The Differences Are Similar

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Author: R. Scott Appleby '78

Beware the world’s most threatening religion, a dogmatic, anti-democratic spiritual regime governed by clerical tyrants bent on worldwide domination! Migrants and refugees escaping political repression in their homelands, they cross the ocean determined to exploit the very freedoms they will eventually strive to overturn. Garbed in religious costume to set them apart, these swarthy foreigners huddle in enclaves in our cities and towns.

Bent on undermining our values and transforming our way of life, they swear allegiance to an authoritarian despot who issues religious edicts that govern virtually every aspect of their lives, from how they are to vote to how many children they are required to have. Their treatment of women is especially barbaric. Among their number are many given to violence, embedded in secret underground networks. Despite their apologists’ denials, the mass of believers is sympathetic to the terrorists and shares their basic political orientation. And make no mistake: the new immigrants seek to establish their own schools, seminaries and “private” religious institutions, which will serve as safe houses and nurseries of radical religion and revolution.

The reader acquainted with the history of immigration will recognize this rant not as the post-9/11 script of a right-wing talk show host bashing Islam and Muslims, but as the mantra of 19th century nativists decrying the hordes of Roman Catholics invading New York, Boston, Baltimore and points west.

First came the “unwashed” Irish and, in their wake, the Polish, German, Lithuanian, Slovenian and Italian Catholics who did indeed transform the United States from the 1840s to the 1920s. Throughout this period of intense waves of European migration, the Catholic was the face of the religious “other,” the threatening embodiment of the superstition and mindless submission to authority that had buttressed the monarchies of old Europe, from which the godly had fled.

To the nativists’ way of thinking, America had been created a nation dedicated to anti-Catholicism, that is, to enshrining and protecting the freedoms of religion, thought, speech and assembly which the Bishop of Rome condemned. They could point to many examples of Catholic obscurantism, not least Mirari Vos (1832), the encyclical of Gregory XVI “on Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism,” which decried “that harmful and never sufficiently denounced freedom to publish any writings whatever and disseminate them to the people, which some dare to demand and promote with so great a clamor.”

In his spellbinding account of the tensions between Catholicism and American Freedom, Notre Dame historian John T. McGreevy documents a century’s worth of polemics against Catholics. He quotes a Protestant reaction to Pope Pius IX’s condemnation in 1864 of liberalism, church-state separation, democracy and modern science. “The comprehensive lesson [of The Syllabus of Errors . . . is that Romanism is incompatible with Republican institutions. Like slavery, it is a hostile element lodged within the nation, gnawing and burning it like a caustic.”

The hostility toward Catholics lasted for many generations. In American Freedom and Catholic Power (1950), a best-selling screed on the enduring “Catholic problem,” author Paul Blanshard sought to inspire a “resistance movement” to counter “the antidemocratic social policies of the hierarchy . . . and every intolerant or separatist or un-American feature of those policies.”

His follow-up, Communism, Democracy and Catholic Power, defined Soviet Communism and Catholicism as parallel threats to American democracy. Blanshard, McGreevy notes, attacked nuns as belonging to “an age when women allegedly enjoyed subjection and reveled in self-abasement” and accused the parochial school of being “the most important divisive instrument in the life of American children.”

A common devotion

Perhaps American Catholics aware of their own history can sympathize with ordinary Muslims today. In their insistence on staying true to their traditional codes of conduct, sexual mores and family structures, despite scorn from religious or secular liberals, some Muslims might remind some Catholics of themselves.

In “clinging” to mosque-going and fasting, prayer five times a day, and enrollment in religious schools, Muslims follow a path trod by generations of American Catholics who accepted the label “defiant” or “superstitious” or “un-American,” rather than abandon their religious devotions. And in refusing to repudiate their religious leaders — even while selectively disobeying, or simply disregarding, certain unpopular or controversial pronouncements — Muslims worldwide are no less orthodox in practicing Islam than millions of Catholics are in their (selective) obedience to authoritative Church teaching.

In fact, while the tensions between Roman Catholicism and Islam are familiar from the headlines, far less attention has been paid to the convictions, experiences and challenges shared by these two global, monotheistic, mission-centered traditions as they have encountered the modern world. Not least, a scriptural foundation for mutual understanding can be identified in Islam and Catholicism’s common devotion to the God of Abraham, the privileged place in their respective ethical traditions for the prophets of ancient Israel, and the exhortation of both the Qur’an and the New Testament to evangelize, or convert, all nations.

More important, perhaps, for addressing today’s hot-button political issues is the fact that the theologically and scripturally informed worldviews of Islam and Catholicism constitute a platform for a robust interfaith dialogue and collaboration on matters of social ethics. Unlike many secular groups, Muslims and Catholics embrace a theological anthropology, that is, a view of the human person as created by and oriented toward God. Moreover, they share the moral conviction that the family, not the supposedly autonomous modern individual, is the fundamental social unit.

From these shared assumptions flow the two traditions’ respective understandings of scriptural imperatives, public responsibility and the “common good.” Thus, for example, a profound moral and religious obligation to the poor and dispossessed has shaped both Islam and Roman Catholicism. Each of these ancient traditions has also developed a sophisticated ethics of war and peace. And each has struggled in the modern era with challenges to religious authority and knowledge posed by science, technology and the rise of modern notions of the individual. Likewise, democratic forms of governance, religious pluralism and the modern concept of human rights have confronted these traditions, demanding a response from within.

Indeed, it is their confrontation with “modernity” that provides Catholicism and Islam with a fascinating and potentially historic conversation starter. Unlike Protestant Christians, Roman Catholics share with Muslims a historical memory of the ancient and medieval eras — and the precedents they set for themselves and others during ages of faith-driven conquest and political-cultural sovereignty.

Drawn inexorably into the ominous, alluring, tradition-eroding global whirlwind known variously as “the Age of Reason,” “the Enlightenment” and “secular modernity,” these two religious giants have indeed “clung,” sometimes desperately, to their respective patrimonies. They have been battered and bruised by what the American scholar of Islam Marshall G.S. Hodgson called “the Great Western Transmutation.” But they have also survived and in some ways thrived.

Unquestionably Catholicism and Islam, both in its major Sunni and Shi’a branches, will play a critical role, separately or together, in determining the fate of the earth in the decades to come. In a time of religious and ethnic violence, deepening poverty for the “bottom billion,” environmental crisis and resource wars, it would seem creative, loving and responsible for Catholics to engage Muslims on many levels.

Is it possible for these traditions to reflect critically together on the challenges of keeping faith in a supposedly secular age? To discern ways of bridging differences and consolidating areas of agreement? To contribute to the debates on integral human development, freedom and responsibility, genetic engineering, the sanctity of human life and other fundamental ethical issues that loom before us?

The growing fear

If Catholics are to develop the sympathy for Muslims that would be necessary to make such a project viable, they will have to overcome the formidable social and cultural barriers thrown up by our sensation-saturated media and the reigning politics of division. The murderous suicide attacks of September 11, 2001, unleashed a new round of American nativism, this one directed against “mobilizing” Muslims both here and abroad. Depressingly long is the list of post-9/11 books, articles, documentaries and blogs, including several published by Catholics, which condemn Islam or Islamism (“political Islam”) in language that could have been lifted from Blanshard.

Conflating Islam the world religion with the sectarian version promoted by a radical violent minority, these popular works feature titles such as American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us, Islam Unveiled and Onward, Muslim Soldiers. The hysterical and distorted treatments of Islam found in these polemics would make even a self-respecting anti-Catholic blush.

Take, for example, Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics, which announces that while Christianity is a faith built on love and an intimate relationship with the living God, Islam preaches intolerance and unstinting obedience to the command that it be spread “by the word or sword.” The authors — Daniel Ali, an Iraqi Kurd and ex-Muslim convert to Christianity, and Robert Spencer, the director of Jihad Watch and a one-man cottage industry of anti-Islamic pulp — claim that Islam is a backward faith that breeds cultural stagnation, the Qur’an a theological hodgepodge that has inspired 14 centuries of violence.

Such libels do not seem to bother some Catholic reviewers. James V. Schall, S.J., writing in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, praised the authors for taking seriously “the need to understand what is wrong with Islam’s concept of the world and its practices.” Unless Catholics do so, he opined, “Islam will win. We vastly underestimate both how it can be attractive and how it uses its financial and military or terrorist power to expand its dominion.”

Dominion. Power. Islam. Few Muslims, however, see themselves as members of a global cabal intent on — or capable of — achieving world dominion. To the contrary, millions of Muslims in Egypt, Algeria, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan see themselves as powerless pawns and victims of a geopolitical game controlled by non-Muslims — or by dictators or terrorists masquerading as Muslims.

And yet the fear of “Islamic power” grows daily, in Western societies that feel vulnerable to gradual cultural “takeover” via immigration, or, more dramatically, by armed subversion. When I arranged to bring the controversial Islamic intellectual, Tariq Ramadan, to Notre Dame as a tenured professor, the reaction revealed a deep insecurity about our ability to withstand the encounter with the religious “other.” French and Swiss journalists called me to ask: Are you an Islamist? No? Well, do you know that this man would make South Bend the capital of global jihad? I stammered something to the effect that if one person can overwhelm a faculty of 800 academics, over half of whom are practicing Roman Catholics, then either our faith must be lukewarm, indeed, or our resolve flimsy.

Some colleagues asked if I was aware that some Islamic countries would not respect my religious freedom, would not embrace me as the religious “other” — and would never allow Muslims to convert from Islam to Christianity. Yes, I answered, I am aware.

I am also aware of the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on the Relation of the Church and Non-Christian Religions” (Nostra Aetate):

The church also has a high regard for the Muslims . . . Over the centuries many quarrels and dissension have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.

Domers who still regard the Second Vatican Council as an authoritative expression of the Church’s Magisterium might therefore be interested in making “a sincere effort . . . to achieve mutual understanding.” That effort could involve listening to how Muslims respond to the litany of accusations leveled against them and their religion.

To the suspicion that Muslims are inherently violent and inclined toward terrorism, Muslims respond: Stop judging us on the basis of our deviants. Would Christians as a whole wish to be judged on the basis of self-professed Christians who murder abortion doctors — much less by the deeds of an Adolf Hitler or Timothy McVeigh? (The latter are hardly Christian, but then, some so-called “Muslim terrorists” are hardly Muslim.)

In her book Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America after 9/11, Geneive Abdo reports another typical response to the tendency of some pundits to cluster all Muslims together: We Muslims do not seek a fight with Christians or with Americans: millions of us are Americans! We pay our taxes, observe the laws, raise loving families, and fight and die for the United States. We categorically reject Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and every person who commits acts of terror in the name of Islam.

Indeed, millions of Muslims migrated to the West precisely to escape extremism and violence — whether practiced by the secular state or a religious group. They believed that America offered them the liberty to practice their faith openly, without penalty or harassment, under laws that respect the right of religious freedom.

Finally, the charge that Muslims seek political domination evokes the following rejoinder. In many places in the world, Muslims are the victims of political domination and state violence. If and when Muslims strike back at their political oppressors, the focus is seldom placed on the provocative political or structural violence practiced by the secular (or religious) state as a matter of policy over many years. Do Muslims have the right to defend themselves against aggression, they ask, or is that only the right of Christians and Jews?

Muslims also acknowledge the serious problems afflicting their global community. Illustrative is the following passage, from an article, “A Time for Introspection,” published shortly after 9/11 in Q-News, a European Muslim magazine:

Unfortunately, the West does not know what every Muslim scholar knows; that the worst enemies of Islam are from within. The worst of these are the khawaarij [a fanatical early Muslim sect] who delude others by the deeply dyed religious exterior that they project. . . . The Muslims should be aware that despite the khawaarij adherence to certain aspects of Islam, they are extremists of the worst type. Our Prophet said, peace be upon him, “Beware of extremism in your religion.” . . .

Our real situation is this: we Muslims have lost a theologically sound understanding of our teaching. Islam has been hijacked by a discourse of anger and the rhetoric of rage. We have allowed for too long our mimbars [pulpits] to become bully pulpits in which people with often recognizable psychopathology use anger — a very powerful emotion — to rile Muslims up, only to leave them feeling bitter and spiteful towards people who in the most part are completely unaware of the conditions in the Muslim world, or the oppressive assaults of some Western countries on Muslim peoples.

Us vs. Them

What the writer refers to as a “hijacking” of his religion “by a discourse of anger and the rhetoric of rage” is a phenomenon that has marked subcultures within Islam and Christianity, as well as Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, at different points in their respective passages through the modern age. Confronted with a rapidly changing world that has threatened a hallowed way of life, these transnational religions have coped by spinning off modern versions of themselves, designed to contest the supposedly dominant trend, secular modernism (a logic that calls for judging a society’s progress and values without meaningful reference to God or divine revelation).

All of these tactics distort the received religious tradition in one way or another. Religious fundamentalisms imitate the techno-scientific and militaristic tendencies of secular modernity and adopt its instrumental approach to knowledge. Thus, for example, in order to beat back the “godless” evolutionists, Christian creationists imitate modern science’s emphasis on data and material evidence by trying to “prove” biblical accounts of creation. In doing so, ironically, they reduce the rich religious truths of the Bible to mere scientific formulas — as if Genesis were an edition of Popular Mechanics, a “how God did it” manual.

Religious modernisms attempt to wed the “spirit” and “values” of the traditional faith to the conclusions of modern science and philosophy. Early modernists like Thomas Jefferson therefore dismissed the New Testament miracle stories as superstition, not science, and transformed Jesus into merely a great ethical teacher with no supernatural powers. The danger in adopting this tactic is that the faith quickly becomes vulnerable to the latest trends in philosophy and science and loses its foundation in time-tested and abiding truths.

Religious traditionalisms tend to idealize the past, identifying too closely certain previous historical adaptations (for example, the Catholic prohibition against having bodies cremated, in respect for the doctrine of the resurrection of the body) with the living tradition — the ambiguous but vital “argument” about beliefs and practices sustained and developed across generations. Traditionalism confuses an older form with the evolving heart of the faith; the wrong kind of irrelevance is the result.

Catholics and Muslims have invariably fallen into one or more of these patterns. The result has been a hardening of the lines — an us-versus-them approach, whether liberal-versus-conservative or us-versus-the-world. This is the mentality of the enclave, not the mission.

Not so thoroughly secular after all

So Catholics and Muslims also have this in common: they have been tussling for centuries with secular modernity, and the struggle has now reached a decisive moment. That moment is shaped by a new awareness that modern people of faith, whatever their religious tradition, have more in common with one another than they realized. In a world driven in many sectors by people who “do not take God seriously,” believers stand apart and share with one another a divinely inspired vision of reality.

Moreover, believers share with nonbelievers a concern to address a host of pressing problems threatening basic human security. Whether Christian, Muslim or agnostic, we all struggle to harmonize the incredible technical and material capabilities we now possess — to produce genetically engineered food, forge economic, spiritual or political alliances that span continents, create previously unimaginable forms of life — with hard-earned wisdom about the meaning and destiny of the human person. And — lo and behold! — the “seculars” are waking up to the fact that they are stuck with us believers (to put it negatively) and that we have a crucial contribution to make to the global debate about the way forward for all humanity. In short, they are realizing, the world is not quite as “secular” as they once imagined.

This situation raises many questions.

How, for example, do Catholics and Muslims perceive and respond, in their different ways, to the modern endorsement and legal inscription of religious freedom as a universal human right? How does each tradition negotiate the tension between freedom of conscience and the historic mission “to convert all nations”?

How do Catholics and Muslims resist, accommodate and transform the mounting challenges to their male-centered structures and practices? They exist, after all, in a world that is increasingly intolerant of gender discrimination and supportive of women’s rights.

What of the internal challenges posed to each tradition by the critical study of scriptures or the shifting locus and stability of religious authority? What has been the impact of the various waves of democratization and “disestablishment” in states previously legitimated by religious power?

What do Islam and Catholicism, individually or collectively, offer by way of ethical critiques of, or resistance to, secular and scientific definitions of the human person? How do they describe human dignity and human sexuality in light of technical breakthroughs such as stem-cell research, cloning and other forms of genetic engineering? Finally, what might Catholics and Muslims learn from a respectful interrogation of, and dialogue with, other religious and secular ethical traditions that address these complex moral questions?

A way forward

To forge a common path forward requires according respect to the religious “other”. This does not mean relaxing claims on religious truth or overlooking the substantive elements of disagreement. Nor does it mean that Islam and Catholicism have pursued or will pursue similar paths in responding to the challenges of secular modernity.

“The Catholic aggiornamento had the character of an official, relatively uniform, and swift reform from above . . . that could easily be enforced across the Catholic world,” writes the Catholic sociologist José Casanova. “Islam, in contrast, lacks centralized institutions and administrative structures to define and enforce official doctrines and, therefore, the ongoing Muslim [adjustments] to modern global realities and predicaments are likely to be plural, with multiple, diverse and often contradictory outcomes.”

Genuine hospitality to the other, while respecting differences, nonetheless entails the risk of being transformed by the encounter, even if that transformation is understood as a richer, more compassionate appropriation of one’s own deepest beliefs and convictions. A structured engagement with Muslims and a deeper understanding of Islam’s internal transformations-in-process would provide Catholics with a new window on their own historical journey and contemporary situation within a dynamic global process that is repositioning all the players on the board, not least the major religious traditions.

Is it possible to read the recent stirrings in Muslim-Catholic relations as an opening to a new phase of constructive interaction? Pope Benedict’s controversial remarks in 2006 at Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor from the 14th century who had disparaged the Prophet Muhammad, caused an international backlash. But the event also made the Church receptive to constructive Muslim responses to the misunderstanding, such as A Common Word Between Us and You, an affirmation, issued by 138 Muslim scholars and clerics, of the common ground shared by Muslims and Christians in the profession of the love of God and the love of the neighbor.

These events led to productive conversations, inchoate alliances and, not least, a meeting, hosted by Pope Benedict himself, between 24 Catholic and 24 Muslim scholars and public figures (including Tariq Ramadan).

Such events, building on Catholic-Muslim dialogues already in place, are a beginning. But the future of Catholic relations with Muslims cannot be left to official dialogue and interactions alone. Rather, other sectors of the Catholic community must take initiative, for the sake of the Church and the world.

In this respect Catholic institutions of higher education have a significant contribution to make. The ground-clearing task involves the serious study and deeper understanding of the complex “negotiations with modernity” conducted by Catholics and Muslims. A coordinated effort is needed, drawing together the best minds in Catholicism and Islam to reason together, compare notes, forge a way forward on issues where common ground and the common good converge — and, eventually, invite other believers, as well as nonbelievers, into a conversation that could help forge stronger alliances between “the religious” and “the secular.”

Notwithstanding their different core religious beliefs, Catholicism and Islam do share common challenges, grievances, and at least some fundamental values. Yet the conversation must not be limited to what Catholics can learn from Muslims and what Muslims can learn from Catholics. (This is true despite the fact that Muslims and Catholics alone account for nearly one-third of the world’s population.) Rather, a pressing question for the 21st century is how individuals, groups, institutions and organizations that define themselves as religious or faith-based can identify and strengthen points of convergence, and work to bridge differences with governments, agencies, institutions and individuals that do not.

Given recent scholarship, as well as events on the ground, it is now possible to contemplate an ongoing and dynamic interaction across various religious and secular traditions. Such collaboration is essential if we are to address economic development, humanitarian assistance, migration and refugee crises, religious and ethnic violence and a host of other challenges facing a rapidly globalizing human community that now clearly merits the name “post-secular.”


R. Scott Appleby is professor of history and the John M. Regan, Jr., Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame. With Patrick Mason he directs a new interdisciplinary research project on Catholic and Muslims in a post-secular age.


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