Engaging Islam beyond photo-ops

As the old saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In a similar vein, when you’re one of the world’s most brilliant theological minds, everything tends to look like a theological problem.

Therein may lie the nub of the challenge facing Pope Benedict XVI as he attempts to pick up the pieces in his relationship with Islam, following his controversial comments at the University of Regensburg in Germany Sept. 12.

Benedict’s brief encounter with ambassadors from Muslim nations at Castel Gandolfo Sept. 25 seems to have had the desired effect. Many Muslim leaders announced afterward that it’s time to move on from the crisis of the last two weeks. It might be mentioned in passing, however, that the only two people who spoke at the meeting were the pope and French Cardinal Paul Poupard, with the Muslims essentially reduced to the role of spectators -- a curious way to signal a desire for dialogue.

The question now is where the Muslim/Christian conversation goes from here. It’s abundantly clear that Benedict XVI intends to continue raising the issue of reciprocity, meaning the demand that Muslim nations afford Christians and other religious minorities the same rights and freedoms that Muslims enjoy in Western nations. (See story.)

In itself, this is a legitimate conversation. The track record on religious freedom in too many Muslim nations is dismal, and saying so is not a matter of imposing Western standards on the rest of the world. Respect for the human conscience is a minimum essential of civilized behavior, no matter what the cultural background of a given community.

In raising this issue, however, the risk is that Benedict XVI may trade too much in theological abstraction and not enough in the complicated historical, political, and social factors that shape a nation’s attitudes toward its minority groups.

In Regensburg, for example, Benedict seemed to suggest that the emphasis on the transcendence of God in Islam, as opposed to the Christian insistence on God’s rationality, may justify irrational behavior by Muslims such as the use of violence and compulsion in religious matters. Elsewhere, the pope has asked whether the Muslim tendency toward a literalist interpretation of the Quran, versus the historical-critical method of Biblical interpretation that has developed in Western Christianity, may not be part of the problem.

No doubt these are questions worth pondering. But the reality is that any religious system can be read to justify absolutism or to support pluralism, depending upon who’s doing the interpreting. After all, it’s not as if Matthew 22:21 (“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s”) prevented the emergence of Caesaropapism in Christian history, or the medieval concept of Christendom, all-encompassing visions of a tight relation between church and state not altogether different from some contemporary Islamic understandings of the ummah, or the community of all Muslim believers.

In truth, the repressive policies of many Muslim states probably have as much to do with the nature of authoritarian regimes, historical resentments arising from colonialism, fear of Western interventionism, economic and social underdevelopment, political corruption, ethnic and cultural rivalries, and a whole host of other factors than they do with the fine points of Islamic doctrine.

It’s difficult to imagine that governments in Saudi Arabia, Iran or Egypt couldn’t find a tolerant interpretation of Islam if they were persuaded it was in their interests to do so, or that many ordinary Muslims wouldn’t welcome such a development if it brought peace and opportunity.

Focusing exclusively on theological differences between Christianity and Islam -- whether real or imagined -- therefore runs the risk of oversimplifying a complicated situation, as well as further convincing many Muslims that the pope is determined to blame Islam for problems that cultures shaped by Christianity and other religions have also faced.

This is not to say that the pope should drop the theological conversation with Islam. On the contrary, Muslims want theologically serious interlocutors in the West, since secularism is as anathema to many of them as it is to Benedict.

But if the pope wants to be effective in playing the reciprocity card, he also needs to leaven his theological ruminations with some hardheaded political, social, economic and historical analysis. Playing that role was once the function of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and the Secretariat of State, but Benedict has downgraded the former and appointed a theologian and canon lawyer rather than a diplomat to run the latter.

To help remedy that deficit, Benedict may want to consider pressing a few veterans back into service as informal roving ambassadors, figures such as Cardinals Achille Silvestrini, Roger Etchegaray, Jean-Louis Tauran or Theodore McCarrick. All are well-known in the Muslim world, and all understand the complex argot of politics and international diplomacy. It might be highly instructive to send one or more on a “listening tour” of Muslim states on the reciprocity issue, and then take seriously what the Muslims have to say.

One hopes, too, that Benedict’s interactions with Muslim leaders will not be limited to Castel Gandolfo photo ops, and that he will take the time to consult broadly with Muslims themselves about how best to engage the Islamic world. One suspects that sweeping generalizations about Islamic teaching is probably not the most helpful strategy, however much merit in the abstract they might contain.

All Christians and Muslims, indeed all morally serious people, ought to welcome Benedict’s efforts to promote reciprocity, understood as a principled defense of religious freedom -- and pray that he finds the right language, and the right people, to pursue it.