Last week Pope Benedict XVI met with a delegation of signatories to
the Common Word, a document that seems to have taken the world by
surprise. The dialogue that contributed to the Common Word was
initiated in the aftermath of Pope Benedict’s statements on Islam in
Regensburg, Germany and has transformed that negative episode in
Christian–Muslim relations into a positive one. Never before has there
been such a coterie of different Christian and Muslim groups from such
high levels willing to participate in dialogue and discourse.
arnhem:After all the Common Word events thus far, there has been a
spirt of warmth and a belief in future co-operation. There were two
historic meetings prior to the signing of the actual document – the
first at Yale University last July, which focused on Evangelical
Christianity. The second event was at Cambridge University and engaged
with the Anglican Communion directly. At that event the Archbishop of
Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, met with figures such as the Mufti of
Egypt and Dr Ali Goma’a.
Make no mistake – these events are
making history. But we also have to ask: What is the need for a Common
Word? Is this really the discussion of our time? Dialogue between the
West and the Muslim world is vital for a variety of reasons, political,
economic, cultural and historical. But one may ask further – is the
West really a Christian West? Or are we characterising the West, which
is arguably post Christian, in a way that does not bear much
resemblance to reality?
Particularly when looking at the meeting
in the US, one can understand the relevance of dialogue between
Christians and Muslims. After all, the US was historically influenced
by particular forms of Christianity, and also a country where Christian
adherents are incredibly active in the public sphere. Perhaps the US is
less of a Christian nation and more a modern one, but one cannot deny
the relevance of a document like the Common Word for that country.
last two meetings, first with the Anglican Communion and the Roman
Catholic Church, are in Europe – the birthplace of Western
civilisation. What characterises Western civilisation as distinct from
pre-modern Christian civilisation, is precisely the shift in the public
focus from the sacred to the secular. The Renaissance, the Industrial
Revolution – the periods that created the conditions for modernity –
represented departures from Europe’s religious orientation. The West
became secular as it became modern – so, the question remains, is the
Common Word, a discussion between Christians and Muslims, really the
appropriate discussion for these times?
To answer this question
we must find out what “secular” really means. Religion may have a
future within some interpretations of secularism but not within others.
We can see examples of how this could work in the US and in many other
secular states in Africa, South America or Southeast Asia. Religion may
have less relevance in some places than in others, but believers
continue to exist in cultures that have varying degrees of secularism
and the success of dialogues such as the Common Word is vital to them
We have seen how religion can be involved in catastrophic
misunderstandings, such as the affair around the Pope’s original
comments at Regensburg about Islam. At the very least, the Catholic –
Muslim forum that the Pope has now inaugurated can be a mechanism
through which such events can be avoided and where constructive
engagement can take place.
And for Europeans there is also
something at stake. Contemporary European political philosophy has come
around to the idea that there must be a respect for diversity within
unity – this is the main point of multiculturalism. Within this
philosophy, however, there is an ongoing uncertainty: In a Europe that
requires unity on national and continental levels, what will the moral
and ethical basis of that unity be? In days gone by, it would have been
the values of the Church – but we appear far past that today.
of the Catholic participants from the Vatican argued that good
relations between Catholics and Muslims could serve as an argument
against atheism in a religiously apathetic Europe. As a European, I
wonder if the Common Word can serve as an argument for an alternative,
proactive sacred worldview that can become an inspiration for a moral
and ethical foundation, uniting people of all faiths. So, perhaps, this
will be one of the side affects of the Common World – to help heal a
Europe that is still searching for herself.
And finally, for
Muslims, this discussion is also incredibly important. One of the
reasons that the Catholic Church has been so reluctant to engage with
Muslims in the past is that they never knew who to communicate with.
For a hierarchical institution like the Vatican, the seemingly vague
nature of religious authority in the Muslim world appeared chaotic. But
there are systems of religious authority in Islam, even though they are
more decentralised than one might expect.
The same people behind
the Common Word were also behind the Amman Message, which sought to
define religious authority according to the historical traditions of
Islam. One of the ancillary benefits of this process may be a renewed
understanding of religious authority among Muslims, not only for
religious dialogue with the Vatican, but in many other realms. We shall
have to wait and see, but things are certainly looking better on the
Dr H A Hellyer is a Fellow of the University of Warwick
and Founder-Director of the Visionary Consultants Group. He is a
signatory to the Amman Message and the Common Word