No news is good news at Catholic-Muslim Forum

November 5, 2008

The news at the Catholic-Muslim Forum today is that there is no news.  No news in the MSM (mainstream media) sense. Nobody’s walked out of the talks, there have been no enormous blow-ups, outrageous charges, etc. It would take something like that for a story about interfaith dialogue to have any luck in the MSM on the day after Barack Obama was elected U.S. president. In fact, several Catholic-Muslim Forum delegates I spoke to today first mentioned how pleased they were at Obama’s victory across the ocean before they got around to talking about their meeting here.

The other reason the Forum has “no news” is that what’s happening seems like mostly good news, which by the usual MSM definition (see above…) is no news. These pioneering talks between Muslim signatories of the Common Word manifesto and Vatican officials and Catholic Islam experts moved ahead on their second day with what participants said were open and useful discussions. “The discussion is not getting derailed where it could get derailed, if someone wanted to do that,” one delegate said.

That’s interesting, because today’s topic — human dignity and mutual respect — was the natural place for a strong stand by those Catholics who want this dialogue to focus on reciprocity, or giving minority Christians in Muslim countries the same rights as Muslim minorities in western countries. Actually, the talks got around to that topic late in the first day of talks yesterday and the debate apparently got quite spirited. Both Catholics and Muslims told me it was lively but respectful, a useful face-to-face exchange of what is usually only said about the other. Let’s see what the final communique on Thursday says about this.

The delegations also discussed the more philosophical issue of how each religion handles the threat they see in secular modernity. The world’s two largest faiths can easily discover how much they have in common (along with other religions) when they get together to discuss what they see as the godlessness of modern times. As one delegate told me, the Catholic side defended the legal separation of church and state, what Pope Benedict would call “positive laïcité.” The Muslim side made a difference between a secular state in the American mold and a militantly secularist outlook, such as France’s decision to ban headscarves from state schools.

There was some discussion of practical measures to take going forward, such as drawing up lists of recommended books about each religion for teachers to use for courses about the other faith. There was also a suggestion that the Common Word’s use of the first two commandments as common foundational doctrines of Christianity and Islam might be expanded to cover all ten commandments. That could open up an interesting discussion about what’s called the Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage. Again, let’s see what develops here.

One Muslim delegate noted that Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Catholic delegation, had said before the talks that theological discussions with Muslims were quite difficult. But, he said, the Catholic delegates got straight into debating theology with the Muslims. “They very much want to be in a theological discussion, not just in another polite bridge-building exercise,” the delegate said. “Europe is in a state of religious apathy, some of which arises because people see us in dispute. We could do each other a favour if we get along. It could be an argument against atheism.”

Thursday will be an active day, with an audience with Pope Benedict in the morning and a public session at the Pontifical Gregorian University in the afternoon where the final communique will be read out. It has to be said that the audience looks in advance like a missed opportunity, because it will be a highly choreographed papal encounter during which Benedict will deliver a prepared speech and two Muslim experts will present their views. There will be no debate, no discussion, no dialogue to tease out the implications of what a speaker has just said.

Now a prisoner of Vatican protocol, the man who as Cardinal Jospeh Ratzinger used to hold (and hold his own in) public debates with agnostic and atheist philosophers cannot engage in an open debate. I have no doubt it would be a fascinating exchange to listen to, but apparently it’s not the done thing for a pope to venture into uncharted waters like that. So, unless he tosses his text aside at the last minute and speaks off the cuff , he will simply read out his prepared speech, listen to his guests’ and then end the audience. The baroque Vatican ceremony is probably all any of you will see of this meeting on TV or in news pictures, if the media are ready to look further afield on Day Obama +2. But the most important part will be in Benedict’s text.

By the way, the Catholic-Muslim Forum is getting a lot of attention in one newspaper, the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano. It rated a front-page analysis on Monday, just before the three-day talks opened. It’s the long article on the right in the JPG image above. The headline reads “A choice for the future” and the text is available here in PDF (in Italian).

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Deconstructing religion-speak and winning the war on terror…

While announcing the formation of his Tony Blair Faith Foundation earlier this year, the former British Prime Minister predicted: “Religious faith will be of the same significance to the 21st century as political ideology was to the 20th.” Fascism and communism have mostly been defeated. The first war of the 21st century, often referred to as “the war on terror”, has radical religious beliefs at its core. Unmitigated, this war could be longer and costlier than any that has preceded it.

Responding to Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial 2006 speech at the University of Regensburg – in which he seemingly implied that Islam is violent and irrational – 138 Muslim clerics, scholars and intellectuals sent an open letter to the pope and the leaders of other Christian denominations titled “A Common Word Between Us and You.” It said, in effect, “we need to talk.”

Absent in Islam are the established top-down hierarchies found in Christian religions. Speaking to Christianity with a unified voice requires a great deal of consensus building among a diverse group of Muslim leaders. According to, “138 Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals have unanimously come together for the first time since the days of the Prophet to declare the common ground between Christianity and Islam.” By doing so, they have successfully laid the groundwork for productive interfaith dialog.

A Common Word [ACW] has spawned several high level interfaith conferences. At the conclusion of each conference a joint statement has been issued. These statements have consistently stressed the importance of mutual respect and cooperation between Islam and Christianity. Each has gone on to outline steps to be taken by its participants to educate their fellow religionists on the common ground between the two faiths.

With all due respect to their esteemed participants, each statement has been ignored by the mainstream media [at least in the West] and by the individuals who would benefit most from the guidance they could provide. While very good at religion-speak, theologians and scholars are often very poor at real-speak.

On November 4th, while most in the U.S. were focusing on election results, Pope Benedict XVI convened the inaugural Catholic-Muslim Forum, the first in a series of meetings between the Vatican and the members of ACW. Because the stakes are too high for business-as-usual, here in real-speak, for the attendees’ consideration, is a draft of the closing statement from this forum:

To whom it may concern:
As monotheistic faiths, we share a belief in one God. Unfortunately, we define his true nature in fundamentally different ways. Islam holds that God is absolutely transcendent. He is so great he exists beyond humanity’s capacity to know him. Christianity holds that man can come to know God and even have a personal relationship with him; God is interactive.

Christian scholars have at times argued that because the God of Islam is absolutely transcendent, and the Qur’an contains his actual words, there’s little room for reason in the practice of Islam. As an example, we offer this statement by Australian Cardinal George Pell: “In the Muslim understanding, the Qur’an comes directly from God, unmediated. Muhammad simply wrote down God’s eternal and immutable words as they were dictated to him by the Archangel Gabriel. It cannot be changed, and to make the Qur’an the subject of critical analysis and reflection is either to assert human authority over divine revelation (a blasphemy), or to question its divine character.”

Islamic scholars counter that although Muslims don’t interact directly with God, they do interpret his perfect word and apply it in their daily lives in different ways. Aref Ali Nayed, the chief spokesperson on behalf of the open letter responded: “Muslim scholars were always aware of the fact that the activities of interpretation, understanding, and exegesis (of God’s eternal discourse) are forms of human strenuous striving (ijtihad) that must be dutifully renewed in every believing generation. Solemn belief in the eternity and divine authorship of the Qur’an never prevented Muslim scholars from dealing with it historically and linguistically.

Many Islamic scholars interpret the Qur’an and the Hadith [the recordings of the words and deeds of Muhammad and his companions] through an historic lens that takes into account 7th century language, culture and society. Even among strict fundamentalists, for whom sacred scripture cannot be changed or updated based on historical context, different schools of thought offer differing interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Any suggestion that Islam is irrational is simply inaccurate.

A full reading of the Qur’an and Hadith makes it perfectly clear – for progressives and fundamentalist alike — that Islam extols peaceful behavior; that jihad is essentially a spiritual struggle for the eternal soul and justifiable as a physical war only in self-defense. To suggest that Islam is inherently violent is also innacurate.

Among fundamentalist Muslims however resides a small group of radical extremists who are both violent and irrational. They select the parts of the Qur’an that support what they believe to be true, ignore the parts that don’t, and use the concept of God as absolutely transcendent to fend off any who would question them.

Especially troubling is that many of these radicals are among Islam’s learned – its clergymen, scholars, professionals and the like. The extent to which their motivation is political, religious, or some combination of the two is unclear. What is clear is that they’ve convinced their followers [and apparently themselves] that violent jihad against all non-believers is God’s unquestionable will. We condemn the heretics who would desecrate Islam.

The fundamental differences between Islamic and Christian views of the creator are irreconcialable. While we cannot ignore our important differences we believe they can be overcome. In possession of a clear understanding of our respective views of the creator, and in the different ways in which we relate to him, productive dialog is possible, and common solutions to taming extremism can be found.

We are heartened by the fact that in practice faithful Muslims and faithful Christians behave in ways that are strikingly similar. On this basis, we believe it’s possible to achieve universal agreement on what it means to be faithful to God, however one chooses to define his true nature. Whether God is absolutely transcendent or interactive, unknowable or knowable, we can observe certain actions and know that they are agreeable, or disagreeable, to God.

We agree that the peaceful Muslim majority will ultimately determine the outcome of the “war on terror.” Unless moderate Muslims intervene, the belief that God is absolutely transcendent will always provide a certain legitimacy to those who are [consciously or not] are motivated to read the Qur’an selectively, and to sell their violent interpretation of the Qur’an as God’s unquestionable will.

We believe Christian leaders need to do a much better job of explaining that Islam is essentially a peaceful, tolerant and well-reasoned faith. We hope that peace-seeking Christians, if they take the time to better understand Islam, will chose to partner with, rather than alienate, the Muslim middle.

We agree that there are different paths to heaven and that every human has the God-given right to choose his path and to practice his religion freely, without threat of persecution. Despite our important doctrinal differences, we reject my-God-is-better-than-your-God-fighting in any form.

We believe peaceful people of all faiths can come together to isolate violent extremists, and that this isolation will ultimately lead to their surrender.

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