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.

These 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).

Shinwari’s 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.

What 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.”

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

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:

5. 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 public.

6. 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 ridicule.

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.

What’s 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).

There’s 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).

These 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.