Déjà Vu Not Quite All over Again
Not for the first time has al-Azhar University shown itself very attentive to what popes have to say. In February 2003, as George W. Bush and his “coalition of the willing” were banging the drums of war, millions of demonstrators took to the streets of the world’s capitals to denounce the very idea of an attack. At that awkward moment, the annual Vatican-al-Azhar dialogue met in Cairo. Our delegation included the then Nunzio (Vatican Ambassador) to Egypt as well as the President of the Vatican’s Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Michael Fitzgerald—who just a few years later would be surprised to find himself removed from his post and sent to become Nunzio to Egypt.
When we arrived at our meeting, we were impressed to find that our partners from al-Azhar were better informed than we were of Pope John Paul’s latest pronouncement that morning against the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war. They were enormously grateful that the authoritative moral voice of the papacy had been so clearly raised against what even then seemed (and has since proven itself to be) a reckless and even immoral military adventure.
We found ourselves in that dialogue shoulder to shoulder against the hideous prospect of fruitless and destructive violence, and the day culminated in a wonderful evening at the home of al-Azhar’s Sheikh Fauzi Zafzaf, swamped by his many grandchildren. These tend to be the best kinds of dialogue—shoulder to shoulder in the face of a common problem, rather than in a face-off with one another.
No one at al-Azhar at that time was worried that a forthright papal call to governments to live up to their responsibilities might constitute an intolerable interference with their sovereign autonomy. Yet now Pope Benedict’s measured appeal to Middle-Eastern governments to do more to assure the safety of their Christian minority citizens has been taken as a major affront to Egypt, and as the occasion to break off dialogue indefinitely.
Real Dialogue Must—and Will—Go On
Of course, this has more to do with politics and national pride than with interreligious dialogue. Al-Azhar is often forced to function as an organ of the Egyptian state. I doubt that this freeze has any real significance for the future of Muslim-Christian dialogue, very little of which actually takes place in highly formalized situations like that one. Real dialogue is more sustained, less official and tends to be more local. Because of this, the real gains made in dialogue—particularly the trusting relationships established over the last 50 years—will survive the fluky winds of international diplomacy and the occasional papal misstep.
Though he has a mixed track record in relations with Muslims, and Regensburg has not been entirely forgotten, Pope Benedict’s call for greater protection for minorities was no misstep. The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, writing on this blog on January 5th, himself said, “There is no doubt that such barbarism needs to be denounced in the strongest of terms, and opposed at every turn.” He characterized the extremism that had been demonstrated in the attack on the Copts as a “disease,” and he is right. At the same time, it should be noted that thousands of Egyptian Muslims turned out as “human shields” to protect Copts as they celebrated their Christmas on January 7th.
The difficulty is that both parties to our dialogue have for too long found it easier to denounce the faults of others than to acknowledge our own.
This incident makes clear exactly where dialogue needs to be headed. We have to move beyond the polite mutual examination of our highest ideals—which we do all the while quietly fuming about the failures of the other to live up to them. The Vatican-Azhar dialogue has several times over the years noted the need for self-criticism. Now is the time to try to find the courage to acknowledge to each other that throughout our histories, and even today, we are better at talking about love, justice, forgiveness, peace and equality, than we are at putting them into practice.