Catholicism and Islam: A strategic dialogueGEORGE WEIGEL
It is arrogant to expect a billion Muslims to become good secular western liberals. The real question is whether Islam, within its own scriptures and history, has the resources to support those Muslims who want to build modern societies around the conviction that it's God's will that we be tolerant of those who have different understandings of God's will.This
past June 1, the President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, took to the op-ed page
of the Washington Post to make a "plea for enlightened moderation" to his
Islamic brethren around the world. He deplored "the devastating power of plastic
explosives...[and] high-tech remote-controlled devices" and "the proliferation
of suicide bombers."
General Musharraf went on to concede that "the unfortunate
reality is that both the perpetrators of these crimes and most of the people who
suffer from them are Muslims."
That very same day, the Rome-based ZENIT
news service, reporting on an interreligious conference in Qatar, noted that the
head of the committee for dialogue with monotheistic religions at Cairo's Al-Azhar
university, Sheikh Fawzy Fadel Al-Zafzaf, had told the conference that "Islam
is a religion of peace that respects human life."
Is President Musharraf
right and Sheikh Al-Zafzaf wrong? Or is the Pakistani general wrong and the scholar
from Al-Azhar right? Perhaps the answer is that both are right, at least to some
To Musharraf's credit, he squarely faced the hard fact of the
matter: the overwhelming majority of terrorist mayhem in the world is committed
by Muslims, who all too often cite religious motivations and religious legitimation
for their deeds. Sheikh Al-Zafzaf is right to remind his Catholic listeners that
the murder of innocents is not commanded by the Qu'ran. But what is to be done
about those Muslims who insist that their terrorism is divinely warranted?
Public authorities have one set of responsibilities in the face of Islamist
terrorism. What about religious leaders? Can interreligious dialogue contribute
anything to the struggle against terrorism?
I think it can, if the dialogue
is conceived strategically. If interreligious dialogue decays into merely another
form of political correctness, Catholics will be of little assistance to those
Muslims who want to challenge the Islamist radicals. "Enlightened moderation"
in the Islamic world, of the sort President Musharraf envisions, will not be advanced
if Catholics, fearful of giving offense, give their Muslim interlocutors a pass
on the tough questions. Our Muslim dialogue partners must know that, just as they
would expect us to condemn Christians who claim divine sanction for terrorism,
we expect them to condemn Islamist radicalism on explicitly Islamic grounds.
By the same token, Catholics should try to help Islamic religious leaders,
scholars, and lawyers develop an Islamic case for the acceptance of pluralism,
for a commitment to the method of persuasion in politics, and for the other basic
elements of what we call "civil society." The great question for Islam as a culture-forming
religion — a question whose resolution will shape a lot of 21st century
history — is whether Muslims can develop a genuinely Islamic case for civility
amidst diversity in society by drawing on their own sacred texts and legal codes.
It is arrogant to expect a billion Muslims to become good secular western
liberals; it's also foolish, because they're not going to do it. The question
is not whether the West can help facilitate a version of what Father Neuhaus calls
the "naked public square" in the Islamic world. The question is whether Islam,
within its own scriptures and history, has the resources to support those Muslims
who want to build modern societies around the conviction that it's God's will
that we be tolerant of those who have different understandings of God's will.
What do Catholics bring to that discussion? We bring some recent history.
It took the Catholic Church until 1965, in the Second Vatican Council's Declaration
on Religious Freedom, to articulate a Catholic theory of pluralism and tolerance.
More than one hundred fifty years of robust (and often fractious) argument preceded
the Declaration. Surely Catholics learned something from that experience. Perhaps
that something could be of use to our Muslim interlocutors as they try to forge
a development of social doctrine, as it were, in their own religious tradition.
That's the strategic purpose that should shape Catholic-Islamic dialogue
in the 21st century: to help Muslims develop an Islamic case for the civil, tolerant
society. "Jaw, jaw is better than war, war," Churchill famously said. But the
"jaw, jaw" must be purposeful, if it's to help prevent "war, war." That's why
it's time to start thinking of interreligious dialogue in frankly strategic terms.
Weigel. "Catholicism and Islam: A strategic dialogue." The Catholic Difference
(July 7, 2004).
Reprinted with permission of George Weigel.
Weigel's column is distributed by the Denver
Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver.
Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic
theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and
public life. Weigel is the author or editor of seventeen books, including God's
Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (2005),
Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God (2005),
to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring (2004), The
Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church (2002),
Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explored (2001).
Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness
to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was
published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian,
Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The
2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is
a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic
Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.
© 2004 George