We may never know exactly what the Pope was thinking when he contemplated his Regensburg remarks in September of 2006. Whatever his thoughts were at the time, chances are he never envisioned that three tumultuous months later he would be standing in the grand Sultan Ahmet Mosque in Istanbul, clasping his arms reverentially in prayer alongside a Muslim cleric. As a man devoted to the divine, the Pope is probably used to penitence. The uniqueness of this occasion is that God was not his only authence, his presence was a gesture of peace to the global Muslim community. Whether or not the Pope’s personal views on Islam have changed, his visit to Turkey confirmed that he does not want his Papacy’s legacy on interfaith relations to be defined by confrontation and provocation.
Let us not forget that it was provocation that led us to this point. The Regensburg Lecture ignited a major religious and diplomatic crisis between Muslims and Catholics. His comments threatened to marginalize all the patient work that his predecessor, John Paul II, had achieved in building bridges between Catholics and Muslims.
Contrary to popular perception, the Muslim response was not relegated to street protest and visceral angst. In October, Islamica Magazine published an Open Letter to Pope Benedict signed by 38 leading Muslim religious and political figures on its website. While apparently not as newsworthy as the most recent effigy-burning on a street in Lahore, the text did receive worldwide coverage and was enthusiastically received by many parts of the Catholic community. The Open Letter was magnanimous in tone, yet firmly addressed errors in the Pontiff’s Regensburg lecture. The seminal nature of this initiative becomes apparent when considering its achievement in forging one united theological posture across leading personalities from all the eight schools of Islamic thought – Sunni, Shi’a, or otherwise. This was no small achievement and it opens doors for more intra-Muslim, or “ecumenical”, collaboration on a host of theological and moral issues. If one considers the frightening conflict raging in Iraq, similar initiatives are all the more pressing.Our focus on the Vatican in this issue includes the Open Letter and a full list of signatories that now numbers 100. In addition, a series of essays provides a context for understanding relations between Islam and the Papacy, including: a discussion of Pope Benedict’s theological Weltanschauung and the influence that his background will have on the direction of his Pontificate; a sustained engagement by a Muslim theologian with the issues of faith and reason in the Regensburg Lecture; and also a discussion of the ethics of pluralism. As Muslims and Christians comprise almost half of humanity and live side by side in so many troubled regions of the world, the need for respectful, yet candid dialogue is vital. The recent visit of the Roman Pontiff to Turkey was a step in the right direction.
In the same way the media tends to ignore peaceful and reasonable efforts such as the Open Letter, it also marginalizes perspectives that could bring balance to debates that have long since lost touch with reality. Partisan agendas and commercial considerations invariably trump honest and probing reporting. If Americans felt betrayed by the Republicans during the recent midterm elections, chances are they felt equally betrayed by their media which was entirely complicit in perpetuating one lie after another. As Firas Ahmad argues, these days we are more likely to hear truth from comedians than from those whose job it is to inform the public.
Finally, we cover a number of other issues in depth such as the human rights situation in Uzbekistan; the war on terror’s impact on civil liberties; the problem of anxiety that grips individuals in times of uncertainty and fear; and we also report on a ground-breaking initiative by the British Museum that introduces Middle Eastern art to British schools as a way of combating prejudice. And we pay our respects to the literary giant, Naguib Mahfouz.