What the Pope’s Visit Teaches Us About The Wrong Way to Do Religious Diplomacy
Conflict between the Christian West and the Islamic East has been a recurring theme in international politics for more than a thousand years. Rooted in a mix of theological convictions and geopolitical interests, this conflict has ebbed and flowed between three continents and a wide array of actors and battlefields. Enlightened academics and policymakers will resist such civilizational talk, but hundreds of millions of Christians and Muslims see the world in exactly these terms.
It was against this background that Pope Francis journeyed to the United Arab Emirates last week to shift the terms – to change the very grammar – of the Christian-Muslim relationship. Standing beside his Muslim peers, the Pope called for a new spirit of fraternity between the world’s two largest religious communities. What used to be “Christian vs. Muslim” or “Muslim vs. Christian” is now “Christian and Muslim vs. Something Else.” The visit, which included a stadium-sized mass and a variety of events and speeches was undeniably historic.
The Bishop of Rome proved once and for all that religious leaders have a unique role to play in world affairs and that faith-based diplomacy can transcend geopolitics in a way that few other things can. Hopefully, America’s foreign policy establishment was paying attention. Here is a model that should be studied by anyone who doubts that faith can play a positive role in the struggle between states and peoples. Pope Francis unleashed a new moral momentum on everything from the status of migrant workers in the Gulf to the Yemen civil war, and he generated spiritual energy that will shape East-West relations for years to come.
The papal visit also cemented the UAE as a strong ally of the West that seeks to combat Islamic terrorism and normalize Israel as a member of the Middle Eastern order. Indeed, the UAE has stood at the forefront of the recent sea change in Arab-Israeli relations. That this realignment has mostly been the result of shared fears of Iranian expansion and that the UAE’s interfaith outreach is part of a larger PR blitz designed to improve its global image are unimportant. In the gritty world of international politics you take your friends where you find them. For now, the UAE has shown itself to be a friend and we should welcome that. Beggars can’t be choosers.
The problem with the papal visit wasn’t what it was. It was what it tried to be.
At the heart of the affair was the publication of an ambitious new declaration entitled “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.” Signed by Pope Francis on behalf of “the Catholic Church and the Catholics of the East and West” and Imam Ahmad al-Tayyab on behalf of “Al-Azhar al-Sharif and the Muslims of the East and West,” the document declares a joint defense of traditional values against steepening moral decline. Worried about a “third world war being fought piecemeal” before our eyes, Pope and Imam call on world leaders to “spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace.”
Key to “Living Together” is a new mode of engagement between Catholics and Muslims, namely “adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.” The document defines dialogue as “coming together in the vast space of spiritual, human and shared social values and, from here, transmitting the highest moral virtues that religions aim for.” The document rejects “unproductive discussions,” which, it must be assumed, are the kinds of theological and cultural debates that divide rather than unite.
But warring peoples can only make peace if they find a common enemy, and here, as expected, Pope and Imam identify two. Whereas in bygone days Christians and Muslims fought each other, today they join forces against the new infidel: greedy secular materialists on one hand and violent religious fanatics on the other. These enemies, though different, are products of the same contemporary crisis caused by “desensitized human conscience,” “distancing from religious values,” and “prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic philosophies.” Not surprisingly, the document names rampant capitalism (under a variety of euphemisms, e.g. “selfishness,” “unrestrained profit,” and “lack of equitable distribution”) as a special scourge to be combatted.
Pope and Imam believe that the current crisis can only be resolved by “awakening religious awareness” through “sound education and an adherence to moral values and upright religious teachings.” Not only do I agree with them, I find the prospect of two major religious leaders uniting in defense of traditional values an exciting one. In the Fall 2018 issue of Providence, I explicitly called on policymakers to “make room for innovative religious engagement by clerics, scholars, and leaders in civil society.” This could be the very thing I was looking for.
Yet I also wrote that, “This engagement should begin by recognizing the real differences between Islam and Christianity and build understanding and respect despite those differences.” Moreover,
Many interfaith efforts start by affirming commonalities and end up frustrated by disagreements later on. Much better, it seems, to candidly articulate disagreements at the outset and find areas of convergence down the line.
And here lies my critique of the papal visit. In his drive to forge a grand agreement with the Islamic world, Pope Francis sacrificed veritas at the altar of caritas and thereby missed a historic opportunity.
Let’s put aside the obvious critique of “Living Together” which is that its practical effect will almost certainly be zero. Let’s also ignore the problem of a denouncement of materialism and oppression that is released in the most over-indulged corner of the Arab world and signed by an emissary of one of the region’s most repressive dictators. Over at The Atlantic, Graeme Wood writes:
I feel certain that the details of this document have already been forgotten forever; the shared values (do not kill people, be respectful, don’t separate children from their parents) are bland and unchallenging, and therefore effortlessly ignored. Moreover, they were adopted in the face of, and without mentioning, ongoing humanitarian disasters in which the UAE and el-Tayeb’s Egypt are complicit—namely the war against Iranian proxies in Yemen, and abuses of state power in Egypt.
Let’s put all that aside. Let’s accept that this declaration will prove to be exactly what it aims to be: the conceptual basis for a new era of cooperation between Christians and Muslims.
My point is that it can’t be – because it’s not true.
The declaration assumes, ignores, and omits too much, pretending as if Christians and Muslims have been getting on for centuries or would have gotten on but for the pesky extremists on both sides. The reader will be forgiven if he walks away believing that Christianity and Islam have the same God and the same set of values – two claims that would not go unchallenged by many faithful on both sides. While Pope and Imam may be commended for ignoring old debates and charting new paths for cooperation, they may also be criticized for ignoring real-life concerns felt by many in their communities. It is these concerns that will doom this document to failure.
It isn’t that “Living Together” just ignores these concerns. It dismisses them in a way that borders on dishonesty. For example, it declares that Christianity and Islam reject any link between violence and religion, chalking up historical episodes of religious violence to “political manipulation” by groups who “have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment in the hearts of men and women in order to make them act in a way that has nothing to do with the truth of religion.” These words not only conflict with numerous verses in the Quran and ahadith but with the actual history of Islam up to and including the present. No doubt many Muslims would argue that they conflict with parts of Christian history, too.
The document also claims that “each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action” and that “the pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race, and language are willed by God[.]” We must reject, says the document, “the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture.” And yet we know that Muslims who convert to other religions are liable to punishment by death (not by ISIS standards but by the normative standards of Islam) and that non-Muslims are liable for prosecution under any number of blasphemy laws in place around the Islamic world. That these religious rules are loosely enforced by Muslim-majority states is beside the point; apostates and blasphemers are frequently killed and their killers are allowed to go free. Freedom of belief, thought, and expression remain rare in most parts of the region.
“Living Together” calls readers to “pay attention to religious, cultural and historical differences that are a vital component in shaping the character, culture, and civilization of the East,” but then goes on to act as if those differences don’t exist or don’t matter. It neglects to mention that Muslims are safe in the Christian West while Christians face discrimination and persecution in many parts of the Islamic East, an asymmetry that continues to frustrate European Christians who have accepted millions of Muslim refugees even as Christians are driven out of Muslim-majority countries. Pope Francis is no doubt aware that at this point European Catholics are more likely than Protestants to express negative views of Islam. For many of his flock, this new proclamation of Christian-Muslim fraternity will only add insult to injury.
“Living Together” is a beautiful document filled with noble principles that should be implemented immediately. The problem is that they don’t reflect anything that amounts to reality, past or present. Meanwhile, the continued gap between words and action will keep pushing Western Christians away from cross-cultural cooperation toward ever-narrower forms of nationalism and sectarianism. The happy rhetoric of the twentieth century isn’t fooling anyone these days. We know too much.
Religious diplomacy is important, but religious leaders should focus on representing the truths of their religion and the concerns of their constituencies rather than working toward meta-religious consensus. They will be most successful when their diplomacy is understated and narrowly-construed. The Maronite Patriarch offered a useful example in November 2017 when he made a historic visit to Saudi Arabia to mediate in a dispute between Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The visit, though widely covered by world media, was limited in scope as the Patriarch resolved a discreet issue and returned home with minimal grandiloquence.
Above all, religious diplomacy must be truthful. Unlike its secular cousin, which is bound by what is pragmatic and possible, religious diplomacy is free to draw upon all that is pure and enduring. It is, by definition, truthful diplomacy; for what is religion if not a claim about truth? Pope John Paul II’s nine-day pilgrimage to Poland in 1979 offers a classic example of a religious leader venturing into what many would consider hostile territory, sticking close to the gospel message, and resisting the temptation to alter that message for the sake of his surroundings. I believe that Pope Francis missed a historic opportunity to undertake the same kind of journey and offer the same kind of challenge.
There remain profound and potentially unresolvable differences between the Christian West and the Islamic East. We must seek to bridge them by talking to each other, but we must talk honestly. In choosing “dialogue” over “unproductive discussions,” Pope and Imam forgot that it is those very discussions that Christians and Muslims need to have. Giving us bland aphorisms and avoiding underlying issues only ensures that those issues will snap back later on.
The only way to live together – to really live together – is by speaking the truth in love. It is no heresy to say that we will live in truth, or not at all.