On the face of it, Pope Benedict XVI seems to have handed an enormous propaganda victory to the Muslim scholars who met with Catholic leaders in Rome on November 4-7. Victories of this sort, though, are deceptive. Leonid Brezhnev left the 1975 Helsinki meetings on European security cooperation convinced that he had won an enormous concession - final recognition of the Soviet Union's postwar borders - in return for lip service to human rights that the communist regime never could or would provide. "Instead," wrote Cold War historian John Gaddis, the Helsinki Accords "gradually became a manifesto of the dissident and liberal movement ... What this meant was that the people who lived under these systems - at least the more courageous - could claim official permission to say what they thought."
The Jewish "refusenik" Natan Sharansky became a symbol of Soviet human rights violation, and president Ronald Reagan's personal support for the dissidents - often over objections of his diplomats - introduced hairline fractures into Soviet Power. (I reviewed Sharansky's most recent book Defending Identity on October 21, 2008).
After the fall of communism, the greatest barrier to freedom is the absence of religious liberty in the Muslim world. Free people everywhere have a profound interest in the outcome of the Church's encounter with the Muslim scholars. Is it possible that the meager concessions offered by the Muslim side to the Western notion of freedom may have something like an "Helsinki" effect?
Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" in a June 1982 speech before the British parliament. Many interpreted Pope Benedict's September 2006 Regensburg address, in which the pope quoted a Byzantine emperor's denunciation of Muslim violence as a similar challenge to Islam. Speaking to a Muslim delegation that met with him after the conference, Benedict's tone seemed quite different. "I am well aware that Muslims and Christians have different approaches in matters regarding God," the pope said. "Yet we can and must be worshippers of the one God who created us and is concerned about each person in every corner of the world. Together we must show, by our mutual respect and solidarity, that we consider ourselves members of one family: the family that God has loved and gathered together from the creation of the world to the end of human history."
This conciliatory tone must have come as a disappointment to the Italian journalist Magdi Allam, whom Benedict personally accepted into the Catholic faith at the Easter Vigil this year. Allam contended in a letter announcing his conversion that Islam was inherently violent. In an October 20 open letter letter to the pope posted on his website, he admonished Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who heads the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, for arguing that violence is a betrayal of Islam. On the contrary, Allam insisted, "Terrorism is the mature fruit of Islam."
Presenting Islam as a valid alternative to Christianity, he added, represents "serious religious and ethical straying that has infiltrated and spread within the heart of the church". Allam added that it "is vital for the common good of the Catholic Church, the general interest of Christianity and of Western civilization itself" that the pope make a pronouncement in "a clear and binding way" on the question of whether Islam is a valid religion. He has made no public statement since the Rome meeting concluded November 6.
Read the entire article on the Asia Times website (new window will open).