By Ben Joseph*
In an indirect riposte, Pope Francis is trying to prove the confrontational rhetoric of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” wrong.
The pontiff has helped piece together a counter-narrative against the former Harvard professor’s social theory, stressing the importance of harmonious civilizational relations. It also advocates moderation in place of fundamentalism as a common ground to challenge the entrenched perception that certain cultures and religions are incapable of change.
His narrative aims to repudiate a putative or real clash of civilizations and instead foster enhanced interfaith dialogue between cultural and religious groups for a peaceful coexistence.
If the twin tower blasts (9/11) were arguably the culmination of the clash of civilizations from the Western or Christian point of view, the wars that followed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria established beyond doubt among Muslims that cultural superiority has to give way to cultural eclecticism so that moderation (wasaṭiyyah) can prevent an increasingly hostile relationship between the civilizations of Christianity and Islam.
The pope has found common ground among Christians and Muslims despite them subscribing to different sociopolitical worldviews.
The secular democracy of the West and Sharia-based Islamic rule clash as they both entertain ideas for global domination and share a missionary history. Above all, both want to recast the world according to their worldviews.
Islam also alleges Judaism has teamed up with Christianity to finish it off, and jihad (Islamic holy war) is adopted to counter it. Thus, three Abrahamic religions disagree on their practical applications despite tracing a common ancestry. Their people are on the warpath, ignoring the basics of their scriptures.
While the West wages war in the name of establishing democracy in Muslim-majority nations, Islamic fundamentalists’ jihadist exploits are out in the street to put pokes into the Western way of life, which they find haram (forbidden). Thus, they explode bombs at five-star hotels, nightclubs and churches.
When the face-off between Christians and Muslims occurs in a localized context, as happened in France last year, a tit-for-tat is the norm with stray killings and acts of terror. As a result, fear and hate grow, making lives miserable.
The Vatican’s strategy to foster interfaith harmony and pursue talks with the Muslim community began with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. For the first time, the council expressed the Church’s new vision: “But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place among whom are the Muslims: these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.” (Lumen Gentium 16).
Since then, the Church has hosted and taken part in series of conferences with Muslim scholars to reduce tensions. Pope Paul VI constituted the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 1964 to improve relations and dialogue between the Catholic Church and other religions.
Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis’ major trips have been to non-Christian nations including Egypt, Bangladesh, Morocco, Japan and Thailand, pleading for religious pluralism and peaceful coexistence.
An Islam-loving Pope?
Pope Francis’ encounters with the Muslim world were fructified during his 2019 visit to the United Arab Emirates, where he signed the document on “Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.” Also known as the Abu Dhabi Document, it aims to “build a future together.”
A few months later, the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity was set up to put into action the aspirations of the document “to foster fraternity, solidarity, respect and mutual understanding.”
The committee is planning to erect an Abrahamic Family House with a synagogue, a church and a mosque on Saadiyat island in Abu Dhabi.
The Higher Committee of Human Fraternity comprises international religious leaders, scholars and cultural honchos who draw inspiration from the fraternity document.
On Feb. 4, Pope Francis celebrated the International Day of Human Fraternity in a virtual event hosted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi, with the grand imam of Al Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, and UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres.
“This celebration responds to a clear call that Pope Francis has been making to all humanity to build peace in the encounter with the other,” stressed Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
After a hiatus imposed by the ongoing pandemic, Pope Francis is getting ready for the next pontifical journey to Iraq, another Muslim-majority nation, also the land of Abraham.
In the ancient city of Iraq in March, the pope is expected to bring the Shia sect, one of the two branches of Islam, to the negotiation table.
Francis following Francis
Pope Francis’s action to cement ties with Muslims has made him a modern-day St. Francis of Assisi, who met Egypt’s Sultan Malik al-Kamil in 1219 when Christendom was engaged in a bitter battle with Muslims over the Holy Land. The Italian saint of poverty, who addressed all creatures of the universe as brothers and sisters, traveled to Egypt during the Fifth Crusade in the early 13th century to establish peace with the sultan. Records show that he was received warmly.
St. Francis stood against all forms of hostility and violence and did not aim at “imposing doctrines.” Pope Francis has distanced himself from warriors of Catholicism while seeking a gentle way of communicating with Muslims.In his third encyclical Fratelli tutti, the pope urged the world to exercise “political love.” He cast aside the just war theory and updated the Church’s teaching on the so-called “just war.”
“Every war leaves our world worse than it was before,” he said.
The Holy See’s dialogue with the Islamic world is complicated due to tardy progress in West-Islam relations. The Vatican’s honeymoon with Muslims has already raised many eyebrows in the Western world from people who champion the “clash of civilizations” theory.
Though his interfaith ties with Muslims are making great strides in the Middle East, the Judeo-Christian majority and the Muslim minority in Western countries care little about multiculturalism. Moreover, the governments of these countries still prefer to swear by the confrontational rhetoric of Huntington.
The pontiff is making a point so that the clash of civilizations does not dominate global politics. He has taken utmost care to prevent the fault lines between cultures from becoming the battle lines of future conflicts.
The pope urges the world to rise above identity in ethnic and religious terms to reverse an “us versus them” relationship existing between people of different ethnicities and religions.
If the pope has his way, the military superiority and economic agenda of the West and the Islamic resurgence and caliphate of fundamentalists will take a back seat.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.