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Catholic-Muslim Dialogue Resumes

Agreement to disagree on religious freedom.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is first of a three-part series.

This month’s much-anticipated,
high-level Catholic-Muslim forum at the Vatican brings to mind a 2003
encounter between my longtime friend and colleague, Nina Shea, a
frequent National Review Online contributor, and Faisal Ahmed Shinwari, then-chief justice of Afghanistan’s brand-new supreme court (see here and here on their meeting).

Shinwari cheerfully advised Shea, visiting post-Taliban Kabul in her official capacity with the U.S government’s independent Commission
on International Religious Freedom, that Afghanistan’s new judiciary
would embrace the full range of universally recognized international
human rights — except, of course, for freedom of religion, freedom of
expression, and women’s rights.

Five years later, nothing has changed.

same three issues — especially religious freedom — were the chief
sticking points in this month’s closed-door talks at the Vatican, for
precisely the same basic reasons Shinwari outlined five years ago.
These are that Islamic law (sharia) rejects or sharply limits all three categories of basic human rights; that sharia,
of course, trumps all other sources of law; and that, wherever possible
(as under the 2004 Afghan constitution), every Muslim-majority state
has the religious duty to impose Muslim religious law — just as all
Muslims collectively have the religious duty to extend Muslim religious
law everywhere (including Europe and North America).

views are by no means the idiosyncratic interpretation of a provincial
Muslim jurist without any secular legal training. His views are an
accurate statement of traditional Muslim orthodoxy, the bottom line —
especially on religious freedom — that shapes both inter-religious
dialogue between Christians and Muslims and bilateral diplomacy between
states on related human-rights issues.

In fact, this bottom line provides the essential context for grasping what did and didn’t happen in Rome November 4-6.

did happen — a frank and mostly cordial exchange of views between
high-level Roman Catholic and Muslim representatives — is ultimately
the product of Pope Benedict XVI’s initiative. It was his 2006
Regensburg address
on faith and reason — endlessly debated and more often than not
misunderstood — that provoked two authoritative Muslim responses
(discussed here and here), the Common Word
initiative which later evolved into the nascent Catholic-Muslim Forum.
Even Tariq Ramadan, the controversial Islamist who took part in the
Vatican talks, now acknowledges that Regensburg’s “overall consequences have proven more positive than negative.”

a backhanded acknowledgment of the plain fact that, without the impetus
of Benedict’s 2006 remarks, this month’s talks would never have taken

What didn’t happen in Rome was a meeting of the minds, at
least on the paramount issue of religious freedom, but instead an
implicit agreement to disagree.

But there was agreement
on some first principles that can serve as the basis for future
dialogue. This agreement is contained in a three-page, 15-point declaration
agreed by both sides at the conclusion of the talks. Like most such
documents issued after similar meetings, the final declaration is
characteristically general and abstract, without any specific or
concrete references to facts on the ground (like the desperate plight
of Iraq’s beleaguered Christian minority). It also contains practical
compromises that reflect the inherent promise and limits of
inter-religious dialogue more generally.

Consider the declaration’s treatment of freedom of religion and freedom of expression:

Genuine love of neighbor implies respect of the person and her or his
choices in matters of conscience and religion. It includes the right of
individuals and communities to practice their religion in private and

Religious minorities are entitled to be respected in their own
religious convictions and practices. They are also entitled to their
own places of worship, and their founding figures and symbols they
consider sacred should not be subject to any form of mockery or

Now compare how both issues are treated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948):

Article 18.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
this right includes the freedom to change his religion or belief, and
freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public and
private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice,
worship and observance.

Article 19
. Everyone has the
right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom
to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart
information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Two points. First, the Vatican declaration recognizes only freedom of worship,
not the much broader entitlements and immunities for individuals and
communities alike under nearly all accepted understandings of full
religious freedom. To take just one example, the UDHR explicitly
recognizes the right to change one’s religion, a right that remains at
least implicit in the later International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966).

For Muslims, however, leaving Islam for another faith (or for no faith
at all) is apostasy, a capital offense according to every school of
Muslim jurisprudence. This issue regularly arises in spectacular cases,
like that of the unlucky Abdul Rahman,
an Afghan exile who converted to Christianity while in Germany and then
returned to his native land as an aid worker. He wisely kept his
conversion to himself, but was found out, denounced to the authorities,
tried, and duly sentenced to death for apostasy. Only an international
outcry — and diplomatic intervention by donor states on which
Afghanistan is wholly dependent — staved off Rahman’s execution by
allowing him to flee asylum in Italy.

The same phenomenon often occurs under the radar when Muslim-majority
states like Egypt enforce vague legal prohibitions against “insulting
Islam” or “creating sectarian strife.” These prohibitions target not
only Christians, but also disfavored Muslim minorities, such as
Ahmadis, Ismailis, and Bahais. All these groups are targets of
bureaucratic harassment or worse (most Muslim-majority states require
identity cards specifying the bearer’s religion or sect, thus
facilitating such ill-treatment, especially by the police and internal
security services, the ubiquitous Mukhabarat). And there’s
always the threat of such measures being enforced by extra-judicial
violence at the hands of extremists (often with state complicity or
acquiescence). The same also often holds true for Sunni or Shiite
minorities in states where the other sect predominates. But the upshot
is that mere freedom of worship is a strictly circumscribed concept
affording very little protection for religious minorities, Muslim and
Christian alike.

Second, the Vatican declaration’s sixth
numbered paragraph similarly reflects an uneasy practical compromise
that links a vague and limited entitlement (“religious minorities … are
entitled to their own places of worship”) with a troubling new
exception to free expression.

This modest entitlement appears
limited by its terms to “places of worship,” without including schools,
hospitals, orphanages and other institutions maintained for religious
purposes but which often serve members of all faiths, as well as wider
social goods. It’s a little-known fact that Christian religious schools
educate a hugely disproportionate share of local Muslim elites,
including such figures as Gamal Mubarak and the late Benazir Bhutto.

more, the same provision doesn’t mention any right to erect new “places
of worship” or even to repair existing ones. Even today, new
construction or major repairs often require the permission of the head
of state, based on Ottoman precedents, or face insuperable
bureaucratic, political, or social roadblocks. In Egypt, for instance,
the Muslim Brotherhood often blocks church construction or repair by
opening a nearby prayer room within designated limits separating
churches from mosques. And if that expedient fails, the Brothers simply
take to the streets.

The exception to freedom of expression is more troubling still. It reflects concerted, ongoing efforts to codify Islamic blasphemy law as a new international legal norm. The aim is to prohibit or even criminalize any
expression deemed disrespectful to Islam by Muslims themselves. That’s
an entirely subjective standard and a potentially fatal threat to free
expression (including analyses like this one). What’s more, it also
reinforces the unfortunate Muslim tendency to conflate sin and crime —
consider only officially secular Turkey’s
recent attempt to criminalize adultery — and to treat state and society
and religion as one and the same, with the result that only Muslims are
full citizens.

The Catholic side would have been wiser to
maintain that these matters should be denounced by religious leaders,
not banned or criminalized by states under the cover of emerging
international law. But the latter approach is the sovereign remedy for
“Islamophobia” now being advanced by the Saudi-based Organization of
the Islamic Conference in every international forum, including the U.N.
General Assembly and the U.N .Human Rights Council. And there’s no
doubt that this provision will be cited as Roman Catholic support for
this dubious innovation.

But it’s more likely than not that this
particular compromise was the price of a document acceptable to both
sides. Two excellent inside accounts of the closed-door talks both
credit one of the Muslim delegation’s two leaders, Sarajevo’s Grand
Mufti Mustafa Ceric, with convincing his fellow Muslims that paragraphs
5 and 6 reflect existing international obligations and, more to the
point, are in fact essential for Muslim minorities in Europe (see here and here).
While unlikely to alter an unacceptable status quo in most
Muslim-majority states, this compromise language may well further
Muslim ambitions in Europe’s more favorable political and legal
climate. Expect this document to be cited in support of such projects
as the gargantuan “mega-mosque” slated for London’s 2012 Olympic Park,
originally designed to accommodate 40,000 worshippers, now scaled back for a more modest 12,000, three times the capacity of Britain’s largest cathedral (see here and here).

a similar compromise underlying another provision that seems out of
place in an inter-religious dialogue animated by more pressing and
appropriate concerns. That’s a call for “believers to work for an ethical financial system
in which the regulatory mechanisms consider the situation of the poor
and disadvantaged, both as individuals, and as indebted nations
(emphasis added).” While this may seem like the harmless palaver
characteristic of high-minded clerics, it will undoubtedly be cited as
support for the dubious concept of sharia-compliant finance (see here).

compromises are significant in and of themselves, but they also
highlight more basic divisions between Christians and Muslims over the
nature and purpose of interreligious dialogue. What exactly is such
dialogue for? Is it a means to an end or an end in itself? What matters more, process or results?

— John F. Cullinan, a regular NRO contributor, is an expert in international religious freedom.