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.

  • Jeff

    What if Muslims don’t see it that way? What if there is something deep in the texts and traditional understandings of Islam that precludes that way of looking at things?

    Are you saying that it is bigotry even to ASK such questions? I hope not.

    I have had MANY MANY Muslim friends in the last few years. Apart from a few liberals and Western Muslims they virtually ALL–as a religio-cultural unit–see themselves in alliance with anyone who is in political alliance with Muslims/Islam. They feel very close and friendly with political leftists regardless of their belief in God. So long as they oppose Israel, imperialism, etc.

    They are happy to align with liberal, leftist, semi-secularist Christians who embrace the same project. Christianity is either a weak, semi pagan thing destined to melt away before the only REAL revelation or else it is an outrageous imposture.

    They don’t care much for religious Christian candidates or statesmen who “share moral values” with them. They are intent on Islam and they don’t see the secularists as powerful at all. They see them as melting away inevitably before the resurgence of Islam. Soon Islam will triumph in Europe and America and all will be well.

    Alliances of religions against secularism do not match the way they see the world.

    Don’t get me wrong: many of them are wonderful people. But they are not friendly to Christianity in its vital forms. And they certainly don’t think they need an alliance with it.

    I think we must be allowed to ASK whether this is due to something in the nature of the religion itself. We must be allowed to discuss that without being told that we are bigots and we have to be quiet.

  • Mick Tremolo

    The Alliance of Civilizations model for handling this issue is very much like the US war machine ca. 1999: optimized for the wars of the past and still struggling to find a doctrine consistent with rapidly shifting facts on the ground. The secularism battle is over, at least in the European theater and there’s no point seeking alliances to fight it now. Apart from charming anecdotes, there is, as far as I can tell, almost no constituency among normal moslems for the kind of dialogue you propose. For those of us who have entered the dialogue in good faith, the news of Pew studies indicating that a more or less violent anti-semitism really is the norm in most majority moslem countries, comes as an entirely predictable punch to the gut. The state-sponsored anti-semitic propaganda that Egypt broadcasts is successful as a media strategy precisely because it is what moslems there want to hear.

    More to the point here though, I would be more apt to cut slack to the US diplomats if this were the first (or even third) time they had jumped at the opportunity to establish a dialogue with Islam by expressing regret for our citizens’ use of their freedom of speech. Maybe Obama or Hillary of their functionaries in Cairo don’t agree with the silly video. That is irrelevant to the job of the state department which is to protect US interests abroad. It is the job of US diplomats to do this most especially in times of crisis. They are supposed to be the professionals at this.

    Simply put, no one in the US government should have ANY opinion on this video. It is not the job of a government functionary to feel anything about it. To suggest that it falls in any way under the purview of a government functionary to express an opinion of a US citizen’s protected speech only strengthens the logic of the (organized) mobs that attack US government buildings over this latest perceived insult.

    Like you I also see a symmetry between Holy See and State Dept responses to these aggressions: both serve to legitimate the strategy of violence behind the Islamic lynch mobs. We have a duty in charity to love Moslems, but not to coddle their exquisitely calibrated erubescence.

  • Mick Tremolo

    BTW, I couldn’t fit it into the above post, but I have long hung about this blog. It has at times been a real refuge for me, as I also have great difficulty finding a place in any of the defined Catholic tribes.

  • Ted Seeber

    The film deserves condemning. From an artistic standpoint. From an historical standpoint. From a watchability standpoint.

    It is not worth killing over either.

    Blasphemy is best punished by God, not by Man.

  • Manny

    “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 may be true, but it was Obama who has set the tone from his inaugeration of apologizing. I concede it wasn’t prudent for Romney to react so quick, but my goodness Obama’s whole foreign policy has been one of apologizing for Americanism. The context has been there for almost four years.