March 8th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

ASIA: Taiwan: opposition parties combine for next poll

BOOKS: The Aquariums Of Pyongyang: Ten Years In The North Korean Gulag

BOOKS: Charles Dickens, by Jane Smiley

BOOKS: The Great Escape, by Anton Gill

COVER STORY: Iraq: make haste slowly

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Howard shifts focus to domestic issues

AGRICULTURE: Sugar industry reports: 'social science fiction' - Ted Kolsen

FARM INCOME: Rising dollar exposes parlous state of agriculture

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Middle life crisis / Damaged goods? / The green carnations

DRUGS: Quit Marijuana an effective program in New South Wales

DRUGS - DOCUMENTATION: New cannabis studies confirm danger to users

DRUGS: 'Fifth columnist' Mike Trace resigns UN drug post

Sugar levy (letter)

Financial planning (letter)

COMMENT: Christians and Muslims in Europe: how can they co-exist?

EMPLOYMENT: Casualisation a conjuring trick

ECONOMICS: 'Efficiency' blinds policy makers' judgment

Farmers' water rights at stake

ASIA: Is reunification possible for the two Koreas?

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Christians and Muslims in Europe: how can they co-exist?

by Dr Claudio Betti

News Weekly, March 8, 2003
Dr Claudio Betti, a leader of the Sant'Egidio Community in Rome, recently visited Australia. While here he spoke on relations between Christians and Muslims in Europe.

Religions, and especially Christianity, have passed through a difficult century - probably we could say that it has been the most secularised century in history.The condition of religions in today's world is that of agony. It is not death, but of transformation.

Some believed that the 20th Century would have destroyed religion and that the 21st Century would have been a century where religions would have occupied just a residual space.

In reality, especially in the last decades of the 20th Century, we have witnessed a "revanche de Dieu", a revenge of God, as it has been acutely stated by the Islamologist Gilles Kepel. In a certain sense, religions entered the market in a world where everything is for sale.

There are certain links that can be established between religions, at least intellectual ones, for example the idea of the "Abrahamic Religions", but we have to be careful not to reduce divisions and not to erase differences even if it is done with the good intention of gathering and uniting.

Every religion, in fact, presents itself as a way to salvation and is thus substantially self-sufficient.

Each religion does not give the idea of needing the other. On the contrary, in most cases religions tend to affirm their own identity in front of others.

I understand this may sound very general, but we need to set the backstage of a presence and of a relationship that cannot and must not be analysed in a void.

Islam is not remote. There is an awareness which is today widespread not only among the "experts" of the field (remember the romantic and oftentimes incorrect descriptions of Islam of 19th Century orientalists) but is acknowledged by most in everyday life.

In Italy, for example, from the end of the 1970s and especially in the '80s, with the growth of migration, we have seen the establishment of a Muslim presence in the country.

A traditionally Christian country that never had to deal with the presence of substantially different religious communities, Italy today has Islam as its second largest religion, and it is growing.

There has not always been a clear perception of the phenomenon: the immigrant is poor, marginal, he or, more seldom, she, does not impact on the attention of the public at large. Religious practice does not take place in public structures, but rather in homes or makeshift mosques.

Only recently, thanks to the construction of the great mosque in Rome (remember the great debate on the height of the minaret - here we need to underline the importance of the statement of the Holy See that strongly supported the construction of the mosque) Islam has begun to appear as a presence in the Italian religious system.

It is difficult to make a correct estimate of the Muslim presence in Italy. The presence of a substantial number of illegal immigrants makes it even more complicated. There are data that set the presence to about 200,000 while others put it at more than 800,000.

Either way, we are dealing with a substantial presence.

The phenomenon is, however, much larger than in Italy, a country of rather recent immigration. France is way ahead in absolute numbers with its more than three million: an Islamic population that tells the story of the complex history of relationship between France and its former colonies, especially those in North Africa.

We could say the same about Great Britain that counts more than one million Muslims, with a strong component of Indians and Pakistanis.

In relative numbers there are very strong Muslim communities in Belgium (2.5% of the population) and in the Netherlands (2.1%).

If France is still in the lead also in relative numbers (3%), it is surprising to see Germany with a community of about two million Muslims. This country that had no historical links with Islamic nations, has exercised a strong attraction on Muslim workers, especially Turks, because of its very high economic development and labour shortages. In Spain, Muslim immigration has been constantly growing in recent times reaching the number of more than 300,000.

As a whole, the Islamic presence in Western Europe is rather recent and in constant movement if compared with Eastern Europe.

Dialogue: How?

There are some questions that have accompanied the reflection on the relationship between Christianity and Islam in Europe. I do not think that answers have yet been found, or at least not most of them.

1. Many say that the relationship between small groups is not able to influence the great mass and that it is not easy to find Muslim interlocutors who can represent this world also for the peculiar "lay" structure of Islam.

2. I think that I am not mistaken - my experience has proved it many times over - when I say that there is a perception of Europe in the Islamic world as a secularised continent where Christians have given up proposing their faith's values in public life. The religious world of Christianity is, for many Muslims who come to Europe, impassable, while their experience is that of living in extremely secularised cities.

3. Too often Christians, but I can say that maybe it is an attitude mirrored in the Islamic community as well, have the presumption of having a universal model on how to structure relationships between religion and society.

4. Too often Christians lament the fact that it is already 30 years since they arrived at the idea of dialogue with Islam, while on the Islamic side there is still resistance.

I think that there is the need for Muslim to understand European Christians in the richness of their religious experience as it is necessary for Christians to understand the complexity of Islam.

Many souls

Islam is complex and diversified (even if it is able to achieve a great level of cohesion) but it is not up to Christians to say what is the true Islam, the one they have to start a dialogue with. There is among Christians the search for the "good" Muslim, for the one to talk to. Islam has many souls. We do not know, and surely I don't, which is the true one or even if there is only one. We do not know if the truest and most Muslim soul is the one that talks with Christians. To be Christians also means to stop with respect at the threshold of a religious world which is not our own, to look at it as a mystery, accepting it as a matter of fact, both historical and religious.

Dialogue is self-restraint, aware of one's value but respectful of the other. To know the culture, the theology of Islam, does not entitle us to substitute our version of it.

Dialogue, however, is today a necessity. The path of history leads to a mutual comprehension and collaboration. We can say that coexistence is written in the physiology of today's world.

Dialogue is then not a tactic or even a strategy. It is a way of being. It is not an option but a must towards other believers. It is born from the roots of our faith as Christians.

The Catholic Church and Islam

It is in this perspective that I would like to briefly underline the path that the Catholic Church has walked with respect to dialogue with Islam.

The Islamologist William Montgomery Watts in his monumental History of Islam writes:

"Among the great world religions Islam is surely the one that the West has more difficulties in seeing without preconceptions. The roots of these prejudices have to be found in the long gone past."

He then talks about what was written in the 12th and 13th Century on the occasion of the crusades and he ends: "The Western opinion on Islam and on Muslims, was oriented for centuries on the base of this distorted image."

But even then there are numerous cases of positive relations between Christians and Muslims. And I only quote Pope Gregory VII in his answer to the King of Mauritania Al-Nasir, who had previously asked him to consecrate as bishop the priest Servandus. Gregory not only agrees to do what was asked, but writes some words that for their importance have been also used in the drafting of Vatican II's Nostra Aetate:

"This is the charity we owe to one another and even more we owe it to the other people, because we recognise and confess, in a different way, that is true, the One and only God, whom we glorify and venerate everyday, as Creator of the centuries, Lord of this world, according to the word of the Apostle: He is our peace, who has made of the two one people." (cf N.A. 3).

Things of course were not always this good, but amid mistrust and struggle there have always been people, in one camp or the other, who have kept alive the ideal of a possible and necessary dialogue. Saint Francis and Abdel Kader in Syria come to mind.

It is with Vatican II that we see a defining of the attitude of the Catholic Church.

More recently John Paul II has given new impetus to dialogue with Islam through the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, in 1986.

Latest development

The final years of the last century have then been an important moment of growth of dialogue between Christianity and Islam.

Today, however, we experience a completely different situation that forces us to reflect with renewed strength on new ways of understanding our relationship with Islam.

I am not going to refer here to Europe. I think that today Europe is very much following a pattern that is common to most of the other Western world countries.

We are facing a reality of war which appears closer and closer every day, and even more widespread than this is the fact that with the help of terrible weapons, many people can make war or use violence to affirm themselves or just simply to live.

The unexpected threat of terrorism, or better of terrorisms, keeps the world in suspense.

A simplistic vision of the world and of the complexities of today's world sees Islam as one of the actors of this new developing scenario.

In a time of conflict it is even more urgent to reflect on the relationship between Christianity and Islam. I think that in a world of today conflicts are spreading and as conflicts grow they try to find ideological justification.

We have seen the end of Marxism and the wearing out of those utopias used as reasons for fighting one another. We have seen it in the Balkans.

Clash of Civilisations

In 1996 Samuel Huntington wrote The Clash of Civilisation and the New World Order. There is no need for me to remind you about his thesis but I want to underline that I think he interpreted concepts many wanted to hear. According to this author, the world is articulated in different blocks of civilisation (Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Western, Latin American, Slavic-Orthodox): every civilisation has its own religion.

It is a thesis that has generated a hot debate, but many were expecting it. It is not by chance that this book was translated into Arabic and that it had a very wide circulation in the Muslim world.

The idea of the clash of civilisations is not born with Huntington. It was spoken about also in the Christian world with the realisation of the friction between different cultural universes and civilisations.

A conference of the Semaines Sociales of the French Catholics took place in Versailles in 1936. Its theme was Les conflits de civilisations (Conflict of Civilisations). Among others Louis Massignon, Jacques Maritain and Jean Guitton spoke. In the encyclical Populorum Progressio, Paul VI spoke about the risk of a clash between civilisations and his wish to see the establishment between civilisations of a "sincere dialogue ... that factually may create fraternity".

Christians should recognise that the West has been moulded in its foundations from Christianity. But the West is not Christendom. There is Christianity beyond the West. The most typical example is that of those Christians who live in the Muslim world, often also speaking Arabic. However - and it should be remembered - these Arab Christians are often considered by radical Muslims, as the avant-garde of the West. Christians in Pakistan are hit as Westerners.

Surely a clash between the West and the Islamic world will make even more difficult the position of those Christians who live in the Muslim world.

There is an ambiguity on how Christians consider themselves and on how some Muslim societies consider Christians. Not all that is Western is Christian and not all that is Christian is Western.

We must not forget that the Muslim world is undergoing a difficult period that is marked - as Abdelwahab Meddeb wrote in his most recent book - by La Maladie de l'islam (The Illness of Islam).

A Tunisian writer, Mohammed Talbi, wrote about the comparison between the development of Israelis and Arabs:

"We have to try to find the reasons of their success and of our defeats. There is no need to look too far away. Because our 'cousins' are free, while everywhere in the Arab-Muslim world, freed from colonialism, we have done nothing else than changing the pillory ... it becomes laudatory or it takes refuge in a nostalgic lament when it does not feed or justify the most repugnant violence. When pens are broken, only knives remain."

In reality we are not confronting a clash of civilisations, rather we are confronting a process in which all national, religious, cultural, and ethnic identities, are restructuring, as they face the globalisation process. This often generates contrapositions, clashes and sometimes conflicts.


Paradoxically, the globalisation process does not lead towards a sort of cosmopolitanism, but it rather generates strong identity reactions that also use religion. Here we have to place the history of many fundamentalisms, among which there is also the Islamic one (it is not the only one however because it would be enough to think about Hindu fundamentalism, or Jewish or even Christian).

Europe and the Western world, but also the Muslim world, should be very careful when they, in the name of the defence of a culture, introduce elements of ethnicity and nationalism in their societies. Often we clothe ourselves in ethnicity and nationalism, without worrying about what we are in a globalised world.

Inter-religious dialogue, after the enthusiasm of the first years, may not appear too practical to many. But a totally negative assessment of the situation would be too hasty: we cannot believe that, in the space of some years, and only because we Catholics have changed our attitudes, we ought to have achieved results.

Dialogue is the answer to the anguished question: how can we live together? It is the art of coexistence that begins in religious worlds and that wants to encompass the whole of life.

  • This is an edited version of the paper delivered by Dr Betti at Victoria University

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