From the beginning of his Papacy, Pope Francis has urged the world to respect the Muslim faith and to honour the dignity of its adherents (a stance which echoes the 1964 document Lumen Gentium, and indeed, Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio).
Not everyone, of course, seems able to be as generous about Islam as Pope Francis. Headlines of hate have fuelled the idea that all Muslims should be painted as extremists – as absurd, insulting and inflammatory as suggesting that minority radical Christian groups are representative of the whole of the Christian world.
But the politicians and factions of the media seemingly hell bent on inciting overt animosity towards adherents of a faith that shares our own faith’s history can only succeed if ignorance prevails.
We all have difficult questions to ask about different faiths. Indeed, we all probably have some difficult questions about our own faith. In August 2016, the Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue attempted to explore some basic questions about Islam at a colloquium held in the Conforti Institute in Coatbridge.
Pope Francis has said ‘Interreligious dialogue…is an indispensible condition for peace and for this reason is a duty for all believers’.
This event was deliberately not ‘dialogue’ in the sense of Christians and Muslims coming together to talk. Instead, a number of experts on Islam fed our curiosity with background facts and offered an arena in which we would not embarrass ourselves or offend our Muslim brothers and sisters by the possible insensitivity of our exploratory discussions.
We learned from military man Angus Hay about the spread of the Muslim faith by Arabs who colonised much of Western Europe in the second half of the first Christian millennium.
Dr Anthony Allison then led us into a discussion of variations on Islamic law. How should we react to Shari’a law? Indeed, what is Shari’a law? Reminding ourselves of our own human rights record and the fact that the last hanging in Scotland took place as recently as 1964 helped give us a context against which to consider this issue.
A still more complex issue was the growth of extremist groups, which Fr Jim Crampsey helped us to explore. Negotiating into a more creative space in which dialogue could take place was one strand of the discussion; how we as Christians can support mainstream Muslims was another. Alistair Dutton, director of SCIAF, asked if we understand ourselves well enough to be able to help the moderate Muslim.
Sr Isabel Smyth reminded us that while the wearing of the veil is a simplistic and often misunderstood focus of the perceived differences identified in Islam, many of us have experience of strong Muslim women in many spheres of life.
Where do we go from here? I can only offer my own reflections, which are in agreement with Sr Isabel Smyth’s caution to be inclusive in our vocabulary. Even simple pronouns such as ‘they’ and ‘them’ are divisive, whether we speak the words or read them.
If we seek justice in the world, shouldn’t we remind ourselves that our neighbour is the Samaritan as well as the person of the same ethnicity and religion; that Catholic Social Teaching demands we accord dignity to every individual; and that Pope Francis really meant it when he said that talking to people of other religions is a duty for each one of us if we want peace? And who doesn’t want peace?