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A Pyrrhic propaganda victory in Rome?
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
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):
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