Advice for Muslims and the Vatican

Much is riding on Pope Benedict's visit to Turkey. But much also depends on the long term reponse of the Muslim world.

It wasn't intended to be a boxing match between religions, but the dialogue started by Pope Benedict XVI with his Sept 12th speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany quickly turned into a shouting match, and more. The Muslim world took strong offense at quotes in the papal address claiming that Islam was "spread by the sword" and that the Prophet Muhammad was "evil and inhuman."

Some Muslim protests unfortunately crossed the line into violence as well. Now, not long after each side returned to its corner battered and bruised, round two has begun with the pope's visit to Muslim-majority Turkey.

There's a lot at stake with this visit, and not just between Catholics and Muslims in Europe. The two faith groups collectively represent more than two billion people worldwide, many of whom live in close proximity in geopolitical hotspots like Nigeria and the Philippines. More important, the size of both faith communities ensures that the state of Catholic-Muslim relations will likely guide the overall relationship between Islam and the West.

As a country anchored at the crossroads of East and West, both politically and religiously, Turkey is a good place to push interfaith dialogue in a positive direction. But now that Muslims and Catholics are rebooting the conversation, will things be different this time? Here’s my advice on how to everyone involved can generate positive action:

For the Pope

Get straight to the point. Perhaps there was a reason why the pope decided to talk about Islam the way he did two months ago, but it was lost in the reaction to certain words and the historical time frame of the speech. This time, the pope should be more straightforward.

As a global leader, it is perfectly fair for the pope to comment on the actions of Muslims and to call them to be the people they say they are. But these critiques shouldn't be obscured or confused by the type of academic or historical framework. If, however, the papal intent really was to show that Islam is intrinsically flawed and has no hope of thriving in a multicultural world, then the pope should make that clear--so that Muslims can stop wasting their time in dialogue with the Catholic Church.

Of course if this is the case, then we are in for some major trouble.

Propose actions of interest to both communities. One way to get beyond the din of the last interaction is to change the subject, and a great way to do that is to suggest that the two faiths cooperate on areas of common interest. A good place to start is working to reclaim the position of religion in European public life, which is dwindling in the face of an increasingly secular identity.

Another action would be to encourage Muslim-Catholic efforts to address regional conflicts that involve members of both faiths, such as in Africa and East Asia. These are good ways of building strong friendships that can better withstand the types of hard discussions the pope hopes to have with Muslims.

Use a spoonful of sugar. One of the reasons the pope's speech was taken so badly by Muslims is that his points was like bitter medicine. The pope should temper his critiques with statements on how Islam's strengths can help Muslims overcome the circumstances in which they find themselves today. He might reinforce the notion that the Islamic faith and the Muslim community have a place in a modern Europe, and that both Islam and Christianity--whatever their differences--spring from the same eternal Abrahamic well.

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