On the face of it, Pope Benedict XVI seems to have handed an enormous propaganda victory to the Muslim scholars who met with Catholic leaders in Rome on November 4-7. Victories of this sort, though, are deceptive. Leonid Brezhnev left the 1975 Helsinki meetings on European security cooperation convinced that he had won an enormous concession – final recognition of the Soviet Union’s postwar borders – in return for lip service to human rights that the communist regime never could or would provide. “Instead,” wrote Cold War historian John Gaddis, the Helsinki Accords “gradually became a manifesto of the dissident and liberal movement … What this meant was that the people who lived under these systems – at least the more courageous – could claim official permission to say what they thought.”
The Jewish “refusenik” Natan Sharansky became a symbol of Soviet human rights violation, and president Ronald Reagan’s personal support for the dissidents – often over objections of his diplomats – introduced hairline fractures into Soviet Power. (I reviewed Sharansky’s most recent book Defending Identity on October 21, 2008).
After the fall of communism, the greatest barrier to freedom is the absence of religious liberty in the Muslim world. Free people everywhere have a profound interest in the outcome of the Church’s encounter with the Muslim scholars. Is it possible that the meager concessions offered by the Muslim side to the Western notion of freedom may have something like an “Helsinki” effect?
Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” in a June 1982 speech before the British parliament. Many interpreted Pope Benedict’s September 2006 Regensburg address, in which the pope quoted a Byzantine emperor’s denunciation of Muslim violence as a similar challenge to Islam. Speaking to a Muslim delegation that met with him after the conference, Benedict’s tone seemed quite different. “I am well aware that Muslims and Christians have different approaches in matters regarding God,” the pope said. “Yet we can and must be worshippers of the one God who created us and is concerned about each person in every corner of the world. Together we must show, by our mutual respect and solidarity, that we consider ourselves members of one family: the family that God has loved and gathered together from the creation of the world to the end of human history.”
This conciliatory tone must have come as a disappointment to the Italian journalist Magdi Allam, whom Benedict personally accepted into the Catholic faith at the Easter Vigil this year. Allam contended in a letter announcing his conversion that Islam was inherently violent. In an October 20 open letter letter to the pope posted on his website, he admonished Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who heads the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, for arguing that violence is a betrayal of Islam. On the contrary, Allam insisted, “Terrorism is the mature fruit of Islam.”
Presenting Islam as a valid alternative to Christianity, he added, represents “serious religious and ethical straying that has infiltrated and spread within the heart of the church.” Allam added that it “is vital for the common good of the Catholic Church, the general interest of Christianity and of Western civilization itself” that the pope make a pronouncement in “a clear and binding way” on the question of whether Islam is a valid religion. He has made no public statement since the Rome meeting concluded November 6.
In his conversion message in March, Allam, wrote, “His Holiness has sent an explicit and revolutionary message to a Church that until now has been too prudent in the conversion of Muslims, abstaining from proselytizing in majority Muslim countries and keeping quiet about the reality of converts in Christian countries. Out of fear. The fear of not being able to protect converts in the face of their being condemned to death for apostasy and fear of reprisals against Christians living in Islamic countries. Well, today Benedict XVI, with his witness, tells us that we must overcome fear and not be afraid to affirm the truth of Jesus even with Muslims.” Yet the issue of proselytizing Muslims is one the Catholic side deliberately avoided at the just-concluded meetings, as noted below.
For the mainstream media, in any case, “the Regensburg affair is behind us,” as the Italian news service Apcom wrote on November 6. “No one mentioned the baptism of Magdi Allam on Easter night in full view of the world,” it added. On the website of the liberal Catholic daily Commonweal, Paul Moses wrote on October 29 that the conference was “further evidence that it was a bad idea for the pope to grant such a high profile to Magdi Allam’s christening.”
Church liberals were livid at the pope’s action; as I reported on July 17 ( The Pope, the President, and the Politics of Faith) the Jesuit monthly Popoli published a lengthy screed against Allam and the pope’s personal role in his baptism by the Syrian-based Jesuit Paolo dall’Oglio. Now, the liberals are claiming victory.
The dialogue between the Catholic and Muslim side – from the little that has emerged from what was a closed meeting – was so strange, however, that it does not make sense to speak of winners or losers, or conciliation and provocation. An especially Orwellian moment was reported by the Jesuit Samir Khalid Samir (as reported by the Italian service Asia News on November 7):
In the Joint Declaration, “the right of persons and communities to practice their faith in private and in public” emerged in point 5. Serious problems arose. Some Muslims said: “if you include those words you put us in great difficulty. Freedom of religion in our countries is governed by State law. How can we distribute a document that is against State law? We risk being disqualified and marginalized by our society.” Some Muslims suggested omitting at least the words “in private and in public.”
There was also a formula that defended the right to spread ones own faith such as “Da’wa” (mission for Islam) or Tabshir (Christian mission). But it was held to be too strong and so we eliminated it.
All of these difficulties were resolved by the grand Mufti [of Bosnia]. Mustafa Ceric recalled that the formula on religious freedom used in the joint statement “are those found in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Many Muslim governments signed this declaration. Therefore they must accept it, even though perhaps they don’t practice it.” This solved the problem and eased the path for all to adhere to the final document.
It takes a couple of readings to absorb the Alice-in-Wonderland quality of the discussion. The Muslim side could not accept the principle that individuals should have the right to practice their religion in public, because the law of the land in their own countries forbids it. However, these countries have signed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which states the same thing, even though they violate it daily. Because the governments lie about permitting religious freedom, the Bosnian mufti argued, the Muslim scholars attending the conference also were entitled to lie. The fact that the Muslim side offered this argument in all seriousness reduces the Muse of Satire to startled silence.
The fact that the attending Muslim scholars – who have no authority over the laws of Muslim countries – piggy-backed on the UN Declaration of Human Rights does not augur well for the “Helsinki” strategy. After all, having signed the UN Declaration of Human Rights does not in the least inhibit Muslim governments from persecuting non-Muslims in their own countries; why should the affirmation of such rights by a group of Muslim scholars have any additional impact?
Benedict has another concern. From the vantage point of enlightened Western thinking, no form of violation of human rights is more onerous than the denial of free thought, speech and worship, and the suppression of such rights in the Muslim world constitutes the most egregious violation of human rights in the world today. In Benedict’s view, there is an even more terrible violation of human rights, namely what he considers to be the mass murder of the unborn through abortion.
As he told the Muslim delegation on November 6, “There is a great and vast field in which we can act together in defending and promoting the moral values which are part of our common heritage. Only by starting with the recognition of the centrality of the person and the dignity of each human being, respecting and defending life which is the gift of God, and is thus sacred for Christians and for Muslims alike – only on the basis of this recognition, can we find a common ground for building a more fraternal world, a world in which confrontations and differences are peacefully settled, and the devastating power of ideologies is neutralized.”
The issue of abortion is the focal point of the argument within the Church that Christians should make common cause with Muslims against Western secularism. Islam and Catholicism agree on abortion, although the former position stems from the fixed mores of traditional society, while the latter is founded on a theological doctrine of God’s love for every individual. The second point of the Rome declaration reads, “Human life is a most precious gift of God to each person. It should therefore be preserved and honored in all its stages.”
For Western Christians to look for Muslim allies on the “life issues” would be a calamitous error, I believe. Much as I sympathize with the Catholic position on abortion, Christianity (like Judaism) is founded on the premise that God offers grace to every human being. The offer of grace requires our freedom to seek it or accept it. To fall back on the compulsions of traditional society in order to contain the evil of abortion would unleash an even greater evil on the world, the evil that Judaism and Christianity were formed to resist.
Christianity and Judaism are religions of love, and the relationship they proclaim with God is one of espousal. God’s love for His people as expressed in the rapturous nuptial hymns of the Song of Songs is the core of both religions. As a theologian, Benedict XVI has led the Church towards what some theologians call “nuptial mysticism” (see The inside story of the Western mind , Asia Times Online, November 6, 2007).
In this respect, the declaration issued by the Muslim and Catholic sides at the November 4 meeting conflated Christian and Muslim concepts of love in a misleading way. The document states, among other things;
God’s love is placed in the human heart through the Holy Spirit. It is God who first loves us thereby enabling us to love Him in return. Love does not harm one’s neighbor but rather seeks to do to the other what one would want done to oneself. Love is the foundation and sum of all the commandments (Cf. Gal 5, 14). Love of neighbor cannot be separated from love of God, because it is an expression of our love for God … For Muslims, as set out in A Common Word, love is a timeless transcendent power which guides and transforms human mutual regard. This love, as indicated by the Holy and Beloved Prophet Muhammad, is prior to the human love for the One True God … So immense is this love and compassion that God has intervened to guide and save humanity in a perfect way many times and in many places, by sending prophets and scriptures.
The great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig showed that nothing resembling the Judeo-Christian concept of divine love possibly can exist in Islam (see my study of Rosenzweig in the October 2007 issue of First Things). “The path of Allah requires the obedience of the will to a commandment that has been given once and for all time. By contrast, in [Judeo-Christian] brotherly love, the spore of human character erupts ever anew, incited by the ever-surprising outbreak of the act of love,” Rosenzweig wrote.
Love is humble, and God’s love is embodied in divine humility. The creator God of the Universe suffers along with His creatures in the Hebrew Bible, and in the Christian Bible takes human form to sacrifice Himself to take away the sins of the world. An “absolutely transcendent” God – as Benedict qualified Allah in his September 2006 Regensburg address – is incapable of divine humility. Again, Rosenzweig: “Unlike the God of faith, Allah cannot go before his own [people] and say to their face that he has chosen them above all others in all their sinfulness, and in order to make them accountable for their sins. That the failings of human beings arouse divine love more powerfully than their merits is an impossible, indeed an absurd thought to Islam – but it is the thought that stands at the heart of [Jewish and Christian] faith.”
The Sufi current in Islam places a considerable emphasis on love, to be sure, but this finds expression in homoerotic pederasty, as I wrote in an August 12 essay on Sufism, sodomy and satan for Asia Times Online.
Cobbling together an agreement between Islamic and Catholic scholars on the presumption of a common view of divine love is the rough equivalent of an agreement between Soviet and American constitutional lawyers on the subject of human rights. Such declarations used to be issued by organizations friendly to communism, to be sure, although history does not look at them kindly. At best the conflation of the Islamic and Judeo-Christian concept of love is an exercise in self-deception. For those who find the theological arguments obscure, I suggest searching the word “love” in any of several online versions of the Koran, and doing the same in the online Bible, and comparing its frequency and context. Even more simply, try a Google search on the respect terms, “God loves you” and “Allah loves you.”
The dean of Vatican-watchers, Sandro Magister of www.chiesa.com, took note of the unwelcome appearance of Professor Tariq Ramadan at the meeting. Magister wrote:
In accounts of the forum, the media have given disproportionate attention to Tariq Ramadan. He did not play any role in drafting the letter of the 138, but added his signature forty days after its publication. His inclusion among the delegates prompted a bit of surprise at the Vatican. He was not among the most active participants over the two days of discussions, but he stirred some interest with the article he published at the beginning of the seminar in various European newspapers, like The Guardian in England, Le Monde in France, and Il Riformista in Italy, for which he is a regular commentator. In the article, Ramadan begins by maintaining that Benedict XVI’s lecture in Regensburg “had more positive than negative consequences.”
Nonetheless, Ramadan managed to turn up for a photo opportunity with the pope at the November 6 reception. That is an unfortunate outcome, for Ramadan represents the steel fist of Islam hiding under a velvet glove. Paul Berman’s exhaustive profile of Ramadan, the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, appeared in the June 4, 2007, issue of The New Republic; I summarized Berman’s arguments here in The faith that dare not speak its name on June 12, 2007. Berman portrayed Ramadan as a purveyor of barely veiled totalitarian sympathies, adulated by Western journalists fearful of physical reprisal should they criticize him.
Ramadan, as Sandro Magister observed, portrayed the November 4-7 meeting as a rollback of Benedict’s Regensburg speech. I hope the pope proves him wrong.