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.
Stop comparing this pope with the last one. Like it or not, Pope Benedict XVI is very different from John Paul II. Muslims may have reveled in the strong and genuine love John Paul showed to us, but as some have pointed out, he was a pre-9/11 pope. The current pope has decided to take a different direction in his discourse on Islam and Muslims, especially given the complicated and evolving situation of Muslims in Europe. As Muslims, we can at best influence the direction and tenor of his inquiry, but we cannot stop it.
Use this opportunity to accelerate interfaith dialogue with the Church. Perhaps if there were common understandings between the faiths that preceded this pope's attempts to critique Islam, his remarks wouldn't have been made so crudely or taken so badly.
As the pope's earlier speech shows, distance between communities creates opportunities for misunderstanding. Interfaith relationships should be kindled at all levels--not just at the top. Then we can replace statements made in press releases and angry protests with a thousand discussions at home and in our local houses of worship.
Fairly treat the religious minorities in your midst. Just as many in the Muslim world are concerned about the treatment of Muslims in Europe, the Catholic Church has expressed the same concern about minority Christians in Muslim countries. It would do Muslims well to imagine themselves in the position of religious minorities within their own countries and modify their behavior accordingly--not only because this is a major concern of the Catholic Church, but because it is the right thing to do.
For Turkish Muslims in Particular
Keep your eyes on the EU prize. For Turks in particular, there's more at stake than a "kumbaya" moment. The fate of Turkey's bid for European Union membership--which would make it the first Muslim EU member--lies in the balance. And for Turkey, anything you say can and will be held against you in the court of EU admissions.
Despite lingering human rights problems, secular crackdowns on religious expression, and the ongoing Cyprus dispute (Turkish troops continues to occupy the northern half of the island after having invaded it in 1974), Turkey has a lot going of it. It’s a modern democracy with a strong Muslim identity and active and vibrant religious minorities.
And now the country may be seeing an apparent about-face in Pope Benedict's opinion on Turkish EU membership. Use this papal trip to help make the Vatican an even stronger ally of a European Turkey. It is significant that the Pope is choosing to follow through with a visit to a Muslim country so soon after the misunderstandings of the last few months. It is a sign that he wishes to have a dialogue with the Muslim world despite being bruised in his first encounter with it.
That resolve should be matched by a similar one from Muslims in Turkey (and around the world) to engage him and his ideas with dignity and determination to foster an understanding between faiths that can reduce dangerous friction. Both religious bodies need to eliminate distractions from the heady tasks that each faith will face in the 21st century.