Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Coming Catholic-Islamic Talks

In the news recently has been the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI will hold a summit meeting of sorts with a large group of Muslim leaders and scholars later this year. Both sides had discussed the possibility of such a meeting since the downturn in Christian-Muslim relations in 2006 caused, it is said, by comments the Pope made in a speech in which he quoted a 15th-century Byzantine emperor's assertion that Islam was a violent and irrational religion. The worldwide Muslim reaction to this was, as in the famous Danish cartoon incident, well, violent and irrational.

At this point in history, Christian-Muslim relations are indeed strained and a meeting between the Pope and Muslim leaders to help calm things down and ease the rhetoric is certainly a welcome event. My concern, though, is that the meeting will end up being less a real dialog than yet another opportunity for Muslims to vent their anger at perceived slights and demand "respect" from the Christian world.

I don't think this is a particularly misplaced worry. While Muslims are concerned about their image in the West, and the perception of their religion as being "violent and irrational," it is undeniably true that:

- 3000 people were murdered in cold blood on September 11, 2001 by Muslims motivated in part by religious fervor.

- Hundreds of people are murdered each year by suicide bombers who are overwhelmingly Muslim and motivated in part by religious fervor.

- Churches were burned, Christians murdered, and economic boycotts were called for by Muslims in reaction to a collection of sophomoric cartoons against which they took offense.

- Similar reactions took place in late 2006 in reaction to the remarks made by the Pope cited above.

Unless the Muslim leaders and scholars who meet with the Pope are ready to face the reality that their religion, regardless of what they profess, is at times violent and irrational, and are ready to enter a dialog which will help to control the passions on both sides, this meeting will probably be a waste of time.

Muslims insist on respect for their beliefs and accommodation to their customs, but appear unwilling to accommodate the beliefs and customs of others. If you doubt this, try holding a Catholic mass in Saudi Arabia. Harvard University has recently caused a stir by agreeing to establish "women-only" hours at the university gym to accommodate the desire of six Muslim women to exercise in an environment free of men. While a certain level of accommodation to religious beliefs may be appropriate in some instances, I think it's a little silly that the entire university population is denied the use of facilities - for which they all pay handsomely - to accommodate the wishes of six people.

Respect, like academic, personal, and professional honors, cannot be demanded - it must be earned. It seems to me that each time Muslims insist on accommodation to their wishes without a concurrent willingness to accept the legitimate wishes and beliefs of others, it undercuts their demands for respect. To the extent that the Pope can make the Muslim leaders and scholars understand this very basic concept, the upcoming meeting will be a success and will lead to a better world for all. I'll try to be cautiously optimistic, but will probably tilt a bit to the pessimistic side until I see how all this will work out.

Actions speak louder than words, and Muslim actions have shaped the Western perceptions of them which they now decry. The sad part is that I don't believe they are able to understand this. If you have absolute faith in the righteousness of your position, it's pretty much impossible to see things from any other point of view, or bend to accommodate anyone else's concerns.

I wish the Pope well as he meets with the Muslim representatives. I hope some good comes of it. Unfortunately, I'm not holding my breath.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



John said...

The Dalai Lama
"Compassion and tolerance are not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength."

I believe in this case it is a waste of time.

Number said...
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Number said...
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Amanda said...

I'm an optimist. I don't think its a complete waste of time. I'm sure the Pope too knows that this summit isn't going to result in drastic changes in the Christian-Muslim relationship but the fact that there is dialogue will resonate with the more educated Muslims of the world. This may have some small effect on their attitudes. Yes, it probably will not have an effect on all those bent on being suicide bombers but these are tiny baby steps. Better than nothing.