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 shoes.

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 refuge.

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 formation.

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.