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Reflections on Pope Francis’ remarks on religion, violence at al-Azhar University

Both the Grand Imam and the Holy Father seem to have a definition of religion that excludes any use of violence in religion’s name from consideration.

Pope Francis listens as Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar University, speaks at a conference on international peace in Cairo April 28. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis’s address to the Peace Meeting in Cairo’s famous Sunni Muslim Center at al-Azhar University on April 28 was relatively brief. The most striking thing in my reading was the level of abstraction that governed the public address. The reader was aware of the vast number of things that could not or were not talked about. No specifically Christian word appeared in the address, nor was the word “persecution” uttered in polite company. John Paul II was cited as stating that we cannot pray to God the Father if we don’t treat others as “brothers”. Whether we can defend ourselves if the others do not treat us as brothers is left open. The Qur’an was not cited either. In a final petition, St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al Kamil were asked to intercede.

References were made to the Old Testament Covenant, though no mention of its wars found its way into the text. “Thou shalt kill” is discussed without reference to whether kill specifically meant murder or just any killing. Words including wisdom, dialogue, dignity, and education bore the brunt of the argument. God and One appeared. Trinity and Incarnation were not mentioned (their truth is denied specifically in the Qur’an). The terms “sincerity”, “civility”, “cooperation”, “accepting” of differences, and “respect” were the instruments to achieve the mutual peace that Pope Francis aimed at. In the closest that he came to a philosophical topic, Pope Francis referred to man as “an open and relational being,” not a “rational animal” as we might expect.

Violence, of course, was often mentioned, but never in any specific instance. In his private meeting just before the lecture, the Pope told the Grand Imam that “for all our need of the Absolute, it is essential that we reject any ‘absolutizing’ that would justify violence.” Such a comment would cause many a reader to recall the Regensburg Lecture wherein the Byzantine Emperor brought up this precise issue. The key question then, as it is now, is not whether violence is a good or bad thing, but whether it is justified as a mandate of a specific religion. Francis does say that “we (religious leaders) are called to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the ‘absolutizing’ of selfishness than on authentic openness to the Absolute.”

Both the Grand Imam and the Holy Father seem to have a definition of religion that excludes any use of violence in religion’s name from consideration. The result is that they have to talk of those not insignificant Muslim elements—who maintain they are, in fact, the ones carrying out the true tenets of the religion—as “selfish” or “terrorists” or some other wording. And it is wording that fails to come to grips with the issue that most objective scholars see both in history and in the text the advocacy of violence in the name of religion is indeed what the religion maintains as possible and virtuous when carried out by the faithful against infidels.

The question of preventing violence by the use of defensive arms was studiously avoided as was the issue of a just war against those who used violence against others. “It is of little or no use to raise our voices and run about to find weapons for our protection: what we need today are peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict.” But do we need weapons for our protection? Or are we to announce that we are defenseless? Who is more likely to prevent terrorism, if that be the issue: the peacemaker or the defender with weapons? Just why soldiers and police cannot also be peacemaker is not clear. Francis has, after all, praised the military in other contexts.

Pope Francis seemed to bypass these issues to concentrate on education and changes of heart. He belongs to the school of thought that associates terrorism with poverty, in spite of the vast evidence showing the most obvious terrorists are neither poor nor uneducated. “In order to prevent conflicts and build peace, it is essential that we spare no effort to eliminate situations of poverty and exploitation where extremism more readily takes root, and in blocking the flow of money and weapons destined to those who provoke violence.” In spite of the fact that much of the recent violence has nothing to do with weapons but with trucks and planes, this notion persists that the problem of violence is due to the existence of weapons. The real problem, unaddressed, is whether the terrorists, as they are called, have a legitimate case in Muslim history, text, and theology of Allah’s approval of terrorism to spread the faith. That is the issue that must be faced.

Pope Francis insists the issue is about arms themselves, not ideas. “An end must be put to the proliferation of arms; if they are produced and sold, sooner or later they will be used. Only by bringing into the light of day the murky maneuverings that feed the cancer of war can the real causes be prevented.” Since religion is by definition excluded as one of these causes, we are left with weapons and selfishness as the causes.

“Rigidity” and “closed-mindedness”, frequent refrains of Pope Francis, appear in the context of Wisdom being open to “the other”.  “Wisdom prepares a future in which people do not attempt to push their own agenda but rather to include others as an integral part of themselves…. Wisdom in rejecting the dishonesty and the abuse of power is centered on human dignity, a dignity which is present in God’s eyes, and on an ethics worthy of man, one that is unafraid of others and fearlessly employs those means of knowledge bestowed on us by the Creator.” Francis is here obviously inspired by the Book of Wisdom.

Openness to others and sincere dialogue are things education respects. The Pope seems to be aware of the attraction of ISIS to Muslim youth who see the glory in submitting the world to Allah and purifying Muslim lands of the presence of alien religions. “To counter effectively the barbarity of those who foment hatred and violence, we need to accompany young people, helping them on the path to maturity and teaching them to respond to the incendiary logic of evil by patiently working for the growth of goodness.” This approach seems not unrelated to the advice that the Pope has been giving elsewhere in the area of discernment. There is, to be sure, “a logic of evil”. Francis is right there.

Pope Bergoglio seems to like the idea of “a variety of cultures blended without being confused, while acknowledging the importance of working together for the common good.” These words are almost verbatim those of Jacques Maritain in his famous chapter on “World Government” in Man and the State, where he discussed the possibility of world government without an agreement in principle on the theoretic basis of truth. I have always doubted the feasibility of this approach. Doctrinal disagreement is a very important reality that cannot be neglected solely on the basis of presumed good will. What seem to be in need of explanation in the most pressing way are the persistent religious motivations of those who are constantly designated as “terrorists”. It is not enough to claim that they are only motivated by selfishness, power, or poverty.

But to bring up such questions would be to question the only basis the Pope and the Grand Imam seem to have in common: that terrorism cannot be religious, no matter what the evidence to the contrary. Probably a case can be made for not talking about something which, if faced squarely, would cause widespread civil unrest, though to be sure there is already widespread civil unrest and Middle Eastern Christians seem to be the primary victims.

I have only focused attention here on the Holy Father’s address at al-Azhar. It did not result in riots or make unacceptable claims. How a Pope and a Grand Imam are to talk to each other is probably never easy. The Christian needs to be conscious that his religion is specifically denied in the Muslim holy books. He knows that many can die if he says one thing judged to be overly provocative. So prudence is in order.

One goes away from reading the Pope’s address wondering about the many issues not mentioned. Whether the Coptic Christians of Egypt will suffer more bombing of their churches after Francis leaves remains to be seen. ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood certainly have a point to make about their own power. The effectiveness of the Pope’s speech will probably be decided on this sort of pragmatic basis. The fact remains that the Regensburg Lecture got much closer to the real issues that concern most of us about the actual source of Islamic violence. We learn at Al Azhar that they still cannot openly be talked about.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 158 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.

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