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‘A Common Word’ in the News

The Pope, Arabic Islam and the West

The Islamic media’s criticism of Benedict XVI
is nothing in the face of the wealth of his proposal. Dialogue with
science is essential for the Arab world, at a standstill for centuries;
it is crucial that the West does not close itself into relativistic
ideologies that despise faith.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Benedict
XVI’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land has been shrouded in controversies
that kick up clouds of dust without ever catching a glimpse of the
truth. The fact is that the Pope’s message to the people of that land,
Christian and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian, is vital for peace in
the region.

True brotherhood between Christians and Muslims in Jordan

In particular in Jordan, Benedict XVI laid the basis for
collaboration between Muslims and Christians, East and West.  There is
a notable difference between what the Muslim world wrote about in the
press and the attitude in Jordan.  Many Arab papers dragged up the so
called “Regensburg offence”, the demand for an apology for the
offensive against Islam etc….Instead the atmosphere that we witnessed
in Jordan was serene, welcoming and of shared trust.

The pope sincerely praised efforts being made by the Jordanian
monarchy, the king, Prince Al-Ghazi, Queen Rania, who accompanied him
to the University of Madaba, to bless the foundation stone.  The same
Catholic University of Madaba –wanted by the Latin Patriarch emeritus
Michel Sabbah – is a sign of the cordiality shared by Christians and
Muslims: a Catholic University that opens with the support, even
economic, of the Hashemite Royal Family.

This is the fruit of a politics that goes beyond tolerance of
Christianity.  My experience in Jordan – I was there on 3 occasions
last year and twice met with Prince Hassan – was one of an atmosphere
of serenity and friendship, one I have, so far, failed to find in
another Islamic nation.

This allowed small gestures of hospitality and honour towards
their guest the Pope.  For example, for his visit to the “al-Hussein
bin-Talal” Mosque in Amman, they allowed the pope to wear his shoes,
placing a long carpet on the ground.  Prince al-Ghazi also wore his

The atmosphere in Jordan inspired a message along the lines:
we are all friends, Bedouins, Christians, Muslims. Jordanians insist on
the fact that Jesus and Mary are part of the historic tradition of the
nation, because they lived in Jordan (the site of the Baptism, Bethany,
etc…) They believe that this land is sanctified by the presence of
Jesus and the prophets.

Religion and science: sharpening “critical skills”

But his discourse at the University of Madaba is really the
key point of this pilgrimage.  The Pope underlined many things, but
above all the importance of a serious and academic education of
Christians and Muslims to favour personal development, peace and
progress in the region.

The pope stressed the education offered by a university is the
key to personal development; that peace is built on knowledge and study
rather than ignorance; that an integral, economic and social, political
and democratic development, is born of study and knowledge.

He develops this argument saying that the aim of a university is to transmit “love for truth” and promote students “adhesion to values”, strengthening their “personal freedom”.

It’s very important that in a Muslim (and Christian) world,
often theocratic, the pope, before speaking of religion, speaks of
culture and science.  And the aim of science is to love and discover
truth.  He insists that this intellectual formation “will sharpen
their critical skills, dispel ignorance and prejudice, and assist in
breaking the spell cast by ideologies old and new”.

 “Critical skills” are important in the Arab
world: without criticism faith can become fanaticism, superstition or
even manipulation.  The pope touched on a point that is vital for the
growth of the region: the absence of the critical eye, results in
people following one or other political leader, without ever
questioning the need for democracy, freedom, human rights, coexistence.
 People religiously follow, without ever questioning the principals of
their own faith; holding onto traditions for fear of drowning in
freedom of conscience.
This is true of all religions not just Islam. Ignorance or prejudice, for the pope, threatens peace and dialogue.

And when he speaks of the “enchantment of ideologies” he alludes to the easy way people let themselves become consumed by fanaticism and violence.

He says: “Religion, of course, like science and
technology, philosophy and all expressions of our search for truth, can
be corrupted. Religion is disfigured when pressed into the service of
ignorance or prejudice, contempt, violence and abuse”.

Benedict XVI puts all of these realities into the same boat
because everything can be disfigured – even science.  For him, what is
important is that religion is not abused or disfigured.

Need for an “ethical knowledge”

Speaking in the Amman Mosque he also says that secular society
often claims that religion is the root cause of violence. In reality
that only happens when religion is “disfigured”, but this is the risk
of all wisdom. This is why, quoting the Letter to the Philippians (4,
8), the pope exhorts everyone to bear witness to “all that is true, honourable, just, pure, worthy of praise”. He
advises Christians and Muslims not to fear science, but to open their
minds to it, even at the risk of their own faith.  This is a courageous
message to give in an Arabic society that risks seeing religion as a

But he also has a message for the scientific world, which
often runs the risk of transforming itself into an ideology devoid of
ethics and openness to God.

This element is also present in Regensburg. The pope underlines that even “sciences
have their limitations. They cannot answer all the questions about man
and his existence. Indeed the human person, his place and purpose in
the universe cannot be contained within the confines of science

This is why scientific knowledge must be guided by the light of “ethical wisdom”. “Such
is the wisdom that inspired the Hippocratic Oath, the 1948 Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Convention and other laudable
international codes of conduct”.

The pope illustrates this “ethical wisdom” by pointing to the
oath written by the pagan Hippocrates in the III century B.C; then he
speaks of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights; the Geneva Convention
on conflict situations, it too, secular.  He does not refer to
religious elements.  Thus he suggests that ethical wisdom can exist
independently of religion.  This is important for a traditionally
Muslim or Christian society: it means dialogue at 360 degrees with
everyone, even non-believers.  But to non-believers he says that it is
impossible to act without an ethical code, or a religious foundation,
because in doing so something essential is missing from human

Religion has suffocated the Arab

The function of the Catholic university is to form “qualified men and women, Christian and Muslim and of other religions”.  It is not just a message for Islam.  This is a call to ensure that religion is not disfigured;
to take up the challenge of science to have a critical eye; to search
for a religious and secular ethical code to create a community of
different religions and non believers; I believe this an important
issue in our Arab world.

The values cited by the Pope are those that many are in search
of today and that we Arabs experienced in the past (in the period
between 1860 and 1950, with the so-called ‘Renaissance’, Nahda), or in
the medieval era (IX and XI centuries): at that time we witnessed a
vibrant relationship between religion and science, with reciprocal
discussion and critical dialogue, and challenges.  But over the course
of the past half century, this dialogue has disappeared, both at a
scientific and religious level.

A few years ago Arab academics analysed the situation of
scientific knowledge in the Arab world and wrote catastrophic report:
from primary school to university the question of the Arab world’s
contribution to universal knowledge was posed, and we discovered that
it was non-existent. More recently on March 13th, the Algerian
journalist Anwar Malek, speaking on Al-Jazeera TV, berated Arabs for
having failed to contribute in anyway to progress in this century.

We really have regressed from the scientific point of view.
 And in the field of religion, we are being suffocated by a religion of
form, increasingly controlled from the outside, careful to appearances
(to wear the veil, beard, burqua, or Niqab), to the infinite rules that
the Imam’s emit in their fatwa. It has come to the point that for even
the smallest aspects of private and social life fatwa’s are necessary:
it is forbidden to wear lipstick; pluck one’s eyebrows; eat with a
Christian; for Shiites and Sunnis to live together…..Dozens and dozens
of fatwa’s to regulate how we dress, how a husband and wife make love,
how we spend money….All of this is suffocating freedom and it is seen
in the absence of science, democracy and freedom.

Space for faith in western society

The pope’s simple, humble and courageous discourse, welcomes
science, the critical spirit, freedom. He asks everyone to seek that
which is good noble and just.  At the same time, he proclaims the right
to practice faith, urging the world of non-believers to find ethical
foundations.  In my opinion this message of Benedict XVI’s is a
continuation of the Regensburg address on the relationship between
faith and reason.  There he developed the theme in a western, Christian
context; here he developed it in a Muslim context.

To reduce this discourse to “something that is only for the
Muslims” means being short-sighted.  The pope spoke to the entire
world, even to the west, which is still drowning in relativism, in lack
of faith and in contempt for religions.  In fact, in his discourse at
the al-Hussein bin-Talal mosque the pope warned against the danger of
secularism: “we cannot fail to be concerned that today, with
increasing insistency, some maintain that religion fails in its claim
to be, by nature, a builder of unity and harmony, an expression of
communion between persons and with God. Indeed some assert that
religion is necessarily a cause of division in our world; and so they
argue that the less attention given to religion in the public sphere
the better”.

This is a clear criticism of the relativism and atheism of the
west.  But he also corrects the Muslims by noting that there is some
truth in this secular stance: “Certainly, the contradiction of
tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious
traditions, sadly, cannot be denied?”.
But he also clarifies that it is not religion in itself that is the problem, rather “the manipulation of religion”.

 “Muslims and Christians,- he concludes
- precisely because of the burden of our common history so often marked
by misunderstanding, must today strive to be known and recognized as
worshippers of God faithful to prayer, eager to uphold and live by the
Almighty’s decrees, merciful and compassionate, consistent in bearing
witness to all that is true and good, and ever mindful of the common
origin and dignity of all human persons, who remain at the apex of
God’s creative design for the world and for history.”.

In this the affirmation that it our right to worship God in
society.  Just as there is the right not to practice religion, there is
also the right to practise religion.