Christianity and Islam: an Alliance of Civilizations?

When the Cairo embassy’s statement condemning the film Innocence of Islam was mis-attributed to President Obama and mistakenly reported as a response to the murder of diplomats at the Benghazi consulate, Obama reacted in a commonsensical way. “It came from people on the ground who are potentially in danger,” he said. “And my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they’re in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office.”

That seems like the right approach to take in evaluating the responses of ranking Churchmen to this latest wave of Middle Eastern violence. It’s perfectly understandable that Bishop Giovanni Marintelli pleaded for the U.S. to ban “all blasphemous projects.” Serving as Apostolic Vicar of Tripoli, the man bears responsibility for the well-being of Libya’s 50,000 Catholics. For him, circumstances didn’t favor a “We are all Americans” moment. If Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi let a day go by between his condemnation of the film and his condemnation of the killings in Libya, bear in mind that he would soon have a person on the ground, too, and that person is none other than Pope Benedict.

In Natonal Catholic Reporter, John Allen, Jr. wonders whether Benedict’s official visit to Lebanon, which commenced today, might offer a convincing “counter-narrative of Muslim-Christian harmony” to a region where violent disharmony has, in recent decades, been the dreary rule. Lebanese leaders of all faiths are cooperating. As Allen reports, “Last week, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni Muslim, announced that Saturday would be declared a national holiday in honor of the pope’s arrival. Hezbollah’s leader, [Shi'ite] Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has publicly welcomed the visit, describing it as ‘extraordinary and historic.’”

Already the pontiff has taken the paradoxically bold step of preaching moderation and compromise. En route to Lebanon aboard the papal jet, he condemned Syrian arms imports as “a grave sin.” He also praised the Arab Spring for its ideals of “liberty,” “democracy” and “more Arab identity,” while warning that “there is always a danger of forgetting a fundamental aspect of liberty: tolerance for others and the fact that human liberty is always a shared liberty.” An ideal of nationhood based on shared Arab identity might sit badly with Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who do not consider themselves Arabs, but coming from Benedict it hints at a rejection of any pan-Islamic order where Christians would be limited to second-class citizenship simply for being Christian.

But, whatever objections Benedict might have toward an Islamic government, he may still turn out to be just the man to serve as Christendom’s ambassador to Muslims themselves. Following his Regensburg address, which Benedict himself recognizes as a diplomatic misstep, he went on to propose that Christians and Muslims form an “Alliance of Civlizations.” “In this world,” Benedict has said, “radical secularism stands on one side, and the question of God, in its various forms, stands on the other.” In other words, he believes that these two world religions, each of which had its moment of glory in medieval times, should face the future side-by-side. As John Allen, Jr. points out, the fact that Benedict, whose theologiy takes a dim view of interfaith prayer, shared a moment of silence with an imam at Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, proves the pope means business.

In the West, a program of Christian-Muslim solidarity would come as a welcome change, at least in certain respects. For its reckless peddling of anti-Muslim antagonism, the Geert Wilders-Pamela Geller-Daniel Pipes crowd has deserved a sharp stick in its eye for a long time. The irony of the hand on that stick belonging to someone as incontestably pro-Western as Benedict would go down smooth as gravy. In a few instances, Christians and Muslims do face the same clear and present danger. West Bank churches, along with farms belonging to Palestinian Muslims and interfaith schools where Jews and Muslims study together, have been vandalized by far-right Jewish settlers in retaliation for the forced evacuation of illegal settlements. (The graffiti left behind by vandals shows a kind of symmetry: a Trappist monastery in Latrun sported the message “Jesus is a monkey”; “Muhammad is a pig,” read the warning on a Jerusalem mosque.)

And in the United States, Muslims and Christians seem to be finding some common cultural ground. According to a recent Times article, students and administrators at Catholic unverities are reporting a sharp increase in the number of Muslim students. A number of these students told the Times it was the precisely the religion-friendly atmosphere that attracted them. Mai Alhamad, who attends the University of Dayton, a Catholic school, said bluntly: “I’m more comfortable talking to a Christian than an atheist.”

In some quarters, the respect cuts both ways. Last year, when George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf formally complained to the District of Columbia’s Office of Human Rights about the Catholic University of America’s failure to provide Muslim students with a reliable worship space, many Catholics saw only a threat to their own identity. However, CUA student Travis Bichoso argued that, though his school shouldn’t have to find its Muslims a place to pray, it ought to. Sparing fellow monotheists the hassle of praying in empty classrooms, he writes, fulfills the spirit of Nostra Aetate, and besides, is “a kind gesture.”

Of course, alliances against a common enemy are never fun for that enemy, and as far as the rioters in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen are concerned, that enemy is us. For many decades the Islamic world has equated American political and cultural influence with the kind of secularism Benedict condemns. It would be unfortunate if Benedict’s overtures to Middle Eastern Muslims were somehow to validate anti-American outrage. There’s a vast middle ground between Geert Wilders’ ideal society, in which the Qu’ran would be banned, and the one Bishop Martinelli proposed in desperation, where the law would demand it be respected. To Muslim students, American Catholic universities may appear to exist outside this middle ground — you could argue that’s what colleges are for — but American society as a whole will continue to occupy it, and should.

Hopefully, Pope Benedict will bear this in mind as he pitches his vision of peace.

Like Patheos Catholic on Facebook!


Pope Francis and the Barbarians
A Humble Plug for Refugees
ISIS Should Get Its Own Patheos Channel
Jean Ousset: The Wit and Wisdom of A Wingnut