The Road from Regensburg

FAITH Magazine May-June 2008s

Ecumenical and inter-religious developments in the search for a modern apologetic

Promising compromise agenda forged

Following the recent vigorous debate concerning whether the agenda for future official Catholic-Islamic discussions should be primarily theological (as argued by signatories of the Islamic Open Letter “A Common Word”) or primarily anthropological (as argued by prominent orthodox Catholic commentators), in which we sided more with the Muslims (see our previous Road from Regensburg) a wise compromise has been reached at a March meeting at the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, with the Muslim position having slight preeminence. The first day of a new “Catholic-Muslim Forum” next November in Rome will be on “Theological and Spiritual Foundations” which, as we have argued, is the essential foundation to what will be discussed on the following day, namely “Human Dignityand Mutual Respect”. Twenty-four religious leaders and scholars from each side will participate in the seminar in Rome whose overall theme will be “Love of God, Love of Neighbour”. Watch this space.

Easter Vigil baptism and the Regensburg idea

Pope Benedict’ s Easter Vigil baptism of the Muslim Magdi Allam has sparked a vigorous debate concerning the Papal approach to the truth of Catholicism and the significance of his Regensburg reflection on faith and reason. Mr Allam, the deputy editor of the leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera, who took the baptismal name ‘Cristiano’, has written of the violent potential of the Islamic faith, the weakness of secular multi-culturalism and the wisdom of the Pope’s Regensburg address.

Aref Ali Nayed, a key co-ordinator of the post-Regensburg Islamic Open Letters, who has made some important contributions to the debate and finds Mr Allam’ s view objectionable, has renewed his biting critique of that lecture which critique we have chronicled in this column. Papal spokesman Federico Lombardi has penned an articulate reply.

Mr Allam s Open Letter proclaimed that “The miracle of the Resurrection of Christ has resounded through my soul, freeing it from the darkness of the preaching (of) hatred and intolerance toward those who are ‘different’” He explained that “undoubtedly the most extraordinary and meaningful encounter in my decision to convert was with pope Benedict XVI, whom I admired and defended as a Muslim for his mastery in presenting the indissoluble bond between faith and reason as the foundation of authentic religion and of humane civilisation...”
“...His Holiness has launched a clear and revolutionary message to a Church that until now has been excessively prudent in the conversion of Muslims ...For my part, I say that it is time to put an end to the presumption and violence of Muslims who do not respect the freedom of religious choice.”

Aref Ali Nayed, the director of the Jordanian Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, suggests that “it is not far fetched to see this” whole episode as “another way of reasserting” the “message of the Byzantine Emperor quoted by the Pope in his infamous Regensburg Lecture”, which anti-Islam message ex-Muslim Mr Allam seems to be sympathetic to. This scenario, he rightly points out, would be in contrast to what “the Vatican keeps insisting” upon, namely that the lecture was not an attempt to insult Islam. Rather, as we have tried to bring out in this column, it called for the renewal of Western and Islamic approaches to reason, to which the story about the Emperor was an interesting historical introduction.

Federico Lombardi s response mentioned the basic fact that “Welcoming a new believer into the Church clearly does not mean espousing all of his ideas and positions, in particular on political or social topics ... As for the debate over the Pope’s lecture in Regensburg ... some of the topics addressed at the time, such as the relationship between faith and reason, between religion and violence,
naturally remain the object of reflection and debate, and of varying positions, since they refer to problems that cannot be resolved once and for all....”

He concluded his remarks by suggesting that “Perhaps the Pope accepted the risk of this baptism also for this reason: to affirm the freedom of religious choice which derives from the dignity of the human person.”

Sandro Magister had drawn attention to some relevant articles in LOsservatore Romano in the days after Easter. One was about Ramon Lull, a 13th century Franciscan, who “struggled to promote a peaceful form of missionary preaching, entirely founded on understanding between the two faiths, on the power of conviction and on the rational argumentation of truth.”

Another highlights the November ’07 meeting of the Pope with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia which considered collaboration between Christians, Jews and Muslims. Perhaps as a fruit of this, immediately after Easter (and Allam’ s baptism) the King’ s government announced refresher courses for 40,000 Imams encouraging moderate Islam. At the same time the King himself issued the following words:
“...The world is suffering ... We have lost faith in religion and respect for humanity. The disintegration of the family and the widespread atheism in the world are frightening phenomena that all of the religions must take into account and overcome. ... I have thought of inviting religious authorities to express their views of what is happening in the world, and, God willing, we will begin to organise meetings with our brothers who belong to the monotheistic religions, among representatives of believers in the Qur’an, the Gospel, and the Bible.”

Magister comments that “it is increasingly evident that both (the Pope’ s) lecture in Regensburg and his decision to baptise a convert from Islam at the Easter vigil in St. Peter’ s are not gestures of rupture, but, on the contrary, are precisely that which makes intelligible and unequivocal – for Muslims just as for Christians – his desire for dialogue."

The Tablets take

Under the headline “Benedict XVI distanced from Muslim convert’s comments” The Tablets Rome correspondent Robert Mickens reported the pointing out, by Fr Lombardi, that baptising someone doesn’t mean necessarily accepting everything they believe. The report emphasised that Dr Nayed had demanded such a distancing.

Any reader who might get the impression that the Pope was on the back foot would not be helped by the fact that the news report goes on to juxtapose two hardly related comments.
In addition to Professor Nayed’s Regensburg point mentioned opposite he also made two other distinct complaints. He argued that Allam’s conversion had been turned into a “triumphalist tool”. He further suggested that, given that Allam once received Holy Communion at his Catholic school, the conversion could well be an example of that “proselytising” by “some” Catholic schools, which is “an abuse of trust” and an attack on “human dignity”.

The Tablet report mentions the former of these complaints but not the latter. It presents part of the papal spokesman’s answer to the latter complaint as if it were his answer to the former. The report thus presents Fr Lombardi avoiding the “triumphalist” accusation in this way:

“(Dr Nayed) criticised the high-profile nature of the former Muslim’s conversion. He accused the Vatican of making it a ‘triumphalist tool’. Fr Lombardi responded that in countries ‘where the great majority of students in Catholic schools and universities are non-Christians’ they ‘have happily remained so, while showing an appreciation for the education they received’.”
The Tablet 5th April

Reason purifying the Islamic Tradition

Turkey’ s highest religious authority, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, has commissioned a re-interpretation of the Hadith, a collection of the Prophet Mohammed’ s sayings, which is regarded as Islam’s “second source”, an essential supplement to the Qur’an.

The Turkish Islamic commentator, Mustafa Akyol, whose interesting pieces we have covered on numerous occasions in this column, has explained that this is a further “big step” in the resurgence of reason in Islam, tentatively begun in the 19th century. The late first Millennium Mutazilite school emphasised reason as a tool for contextualising the Qur’an in addition to using the sayings of the prophet. This school was eclipsed in the second Millennium by the Sunni (‘People of the [Hadith] Tradition’ ) distrust of reason.

Akyol suggests that Pope Benedict “might find (the Mutazilite) tradition worthy of considering, because in his famous, and controversial, Regensburg speech, he only referred to the ‘voluntarist’ line of thinking in Islam, which is the exact opposite of the Mutazilite tradition, and which says that God does whatever He wills and there is no point in questioning it,” notwithstanding, it seems, the relatively brief first millennium influence of the Mutazilites.
The Week 8th March, Turkish Daily News

Relativism versus Moderate Islam

Charles Moore, ex-editor of The Daily Telegraph, has added his voice to those arguing that multi-culturalism plays into the hands of fundamentalist Islam (see also our March ‘08 column). He makes an interesting analogy between two types of leadership in modern Britain: contemporary Extremist Muslims and 1980’ s Trade Union militants. Both have involved frightening the majority of moderate and peaceful rank and file followers whilst also tapping into some real grievances and tiredness with traditional leadership. Moore suggests that we should challenge rather than take seriously such extreme leaders, as Mrs Thatcher did with Arthur Scargill.

He points out “the interesting fact that tens of thousands of Muslims volunteered – they were not conscripted — to fight for the British Empire in two world wars. In the first, they fought against the Ottoman Empire, to which, in theory, they owed spiritual allegiance. Why did they do so? Not, surely, because they were offered multiculturalism, but because they felt themselves respected and secure in the self-confident British political culture of that time....

“In Islam, the word ‘honour’ does not have to go with the word ‘killing’, but can have a real meaning which it has too often lost in our secular society. So can ideas of dignity, of obligation to elderly parents, of community. ...’ Our broken society ... has need of (these).”
The Spectator, 18th March

American Pluralism better than European Relativism for Muslims

Marcia Pally, who teaches Multi-cultural Studies at New York University, has recently argued that Muslims in American have participated in the USA economy so much more significantly than in the European one because of the former culture’ s radical respect for their freedom to practise their religion. This pluralism contrasts with European multi-culturalism which doubts the relevance of dogmatic religion in the public square. In the USA there has been a Muslim prayer group in the Congress building before and after 9/11. In Europe the Muslim headscalf is increasingly banned from the public arena. In the USA, even after 9/11 Muslims have developed their mainstream political involvement. In Britain where Muslims remain poor, over 50\% of non-muslims express fears about their future role.
Islamica Magazine

Relativism not good for pluralism

In a recent Islamica Magazine Review, also carried by Cardinal Scola’ s Oasis newsletter Isla Rosser-Owen has praised a collection of essays by “star-studded” writers from different perspectives: Islam and Global Dialogue: Religious Pluralism and the Pursuit of Peace(Edited by Roger Boase, Ashgate Publishing, 2005).

She reports that “... Diana Eck argues that pluralism is the most challenging ‘ism’ for the world today, more so than secularism, the success of which is now being progressively questioned.
“... Is there more than one path to salvation? ...Who is “more right”, and whose “right” to practice their religion supercedes that of others? like it or not, ... these are questions that will become increasingly important”.
Islamica Magazine

Faith Magazine

May - June 2008