After the Pope Controversy: The Future of Interfaith Relations

By Arwa Mahmoud
Unpublished (written in Oct, 2006)

In many countries around the Muslim world, members of the older generations often recall times in which their societies were stronger and more cohesive, with close brotherly ties between people of different faiths. They often tell stories of their Muslim, Christian, or Jewish neighbors, of how they used to feel like one family, and of how they never felt a difference or isolation because of their faiths. Each side accepted the other and respected their religious identity, their religious feasts, and sometimes joined them in celebration.

Over the past 30 years, things have changed dramatically.

Roughly with the rise of militant Islamist movements in the Arab and Muslim world, and with the special focus on the Middle East after 9/11, global politics has become increasingly intermingled with religion. Jihad has become the most sensational term that guarantees a story’s success in the media, and critics of Western domination and hegemony emphasize a Crusader heritage in the foreign policies of Western states. Small and large-scale violence increasingly carry religious messages, and ordinary people from all faiths – those of the new generation – are now facing difficulty maintaining the distinction between religions and the actions of their adherents clear in their minds. Never before a time like this has the world needed a serious, in-depth, and fruitful interfaith dialogue to lead the road to recovery.

Human to Human: The Solution to the Crisis of Interfaith Dialogue

It was in that global setting that Pope Benedict XVI gave his recent controversial lecture at the University of Regensburg, Germany. The pope stressed the inseparability of European heritage from its Greek and Christian roots, which were – in his perspective – the only cultural heritage of Europe with a comfortable marriage between faith and reason. To emphasize his point, he contrasted this heritage with Islam as he spoke about the incompatibility of violence with the nature of God and the soul. He quoted a medieval dialogue between Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a Persian Muslim. The emperor challenged the Persian to show him what the Prophet of Islam brought other than what was “evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The pope confidently stressed that the emperor knew about the verse {Let there be no compulsion in religion} (Al-Baqara 2: 256) and that, according to “the experts” — whom he failed to identify — the verse came in an early period in which the Prophet was “powerless and under threat.”

Islam was therefore the violent, irrational faith whose heritage was alien to Europe. This was the conclusion any person reading the text could reach.

In many parts of the world, many young religious youth are increasingly defining themselves in relation to others; some view the fact that they come from a certain faith as being not only different, but also opposed to, members of the other faith.

In an unnerving atmosphere of mutual suspicion, there lies a potential danger of the alienation of religious minorities from their respective communities, altering the social fabric of their societies as a whole.

But it is not the sole responsibility of the religious scholars to protect and enhance interfaith relations on the level of the people. A person’s duty in the society in which they live is towards their fellow countrymen as well as their coreligionists. There are other bonds that also keep people together, especially in times of hardship.

During the Danish cartoons crisis, I received a number of e-mail messages in the website where I work from Danish citizens who were equally angered by the provocation of the cartoons and wished to express their solidarity with all Muslims. And a few years back, activists and professionals from around the world met in Cairo in support of the people of Iraq and Palestine. In times of crisis there is always a human bond that brings people of different backgrounds together – human to human. And the first step towards better interfaith relations can be found in recognizing this bond and acknowledging the universality of virtue.

Looking in the Mirror

For interfaith dialogue to continue along a healthy road there needs to be a real internal reflection on our heritage. Members of the three monotheistic religions must be able to develop an ability to find convincing and comprehensive answers to pressing questions, and to meet serious challenges.

They need to have a clear understanding of their relations with the “other” as set to them by the teachings of their respective faiths. By practicing a thorough and honest process of separating reason from emotion, it becomes easier to think only of what those teachings tell, and to apply them according to the situation at hand. If such practice is successful, interfaith relations on the people’s level would be more about coexistence and less about judgment or dismissal.

In response to the controversy over the pope’s lecture, renowned Muslim intellectual and academic Tariq Ramadan wrote, “Europe must learn to reconcile itself with the diversity of its past in order to master the imperative pluralism of its future.” This statement could not be truer of Europe than it is of the Muslim world today.

The increasing demands and challenges Muslims have been facing since 9/11 make it imperative for them to deliver a thorough, clear, and responsible discourse that delivers the full message of their faith and puts it to real-life practice. With increasing social and religious diversity and with revolutionary communications, their success depends on their ability to read their past and to learn from it.

There are many Muslims who need to revisit the history of Islam and to closely examine the Islamic outlook to non-Muslims as positive and active members of their larger communities, with duties and rights to be protected and with contributions to the cultures and arts of their respective societies. Muslims, like others, need to learn how not to take the whole by the few; how not to consider each member of the faith to be a representative of its extremist fringes.

Many Muslims, Christians, and Jews, especially those living in their homelands, need to acknowledge that the world is not theirs alone, nor was it ever meant to be. They need to realize that the role they have to play is one of positive contribution, and that contribution is about rebuilding and outreaching, not about setting courts.

Perhaps the gravity of the situation is emphasized by the fact that the lecture was given by a person held at high esteem to more than 1 billion Catholics around the world. But it is this challenging situation that forces us all to stop, think, and reflect on ourselves and on our relationship with the “other.” And as negative as this crisis appears to be, it also promises a chance to once again be able to tell new stories of coexistence, tolerance, and solidarity for the generations to come.

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