is arrogant to expect a billion Muslims to become good secular western liberals.
The real question is whether Islam, within its own scriptures and history, has
the resources to support those Muslims who want to build modern societies around
the conviction that it's God's will that we be tolerant of those who have
different understandings of God's will.
President of Pakistan
This past June 1, the President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, took to the op-ed
page of the Washington Post to make a "plea for enlightened moderation"
to his Islamic brethren around the world. He deplored "the devastating power of
plastic explosives...[and] high-tech remote-controlled devices" and "the
proliferation of suicide bombers."
General Musharraf went on to concede that "the unfortunate reality is that both
the perpetrators of these crimes and most of the people who suffer from them are
That very same day, the Rome-based ZENIT news service, reporting on an
interreligious conference in Qatar, noted that the head of the committee for
dialogue with monotheistic religions at Cairo's Al-Azhar university, Sheikh
Fawzy Fadel Al-Zafzaf, had told the conference that "Islam is a religion of
peace that respects human life."
Is President Musharraf right and Sheikh Al-Zafzaf wrong? Or is the Pakistani
general wrong and the scholar from Al-Azhar right? Perhaps the answer is that
both are right, at least to some degree.
To Musharraf's credit, he squarely faced the hard fact of the matter: the
overwhelming majority of terrorist mayhem in the world is committed by Muslims,
who all too often cite religious motivations and religious legitimation for
their deeds. Sheikh Al-Zafzaf is right to remind his Catholic listeners that the
murder of innocents is not commanded by the Qu'ran. But what is to be done about
those Muslims who insist that their terrorism is divinely warranted?
Public authorities have one set of responsibilities in the face of Islamist
terrorism. What about religious leaders? Can interreligious dialogue contribute
anything to the struggle against terrorism?
I think it can, if the dialogue is conceived strategically. If interreligious
dialogue decays into merely another form of political correctness, Catholics
will be of little assistance to those Muslims who want to challenge the Islamist
radicals. "Enlightened moderation" in the Islamic world, of the sort President
Musharraf envisions, will not be advanced if Catholics, fearful of giving
offense, give their Muslim interlocutors a pass on the tough questions. Our
Muslim dialogue partners must know that, just as they would expect us to condemn
Christians who claim divine sanction for terrorism, we expect them to condemn
Islamist radicalism on explicitly Islamic grounds.
By the same token, Catholics should try to help Islamic religious leaders,
scholars, and lawyers develop an Islamic case for the acceptance of pluralism,
for a commitment to the method of persuasion in politics, and for the other
basic elements of what we call "civil society." The great question for Islam as
a culture-forming religion — a question whose resolution will shape a lot of
21st century history — is whether Muslims can develop a genuinely Islamic case
for civility amidst diversity in society by drawing on their own sacred texts
and legal codes.
It is arrogant to expect a billion Muslims to become good secular western
liberals; it's also foolish, because they're not going to do it. The question is
not whether the West can help facilitate a version of what Father Neuhaus calls
the "naked public square" in the Islamic world. The question is whether Islam,
within its own scriptures and history, has the resources to support those
Muslims who want to build modern societies around the conviction that it's God's
will that we be tolerant of those who have different understandings of God's
What do Catholics bring to that discussion? We bring some recent history. It
took the Catholic Church until 1965, in the Second Vatican Council's Declaration
on Religious Freedom, to articulate a Catholic theory of pluralism and
tolerance. More than one hundred fifty years of robust (and often fractious)
argument preceded the Declaration. Surely Catholics learned something from that
experience. Perhaps that something could be of use to our Muslim interlocutors
as they try to forge a development of social doctrine, as it were, in their own
That's the strategic purpose that should shape Catholic-Islamic dialogue in the
21st century: to help Muslims develop an Islamic case for the civil, tolerant
society. "Jaw, jaw is better than war, war," Churchill famously said. But the
"jaw, jaw" must be purposeful, if it's to help prevent "war, war." That's why
it's time to start thinking of interreligious dialogue in frankly strategic
George Weigel. "Catholicism and Islam: A strategic dialogue." The Catholic
Difference (July 7, 2004).
Reprinted with permission of George Weigel.
George Weigel's column is distributed by the Denver Catholic
Register, the official newspaper of the
Archdiocese of Denver. Phone: 303-715-3123.
George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and
action of Pope John Paul II,
Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II
(Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and
translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech,
Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won
numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News,
and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than
fifty newspapers around the United States.