A major aim of the Pope’s visit was to further interfaith dialogue. But what does that really mean—and what good can it do? Words and photography by Nicholas Seeley.
Pope Benedict XVI shakes hands with HRH Prince Ghazi, during a meeting of religious scholars at the King Hussein Bin Talal Mosque. (Nicholas Seeley)
ON THE FRIDAY OF Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival in Jordan, JO reporters Nicholas Seeley and Anas Almasri went downtown at prayer time to get a sense of how Amman was reacting to the Papal visit. After reading the more vituperative editorials published in the Islamist newspaper Al Sabeel, it seemed reasonable to expect anger—but the responses were surprising.
Many of those interviewed welcomed the Pope’s pilgrimage, specifically because they hoped it might shed some light on the misunderstanding of their own faith.
“Islam is not a terrorist religion; it calls for mercy,” said Mohammad Hasan Batat, as he waited next to the ablution area in the courtyard of the Husseini mosque.
“We care that, through this visit, the Pope will take positions so that Arabs will be free of injustice that’s committed against them by the West and the world,” said Salah Ahmed, a cheerful, bearded man in a white dishdash.
But equally visible was an undercurrent of frustration, as many of those interviewed saw little hope that “dialogue” would make a difference, either in their own lives or in the suffering of Muslims under occupation in other countries. Dialogue, Ahmed said, was supposed to reach a goal and a solution—for example, not viewing Muslims as terrorists. But he said he had little hope the dialogue from this visit would achieve anything.
To understand these conflicting forces, JO called on John L. Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and co-author of Who Speaks for Islam?: What A Billion Muslims Really Think. The book uses extensive statistical research compiled by the Gallup polling organization to give a more complete picture than ever before of Muslim public opinion today.
Though he has been a specialist on Islam for more than 30 years, Esposito was once a member of a Catholic monastic order and studied as a theologian. He has also been affiliated with the initiative A Common Word Between Us and You, started by HRH Prince Ghazi in 2007 in response to Pope Benedict’s divisive Regensburg address. Since then the Common Word initiative has resulted in the creation of a Catholic-Muslim forum, which met for the first time in Rome, in November 2008. Conferences at Yale and Cambridge Universities were set up to provide a space for discussion among prominent scholars, and another is due to be held in October 2009, at Georgetown University.
With the Pope’s visit in mind, Esposito talked to JO about A Common Word, Muslim public opinion and the way to find reconciliation between faiths.
DOING INTERVIEWS AROUND TOWN, IT WAS CLEAR THAT PEOPLE WERE VERY AWARE OF THE STEREOTYPE THAT ISLAM A TERRORIST RELIGION. DO YOU SEE THAT IN YOUR RESEARCH?
Yes. When you ask Muslims “what do you admire about the West,” they tell you what they admire about the West (for example, the technology, democratic freedoms and rule of law). You ask them, “what do you resent,” and right up there at the top is the denigration of Islam and the denigration of Muslims. And when they’re asked, “what can the West do to improve the situation,” in addition to talking about foreign policy issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict, right up there is: “respect Islam and respect Muslims.”
So it’s very clear, in data, across the Muslim world—and from my own experience … particularly post-9/11, that there’s very much a sense of many Muslims feeling that, as it were, Islam is under siege. Islam is misunderstood; Islam and Muslims are equated with extremism and terrorism. And that clearly comes out in the Gallup data.
What you’ve seen, when you talked to people in Jordan—you would find that in many countries: people who are just convinced that their religion, and they themselves, are viewed as extremist or terrorist.
This is why the Pope’s visit becomes so important, and why Common Word, and the engagement of major religious and Christian leaders that took place at Yale, at Cambridge University, and in October will take place at Georgetown University—this is why these things have potential.
SO WHAT WILL THESE INTERFAITH MEETINGS ACCOMPLISH? IS IT THE CONFERENCES THEMSELVES? is it THE THEOLOGICAL CONCLUSIONS THEY’RE COMING TO? IS IT their value AS A COMMUNICATIONS STRATEGY?
It’s all of those things. And frankly—this is my take on it, not everybody sees it this way—the early conferences [at Yale] were important because they dealt with theological dimensions, the discussion between Christian and Muslim theologians, religious leaders, etc. [The second conference at] Cambridge was on scripture. What we’re going to look at at Georgetown is: OK, what does this all mean? How do we talk about impact? How does this get transferred and transformed, and make a difference? What does it mean in terms of addressing issues like major disasters in an interfaith way? Katrina, the tsunami in Indonesia, etc. What does it mean in terms of issues of pluralism and religious freedom? All of these things.
To put it another way, it’s obviously wonderful if you have major religious leaders who get together, and if they can agree on a kind of common theological platform for cooperation, but the question is, how do you implement it? … How do you, religious leaders, get this to impact your seminary curriculum, your training of the next generation of religious leaders?
That then impacts the training of the next generations of Muslims and Christians who go to mosques and go to churches, and the question of whether or not they have religious leaders who themselves are inter-religious and inclusive and pluralistic in their approach is certainly critical.
Otherwise, what the top guys say once a year when they draw up a statement, if there’s no trickle-down, no follow-up... it doesn’t mean anything.
ONE THING THE POPE EMPHASIZED IN HIS address in jordan WAS THE NEED FOR MUSLIMS AND CHRISTIANS TO WORK TOGETHER AGAINST ATTEMPTS TO REMOVE RELIGION FROM THE PUBLIC SPHERE.
Sure, I think it’s something both mainstream Muslims are concerned about, and mainstream Catholics—certainly this Pope is.
What is often missed, by many on both sides, is that at the end of the day there’s a kind of core of religious belief and outlook that many Catholics and Muslims share. Some of it would be identified as “conservative” values: they’re [both] very concerned about family values, family issues, and they’re certainly very concerned about secularism. Or, if you will, creeping secularism that is not simply separation of church and state but is anti-religious.
The Pope is very concerned about what might be called the secular tsunami that’s sweeping across Europe, including his own homeland of Germany. On the other hand, I think what he’s seeing is that the Muslim faith is in fact strong, and is growing.
What they share in common now is: “what about the minority communities?” The Pope is very concerned about the rights and freedoms of Christians in Muslim countries, and increasingly Muslims are very concerned about the rights of Muslims in what they regard as Christian countries.
We have the largest number of Muslims [in history] living as permanent minorities across the world. In particular, in the last 30 or 40 years, Islam has gone from being invisible to being the second or third largest religion in the West, so Muslims are concerned about their place, respect for them, [and] pluralism with regard to their role in what they see as a Christian and secular society.
So I think the Pope is reaching out to the right group on this one!