Jesuit experts on Islam see hope and call for more grassroots relationships

By Thomas Reese, S.J.

    WASHINGTON — Three Jesuit experts on Islam urged Christian-Muslim dialogue and what one termed “mutual repentance” at a Woodstock Forum at Georgetown University.
    “The reason for a lack of dialogue is that we don’t have enough patience,” said Jesuit Father Thomas F. Michel, an international visiting fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center and a former director of the Vatican’s Office for Islam, who spent many years developing relations with Muslims in Indonesia.
    “There are many issues that do divide us Christians and Muslims, there are causes for concern,” but they need to be understood in perspective, said Malaysian Jesuit Father Aloysius Mowe, director of Interfaith and Civil Society Projects for the Middle Eastern Graduates Center in Malaysia and also currently a Woodstock international visiting fellow.
    Australian Jesuit Father Daniel A. Madigan, the first panelist to speak, said the recent explosion of books and other publications on Islam and the plethora of blogs devoted to the topic might suggest that American are learning a great deal about Islam and Muslims.
    What is lacking in the blogs and many publications on Islam, he said, is “the complicating factor of real people, real faces — the names, the faces, the friendships” that must go into understanding the other person.
    The theme of the forum was “Muslims and Christians: Where Do We Stand?”
    Moderating the session was Turkish-born Ibrahim Kalin, assistant professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, who was founding director of the SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research in Ankara, Turkey. He had just returned from a three-day meeting at the Vatican two weeks earlier, as one of 28 Muslim representatives at the first session of the new Catholic-Muslim Forum. That form was created as a result of a letter to Pope Benedict XVI by Kalin and 137 other Muslim scholars around the world seeking such a dialogue with representatives of the Catholic Church.
    Kalin and the three panelists in Georgetown agreed from their own long experiences that most Muslims would welcome Muslim-Christian dialogue and those who oppose it are a minority.
    Father Michel said the Catholic framework for approaching Catholic-Muslim dialogue begins with the Second Vatican Council’s declaration that “the church has esteem for the Muslims.”
    “Here you have a magisterial statement of the church,” he said. “It means that whenever I speak or however I act toward Muslims, if that’s not imbued with real esteem, then there’s something missing. It’s not truly a Catholic, Christian response.”
    He said that in the 13 years he was director of the Office for Muslims of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Relations, “we met with a lot of Muslims, Muslims from all over.”
    “But the important thing” from high-level meetings and statements, he said, “is that they have to filter down into the grass roots, the ordinary people, the church-goers and mosque-goers.”
    Father Michel has also served as the secretary for interreligious dialogue of the Society of Jesus and as interreligious and ecumenical secretary for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. He said there are different levels of dialogue, including everyday living together as neighbors and collaborating for the common good, scholars studying the each other’s faith, often together, and “special times of sharing” when Christians and Muslims explain to one another what their faith means to them, how they understand God, how they pray.
    “Where we’re at in Asia now is trying to move beyond the level of talking,” he said. “We have a peace course that we run together, Muslims and Christians, from 16 countries of Asia. We do it every year. … We’re trying to build a fund of people in each of our Asian countries who are trained in conflict analysis, conflict transformation, who know what Islam teaches about peace, who know what Christianity teaches about peace, who can be called upon should there be conflicts.”
    “It’s not just a Pollyanna idea,” he said. As an example, he cited the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where Muslims form a large minority of the population. After years of hostilities between Muslim separatists and the Philippine government, he said, “a peace agreement was signed about 12 years ago” that neither side found satisfactory.
    But he said Mindanao’s Bishops-Ulama Conference (originally called the Bishops-Ulama Forum) was formed, with both sides agreeing that they had to preach peace together in their churches and mosques. Ulamas are the most respected Muslim theologians in the country, most of them educated in Middle Eastern universities.
    “I can think of no place in the world as active as the Muslims and Christians (in Mindanao), trying to actively, proactively, prevent another conflict,” he said, as he ticked off a veritable laundry list of interfaith activities and organizations devoted to maintaining peace and improving Catholic-Muslim relations on the island.
    Father Madigan said that despite the explosion of publications and blogs about Islam in the United States, “there’s a remarkable lack of experience at the basis of it. What we’re seeing is a self-perpetuating repetition of a ‘position’ approach which really is based principally on books, on readings of history which may or may not be accurate.”
    Father Madigan was founding director of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He is currently an associate professor of theology at Georgetown and senior fellow both at the Woodstock Center and at Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
    He called the blogosphere “perhaps the most depressing place in the world,” where anyone hiding behind a pseudonym can verbally assassinate anybody.
    He said many blogs define groups in terms of “‘we’ over against ‘them’” in a way that “maximizes difference and ultimately convinces us that there is no way of bringing these two together. Because we have defined ourselves in opposition to the other, we would lose our identity if we moved closer to the other.”
    He said dialogue must start from a different standpoint, one which recognizes that “we” and “they” are also in many ways “we.”
    “So let me ask you, ‘Where do we stand? Where do we, Christians and Muslims, stand?’” he asked. “So much of the talk around us, so many of the books you find on the shelves of Barnes and Noble, so many of these self-assured statements in the blogosphere tell you ‘where they stand.’”
Christianity and Islam stand in relation to one another and many of the tensions derive from historical wrongs on both sides, he said.
    He said the temptation when one sees a pathological action like a suicide bombing or terrorist action is to condemn it as a Muslim pathology without recognizing the “we have our pathologies as well. … We are all in this together.”
    Father Mowe echoed that thought. “If we keep insisting on the inflexibility of Islam being on the road to terror, for example, or if we keep insisting that somehow, inherently, the values of Islam are contrary to our values; if this were true, then we would also have to say that the Spanish Inquisition, for us, was simply prologue,” when in fact the church has since rejected that way of acting.
    He said that in Malaysia, where strict Muslim uniformity is imposed by the government, “by and large, the victims of this oppression are Muslims. … The fight for reform is very much a fight led by young Muslims.”
    In fighting violence and oppression “Muslims are our allies,” he said.

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