Supporting peacefulness in Islam - Catholic Courier

Supporting peacefulness in Islam

The ongoing political debate about the military role of the United States in Iraq — how and why the U.S. government launched the war in the first place, and how and when it might be able to extricate itself — has generated various side debates. One of the most sensitive of these concerns the relationship between the Western world, which is largely Christian, and the non-Western world, which is largely Muslim.

Are we engaged now in a so-called clash of civilizations, as Harvard professor Samuel Huntington suggested more than a decade ago? Do the events transpiring not only in Iraq but throughout the Middle East today indicate that the roots of conflict go much deeper than politics and oil, that we are dealing now with a religious war between Islam and Christianity, with Judaism playing the role of a catalyst?

If this is, in fact, the case, why is it that so few religious leaders, on either side of the Christian-Muslim divide, seem to be addressing the issue and trying to bring some measure of honesty and wisdom to the discussion?

One prominent exception is George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of some 80 million Anglicans worldwide. In a lecture given in late March at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Archbishop Carey avoided the easy path of what Pope Pius XII once called a “false irenicism” in favor of some frank truth-telling about the state of Christian-Muslim relations.

Archbishop Carey himself has had substantial experience in dealing with the Muslim world. While serving as spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, he traveled to every part of the globe in search of peace and mutual understanding. A key ingredient in that quest was Islam, at once a faith, a civilization and a culture.

But wherever we look now, Archbishop Carey observed, “Islam seems to be embroiled in conflict with other faiths and cultures. It is in opposition to practically every other world religion — to Judaism in the Middle East; to Christianity in the West, in Nigeria and in the Middle East; to Hinduism in India; to Buddhism, especially since the destruction of the Temples in Afghanistan.”

We are presented, therefore, with “a huge puzzle concerning Islam. Why is it associated with violence throughout the world? Is extremism so ineluctably bound up with its faith that we are at last seeing its true character? Or could it be that a fight for the soul of Islam is going on that requires another great faith, Christianity, to support and encourage the vast majority of Muslims who resist this identification of their faith with terrorism?”

Archbishop Carey urged Islam’s moderate religious leaders to become more open to examination and criticism, as Christians and Jews eventually became, although not without resistance and pain. This was the case during the earliest centuries of the Islamic era, he pointed out, “but during the past five hundred years critical scholarship has declined leading to strong resistance to modernity.”

Christian theologians and teachers have two important roles to play with respect to Islamic thought, Archbishop Carey suggested. “First, we should encourage theological dialogue between Christianity and Islam.” Here he saluted the work of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

“Second, without interfering in the workings of another faith, to encourage the development of rigorous scholarship in the formation and education of imams. A greater openness will benefit all.”

At the same time, Christians need to press for reciprocity throughout the world. While Muslims are granted full religious freedom in the West, he pointed out, Christians do not have the same freedom in the Muslim world. He mentioned Saudi Arabia as an especially egregious example where Christian worship is forbidden and Christian clergy are prohibited from exercising their ministry.

Freedom, Archbishop Carey said, must also be granted to adherents of the Muslim faith, just as it is the case within Christianity and Judaism. Muslim leaders often tell their Christian and Jewish counterparts that religious faith must always be without compulsion. “This is sadly only half true. If non-Muslims are not compelled to become Muslim, Muslims are not free to choose another faith. There is, we find, some compulsion after all.”

In spite of these and other factors that tend to keep Christians and Muslims apart, Archbishop Carey strongly affirmed his belief that the future need not be one of “escalating violence, deepening bitterness and a grudging dialogue between ‘incompatible faiths’ and cultures.”

Indeed, he looks forward to the day “when we shall not talk about faiths colliding, but Islam and Christianity converging in a common desire to create a world of tolerance and peace.”

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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