02/21/2013, 00.00
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Benedict XVI and Islam: neither fundamentalism nor secularism

by Samir Khalil Samir
Too many amateur Vaticanist watchers stigmatize the relationship between the pope and Islam as a "failure", starting with the "unfortunate" Regensburg address. Instead, that speech was prophetic for the Arab Spring and the global dialogue between religions and the secular world. It has opened up new areas of collaboration between Christians and Muslims.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - News of Benedict XVI's resignation struck me positively: it is a beautiful, courageous thing, which opens up a path to the future, fruit of realism and reflection. I do not see why a pope should continue, even when he knows and feels he can not do it anymore. Of course, Benedict XVI is still capable of many things, but he feels that it would take someone younger to continue the missionary work of the Petrine ministry.

His gesture is a sign of humility and of courage in communicating it before the entire world. In no way is it a sign of his being discouraged in his mission, or of his having failed.  It's as if he were saying: I have done my part; I believe this mission can be better served and I will leave that up to others to do so. There are some negative echoes here and there, but this gesture teaches all of us that at some point we have to pass the baton on to others. Perhaps the absolutist nature of the idea that this must be a lifelong ministry is no longer valid.

Regensburg an error, a failure?

The Pope's resignation has often been attributed to a number of "failures" which he has accumulated over the years. Among these so-called "failures", his relationship with Islam and the "unfortunate" speech he delivered in Regensburg are always cited. In fact, we have repeatedly said that Regensburg was by no means a failure: on the contrary it has marked a step forward in the relationship between the Church and Islam.

This relationship began with the Second Vatican Council, and the declaration Nostra Aetate, which emphasizes the positive aspects of Islam: a spirituality, a belief in the one God, a religion of Abrahamic roots. This declaration turns the page and puts an end to a purely negative vision of Islam, such as anti-Christianity.

John Paul II took another step forward. In his meeting with young Muslims in Casablanca (Morocco, August 19, 1985), he restored a sense of responsibility to young Muslims before the modern world, encouraging them take up the journey next to young Christians. The pope began: " Christians and Muslims, we have many things in common, as believers and as human beings...We believe in the sane God, the one God, the living God, the God who created the world and brings his creatures to their perfection"[1].

This was followed by very open other gestures from John Paul II, such as a visit to the Great Mosque of Damascus (6 May 2001). "The fact that we are meeting in this renowned place of prayer reminds us that man is a spiritual being, called to acknowledge and respect the absolute priority of God in all things. Christians and Muslims agree that the encounter with God in prayer is the necessary nourishment of our souls, without which our hearts wither and our will no longer strives for good but succumbs to evil. Both Muslims and Christians prize their places of prayer, as oases where they meet the All Merciful God on the journey to eternal life, and where they meet their brothers and sisters in the bond of religion"[2]

Once, May 14, 1999, the Pope even kissed a copy of the Koran, given to him as a gift from an Iraqi Muslim delegation. [3]For us Christians of the East, this went a little too far. On the other hand the Pope did not view the kissing of the sacred text of Islam as a dogmatic consecration, but only a gesture of esteem and respect. But criticism nonetheless abounded.

Then there was the meeting in Assisi (1986, 2002), which was generally seen as a positive thing, even if there were also some ambiguous aspects, such as considering all religions on the same level.

With Benedict XVI, the first gesture that directly involved Islam was the Regensburg Address (September 12, 2006). As such, this speech was not directed primarily to Muslims, but to German scientists, scholars and philosophers, as the title of the address explained: "Meeting with the representatives of science."

The breath of reason

The ultimate goal is expressed in the conclusion: to establish a universal dialogue - not only between Christians and Muslims - based on reason. The analysis that leads to this conclusion is a typical philosophical reasoning, based on logos, on reason. It states that the West has distorted the concept of reason towards the scientific-mathematical concept of "measurable", "experimental", "pragmatic." Instead, the original term "logos" and "logikos", rational, reasonable, also means "spiritual" and is found in all Christian literature.

Questo termine si usa ancora nelle liturgie orientali, in cui si parla per esempio delle "pecore razionali" (cioè i fedeli) e più ancora dei sacrifici ragionevoli, cioè spirituali, in opposizione ai sacrifici animali. il suo uso deriva da san Paolo (Romani 12,1)  in cui egli parla del culto "logiké" (razionale, spirituale). Anche l'antica liturgia latina (e l'attuale prima preghiera eucaristica), parlando dell'offerta eucaristica, dice: "Quam oblationem tu, Deus, in omnibus quaesumus, benedictam, adscriptam, ratam, rationabilem, acceptabilemque facere digneris ..."; "oblationem rationabilem" è reso nella traduzione italiana" con "sacrificio spirituale".

This term is still used in the Eastern liturgies, which speaks for example of "rational sheep" (ie believers), and what's more of reasonable sacrifices, in short, spiritual, as opposed to animal sacrifices. its use comes from St Paul (Romans 12:1) in which he speaks of a worship that is "logiké" (rational, spiritual). Even the ancient Latin liturgy (and the current First Eucharistic Prayer), speaking of the Eucharistic offering, thus reads, "Quam oblationem tu, Deus, in omnibus quaesumus, benedictam, adscriptam, ratam, rationabilem, acceptabilemque facere digneris...", "oblationem rationabilem" in the English translation reads "an offering in spirit and in truth".

The Pope wanted to show that Western civilization has reduced the concept of reason, limiting it to the measurable and calculable, emptying it of its spiritual dimension. He says it is necessary to overcome this reductionism, otherwise we can not communicate with the other world cultures, which instead have this spiritual dimension.

Violence is irrational and opposed to God

He also brings another danger to light: that of identifying rationality with faith, and this is dangerous because faith without rational control, may resort to violence. This risk lies everywhere.

In last year's Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, the Pope warns against this very danger: religious extremism, fundamentalism, which "touches all religions." In fact, it can be found in Judaism, in some groups in Israel, in Christianity, in some evangelical groups; in Islam, from which the Islamic world itself primarily suffers: we see Muslim populations protesting against the fundamentalism of the new regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, etc. .. Thus, well ahead of the Arab Spring, the Pope denounced such violence.

Perhaps, it can be said that his choice of text was poor.  The - now famous - text from which he quotes the dialogue between the Emperor Manuele Paleologos and a Muslim scholar of Persian origin. But even he, the Pope explained that in the summer of 2006 he had read this dialogue and it seemed useful to demonstrate that those who follow God should follow Him in a "rational" way and therefore without violence.

It is also true that, to date, only the blind could deny that the majority of the episodes of violence justified by religion occur within Islam. Some might say that Islam itself is not violent, but in fact, there are Muslims who commit violence; imams who preach and bless it; recognized Islamic organizations who plan acts of violence and even take power. Unfortunately there is a tendency to believe that these groups are like "loose cannons", but they are actually part of the Islamic system (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) who present themselves as the true Islam. In any case, what the Pope said in Regensburg, is addressed to all forms of fundamentalism, and also to Islam.

The dialogue between the Emperor and the Persian scholar focuses primarily on which is the more just and true religion. The Muslim says that Islam is because it comes after the others and therefore takes the best aspects from all the others. The fact that this justification has continuously echoed throughout the history of Islam and is still proclaimed by imams and Islamic universities is of note.

Manuel Palaeologus instead says that the only thing that Islam has contributed is war in the name of God. If one were to think about it, one would have to admit that in 2006, five years after the attack on the Twin Towers, the Pope was right: you can not carry out acts of violence in the name of God. This statement is made in the name of humanity and also applies to atheists, who in the name of those without a God can provoke war. But this speech - addressed to the faculty of the University of Regensburg - was perhaps too refined for a wider audience.

In any event, although there have been reactions and criticism, this speech has led to increasingly positive steps forward.

The other steps forward by Benedict XVI

The pope himself realized that reasoned argument was not enough, but had to be followed by gestures that ere understandable to the whole world. In Regensburg, he spoke as "Prof. Ratzinger," but everyone saw him as Pope Benedict XVI. Following on from this he made gestures very significant gestures: in Turkey he entered the Blue Mosque and prayed in silence, putting his hands in the same position as the imam, who recited the official prayer of Islam.

In Jordan, he entered the Great Mosque ready to take off his shoes, but Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad Bin Talal told him he could keep them on because there was red carpet running throughout the entire mosque. Then he spent a moment in quite reflection, praying in his heart. Out of respect for Muslims, he did not make any gestures of Christian prayer, and out of respect for Christians, has made no gestures pertaining to Muslim prayer.

These visibly simple gestures communicated to the world of Islam that Benedict XVI is a spiritual man, who is attentive to the host who welcomes him, without ever falling into the trap of ambiguity.

In the wake of Regensburg other gestures were born, which revealed his discrete and attentive nature. In line with Vatican II ("we are brothers"), with John Paul II ("let us pray together"), Benedict XVI coaxed relations with Islam to further reflection, we are believers, but we must use reason and attempt to establish a shared commitment .

This is evident in the reaction of 138 Muslim scholars (who later became several hundred), which led to a meeting between the Vatican and international Muslim leaders (November 2008). That meeting was to have taken place on a bi-annual basis, once at the Vatican once, once in Jordan. The second meeting was long in coming, with a more neutral theme: Mysticism in Islam (Sufi) and Christianity. This meeting took place in Jordan in 2011.

Another, very important, step even if it largely passed under the media radar, was the visit of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to the Vatican (November 2007), the first visit of a Saudi king to a pope. The Holy Father hoped to address the issue of the more than one million Catholics (mainly Filipino women) working in Saudi Arabia, who do not have the right to pray even in private, but it was not possible to approach the subject in a first meeting.

This was followed by an interfaith conference in Madrid, sponsored by the Saudi royals (July 2008). The meeting with the Saudi king was to breack down the walls of preconceived ideas and give birth to a peaceful collaboration.

On November 26, 2012, the King Abdullah International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) was founded in Vienna, supported by the Saudi King, in the presence of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and representatives of the major religions. Austria and Spain are co-founders, along with the Holy See as an "observer-founder."

The Apostolic Exhortation for the Middle East

For me the culmination of this Pope's endeavour was his visit to Lebanon in September 2012, despite the near-by Syrian civil war, and the apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, published Sept. 14, the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

In the Country of the Cedars, Benedict XVI has taken a further step forward: we must build the city of peace together. In short he launched a joint project. He was not satisfied with pointing to Lebanon as an important example of coexistence for the Middle East and for Muslims and Christians, instead he saw it as a model of coexistence for the whole world.

Benedict XVI criticizes fundamentalism (no. 30), from wherever it originates, and secularism from wherever it originates (29). He projects the Christian and the Muslim worlds into the context of modernity. Today, modernity is seen as a secularism that excludes religion. Indeed, for some, to be modern means eliminating religion. The Pope criticizes the secular societies that do not respect religion and praises "healthy secularism". He writes:

"A healthy secularity, on the other hand, frees religion from the encumbrance of politics, and allows politics to be enriched by the contribution of religion, while maintaining the necessary distance, clear distinction and indispensable collaboration between the two spheres. No society can develop in a healthy way without embodying a spirit of mutual respect between politics and religion, avoiding the constant temptation either to merge the two or to set them at odds. " (n. 29).

Contrary to the image of an intolerant dogmatic, with which he is often labelled, Benedict XVI, who has always criticized religious relativism, says in the Exhortation:
"Hence it is not fitting to state in an exclusive way: "I possess the truth". The truth is not possessed by anyone; it is always a gift which calls us to undertake a journey of ever closer assimilation to truth. Truth can only be known and experienced in freedom; for this reason we cannot impose truth on others; truth is disclosed only in an encounter of love. (no. 27).

Building a world community that rejects fundamentalism and secularism

Benedict XVI proposes a real dialogue between religions and secular society, which overcomes the bottlenecks of fundamentalism and secularism. In this sense, he extends and refines the reflection he first began in Regensburg, revealing the social burden and its deleterious effects on international politics and global coexistence.

Speaking to the Curia Cardinals for Christmas greetings (December 21, 2012), and referring to the issue of gay marriage in France, he quoted Parisian Rabbi Bernheim at length, about the concept of the family. Here too, the Pope highlights the dangers for the future of humanity, suggesting that for the good of humanity must take into account the religious dimension.

His proposal, from Regensburg on, is the construction of an international community in which religions reject fundamentalism and secularism rejects being anti-religion.

In the past, in Cairo, at the UN Population Conference (September 1994), an alliance was formed between the Vatican and Islamic countries to eliminate abortion from contraceptive practices. The secular world accused the Vatican of allying itself with backward, conservative and authoritarian countries such as Iran. But in hindsight, it is not an issue of self-preservation, but to sense where humanity is heading. Who has a lively religious sensibility must guide humanity, to prevent it falling prey to fundamentalisms. There are secularists who have great insight: they too must be able to guide humanity as long as they do not fall prey to ideology or anti-religious ideologies.

Let us take the specific example of homosexuality. The Church does not want to exclude homosexuals from society, or who put them to death (as sometimes happens in the Islamic world in accordance with the Sharia). She just says that this is not the right path, like adultery is not the right path. She can not renounce her position on this, in the name of her spirituality, of natural law and realism. This line is difficult because in the West we live in a time of rejection of the spiritual dimension and in the Islamic world there is a reaction against this rejection of religion in the West.

Conclusion: an evangelical humanism

It seems to me that the progress to which Benedict XVI has contributed - from Regensburg on - is to have dared tackle the problem of modernity, presenting his truth without flinching but also without rejecting criticism and without preventing anyone from speaking . The Church has its own vision of humanism, inspired by the Gospel, to build a more humane society, and must have the calm courage to proclaim it.

Let us also look at the turn the Arab Spring has taken, now imprisoned by Islam. Everywhere we see hundreds of thousands of Arabs in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, taking to the streets to reject fundamentalism. I'm not saying that these crowds are inspired by the Pope, but what I am saying is that the Pope was prophetic in his condemnation of a radical religious fundamentalism wherever it is, or comes from. This strengthens his line in favour of a critical spirituality, linked to reason.

Benedict XVI is a man of God, deeply spiritual, but at the same time a profound philosopher who reflects on all the human and philosophical dimensions. He is painted as a "conservative", yet he had the revolutionary courage to stand up and say to the world, that it would be better for another, younger leader to respond to the challenges of our world, inspired by the Gospel. Benedict XVI is simply a man who tries to shed light on all aspects of life, illuminating them with the light of the Gospel. His relationship with Islam is in line with this global vision: Caritas in veritate, but also Veritas in caritate: proclaim the truth, modestly and without pride, quietly and with respect.


[1] See: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/1985/august/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19850819_giovani-stadio-casablanca_en.html

[2] See: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/2001/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_20010506_omayyadi_en.html


[3] See images and comments on:

http://www.crisidellachiesa.com/articoli/autorita/bacio_corano/wojtyla_bacia_il_corano.htm or

http://nicolaiannazzo.org/2012/02/16/%E2%97%8F-quando-karol-wojtyla-bacio-il-corano-2/ and others


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See also
Human rights, the real fulcrum of the new Catholic-Muslim Forum
Pope talks about the Middle East, the Holy Land and the food crisis with Bush
The Pope's speech: lending Islam a helping hand to avoid a downward spiral
Hegazi case: Islam’s obsession with conversions
Magdi Christian Allam, a contested conversion


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