Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Front Page
     Nov 12, 2008
Page 1 of 2
A Pyrrhic propaganda victory in Rome?

By Spengler

On the face of it, Pope Benedict XVI seems to have handed an enormous propaganda victory to the Muslim scholars who met with Catholic leaders in Rome on November 4-7. Victories of this sort, though, are deceptive. Leonid Brezhnev left the 1975 Helsinki meetings on European security cooperation convinced that he had won an enormous concession - final recognition of the Soviet Union's postwar borders - in return for lip service to human rights that the communist regime never could or would provide. "Instead," wrote Cold War historian John Gaddis, the Helsinki Accords "gradually became a manifesto of the dissident and liberal movement ... What this meant was that the people who 

lived under these systems - at least the more courageous - could claim official permission to say what they thought."

The Jewish "refusenik" Natan Sharansky became a symbol of Soviet human rights violation, and president Ronald Reagan's personal support for the dissidents - often over objections of his diplomats - introduced hairline fractures into Soviet Power. (I reviewed Sharansky's most recent book Defending Identity on October 21, 2008).

After the fall of communism, the greatest barrier to freedom is the absence of religious liberty in the Muslim world. Free people everywhere have a profound interest in the outcome of the Church's encounter with the Muslim scholars. Is it possible that the meager concessions offered by the Muslim side to the Western notion of freedom may have something like an "Helsinki" effect?

Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" in a June 1982 speech before the British parliament. Many interpreted Pope Benedict's September 2006 Regensburg address, in which the pope quoted a Byzantine emperor's denunciation of Muslim violence as a similar challenge to Islam. Speaking to a Muslim delegation that met with him after the conference, Benedict's tone seemed quite different. "I am well aware that Muslims and Christians have different approaches in matters regarding God," the pope said. "Yet we can and must be worshippers of the one God who created us and is concerned about each person in every corner of the world. Together we must show, by our mutual respect and solidarity, that we consider ourselves members of one family: the family that God has loved and gathered together from the creation of the world to the end of human history."

This conciliatory tone must have come as a disappointment to the Italian journalist Magdi Allam, whom Benedict personally accepted into the Catholic faith at the Easter Vigil this year. Allam contended in a letter announcing his conversion that Islam was inherently violent. In an October 20 open letter letter to the pope posted on his website, he admonished Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who heads the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, for arguing that violence is a betrayal of Islam. On the contrary, Allam insisted, "Terrorism is the mature fruit of Islam."

Presenting Islam as a valid alternative to Christianity, he added, represents "serious religious and ethical straying that has infiltrated and spread within the heart of the church". Allam added that it "is vital for the common good of the Catholic Church, the general interest of Christianity and of Western civilization itself" that the pope make a pronouncement in "a clear and binding way" on the question of whether Islam is a valid religion. He has made no public statement since the Rome meeting concluded November 6.

In his conversion message in March, Allam, wrote, "His Holiness has sent an explicit and revolutionary message to a Church that until now has been too prudent in the conversion of Muslims, abstaining from proselytizing in majority Muslim countries and keeping quiet about the reality of converts in Christian countries. Out of fear. The fear of not being able to protect converts in the face of their being condemned to death for apostasy and fear of reprisals against Christians living in Islamic countries. Well, today Benedict XVI, with his witness, tells us that we must overcome fear and not be afraid to affirm the truth of Jesus even with Muslims." Yet the issue of proselytizing Muslims is one the Catholic side deliberately avoided at the just-concluded meetings, as noted below.

For the mainstream media, in any case, "the Regensburg affair is behind us", as the Italian news service Apcom wrote on November 6. "No one mentioned the baptism of Magdi Allam on Easter night in full view of the world," it added. On the website of the liberal Catholic daily Commonweal, Paul Moses wrote on October 29 that the conference was "further evidence that it was a bad idea for the pope to grant such a high profile to Magdi Allam's christening".

Church liberals were livid at the pope's action; as I reported on July 17 ( The Pope, the President, and the Politics of Faith) the Jesuit monthly Popoli published a lengthy screed against Allam and the pope's personal role in his baptism by the Syrian-based Jesuit Paolo dall'Oglio. Now, the liberals are claiming victory.

The dialogue between the Catholic and Muslim side - from the little that has emerged from what was a closed meeting - was so strange, however, that it does not make sense to speak of winners or losers, or conciliation and provocation. An especially Orwellian moment was reported by the Jesuit Samir Khalid Samir (as reported by the Italian service Asia News on November 7):
In the Joint Declaration, "the right of persons and communities to practice their faith in private and in public" emerged in point 5. Serious problems arose. Some Muslims said: "if you include those words you put us in great difficulty. Freedom of religion in our countries is governed by State law. How can we distribute a document that is against State law? We risk being disqualified and marginalized by our society". Some Muslims suggested omitting at least the words "in private and in public".

There was also a formula that defended the right to spread ones own faith such as "Da'wa" (mission for Islam) or Tabshir (Christian mission). But it was held to be too strong and so we eliminated it.

All of these difficulties were resolved by the grand Mufti [of Bosnia]. Mustafa Ceric recalled that the formula on religious freedom used in the joint statement "are those found in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Many Muslim governments signed this declaration. Therefore they must accept it, even though perhaps they don't practice it". This solved the problem and eased the path for all to adhere to the final document.
It takes a couple of readings to absorb the Alice-in-Wonderland quality of the discussion. The Muslim side could not accept the principle that individuals should have the right to practice their religion in public, because the law of the land in their own countries forbids it. However, these countries have signed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which states the same thing, even though they violate it daily. Because the governments lie about permitting religious freedom, the Bosnian mufti argued, the Muslim scholars attending the conference also were entitled to lie. The fact that the Muslim side offered this argument in all seriousness reduces the Muse of Satire to startled silence.

The fact that the attending Muslim scholars - who have no authority over the laws of Muslim countries - piggy-backed on the UN Declaration of Human Rights does not augur well for the "Helsinki" strategy. After all, having signed the UN Declaration of 

Continued 1 2 

Defending Identity
(Oct 21,'08)

Sufism, Sodomy and Satan
(Aug 12,'08)


Let the disappointment begin

2. The keys to the country

3. Iran extends an early friendly hand

4. Syrians stare terror in the face

5. The incredible growing government

6. We only need one Bretton Woods II

7. BOOK REVIEW: Subprime - an (im)morality tale

8. The other historic event

(Nov 7-10, 2008)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 - 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110