Transcript of press conference on Muslim letter to Benedict XVI

On Thursday, Oct. 11, a letter from 138 Muslim clerics and scholars to Pope Benedict XVI and 25 other Christian leaders was released, marking the one-year anniversary of a similar letter to the pope from 38 Muslims following his remarks on Islam at the University of Regensburg on Sept. 12, 2006. The new letter was presented in press conferences in Dubai, London and Washington, D.C. The following is a transcript of the Washington press conference, which took place at the National Press Club. The speakers were Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a noted Iranian Muslim scholar at George Washington University, and John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

Press Conference
October 11, 2007

John Esposito, Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University
I think this is an historic event today. I know a lot of people like to begin by saying that things are historic events, but if you look at the history of Islam, the Muslim world, this is really the first time in history that we’ve had an initiative in which Muslims have collectively come together and agreed to what binds them theologically to Christians. It’s a group of Muslims that run across the spectrum – Sunni and Shi’a, and different schools of thought within the Sunni and Shi’a.
The timing of the letter is significant, as it falls on the Muslim festival of Eid, which many of you know marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. It also, however, marks the first anniversary of a letter signed by 38 Islamic scholars sent to Pope Benedict XVI in response to his address at Regensburg on Sept. 12, 2006. The driving force behind both letters has been the Royal Academy of Jordan, an international nongovernmental and independent Islamic institute headquartered in Aman. That academy brings together 100 of the world’s leading Muslim scholars, as part of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought.
Last year’s letter to the pope was itself the first of its kind in several centuries, and was signed by 38 scholars from across the Muslim world. Though it shared a common intent with this year’s wide-reaching letter to Christians everywhere, in seeking to move the dialogue between the Muslim and Christian traditions towards a basis of mutual understanding and respect, last year’s letter was concerned specifically with answering several of the issues raised by Pope Benedict XVI in his discussion of a medieval debate between the two faiths. By contrast, the letter being sent now, with the support of more than 100 senior Muslim clerics, seeks not to be reactive but instead to initiate, to offer a platform of mutuality for the two faiths to come together.
I think what’s significant here is the basis of the letter, that is, the shared belief of both Muslims and Christians in the principles of love of the one God and love of neighbor. It’s hoped that the recognition of this common ground will provide the followers of both faiths with a shared understanding that will serve to defuse tensions around the world. As the letter’s authors attest, meaningful world peace can only be achieved in a climate of peace, justice and understanding between these great faiths.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, George Washington University
Professor Esposito mentioned many of the most important points involved in this initiative, but perhaps one needs to expand a little bit on this. During the Middle Ages, there used to be theological debates that took place between Muslims and Christians, oftentimes in Spain, other occasions in Sicily. It’s strange that all these centuries after that, although so much contact has been made between the Islamic world and the West, a serious theological debate has not taken place except in small circles among a few individuals from the Christian side, a few individuals from the Muslim side, and occasionally also Jewish scholars have been involved. It’s not been in a way that would involve the two communities as a whole.
Christianity, at least Catholic Christianity, is of course much more centralized. Islam is not. To get a consensus of Islamic views on this subject is a matter of very great importance. The importance of this initiative is that it does two things for the first time.
First of all, it is a document approved by some of the foremost scholars of the Islamic world cutting across the spectrum. It’s not only both Sunni and Shi’ite thought, but also within Sunni and Shi’a Islam different perspectives, different views, are represented. To come together is itself a very significant thing for the Islamic world.
Second, it’s the first time perhaps in history that Christians are being addressed by the Islamic world as a whole, to the extent that we can talk about the Islamic world as a whole. Islam does not have a central authority and is diffuse, but this represents really the mainstream thought of people from different parts of the Islamic world. It’s based on a very important premise. Everyone is interested in political and economic contentions, difficulties, struggles, wars, but few realize that the theology of various groups affects what is happening on the ground externally. Without a theological solution, without a sense of accepting the other, understanding the other, having sympathy for the other, all other solutions are expediencies and sooner or later they wither away.
For 50 years now since the Second World War, Christianity, and especially Catholic Christianity, has been conducting ecumenical meetings with Islam. I participated in the very first one, held exactly 50 years ago in 1957 in Morocco. Fifty years have passed. Why have we not solved all these problems? Mostly because, either a few individuals have been able to talk together among themselves at a deep level without influencing the community as a whole, or because other issues have trumped the more profound issues that exist.
Another important element in this document is that instead of trying to tackle problems that seem to be insoluble, like the question of the Trinity in Christianity versus the unity of God in Islam, the document bases itself upon two fundamental principles, which constitute the heart of the message of Christ as given in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, to love God and to love one's neighbor, the two supreme commandments. There’s no Christian who accepts himself or herself as a Christian, cutting across all of the different schools, from fundamentalists in Georgia to Catholics in Rome and everything in between, also including of course the Orthodox Church … there’s no one who does not accept these two principles as being essential to the Christian way of life. There’s practically no Christian, however, who sees how significant they are in Islam. You cannot be a good Muslim without following these two commandments, not only a good Christian. Therefore this document poses this common ground right at the center of discussion, and tells the Christian world that despite all of these theological and ethical differences, the fundamental teachings of Christianity on the relation with the neighbor and with God, are also very deeply respected and central to the teaching of Islam.
We are hoping this initiative will have the widest reception, especially at a time when so much vilification, hatred, and animosity is parading itself as expertise. People call themselves ‘experts’ on the Islamic world who hardly know a word of Arabic, and others in the Islamic world who know nothing at all about Christianity, are flinging statements and slogans of hatred against each other. Nothing could be more important than this common message emphasizing our love for God and our duty to our neighbor, which for Christians includes Muslims and for Muslims includes Christians. You can’t refuse to love the neighbor on the next street and just love the neighbor on your own, that’s not a possibility.

Q: Are there ways of trying to carry out what you’re proposing?

Esposito: I think that post 9-11 in particular, one sees religious groups and international groups – the United Nations, the Club of Madrid, many of them – with international dialogue groups. I think that what is really unique here is the fact that this is a first in history in which you have Muslims across the world, leaders, coming together and formally making a statement. It’s a statement made to Christians, but it is also a statement what will resonate within the Muslim world and among Muslims themselves. However diverse the interpretations of Islam may be out there, the majority of Muslims despite that diversity are in effect speaking both to Christians and to their own community.
I would view it, and I’m speaking as someone who runs a center for Muslim-Christian understanding at Georgetown, and as a Christian, as a challenge to Christianity. It’s not meant as a challenge on the part of those who signed the statement, but I think it’s a challenge. It’s going to be wonderful to see leaders of Christian churches responding, but it needs to go beyond that. Individual statements by leaders of Christian churches won’t go to the next step. It seems to me that a next step is for Christian leaders themselves to discuss a similar kind of response to Muslim leaders, and to then talk about, if you will, a kind of coming together of these leaders.
What we’ve had in the past, and Seyyed Hussein can speak to this, are meetings where you have small groups of Christians and Muslims getting together and issuing a statement. That’s nice, but it doesn’t have global significance and global impact. The importance today, to just tease out something that Seyyed Hussein said, is that we live in a world today in which it’s the extremist minority who shouts the loudest that gets the media’s attention. You blow up something, somebody’s are going to cover it. People forget where the mainstream majority of Muslims are, where their attitudes towards Christians are. I think that what most Christians and Muslims in the world need to see is an example from their religious leaders of this magnitude. The important thing is not just that the leaders come together, and that can be difficult enough. The important thing, if you’re going to change the way people operate, is that it trickle down. The trickle-down effect doesn’t come when just two or three leaders speak out.

What are the leaders who signed this statement doing to make sure that it trickles down? Are they going to their communities?

Esposito: There was a press release in Dubai earlier today, and a press release in London. Already there’s been media coverage in Time magazine and Newsweek. I just received an e-mail that the news agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, which is related to the Congregation for Evangelization, has already noted this statement. There have been statements from the Archbishop of Canterbury, from the Bishop of London. So in many ways, one is beginning to see things.

Hussein: If you mean activities not directly part of this initiative but related to it in ideas, yes, there are many other things going on, including events that are organized directly or indirectly by the Royal Academy in Jordan, the C-100 Group of the World Economic Forum of which [Esposito] and I are both members, and whose task is very much the same if not as theologically couched …although the head of the C-100 is the former Archbishop of Canterbury, on one side, and Prince Faisal, who is a Saudi of course, on the other side. There are also initiatives within Jordan being planned to have continuous meetings, as there have been the last two years, between groups of Muslim and groups of Christian theologians, thinkers, leaders, and so forth.

Since Islam is not centralized, how do you convince the people, the masses?

Hussein: That’s not that difficult, because in each part of the Islamic world there are figures who are very highly respected, and their views influence people as much as the view of the bishop of Washington will influence the Catholics in Washington. Even if the directive doesn’t come from the Vatican as it does in the case of Catholicism, the influence is the same. When you have a large number of very prominent and influential writers, ulema scholars, preachers and so forth agreeing on something like this, each of them will have a very deep impact on a circle around him or her.

What do you do about the extremists?

Hussein: The same thing as on the Christian side. What do you do with the late Jerry Falwell, who is no longer with us, but what did you do with him? Nothing. That is, the people who are in the middle of the two religious worlds are the ones who can carry out this dialogue. The very act of carrying it out will marginalize more and more those marginal figures who keep shouting the most. Extremists are not more numerous in the Islamic world than in Christianity, by any means. Even the most extreme form of Islam has never attacked Christianity as a religion, but Christians. Here, we get attacks against Islam, not only Muslims. It is on both sides. This very initiative, the more people it attracts, the fewer will be those who can be detractors and have influence. There will always be detractors.

Esposito: I think there’s something else that one needs to note. We keep raising the question all the time in the media, and experts raise it: Who speaks for Islam? There’s no central authority. But the fact is, who speaks for Christianity? The pope doesn’t speak for Christianity. Who speaks for Judaism? None of these religions have any one person. The pope does have a certain kind of visibility, but there are hundreds of millions of Christians who don’t really follow the pope. If you look at Jews, they’re in the same situation. But in an initiative like this, what one hopes for is a spectrum. I went over the names here, and what you see is a real spectrum. Many of these people have their followers. That gives immediate credibility. Then there’s a momentum as it reaches other Muslims who may not know sheikh so-and-so. At the end of the day, the extremists you’re not going to deal with. You want to deal with the mainstream, and with those who are maybe not knowing which way to go.

At the time of Regensburg, there was much talk about the need for new Muslim/Christian conversation. A year later, has that happened? Has there been any positive impact that you can point to?

Esposito: No. The reality of it, from my point of view, is that the positive side is that there was some movement on the part of the Vatican and the pope. His visit to Turkey, certain statements that he made, certain gestures that he made, I think were very useful. But after that, one does not see, it seems to me, clear signs of a reaching out. Given what happened at Regensburg, the ball is in the Vatican’s court in terms of that reaching out. You don’t really see yet significant initiatives, neither from the Vatican nor often at a national level. There continue to be, on the one hand, some very positive and constructive statements made by some folks in the Vatican, and certainly by Roman Catholic experts. But on the other hand, there’s a whole cut of Catholic so-called ‘experts’ and people in the Vatican that continue to operate in what sounds very much like a confrontational attitude in dealing with the Islamic world.

What would the kind of reaching out you want look like?

Esposito: Certainly there ought to be a coming together of prominent Muslim leaders. For example, this statement … it will be very interesting to see how the Vatican responds in terms of a statement, but it would also be terrific if the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, or the pope himself, were to bring together a group of these religious leaders to come to the Vatican for a meeting. I think that’s important. It’s notable to me how quickly the Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, responded to this statement. Even that sends a certain signal. It’s not merely what the Archbishop of Canterbury said, but that he responded so quickly. People will be looking from the point of view of timing at how it takes the Vatican to respond, what does that response look like, and is there a follow-up on the Christian side? More broadly with regard to Christians, to appreciate the significance of this, think about what it would say if you had a group of cardinals, patriarchs, the head of the Methodist church, the Evangelicals, coming together and themselves issuing a statement with regard to Islam. Think about the way in which people in the Muslim world would look at that statement, and the impact it would have. I think that gives a sense of how significant I think this statement from the Muslim world is, but I think it’s a challenge now to Christians in terms of how they respond.

Hussein: I must add something which is quite important. After the Regensburg address and the letter that was sent, there was no response to the letter. Muslims thought of choosing a small team of 4-5 people, leading Islamic thinkers, to be able to have a dialogue on the deepest theological issues with the Vatican, including the pope himself. At least, that’s the condition I put down. Nothing came of that, there was no response from the Vatican. The reason I mention this is that 40 years ago, in the 1960s, I led a Muslim delegation of scholars to the Vatican. At that time, Paul VI was the pope. It was five-day, very intense theological discussion involving Cardinal [Sergio] Pignedoli and a number of leading Vatican experts on Islam. Yet four decades later, we have the Regensburg address. What that means is that somehow we still have to get the heart of the religion engaged. It’s very disappointing. I can be more blunt, because I’m a Muslim rather than a Catholic and perhaps freer to speak on this issue. Most of the response that has come from the Vatican, after the Islamic protest and all of these things, has been diplomatic, not theological. The very first meeting in the Vatican [after Regensburg] was with Muslim ambassadors. These are people appointed as ambassadors, many of whom know nothing at all about Islamic issues. What is being evaded all the time are those underlying differences in belief that then cause the political and social differences to manifest themselves on the surface. We have to be honest enough to tackle that, and not to hide it in the closet.

Esposito: I think what you just underscored is a question that some people are asking with regard to this papacy. Under John Paul, you had both, if you will, a dialogue of life as well as a theological dialogue. The pontifical council under Archbishop [Michael] Fitzgerald and also his predecessor, Cardinal [Francis] Arinze, was alive. That hasn’t been seen. When you look at Regensburg, what you see is a diplomatic response. For that, you could have the Secretary of State or the Minister of Foreign Affairs respond. You do not see a theological response. Some people are beginning to wonder, is the position of the Vatican going to be that one deals with the Muslim world in terms of diplomacy, but does not deal with Islam and with Muslims in terms of theological dialogue? I think that you do have a strong school of thought in the Vatican which does not seem to believe that there can be a theological dialogue with Islam. It’s based on what I regard as an old theological position, and it’s a position with which I was raised. Before I did my work for the last 35 years on Islam, I was trained as a Catholic theologian. In those days, the whole approach was that because Islam says that the Prophet is the final prophet and has the final revelation, therefore there can’t be any theological dialogue. It seems to me we’ve moved beyond that, at least we ought to move beyond that. But this is one of the questions that has arisen, and it has not been answered during this papacy. The response to Regensburg did not answer that. I can also say that I know of one other international body that offered to put together a similar delegation [to advance dialogue between Muslims and the Vatican], and informally the response was that it wasn’t seen as particularly needed.

Why are you coming out with this letter now? Is it response to the Pew survey that found 70 percent of non-Muslims view Islam as very different from their own religion? Are there any Muslim leaders who would refuse to sign this letter, and what would be their motivation for doing so?

Hussein: First of all, the timing was not based on statistics that may have come out. This letter was being prepared for months, and we thought that following the letter to His Holiness the pope [last year] that there should be a theological approach. The fact that it was brought out today was to make it coincide with the anniversary of the Regensburg address, not because some people have said that Islam is different or anything like that. That was done a long time ago. It is not based on recent statistics.

Would there be any Muslim leaders who would refuse to sign this letter, or have?

Hussein: Let me explain the practice. The Islamic world is large so in many countries there are very important leaders, and if you add all of them together there would be thousands of people. Not everyone was even approached. I do not know if anyone who was approached refused to sign it. What they tried to do was to see who is an outstanding figure in a particular stream of thought, cutting across a spectrum. Let’s say in Indonesia, they didn’t invite every important religious scholar in Indonesia, but they invited some. As far as I know, those who were approached, none turned it down.

What was the reason that the letter was not sent to Jewish leaders as well?

Hussein: Let me answer, because we had a discussion about this. The major reason is that this is a theological letter, not a political letter, and Islam does not have theological issues with Judaism. If political events had been different, and one could just talk about theology, Islam and Judaism do not come one after another. We could take the position of Maimonides, what he said 700 years ago, and that would be the basis of Muslim-Jewish understanding on the nature of God, the oneness of God. They also do not accept the Trinity, the Incarnation, all these thorny and difficult issue. It was not because of political selectiveness, but because this initiative tried to address certain theological issues which Islam does not have with Judaism.

Esposito: Actually if you look at the statement, if you read it closely, you see that it is a heavy and solely theological sort of statement, working from the Qur’an to the New Testament. I think theologically, you wouldn’t have the comparison. On the other hand, I have been told – and I’m clearly not a part of the signatories – that there is a desire to also have responses, or to reach out, not only to Jews but also to other faiths, to Hindus and Buddhists etc. at a certain point. But this had a certain focus.

Esposito: Yes, that’s going to be done.

According to the Pew survey again, there are 45 percent who say that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers. Is this letter working to overcome that? Is this letter calling on Muslims who may demonize Christianity to recognize these issues?

Hussein: The demonization is from both sides. The 45 percent should be much higher, given what the media keep pouncing on all the time. There are also in the Islamic world many people who identify the very violent ways in which that part of the world which is called ‘Christian’ has acted towards Islam, from the Crusades to the Colonial period to the present day and so forth. They put it in terms of Christianity. So it’s for both sides, for Muslims also to recognize that the heart of Christian teaching in fact is love. The idea that Islam is violent and that Christianity is non-violent is, of course, theologically and historically an absurdity. There are people in the Islamic world who try to turn the tables. This initiative addresses both the West and Muslims themselves in many ways.

Esposito: That’s what the message actually can do, because if you look at it, because it cites both the Qur’an and the New Testament, and does it very well with both texts, it can therefore be speaking to both communities, and to the extremist elements in both communities. I would hope that there’s an Arabic version of this …

Hussein: There is, I’ve already seen it. It’s a very beautifully prepared text. It is coming out all over the Arab world right now, they’re sending the Arabic version.

Esposito: I would hope that they would also bring it out in other Muslim languages.

The document says, “As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them – so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes.” How many of the Muslim signatories to this document would consider the U.S.-led war in Iraq to be an example of this provision?

Hussein: Of course scientifically I do not have statistics, because I haven’t asked all of them, but to the extent that I know the vast majority of these people, I would say 8-90 percent.

Esposito: You’re very close. The Gallup poll says that majorities, and one figure I saw said it was close to 91 percent, object to the invasion of Iraq.

So, in the eyes of these Muslim leaders, does the war satisfy the Qur’anic conditions for the legitimate use of violence in reprisals against Americans?

Hussein: In the eyes of many it would, but some are still waiting. It’s interesting that many of the Shi’ite ulama in Iraq have not given any fatwas at all against the Americans, including Ayatollah Sistani, the leader of Shi’ism. If he had given one, the casualties among American soldiers would have been ten times more going back to the beginning of the war. He has remained quiet, with the hope that this is a temporary action that will stop sooner or later. If it continues, he and people like him, who are very moderate people, will be put in a very difficult situation. Among the Sunnis, there are more who are opponents of the American invasion of Iraq, and who have given very strong views that anyone fighting against the incursion is acceptable, because you are defending your home and country and so forth.

Esposito: They would see it as resistance to occupation.

Hussein: That’s right.

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