciful and compassionate God may protect you, bless you and enlighten you always.

This, then, is a Pope who in spite of his serious concerns about Islam, has not relenquished the hope of dialogue between Christians and Muslims -- of mutual respect and collaboration between us despite our theological differences. A Pope who believes in and insists upon the capacity of Islam to reform itself.

Elements of Islamic Reform

  • In February of 2006, Cardinal Poupard, president of the Pontifical Councils for Interreligious Dialogue and for Culture, visited Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, grand imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque and highest religious authority for over a thousand Muslims:
    The Vatican reported: "The meeting allowed for the evaluation of the work of the Mixed Committee for Dialogue, established between Al-Azhar's Permanent Committee for Dialogue with Monotheist Religions and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue -- which meets annually, alternatively in Cairo and Rome, on Feb. 24, in memory of John Paul II's visit to Al-Azhar on Feb. 24, 2000 -- as well as of the different aspects of relations between Christians and Muslims."

    Sheikh Tantawi is heralded for taking a stand against Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel and for his denunciation of Osama Bin Ladin ("Killing innocent civilians is a horrific, hideous act that no religion can approve") and repudiation of Islamic terrorism:

    "Extremism is the enemy of Islam. Whereas, jihad is allowed in Islam to defend one's land, to help the oppressed. The difference between jihad in Islam and extremism is like the earth and the sky."
    See also Egyptian Sheikh Dr. Abd Al-Sabour Tantawi - Islamic Reformist: A Religious and Intellectual Profile, by A. Dankowitz. MEMRI.org (Middle East Research Institute) July 13, 2006.

  • The Last King of Java: Indonesia's former president offers a model of Muslim tolerance, by Bret Stephens. Wall Street Journal Saturday, April 7, 2007:
    Suppose for a moment that the single most influential religious leader in the Muslim world openly says "I am for Israel." Suppose he believes not only in democracy but in the liberalism of America's founding fathers. Suppose that, unlike so many self-described moderate Muslims who say one thing in English and another in their native language, his message never alters. Suppose this, and you might feel as if you've descended into Neocon Neverland.

    In fact, you have arrived in Jakarta and are sitting in the small office of an almost totally blind man of 66 named Abdurrahman Wahid. A former president of Indonesia, he is the spiritual leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), an Islamic organization of some 40 million members. . . .

    Mr. Wahid appreciates Benedict's Regensberg address, shares the Pope's criticism of Western positivism in the secular university, and believes that the "only solution" to the challenge of Islamic radicalization in Indonesia is more democracy.

  • The Trouble With Islam, by Tawfik Hamid, a onetime member of Jemaah Islamiya, an Islamist terrorist group, is a medical doctor and Muslim reformer living in the West. He is author of Roots of Jihad . According to Hamid:
    It is vital to grasp that traditional and even mainstream Islamic teaching accepts and promotes violence. Shariah, for example, allows apostates to be killed, permits beating women to discipline them, seeks to subjugate non-Muslims to Islam as dhimmis and justifies declaring war to do so. It exhorts good Muslims to exterminate the Jews before the "end of days." The near deafening silence of the Muslim majority against these barbaric practices is evidence enough that there is something fundamentally wrong.

    The grave predicament we face in the Islamic world is the virtual lack of approved, theologically rigorous interpretations of Islam that clearly challenge the abusive aspects of Shariah. Unlike Salafism, more liberal branches of Islam, such as Sufism, typically do not provide the essential theological base to nullify the cruel proclamations of their Salafist counterparts. And so, for more than 20 years I have been developing and working to establish a theologically-rigorous Islam that teaches peace.

    See also Michael Coren's profile of Tawfik Hamid in Canada's National Post and his interview with Andrea Jacobs on the question of What Drives Jihad? (International Jewish News October 24, 2006) and RootsOfJihad.org, the website for Hamid's book which contains many of his writings, including "Reformation in Islam: The Challenges and the Future".

    Hamid is sharply critical of those who attempt to excuse or explain away Islamic terrorism by appealing to non-religious factors ("poverty and lack of education"); for him, the problem of Islamic violence lies within the form of Islam prevalent in the world today:

    "Salafist [fundamentalist] Islam is the dominant version of the religion and is taught in almost every Islamic university in the world. It is puritanical, extreme and does, yes, mean that women can be beaten, apostates killed and Jews called pigs and monkeys"
    Yet, Hamid maintains that the notion of an internal reform of Islam is not beyond the realm of possibility ("I am morally obligated to help Muslims understand the Koran in a peaceful manner.")

  • Secular Islam Summit - blogging an assembly of those advocating a reform or Islamic "Enlightenment" ((here “secularists” includes both those who embrace a thoroughly non-religious worldview, as well as those committed to separation of religion from overnment and robust freedom of conscience). Among the topics discussed "secularist interpretations of Islam, the need for Koranic criticism, the state of freedom of the expression in Muslim societies, educational reform." Tawfiq Hamid presented an address on "Islamic Terrorism: Reality and Possible Solutions."

  • The Dialogue with Islam, by Stratford Caldecott. GodSpy.com. The editor of Second Spring and member of the editorial boards of Communio and Chesterton Review. Acknowledging that Islam was spread largely by conquest, Caldecott points out that Islamic countries did not always try to impose uniformity of belief, and suggests the characterization of Muslims as worshipping a God of Pure Will rather than Reason may not take enough account of the existence within Islam of the Sufi (mystical) tradition. [Presentation of author's position revised at his request].

    According to Caldecott:

    . . . the suppression of Sufism and the whole ihsani dimension of Islam (leaving only Creed and Law) in recent times represents the corruption of the religion as a whole by ideologies of resentment and violence. Unfortunately Islam has no infallible center of authority, as Catholicism does, to preserve it against error on this scale. The solution, if there is one, is therefore up to individual Muslims and Muslim leaders. What Christians can do is avoid making matters worse. We need to be realistic about the scale of persecution Christians are currently experiencing in Islamic countries, and the danger of growing Muslim fanaticism in our midst, but we must encourage and assist moderate Muslims to raise their voices and speak on behalf of Islamic traditions that may be more “rational” than we suppose.
    See also: The Decline of Knowledge and the Rise of Ideology in the Modern Islamic World by Dr Joseph E. B. Lumbard (ed.), Islam, Fundamentalism and the Betrayal of Tradition (World Wisdom Books, 2004).

  • "Views on Islam", by Benazir Bhutto & David F. Forte. Imprimis 31, no. 10 (October 2002): 1-6. Does the radical form of Islam behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, represent true Islam? or is it an aberration? Is Islamic doctrine compatible with religious pluralism and constitutional democracy? How are we to think of Islam in the context of the war against terrorism? The former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto responds.

  • On Religious Fundamentalism and Terrorism - Zenit News interviews Joan-Andreu Rocha Scarpetta, professor and director of the master's program on the Church, Ecumenism and Religions of the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University of Rome. July 17, 2005.

  • Itjihad.org is an archive of Muqtedar Khan's Column on Islam and Global Affairs. Among the topics discussed: Should Muslims impose Islam on Americans? -- on a Muslim taxi driver's recent refusal to carry passengers who are in possession of alcohol.

  • Islamic statements against terrorism in the wake of the September 11 mass murders - compiled by Charles Kurzman. Department of Sociology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

  • The Case for Islamic Renewal, by Mustafa Aykol. The White Path [blog] October 27, 2004. See also The Prophet and Paul Johnson: An Islamic Condemnation of Al Qaeda Killings National Review August 12, 2004; Al Qaeda vs. The Koran August 25, 2004; Terror Roots Not in Islam: a Reply to Robert Spencer October 20, 2004.

    What is commendable about Aykol -- a Muslim who incidentally thinks very highly of our present Pope -- is that he doesn't seem to take a radical, militant interpretation of Islam as having the last word on the matter. Neither should we.

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