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Benedict XVI and Islam
by Samir Khalil Samir, sj
For the full article, go to Asia News

Beirut (AsiaNews) – 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.

Islamic totalitarianism differs from Christianity

To understand Benedict XVI’s thinking and Islamic religion, we must go over their evolution. A truly essential document is found in his book (written in 1996, when he was still cardinal, together with Peter Seewald), entitled “The Salt of the Earth”, in which he makes certain considerations and highlights various differences between Islam and Christian religion and the West.

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 a Muslim 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.

Thus Cardinal Ratzinger saw clearly an essential difficulty of socio-political relations with the Muslim world, which comes from the totalizing conception of Islamic religion, which is profoundly different from Christianity. For this reason, he insists in saying that we cannot try to project onto Islam the Christian vision of the relationship between politics and religion. This would be very difficult: Islam is a religion totally different from Christianity and Western society and this does not make coexistence easy.

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.

As we can see, his thinking as cardinal extends into his vision as Pontiff, which highlights the profound differences between Islam and Christianity.

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 favor 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.”

Rationality and Faith

In an exchange that took place on October 25, 2004, between Italian historian, Ernesto Galli della Loggia, and the then Cardinal Ratzinger, the latter, at a certain point, recalled the “seeds of the Word” and underscored the importance of rationality in Christian faith, seen by Church Fathers as the fulfillment of the search for truth found in philosophy. Galli della Loggia thus said: “Your hope which is identical to faith, brings with it a logos and this logos can become an apologia, a reply that can be communicated to others,” to everyone.

Cardinal Ratzinger replied:

“We do not want to create an empire of power, but we have something that can be communicated and towards which an expectation of our reason tends. It is communicable because it belongs to our shared human nature and there is a duty to communicate on the part of those who have found a treasure of truth and love. Rationality was therefore a postulate and condition of Christianity, which remains a European legacy for comparing ourselves peacefully and positively, with Islam and also the great Asian religions.”

Therefore, for the Pope, dialogue is at this level, i.e. founded on reason. He then went on to add that

“this rationality becomes dangerous and destructive for the human creature if it becomes positivist [and here he critiques the West], which reduces the great values of our being to subjectivity [to relativism] and thus becomes an amputation of the human creature. We do not wish to impose on anyone a faith that can only be freely accepted, but as a vivifying force of the rationality of Europe , it belongs to our identity.”

Then comes the essential part:

“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.

Yes to reciprocity, no to “do-goodism”

The Pope’s position never falls into the justification of terrorism and violence. Sometimes, even when it comes to Church figures, people slip into a generic kind of relativism: after all, there’s violence in all religions, even among Christians; or, violence is justified as a reply to other violence… No, this Pope has never made allusions of this kind. 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 .

I really like this Pope, his balance, his clearness. He makes no compromise: he continues to underline the need to announce the Gospel in the name of rationality and therefore he does not let himself be influenced by those who fear and speak out against would-be proselytism. The Pope asks always for guarantees that Christian faith can be “proposed” and that it can be “freely chosen.”