“Dialogue is possible, but it is only authentic and genuine if it raises the tough issues. Religious freedom is foremost among them.”
In an interview with Zenit’s Deborah Castellano Lubov, who is traveling on the Papal Flight with Pope Francis to the United Arab Emirates, Daniel Philpott, Professor of Political Science, at the University of Notre Dame, author of the recently published book “Religious Freedom In Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today,” made this statement.
In the interview, the scholar of religion and global politics notes the significance of the Holy Father’s trip will depend very much on whether a real exchange takes place on the issue of religious freedom.
“The fact that the Church did not teach religious freedom for many centuries offers a standpoint of humility in the dialogue,” he highlights.
The American author, who has focused on reconciliation, religious freedom, and theories of religion’s role in politics, also expresses his confidence in Pope Francis to bring up religious freedom, as he “has been a strong voice for global religious freedom as well as the persecution of Christians around the world.”
Here is Zenit’s exclusive interview:
ZENIT: The papal trip to the United Arab Emirates will undoubtedly be a historic journey since so far, no country on the Arabian Peninsula had ever welcomed a Pope. How, in your opinion, did this possibility open today?
Professor Daniel Philpott: The trip is indeed of historical importance. It continues the trajectory of interreligious dialogue and friendship that was launched at the Second Vatican Council, especially in the great document, Nostra Aetate. This trip, to a land to which no Pope has traveled, is a big step forward along this trajectory. It also embodies the Church’s mission to go out into the world and engage it, a mission that began with the apostles, who traveled to the corners of the known world at the time. Pope Francis has embodied this spirit with boldness and creativity, one of the hallmarks of his pontificate being his efforts to reach out far beyond the confines of those who sit comfortably in the Church. In a certain way, the trip embodies the Holy Father’s decision to make St. Francis his namesake. The Church has chosen as its theme for the trip, “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,” a line from the widely recognized Prayer of St Francis (which may have twentieth century origins). One of the most well-remembered scenes from St. Francis’s life was his trip to Egypt, where he traveled to the front lines of the wars of the Crusades to convert the Muslim Sultan and ended up having a dialogue with him. It is such a dialogue that Pope Francis now seeks in the UAE.
ZENIT: Can we interpret this novelty – a Pope in the Arabian Peninsula – as a sign of an important change in today’s Islam and in its attitude towards other religions?
Philpott: Muslims, or at least a certain sector of Muslims, have been committed to interreligious dialogue and peacebuilding for many years. So, there’s no real change in that respect. In fact, Pope Francis will be meeting with the Muslim Council of Elders, a group of Muslim scholars and other leaders who have committed themselves to tolerance, dialogue, and humanitarianism. He is meeting with the moderates. The United Arab Emirates has an interest in promoting dialogue and understanding as a part of its efforts to be closely linked with the global community and to establish a reputation for being international and cosmopolitan. Much the same is true for neighboring Qatar, whose capital, Doha, has been a center for interreligious dialogue for several years now. While all of this takes away nothing from the historic nature of the Pope’s visit, note that he is not visiting Iran or Saudi Arabia, where the commitment to dialogue is far more feeble. So, I don’t think this trip represents any real change in Muslim attitudes, though it might communicate a message that could promote such change in the wider Muslim world.
ZENIT: What significance can this journey have in the long-term perspective of Islamic-Christian dialogue?
Philpott: This significance will depend very much on whether a real exchange takes place on the issue of religious freedom. Religious freedom is the Church’s most important principle for engaging other religions as well as governments of states like China. The Church embraced it in its landmark document of the Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, in 1965. It is the most important principle of justice when it comes to religion, the one that enables religions to be religious. It is a matter of dignity for individuals and religious communities. It is positively correlated with democracy, peace, economic development, and the advancement of women and inversely correlated with war and terrorism. Religious freedom is also a universal human right, and the one that is most widely denied in Muslim-majority states. Dialogue without religious freedom would be cheap, hollow, and prone to propaganda.
I have confidence that Pope Francis will bring up religious freedom. He has been a strong voice for global religious freedom as well as the persecution of Christians around the world.
ZENIT: The United Arab Emirates is a very wealthy state, certainly interested in weaving economic ties with the Western world. Is there a risk that hosting the Pope is just a strategy to be accredited as a modern, free and tolerant state, in the eyes of the West, only for reasons of an economic nature?
Philpott: As I mentioned above, the UAE has a strong interest in cultivating a reputation for being international and cosmopolitan and this is closely linked with its interest in global commerce, in being the destination for travelers, and in promoting international joint ventures.
ZENIT: Just this morning (Friday 1 February) Francis received in audience the international mixed commission for the theological dialogue between Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Churches. And on this occasion, he called for the Middle East to become a land of peace, and Christians to be recognized as full citizens with equal rights. Can it be said that these are also the objectives of this travel to the UAE?
Philpott: Again, I think it’s essential that religious freedom be on the agenda. A vision for the Middle East as a land of peace is empty if there is no religious freedom, which is a component of justice. Recall Paul VI’s famous apothegm, “there is no peace without justice.” Well, here, justice means religious freedom, and that means full equality. At present, UAE is moderate on religious freedom. Christians, along with Buddhists and Hindus, are free to worship in private but they may not be public with their faith. Anything resembling evangelization, often derided with the dirty word, proselytism, is verboten. Islam itself is tightly restricted and governed by the state through a small number of religious authorities. Non-Muslims are free but are not equal citizens. To be sure, UAE is not nearly as repressive as Saudi Arabia, which is next door, or Iran, which is just across the Gulf, but it is not free in the way that Muslim-majority countries are in West Africa or Lebanon. I hope Pope Francis will call for full freedom for everyone in every Muslim-majority country.
ZENIT: In recent years in Islam, fundamentalists and fundamentalist tendencies have emerged, which have triggered wars and terrorism. In your opinion, will Islam be able to purify itself from these trends? Or will it need support from the dialogue with other religions and cultures?
Philpott: Yes, Islamists groups have grown steadily since around the 1970s and the more extreme ones have been responsible for terrorism and other forms of violence. Islam, though, also contains “seeds of freedom” that should be cultivated into full-fledged religious freedom. 11 out of 47 (or so) Muslim-majority countries are free, again most of them being in West Africa. The Quran contains one of the strongest verses calling for religious freedom in the texts of any religion: “There is no compulsion in religion.” (2:256). There are historical examples of tolerance in the Muslim world, including medieval Spain, the Ottoman Empire, and Egypt and Iran in the early twentieth century. There are courageous Muslim leaders and intellectuals who argue for religious freedom on the basis of Islamic texts and sources. And, there have been important statements signed by numerous Muslim leaders that call for religious freedom — though not always as strongly as one might hope — like “A Common Word” and the Marrakesh Declaration.
In dialogue with Muslims, the Catholic Church can encourage these seeds to be nurtured. Here, the Church can appeal to its own long road to Dignitatis Humanae as a model. Like all religions, the Church did not espouse religious freedom before modern times and was then reluctant to do so for many years because the main advocates of the principle were opponents of the Church like Protestants and Enlightenment voices. Eventually, though, the Church came to a rapprochement in which it was able to proclaim religious freedom on a basis that was consistent with its own history of dogmatic teachings. The fact that the Church did not teach religious freedom for many centuries offers a standpoint of humility in the dialogue: we were there, too. The road to Dignitatis Humanae might be instructive to Muslims, who are reluctant to accept something that looks like a Western export. Instead, if Muslims can find a way to endorse religious freedom on the basis of their own texts and teachings, then they, too, might come to endorse it robustly. Certain courageous pioneers like Mustafa Akyol and Abdullah Saaed are showing how this can be done. They are the equivalent of pioneers of religious freedom in the Catholic tradition like Jacques Maritain, John Courtney Murray, Heinrich Rommen, and the 19th century German Bishop Emmanuel von Ketteler.
ZENIT: In the past, speaking of Islam and religious extremism, Pope Francis has said that in all religions there is fundamentalism, and even Christianity has its fundamentalists. In your opinion, on what basis does this statement stand?
Philpott: I tend to avoid using the term fundamentalism. I think it’s very difficult to define in a way that zeroes in in the phenomenon that one wants to identify without also including many others who should not be called fundamentalists. So, the word is almost always a weapon. I think we can say that the Muslim world contains what may be called “Islamists” who want to impose a harsh form of Islam through the power of the state or, if they don’t wield that power, through armed opposition. I don’t think there are many Christians of this sort around today. Christianity does have a long history of denying religious freedom, though, and again, this should be a source of humility.
ZENIT: Although the Emirates are considered one of the most modern states in the region, religious freedom and civil rights enjoyed by religious minorities are very far from the standards of European and American democracies. How is it possible to dialogue between cultures that bear such different ideas?
Philpott: You are right about the Emirates, and see again what I say above about them. A dialogue is possible, but it is only authentic and genuine if it raises the tough issues. Religious freedom is foremost among them.
Finally, I would like to share my just-published book, which explores all of these issues and from which I have drawn directly in this interview, Religious Freedom In Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today.
On ZENIT’s Web page:
Other UAE Interviews, as Zenit is following the Pope’s visit on the papal flight:
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Ahead of Being on Papal Flight for United Arab Emirates, ZENIT Speaks with Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia Bishop Paul Hinder: https://zenit.org/articles/exclusive-interview-ahead-of-being-on-papal-flight-for-united-arab-emirates-zenit-speaks-with-apostolic-vicar-of-southern-arabia-bishop-paul-hinder-2/