Pope Hosts Interfaith Conference With Muslim Leaders

In 2006, Muslim leaders criticized Pope Benedict XVI for a quote he used in one of his speeches. It was attributed to a Byzantine emperor who once said that Islam brought only “evil and inhuman” things into the world. The Pope’s remarks were meant to resolve the inherent conflict in religious violence in a way that made sense to Catholics. Taken literally, his remarks were offensive and some Muslims demanded an apology.

The Vatican’s statement on the Pope’s offensive remarks about Prophet Muhammed attempted to answer critics of the speech. The Vatican upholds that all the great religious faiths have the same ethics and love for God, albeit in different traditions. Despite their efforts in Rome, heated criticism from Muslim leaders grew after the official statement.

The Pope finally decided to invite Muslim leaders to meet with him in Rome and ease the tension between the two faiths. President of the European Muslim Network Tariq Ramadan tells us he decided to meet with the Pope because the

debate between Catholicism and Islam must take place. Papal references to “jihad” and “Islamic violence” came as a shock to Muslims, even though they were drawn from a quotation attributed to Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos. It is clear that the time has come to open debate on the common theological underpinnings and the shared foundations of the two religions.

All who attended the conference agreed that religious freedom was a good thing and stood united in opposition to terrorism, but the less political and more practical concerns were left unresolved. In The NY Times, Pope Benedict spoke out about the unresolved tension and questions interfaith dialogue.

Even if religion presents no practical answers as the Vatican and Muslims like Tariq Ramadan had wanted, it could help find the questions that we need to ask of our political representatives, even more than of our religious leaders. Interfaith dialogue is a timely way to start brainstorming alternatives, given current events like the Al-Queda video published online last week by the BBC. The video propaganda demonstrates the blurred lines between religion and politics by its use of loaded cultural symbols like Malcolm X and terms like “house-slave” for radical ends.

This radical tone is also reflected in the West. The “Clash of Civilizations” mentality declares there is no solution to intercultural conflicts but total war. If there is no possibility of negotiating a common ground, war seems like the only alternative. The Pope’s decision to have a conference with Muslim leaders might have actually raised one of the most critical questions of our time: can similar dialogues between political leaders resolve cultural conflict without using force?

Pope Benedict XVI concluded his 2006 speech today by saying in the New York Times that the world needs to discuss “in a public forum the cultural consequences of basic religious decisions.” Interfaith dialogue may not lead us to any immediate or even certain answers, but it opens up the political possibility for alternatives to violence and shared common ground.

While reviewing this entry, I remembered a piece about the “Interfaith Generation.” Eboo Patel has written about a whole generation of young people opening up about religious difference. Interfaith dialogues is one of the areas Inside Islam will explore in-depth throughout the year. We’d like to hear your story and if you have a project to tell us about, please share it. Are you involved in an interfaith initiative? What do you think about the Pope’s conference? Will you tell us about your personal experience? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Related Here on Earth Radio Program:

To hear about related information on this topic, listen live on the radio as Here on Earth: Radio without Borders discusses the most recent Al-Queda video on Wednesday, November 26. Find out more information and how to listen to here. After it airs, check the Inside Islam Radio Series Archives for a mp3 file of the show.

Douglas McLeod on Al Queda and the Digital Cultural Divide (Guest Entry)

The Internet in the Islamic World:
No Panacea for Democracy

Douglas McLeod

It doesn’t take an expert to realize that the Internet has revolutionized cultural and political life. Virtually anywhere in the world, one can observe Internet-related social change that touches the lives of vast populations. In many societies, even people who don’t own a computer can access the Internet in low cost, public cybercafés. As such, people around the world have become connected like never before. While the utopians among us have recognized the great promise that this interconnectivity presents in terms of access to information, expanded horizons, civic participation and the calling of democracy, there is a dark side to the Internet as well. Setting aside obvious Internet-associated perils such as pornography, scams and other forms of depravity, there are numerous other issues that bring cause for concern. Such dangers are particularly acute in the Islamic world.

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