| Ander Nieuws week 48 / nieuwe oorlog 2006 |
Benedict's definition of what it means to be European ignores the positive contributions of Islam
November 19, 2006
By Tariq Ramadan
Since delivering the speech in which he quoted a 14th century Emperor who said the Prophet of Islam had given nothing positive to humanity and had commanded followers to use violence to spread their faith, Pope Benedict XVI has been subjected to bitter Muslim reaction around the world. Benedict has responded by saying he regretted the consequences of his misunderstood words, but he did not retract his statement--perhaps rightly so. After all, he had simply cited an ancient Emperor. It is Benedict's right to exercise his critical opinion without being expected to apologize for it--whether he's an ordinary Roman Catholic or the Pope.
But that doesn't mean he was right. Muslim attention has focused mainly on the lecture's association between violence and Islam, but the most important and disputable aspect of it was Benedict's reflection on what it means to be European. In his speech at Regensburg, the Pope attempted to set out a European identity that is Christian by faith and Greek by philosophical reason. But Benedict's speech implicitly suggested that he believes that Islam has no such relationship with reason--and thus is excluded from being European. Several years ago, the Pope, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, set forth his opposition to the integration of Turkey into Europe in similar terms. Muslim Turkey has never been, and never will be, able to claim an authentically European culture, he contended. It is another thing; it is the Other.
As I have written before, this profoundly European Pope is inviting the people of his continent to become aware of the central, inescapable character of Christianity within their identity, or risk losing it. That may be a legitimate goal, but Benedict's narrow definition of European identity is deeply troubling and potentially dangerous. This is what Muslims must respond to: the tendency of Westerners to ignore the critical role that Muslims played in the development of Western thought. Those who "forget" the decisive contributions of rationalist Muslim thinkers like al-Farabi (10th century), Avicenna (11th century), Averroes (12th century), al-Ghazali (12th century), Ash-Shatibi (13th century) and Ibn Khaldun (14th century) are reconstructing a Europe that is not only an illusion but also self-deceptive about its past.
What the West needs most today is not so much a dialogue with other civilizations but an honest dialogue with itself--one that acknowledges those traditions within Western civilization that are almost never recognized. Europe, in particular, must learn to reconcile itself with the diversity of its past in order to master the coming pluralism of its future.
The Pope's visit to Turkey presents an opportunity to put forward the true terms of the debate over the relationship between Islam and the West. First, it is necessary to stop presenting this visit as if it were a trip to a country whose religion and culture are alien to Europe. Selective about its past, Europe is becoming blind to its present. The European continent has been home to a sizable population of Muslims for centuries. While visiting Turkey, the Pope must acknowledge that he is encountering not a potential threat but a mirror. Islam is already a European religion.
Rather than focus on differences, the true dialogue between the Pope and Islam, and between secularized societies and Islamic ones, should emphasize our common, universal values: mutual respect of human rights, basic freedoms, rule of law and democracy. Though most of the media attention is directed at a marginal minority of radicals, millions of European Muslims are quietly proving every day that they can live perfectly well in secular societies and share a strong ethical pedestal with Jews, Christians and atheist humanists.
Let us hope that the Pope will be able to transform his former perception of the threat of "the Other," of Islam, into a more open approach--by strongly highlighting the ethical teachings the religions have in common and the ways they can contribute together to the future of a pluralistic Europe. Benedict XVI should be free to express his opinions without risk of impassioned denunciation. But the least one can expect from the Pope--especially in this difficult era of fear and suspicion--is that he help bridge the divide and create new spaces of confidence and trust.
Tariq Ramadan, a research fellow at Oxford, is the author of several books on Islam, including "To Be a European Muslim".
Copyright © 2006 Time Inc.
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