Benedict XVI is probably one of the few figures to have profoundly understood the ambiguity in which contemporary Islam is being debated and its struggle to find a place in modern society. At the same time, he is proposing a way for Islam to work toward coexistence globally and with religions, based not on religious dialogue, but on dialogue between cultures and civilizations – itself based on rationality and on a vision of man and human nature which comes before any ideology or religion.  
 
While the pope is asking Islam for dialogue based on culture, human rights, the refusal of violence, he is asking the West, at the same time, to go back to a vision of human nature and rationality in which the religious dimension is not excluded. In this way – and perhaps only in this way – a clash of civilizations can be avoided, transforming it instead into a dialogue between civilizations.
 
Islamic totalitarianism differs from Christianity
 
To understand Benedict XVI's thinking on Islamic religion, we must go over its evolution. A truly essential document is found in his book written in 1996, when he was still cardinal, together with Peter Seewald, entitled The Salt of the Earth, in which he makes certain considerations and highlights various differences between Islam and Christian religion and the West.
 
First of all, he shows that there is no orthodoxy in Islam, because there is no one authority, no common doctrinal magisterium. This makes dialogue difficult: when we engage in dialogue, it is not "with Islam", but with groups.
 
But the key point that he tackles is that of shari'a. He points out that:  

"[T]he Koran is a total religious law, which regulates the whole of political and social life and insists that the whole order of life be Islamic. Shari'a shapes society from beginning to end. In this sense, it can exploit such freedoms as our constitutions give, but it cannot be its final goal to say: Yes, now we too are a body with rights, now we are present [in society] just like the Catholics and the Protestants. In such a situation, [Islam] would not achieve a status consistent with its inner nature; it would be in alienation from itself."
 

This alienation could be resolved only through the total Islamization of society. When for example a Muslim finds himself in a Western society, he can benefit from or exploit certain elements, but he can never identify himself with the non-Muslim citizen, because he does not find himself in a Muslim society.
 
Thus Cardinal Ratzinger saw clearly an essential difficulty of socio-political relations with the Muslim world, which comes from the totalizing conception of Islamic religion, which in turn is profoundly different from Christianity. For this reason, he insists in saying that we cannot try to project onto Islam the Christian vision of the relationship between politics and religion. This would be very difficult: Islam is a religion totally different from Christianity and Western society and this does not make coexistence easy.
 

In a closed-door seminar, held at Castel Gandolfo, September 1-2, 2005, the pope insisted on and stressed this same idea: the profound diversity between Islam and Christianity. On this occasion, he started from a theological point of view, taking into account the Islamic conception of revelation: the Koran "descended" upon Mohammad, it is not "inspired" to Mohammad. For this reason, a Muslim does not think himself authorized to interpret the Koran, but is tied to this text which emerged in Arabia in the 7th century. This brings us to the same conclusions as before: the absolute nature of the Koran makes dialogue all the more difficult, because there is very little room for interpretation, if at all.
 
As we can see, his thinking as cardinal extends into his vision as pontiff, which highlights the profound differences between Islam and Christianity.
 
On July 24 last year, during his stay in the Italian Aosta Valley region, he was asked if Islam can be described as a religion of peace, to which he replied: "I would not speak in generic terms. Certainly, Islam contains elements which are in favour of peace, as it contains other elements." Even if not explicitly, Benedict XVI suggests here that Islam suffers from ambiguity vis-à-vis violence, justifying it in various cases. And he added: "We must always strive to find the better elements." Another person asked him if terrorist attacks can be considered anti-Christian. His reply is clear-cut: "No, generally the intention seems to be much more general and not directed precisely at Christianity."
 
Dialogue between cultures is more fruitful than inter-religious dialogue
 
A month later in Cologne Pope Benedict had his first big encounter with representatives of Muslim communities. In a relatively long speech, he says: "I am certain that I echo your own thoughts when I bring up one of our concerns as we notice the spread of terrorism."
 
I like the way he involves Muslims here, telling them that we have the same concern. He then goes on to say: "I know that many of you have firmly rejected, also publicly, in particular any connection between your faith and terrorism and have condemned it."
 
Further on, he says: "Terrorism of any kind is a perverse and cruel [a word that he repeats 3 times] choice which shows contempt for the sacred right to life and undermines the very foundations of all civil coexistence." Then, again, he involves the Islamic world:  

"If together we can succeed in eliminating from hearts any trace of rancour, in resisting every form of intolerance and in opposing every manifestation of violence, we will turn back the wave of cruel fanaticism that endangers the lives of so many people and hinders progress towards world peace. The task is difficult but not impossible and the believer can accomplish this."
 

I liked very much the way he stressed "eliminating from hearts any trace of rancour": Benedict XVI has understood that one of the causes of terrorism is this sentiment of rancour. And further on:
 

"Dear friends, I am profoundly convinced that we must not yield to the negative pressures in our midst, but must affirm the values of mutual respect, solidarity and peace." And also:
 
"There is plenty of scope for us to act together in the service of fundamental moral values. The dignity of the person and the defence of the rights which that dignity confers must represent the goal of every social endeavour and of every effort to bring it to fruition."

 
And here we find a crucial sentence:
 

"This message is conveyed to us unmistakably by the quiet but clear voice of conscience. Only through recognition of the centrality of the person can a common basis for understanding be found, one which enables us to move beyond cultural conflicts and which neutralizes the disruptive power of ideologies."

Thus, even before religion, there is the voice of conscience and we must all fight for moral values, for the dignity of the person, the defence of rights.
 
Therefore, for Benedict XVI, dialogue must be based on the centrality of the person, which overrides both cultural and ideological contrasts. And I think that, getting under ideologies, religions can also be understood. This is one of the pillars of the pope's vision: it also explains why he united the Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue and the Council for Culture, surprising everyone. This choice derives from a profound vision and is not, as the press would have it, to "get rid" of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who headed the former council and who deserves much recognition. That may have been part of it, but it was not the purpose.
 
The essential idea is that dialogue with Islam and with other religions cannot be essentially a theological or religious dialogue, except in the broad terms of moral values; it must instead be a dialogue of cultures and civilizations. 

To finish reading this article go to Benedict XVI and Islam. Reproduced with permission of Asia News.

Samir Khalil Samir SJ is a professor of Islamic studies and of the history of Arab culture at the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. He is the founder of the Centre de Recherche Arabes Chrétiennes and president of the International Association for Christian Arabic Studies. In September of 2005 he participated, at Castel Gandolfo, in a study meeting with Benedict XVI on the concept of God in Islam. 

Samir Khalil Samir, SJ, is a doctor in oriental theology and Islamic studies and is the founder and director of the Centre de documentation et de recherches arabes chrétiennes (CEDRAC). He is also Professor...