Brand management is vital if religions are to flourish

A Saudi Arabian woman at a gift shop in Riyadh (AP)

Brand protection matters in religion. This is one reason why Catholics the world over owe a huge debt to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II: they are the ones who drew the line marking the difference between Catholic and non-Catholic. They did this, specifically, by putting Hans Kung on the non-Catholic side of the line.

I remember reading Hans Kung as a teenager, and thinking “How can this be Catholic? It is nothing like what I believe!” It took a few years, but the answer came from Rome, and it was very reassuring: Hans Kung was not a Catholic theologian, and my faith was not mistaken. I, and many others like me, were hugely relieved. More than that: our faith was strengthened. The strengthening of the faith of the brethren is one of the charges given to St Peter by the Lord himself. John Paul II certainly did that.

Brand protection is of interest to the Muslim community as well. Last week, while I was celebrating the feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius, many others were celebrating St Valentine’s Day. Various Muslim authorities are advising their people to steer well clear of any celebration of St Valentine, and in Sharia-compliant places such as Saudi Arabia, banning the sale of products associated with the celebration.

Some commentators have seen this as an annual war against the day of love, and another sign that Islam is at war with all civilised values. Actually, it is nothing of the sort. In protesting against the spread of Valentine’s Day to Muslim countries, the Islamic authorities are doing no more than trying to keep religious syncretism at bay; and they are also, it could be argued, trying to suppress something that is commercial, tacky and in the worst possible taste.

That Valentine’s day is tacky and commercialised is a point I will not labour further. One does not want to appear to be a killjoy, but do we really need Valentine’s Day, as presently celebrated?

What about syncretism? St Valentine, let us not forget, is a Christian saint and martyr, so it is odd to say the least that Muslims should want to celebrate him. It is perfectly true that the Christian origins of St Valentine’s Day as presently celebrated are rather obscured, but one assumes that strict Muslims object to the importation of Christian or seemingly Christian celebrations. Syncretism, by the way, is the practice of taking over practices from other faiths and absorbing them into your own, in the process sullying the purity of your faith.

Syncretism, from what I can see, is the big issue in Islam right now. The Saudis pose as the purest of the pure, constantly demolishing ancient monuments that might be the focus of idolatry, and executing old ladies who might just be witches.

The Taliban in Afghanistan are even stricter in their puritanism; and Saudis and Taliban alike see the Shia as heretics, and the Alawites, such as President Assad, as even worse than heretics. Moreover, the Bahai, which is an offshoot from Islam, are persecuted by virtually everyone, Shia and Sunni alike.

So, what does the supposed Islamic war on Valentine’s Day tell us? It tells us that many Muslims are concerned by the way they see the purity of their faith under attack by subversive forces, such as boys buying girls red roses on the February 14. This is both ridiculous, and at the same time understandable.

It is ridiculous, because the sale of red roses is not really going to bring the whole structure down, is it? Or if it does pose a threat, it is a sign that the structure is so weak that nothing can save it. But it is understandable too, because the price of doctrinal purity is eternal vigilance. And Catholics know this.

We too should be constantly on our guard against practices that seek to subvert Catholicism from within. We should certainly be on the watch for the creeping advance of New Age beliefs and practices which have no place in Catholicism; and we should be on our guard for wolves in sheep’s clothing, theologians like Hans Kung who write theology that is Catholic in name only. In being on our guard we are following the example of Joseph Ratzinger and Karol Wojtyla, two of our greatest shepherds.