June 17, 2005


Christians vs. Muslims

When anti-American riots in Muslim countries broke out last month after Newsweek reported that soldiers guarding prisoners at Guantanamo had desecrated a copy of the Quran by flushing it down a toilet, talk show host David Letterman joked, “It was really too bad because up till that time they really loved us.”

What made the joke humorous is the sad fact that antagonism between Muslims and Christians is not new. It can be traced all the way back to the seventh century when Muslims conquered the Middle East, all of northern Africa and Spain. Christians and Muslims have fought wars, especially the Crusades from 1096 to 1270. In recent years, extremist Muslims have declared a jihad (struggle) against Christians, and extremist Muslims were responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11.

According to Reza Aslan, in his book about Islam titled No god but God, “What is taking place now in the Muslim world is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West. The West is merely a bystander—an unwary yet complicit casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story.”

That sounds good, but it’s not particularly comforting when some of those Muslims are convinced that it’s their religious obligation to war against non-Muslims, and American non-Muslims in particular.

With the end of the Cold War between communist countries and the West, hostility between Islam and Christianity has returned with a vengeance. It has been fueled by the Iraq war and unanticipated events such as that Newsweek report. Most Muslims are convinced that our war is against Islam. Not that the hostility was ever absent. Saudi Arabia has long forbidden any religious practice except Islam.

It’s not just coincidental that events of the past few years have spawned a rash of new books about the Crusades. They include The First Crusade: A New History by Thomas Asbridge; The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople by Johnathan Phillips; Fighting for Christendom: Holy War and the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman; and two books by Thomas F. Madden, The New Concise History of the Crusades and The Crusades: An Illustrated History. (Madden’s books are the best.)

The late Pope John Paul II understood the dangers of Christian-Muslim animosity and did his best to soften it. He traveled extensively to Muslim countries and wrote approvingly of devout Muslims’ religious practices. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, for example, he quoted the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate: “The Church has a high regard for the Muslims, who worship one God, living and subsistent, merciful and omnipotent, the Creator of heaven and earth.”

He met with moderate Muslim leaders and evidence of the high regard in which they held him was the large number of Muslims who attended his funeral.

At the meetings prior to the conclave that elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI , the cardinals identified both the secularization of Europe and the rise of Islam in Europe as serious problems. Even before that, Cardinal Ratzinger had spoken out against the inclusion of Turkey as part of the European Union because of its Islamic roots.

After his election, Pope Benedict met with Muslim leaders and expressed his hope “for the growth of dialogue between Muslims and Christians, both at the local and international level.”

Largely because of Europe’s secularization, but also because of its low birth rate that has required it to admit hundreds of thousands of Muslim immigrants to fill necessary jobs, Muslims appear to be slowly taking over Europe. France, England, Italy and Germany have all experienced a huge increase in the number of Muslims, and there’s no indication that that situation will change.

It’s no secret that this is a matter of serious concern to Vatican officials and, frankly, they aren’t sure what to do about it. Pope Benedict will continue to reach out to moderate Muslims as Pope John Paul did. But, as Reza Aslan said in No god but God, it’s too early to know who will win what he calls a civil war within Islam—moderates or extremists.

— John F. Fink  

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