A week ago, I wrote a blog with the headline “Top Muslim scholars seem to be telling us that dialogue with them is a waste of time”: the president of the al-Azhar University in Cairo had broken off dialogue with the Vatican because of the Pope’s absolutely justified defence of the Egyptian Copts against their consistent persecution by the Muslim majority in Egypt; and a colleague had at the same time issued a fatwa justifying the suppression of all non-Muslim religions in the Arabian peninsula.
I ended by saying that “it is now up to that section of Islamic opinion which fundamentally disagrees with the views emanating from the al-Azhar University to make its views known as vigorously as the ‘scholars’ have done. The ball is now in the court of ‘moderate’ Islamic opinion. Is there anyone out there? If so, for heaven’s sake, say something.”
Well, I have heard nothing, absolutely nothing from any moderate Muslim. And that can’t be because no Muslim is going to read a Catholic blog: non-Catholics often end up commenting on my pieces, having mostly arrived at them after scanning on Google to see what there is out there of interest to them. I bet there will be Muslims reading this. So I repeat my invitation now. But I’m not holding my breath.
So what precisely have we gained, from all these years of “dialogue”? Has it improved mutual respect? I don’t see why we shouldn’t respect Muslims of good will as long as we don’t start saying that we accept their religion any more than they accept ours. The difficulty with this is that showing signs of respect for them as individuals can backfire, and end up looking remarkably like a betrayal of the Catholic faith: the most spectacular example of that, of course, was the kissing by Pope John Paul II of a copy of the Koran. I don’t believe it was, in fact, a betrayal: but nobody who saw it as such can be blamed. The late pope was a great one for symbolic gestures: the trouble is that the symbolism of that one was dangerously ambiguous.
But the pope’s gesture nevertheless did not indicate, despite its deeply risky lack of clarity, any acceptance by him of the Muslim religion. Here is one explanation of his actions, written at the time by the American priest Fr Joseph Jenkins, putting them into context, which was that the copy of the Koran in question was a gift from an Iraqi delegation in the time of Saddam:
“Looking at the incident in question, the Holy Father received a delegation that included the Shiite Imam of Khadum Mosque, the Sunni President of the council that operates the Iraqi Islamic Bank, and a member of the Iraqi Ministry of Religion. The invitation of a papal visit was renewed. They even went so far as to say that it would be “a grace from heaven”. While Iraq has been guilty of real violations of human rights, this Islamic state has been the most tolerant of Christians than any of its Islamic neighbors. Many Catholics hold positions in government, commerce, education, etc.
“The Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon [Iraq], His Beatitude Raphael I Bidawid, was a major spokesman for the delegation. He applauded the Pope’s actions and words as a true sign of concern from the Successor of St Peter…. Islamic peoples are not casual in the giving of gifts. It represents the giver. They knew perfectly well that the Pope was a Catholic Christian, but they gave to him that which was regarded as most important in their life, their own holy book. Thus, at the end of the audience, the Pope showed his deep appreciation to this intimate self-donation, by bowing and kissing the Koran as a sign of respect … He makes the first move, not in the capitulation of our faith, but in the recognition that the followers of Jesus and those who cherish Mohammed should not be engaged in name-calling, or worse, killing each other.”
Well, fine. But, just as the great era of ecumenical dialogue with the Protestant churches (except for harmless assurances of mutual respect) has now come more or less to an end, this experiment having gone as far as it can or should, so the necessary process of discovering just how far the Islamic world genuinely shares the recognition, that “the followers of Jesus and those who cherish Mohammed should not be engaged in name-calling, or worse, killing each other”, has now gone as far as it can. We have the answer: the answer appears to be that this is not an idea it recognises at all seriously.
It is, after all, quite a long time since Christians went in for killing or otherwise suppressing Muslims: the last time I looked, the Muslim world was still at it, name-calling and killing non-Muslims with impunity. Muslim toleration of Christians, wherever Muslims are in a clear majority and culturally dominant, hardly exists (this phenomenon can clearly be seen in certain areas of some English cities). If the president of al-Azhar University really thinks that for the Pope to protest against the oppression of the Copts gives him a good reason to break off dialogue with the Vatican, we should take him at his word. I hope I’m wrong, of course: but it looks to me as though we have reached the end of this particular road.