What Is Blocking Dialogue Between Muslims and Christians?

Interview with Father Maurice Borrmans, Expert on Islam

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ROME, NOV. 25, 2002 (ZENIT.orgAvvenire).- Dialogue between Muslims and Christians, not regarded as a strong point, has been hampered even more since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to an expert on the subject.

More than ever, the dialogue requires well-prepared individuals who can understand the Muslims, Father Maurice Borrmans says in the following interview. Father Borrmans, a missionary in the Arab world for 20 years, has been for a long-time consultor of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

He now teaches Islamic law and Muslim spirituality at the Pontifical Institute of Arab Studies. He is also director of the Islamochristiana review, which publishes articles by Christian and Muslim scholars.

Q: How do you evaluate today’s dialogue between Christians and Muslims? Are there difficulties?

Father Borrmans: Since 1964, that is, since “Nostra Aetate,” the Islamic-Christian dialogue has had considerable positive results. The first difficulty we meet today stems from a certain cultural, political and religious departure from the established norm.

We are witnessing everywhere what Mohammed Arkoun calls the “political overriding of the religious.” This complex relation between religion and the state influences profoundly the intercultural and interreligious dialogue.

Q: In other words, every dialogue with a religious dimension necessarily has political implications?

Father Borrmans: In reality, if one studies closely the history of Muslims, one observes that there was always a subtle distinction between those who held political power and the religious heads, a combination of powers without confusion.

However, in many Muslims the ideal is still present of an Islamic state that promotes, transmits, interprets and organizes Islam. The Medina period becomes a point of reference, when the prophet Mohammed became a political man and military chief.

At the dawn of modern times, it was thought that Islam was only a religious event, but it immediately revealed itself to be a political event, too.

Let’s not forget that in the Christian world also, time was needed to accept a modernity that challenged the traditional forms of expression of the faith, of worship, of morality, and of life, and to recognize the possibility of a purification of the faith of individuals and of the mission of religious institutions.

On the Muslim side, things seem to be more complicated, as modernity came to them “from outside,” particularly from the Christian West. Just as the Catholic Church was able to define with Vatican II what it understood by evangelization, so today Muslims are questioning themselves about how to understand what is meant by Islamization.

Q: How do Muslims regard Christians committed to interreligious dialogue?

Father Borrmans: There is quite a bit of suspicion on both sides. Muslim magazines are not friendly toward Christian missions, and Christian publications are concerned about the progress of the Muslim “da’wa” [mission] in all countries and the construction of mosques in Europe.

In essence, it must not be forgotten that many Muslims still make the anti-Christian debate one of the forms of coming together with the “people of the Book,” and that the invitation to dialogue and even Christian humanitarian action seems to many Muslims to be an astute tactic to make the mission progress.

Q: Are there other impediments to the dialogue?

Father Borrmans: Christians have structures that call for collective responsibility. Muslims virtually don’t have representative entities. Often, they commit themselves on their own to the dialogue.

On the other hand, Christians have carried out a notable effort — recognized by the rest of Muslims — to get to know Muslim thought through books and the media. The sources of Islam — the Koran and Sunna — and the classics of religious thought have been translated into the principal European languages.

It is important to note, however, that the fundamental texts of Christian thought are virtually not translated into Arabic, and that the books of Muslim thinkers who speak about Jesus Christ were written in Egypt between 1945 and 1954, namely, during a period that was still democratic. Since then, the difficulties of economic development and of democratic expression, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have made the dialogue more precarious and more reduced.

Q: Given this reality, what room is there for dialogue?

Father Borrmans: To respond to our Christian initiatives for dialogue and to begin at the same time is a question of honor for Muslim authorities, be it in Cairo, Tunis or Beirut.

For the past 30 years we have witnessed a multiplication of interreligious talks and conferences which, however, almost always end only with good intentions. How many times has there been talk of revising school textbooks, to change the way of seeing the other religion! A slight change has been made on our side, but almost none on the Muslim side.

Q: Do you think the situation has worsened since Sept. 11?

Father Borrmans: Undoubtedly, the Gulf War already slowed down the dialogue endeavor. The most open intellectuals were accused in their countries of being too favorable to the West called “Christian.” Since Sept. 11, we can speak of blockage, although the Arab world realized that the Holy See did not support the North American reactions.

On the question of war and peace, it must be admitted that Muslim thinkers are divided. It is true that there are different possible readings of the Koran, from those that exalt the values of peace and justice to those that evidence above all the aspects of struggle and affirmation. On the other hand, is not this also the case with some texts of the Old Testament?

Q: In your opinion, what is the new challenge posed by Islam?

Father Borrmans: Today more than ever, Islam is thought out, lived, organized, and transmitted under very different forms. Beyond the variety of interpretations and practices, Muslims hold the profound conviction that they belong to the best community that God has created on earth.

Modern media and information, the existence of a rich network of cultural, religious and humanitarian institutions, as well as growing participation in the pilgrimage to Mecca, reinforce the hope that unity will finally be achieved.

Contemporary Islam tries to demonstrate that it can be a third balanced way between the excesses of socialism and capitalism, combining in the best way the rights of God and those that are granted to man. This is the challenge that Islam poses to the world, and in particular, to Christians.

Q: Have you ever been overcome by pessimism?

Father Borrmans: In a dialogue, you don’t choose the other side. It must be accepted as it is. The Muslim-Christian dialogue has the duty to attempt the impossible and to accept what is precarious.

Precisely when the other side hardens, we must undertake new initiatives: an interreligious committee brings together Muslim and Christian charitable associations; for the past three years, the University of Cairo [Al-Azhar] has instituted a secretariat for dialogue with the monotheist religions, which means that, for the most important Islamic university, Catholicism is monotheist: Here is a question that is no longer debatable.

Moreover, John Paul II’s trips to Arab countries have made an impact on Muslim public opinion. In Cairo in February 2000, state television broadcasted the holy Mass from beginning to end. The same happened in Damascus in May 2001.

Q: How can one dialogue with Muslims?

Father Borrmans: Massignon used to say that, to understand the other, you must be his guest. Hen
ce the importance of learning, of studying, of listening. Today more than ever, we need individuals who are prepared to understand the Muslims.

In our globalized societies we can no longer preach a catechesis that does not consider the religious experience of others. Dialogue, as such, entails the courageous commitment of encounter with the other, even if the latter is exacting. There are Muslims who seek the friendship of Christians because they intuit a vague reality that the disciples of Jesus should be able to talk about when they are asked essential questions on the mystery of God, the development of man, and the meaning of death.

Are these not the principal axes of any real dialogue between sincere believers?

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