The Pope’s détente with the Muslim world

No Muslims have complained about the Pope on his trip to the Middle East. Is he cunning or just very, very smart?
Michael Cook | May 14 2009 | comment  

The Pope at the Dome of the Rock mosqueEvery day there's a different spin on Pope Benedict XVI's trip to the Middle East: Pope Not Sorry Enough for Holocaust, Pope Not Angry Enough Over Gaza, Pope's Past Becomes PR Blunder, Pope Supports Palestinian State... But the media has overlooked one of the most significant achievements of his trip -- détente with the Islamic world.

Two years ago Muslims erupted when the Pope quoted a thoroughly obscure Byzantine prince's assessment of Islam in a speech at Regensburg, in Germany. A leader of the Muslim Brotherhood said at the time that the remarks "pour oil on the fire and ignite the wrath of the whole Islamic world to prove the claims of enmity of politicians and religious men in the West to whatever is Islamic."

But on this trip Benedict has given a speech in a mosque, addressed Muslim leaders and taken off his shoes to piously visit the Dome of the Rock mosque, the third holiest in the Islamic world.  After a few tutorials in tact, he seems to have watered down his message to Muslims to make it soothing and inoffensive.

Well, actually he hasn't. Not a bit of it. In fact, he has almost photocopied his Regensburg speech after swabbing the inflammatory bits with liquid paper. Benedict XVI is proving to be a master of long-term public relations for the Catholic Church. Despite all the protest from Muslims (most of whom never read the Regensburg speech anyway), he hasn't budged one inch.

No one has noticed this because journalists think in sound-bites and Benedict thinks in paragraphs. But he is bearing a powerful message: that Christianity and Islam face a common enemy in secularism. As he told Muslim leaders in Jordan, "Indeed some assert that religion is necessarily a cause of division in our world; and so they argue that the less attention given to religion in the public sphere the better."

Dialoguing with Muslims is a delicate balancing act. There are plenty of mullahs who preach that Christians are idolaters because they worship a Trinity. Benedict subtly emphasised that Christians are monotheists. They believe in one God, whom he described as "merciful and compassionate", a characteristically Muslim phrase. "We can begin with the belief that the One God is the infinite source of justice and mercy, since in him the two exist in perfect unity," he told Muslim leaders in Jerusalem.

After allaying Muslim suspicions that Christians are really Bible-toting polytheists, Benedict then argued that the oneness of mankind flows from the oneness of God. In other words, peace amongst nations, mutual respect, and even religious freedom has a theological basis, not merely one of political convenience:

"fidelity to the One God, the Creator, the Most High, leads to the recognition that human beings are fundamentally interrelated, since all owe their very existence to a single source and are pointed towards a common goal. Imprinted with the indelible image of the divine, they are called to play an active role in mending divisions and promoting human solidarity."

For all but the most fanatical of Muslim clerics, this must seem unobjectionable. But then Benedict explains what is distinctive about the Christian notion of God -- that man participates in the nature of God.

"Christians in fact describe God, among other ways, as creative Reason, which orders and guides the world. And God endows us with the capacity to participate in his reason and thus to act in accordance with what is good. Muslims worship God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, who has spoken to humanity. And as believers in the one God we know that human reason is itself God's gift and that it soars to its highest plane when suffused with the light of God's truth."

This was precisely the point of the Regensburg address. Then, however, the Pope was addressing a Christian audience and he tackled difficult question of theologically-sanctioned violence. Using the long-forgotten words of Manuel II Paleologus, he pointed out that "God is not pleased by blood -- and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature." But when speaking to Muslims, he describes reason as the ultimate basis for human dignity -- and both religions esteem human dignity.

Furthermore, he says, faith and reason support each other. Religion purifies reason of the temptation to presumption (was he thinking of Christopher Hitchens?). It protects society from "the excesses of the unbridled ego which tend to absolutise the finite and eclipse the infinite" (a dig at Richard Dawkins perhaps?). It helps us to appreciate "all that is true, good and beautiful".

It was a remarkable performance -- to explain the deepest notions of Christian theology to a potentially hostile audience and leave without a murmur of criticism.

It seems clear that the Pope is seeking outcomes from this dialogue with Muslim leaders -- more respect for Christianity, more religious tolerance, more common action against secularism, more common action in support of human dignity. How long it will take for the message to sink in is a different matter. But the very positive reaction from Muslim leaders gives ground for hope.

What a contrast with the ham-fisted attempt of another head of state to dialogue with the Muslim world. President Obama's address to the Turkish parliament earlier this year was the religious equivalent of speed dating. He told Muslims: "We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground."

Back on his home turf, Obama's rhetoric about "common ground" is already tarnished after his whole-hearted endorsement of abortion in the teeth of religious opposition. What chance has he of convincing Muslims that they share common ground with a nation that tolerates same-sex marriage? The president's strategy for dialogue boils down to "Hi, my name's Hussein, too. Let's be buddies." This approach might turn Turkish parliamentarians into cheering schoolgirls, but it won't cut the mustard in the madrassahs. If we're talking "common ground", the Vatican's is the only game in town at the moment.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

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