Monday, 13 September 2010
Pope visit: This visit can help Muslims find a place in a hostile continent
By Mona Siddiqui
Published: 7:00AM BST 11 Sep 2010
www.telegraph.co.uk (All Rights Reserved, Copyright)
Building bridges: Must the Pope have "dialogue" with Muslims, either culturally or theologically, for his visit to have relevance for them? What Pope Benedict has said about Islam will keep many watching keenly , writes Mona Siddiqui.
This Thursday I will be at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where the Queen will receive Pope Benedict, as the first state visit by a Pope to Britain gets under way. It’s a privilege to be invited because, however one views Pope Benedict or the Vatican and, whatever resentments one feels towards the Catholic church in the light of recent sexual abuse revelations, this is a symbolic and historic occasion; it demands attention.
Benedict is only the second pope to come to Britain since Henry VIII broke with Rome, and his visit falls within the 450th anniversary of the Reformation in Scotland and the country’s schism with Rome. In fact, he arrives on the feast day of St Ninian, which will remind Scotland of its Catholic roots. There is enough intra-Christian symbolism around this event to keep onlookers and worshippers intrigued or even suspicious – but what of the non-Christians? How significant is the papal visit for people of other faiths?
On one level, it is not significant at all; this is just another state visit by a leader who just happens to be both the head of a state and the head of a faith. But religious leaders always have the potential to do great harm as well as great good. As a Muslim who has been involved in Christian-Muslim interreligious work for some years, I know that what the Catholic Church, and Pope Benedict in particular, have said and done with respect to the Islamic faith will keep many in the inter-religious world watching keenly.
Benedict presented himself to much of the Islamic world through his 2006 university address in Regensburg in which he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who had strongly criticised Islam and its propensity for violence. Tragically, many Muslims around the world did react violently, demanding an apology and fuelling the growing frustration within Western society that Muslims tolerate free speech only as long as it doesn’t offend them.
Benedict did, subsequently, apologise for causing offence and he has since been to Turkey where, in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, he turned towards Mecca in a gesture of prayer. This trip was hailed as a success. He also addressed Muslims and Christians in the King Hussein Mosque in Amman in 2009, urging Muslims and Christians to work together for the common good. During his visit to Britain he is expected to address faith leaders.
Does any of this really matter, especially when, behind the scenes, one sees that the pontifical council for dialogue with Jews and Muslims is weaker than it has been for a long time? Must the Pope have “dialogue” with Muslims, either culturally or theologically, for his visit to have relevance for them? Dialogue has to be more than symbolic to be transformative. It has to be more than playing politics, it has to be persuasive and passionate and resonate in peoples’ lives.
There are so many negative assumptions about the place of religion in society that meaningful debates about it are almost non-existent. The widely accepted and extolled narrative is that democracies must be secular to flourish and that liberal states do not need religion to give them real moral purpose. However we understand secularism and its relationship to democracy, it is foolish to think that religion does not matter and that people of faith need simply to tame their religious passions.
This will not just be manifest by the hundreds of thousands of faithful Catholics who turn up to see the Pope, but also by the many who will be glued to their televisions. They will want to hear what he has to say about the place of God and conscience in society but, more significantly, about Europe’s Christian past and the question mark over its Christian future. Muslims have a huge stake in this conversation as Islam is the one faith that has been perceived as a threat to social and political cohesion.
The potent images of an illiberal sharia imposing fanaticism equated with effigy-burning has made many Europeans suspicious or contemptuous of Islam. If Islam has nothing to offer Europe, where do Muslims see themselves and their values in a continent where their faith seems at best incomprehensible, at worst evil? Most Muslims would deny that they recognise themselves in such an image, but the debate is real and the solution is not to be reactionary but visionary – Europe belongs to us all; its future depends on us all.
Mona Siddiqui is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Glasgow