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Theme: George Cardinal Pell and Islam

March 5, 2007

Acton Institute: Is There Only Secular Democracy?

To re-found democracy on our need for others, and our need to make a gift of ourselves to them, is to bring a whole new form of democracy into being. Democratic personalism is perhaps the last alternative to secular democracy still possible within Western culture as it is presently configured.

From outside Western culture, of course, come other possibilities. It is still very early in the piece, of course, but the small but growing conversion of native Westerners within Western societies to Islam carries the suggestion that Islam may provide in the twenty-first century the attraction which communism provided in the twentieth, both for those who are alienated or embittered on the one hand, and for those who seek order or justice on the other.

Ignatius Insight: Compelled By Faith | An Interview with George Cardinal Pell

Q: You have said Islam may provide the same attraction in the twenty-first century as communism did during the twentieth century. Can you explain how you arrived at this thought? What are the positive alternatives?

Cardinal Pell: I wasn’t suggesting for a minute that Islam and Communism were similar movements. Communism was explicitly atheistic and generally oppressive of all forms of religion. Islam is one of the great religions. Communism was a Johnny-come-lately and it has come and gone. Islam has been with us for 1400 years.

My paper was about the vacuum at the heart of secular society and the emptiness there. What I was saying was that just as Communism filled that in the twentieth century for a percentage of people, so might Islam – for good reasons and for less good reasons. For those who are radically discontented and inclined to violence, the terrorist cells of Islam might prove attractive. That will be a small percentage of people, we hope. But the strength and sense of purpose, community, cohesion, the fact that it is a very strong religion, could be attractive to many people in the West who are looking for a sense of purpose, looking for a sense of direction, something to hold their lives together, something to inspire a sense of self-discipline.

I was asked by an Islamic leader what I thought was the basis of Islam’s appeal. I said to him that Muslims have a clear simple message. The five fundamental principles are quite clear. They also have many people who believe quite strongly. I think that it is a religion of strength and it’s probably more attractive to men rather than to women – although some women are converting to Islam also.

George Cardinal Pell: Islam and Western Democracies

The predominant grammatical form in which jihad is used in the Koran carries the sense of fighting or waging war. A different form of the verb in Arabic means “striving” or “struggling”, and English translations sometimes use this form as a way of euphemistically rendering the Koran’s incitements to war against unbelievers. But in any case, the so-called “verses of the sword” (sura 9:5 and 9:36), coming as they do in what scholars generally believe to be one of the last suras revealed to Muhammad, are taken to abrogate a large number of earlier verses on the subject (over 140, according to one radical website). The suggestion that jihad is primarily a matter of spiritual striving is also contemptuously rejected by some Islamic writers on the subject. One writer warns that “the temptation to reinterpret both text and history to suit ‘politically correct’ requirements is the first trap to be avoided”, before going on to complain that “there are some Muslims today, for instance, who will convert jihad into a holy bath rather than a holy war, as if it is nothing more than an injunction to cleanse yourself from within”.

The abrogation of many of the Meccan suras by the later Medina suras affects Islam’s relations with those of other faiths, particularly Christians and Jews. The Christian and Jewish sources underlying much of the Koran are an important basis for dialogue and mutual understanding, although there are difficulties. Perhaps foremost among them is the understanding of God. It is true that Christianity, Judaism and Islam claim Abraham as their Father and the God of Abraham as their God. I accept with reservations the claim that Jews, Christians and Muslims worship one god (Allah is simply the Arabic word for god) and there is only one true God available to be worshipped! That they worship the same god has been disputed, not only by Catholics stressing the triune nature of God, but also by some evangelical Christians and by some Muslims. It is difficult to recognise the God of the New Testament in the God of the Koran, and two very different concepts of the human person have emerged from the Christian and Muslim understandings of God. Think, for example, of the Christian understanding of the person as a unity of reason, freedom and love, and the way these attributes characterise a Christian’s relationship with God. This has had significant consequences for the different cultures that Christianity and Islam have given rise to, and for the scope of what is possible within them. But these difficulties could be an impetus to dialogue, not a reason for giving up on it.

The history of relations between Muslims on the one hand and Christians and Jews on the other does not always offer reasons for optimism in the way that some people easily assume. The claims of Muslim tolerance of Christian and Jewish minorities are largely mythical, as the history of Islamic conquest and domination in the Middle East, the Iberian peninsula and the Balkans makes abundantly clear. In the territory of modern-day Spain and Portugal, which was ruled by Muslims from 716 and not finally cleared of Muslim rule until the surrender of Granada in 1491 (although over half the peninsula had been reclaimed by 1150, and all of the peninsula except the region surrounding Granada by 1300), Christians and Jews were tolerated only as dhimmis, subject to punitive taxation, legal discrimination, and a range of minor and major humiliations. If a dhimmi harmed a Muslim, his entire community would forfeit protection and be freely subject to pillage, enslavement and murder. Harsh reprisals, including mutilations, deportations and crucifixions, were imposed on Christians who appealed for help to the Christian kings or who were suspected of having converted to Islam opportunistically. Raiding parties were sent out several times every year against the Spanish kingdoms in the north, and also against France and Italy, for loot and slaves. The caliph in Andalusia maintained an army of tens of thousand of Christian slaves from all over Europe, and also kept a harem of captured Christian women. The Jewish community in the Iberian peninsula suffered similar sorts of discriminations and penalties, including restrictions on how they could dress. A pogrom in Granada in 1066 annihilated the Jewish population there and killed over 5000 people. Over the course of its history Muslim rule in the peninsula was characterised by outbreaks of violence and fanaticism as different factions assumed power, and as the Spanish gradually reclaimed territory.

Arab rule in Spain and Portugal was a disaster for Christians and Jews, as was Turkish rule in the Balkans. The Ottoman conquest of the Balkans commenced in the mid-fifteenth century, and was completed over the following two hundred years. Churches were destroyed or converted into mosques, and the Jewish and Christians populations became subject to forcible relocation and slavery. The extension or withdrawal of protection depended entirely on the disposition of the Ottoman ruler of the time. Christians who refused to apostatize were taxed and subject to conscript labour. Where the practice of the faith was not strictly prohibited, it was frustrated—for example, by making the only legal market day Sunday. But violent persecution was also a constant shadow. One scholar estimates that up to the Greek War of Independence in 1828, the Ottomans executed eleven Patriarchs of Constantinople, nearly one hundred bishops and several thousand priests, deacons and monks. Lay people were prohibited from practising certain professions and trades, even sometimes from riding a horse with a saddle, and right up until the early eighteenth century their adolescent sons lived under the threat of the military enslavement and forced conversion which provided possibly one million janissary soldiers to the Ottomans during their rule. Under Byzantine rule the peninsula enjoyed a high level of economic productivity and cultural development. This was swept away by the Ottoman conquest and replaced with a general and protracted decline in productivity.

The history of Islam’s detrimental impact on economic and cultural development at certain times and in certain places returns us to the nature of Islam itself. For those of a pessimistic outlook this is probably the most intractable problem in considering Islam and democracy….


Every great nation and religion has shadows and indeed crimes in their histories. This is certainly true of Catholicism and all Christian denominations. We should not airbrush these out of history, but confront them and then explain our present attitude to them.

These are also legitimate requests for our Islamic partners in dialogue. Do they believe that the peaceful suras of the Koran are abrogated by the verses of the sword? Is the programme of military expansion (100 years after Muhammad’s death Muslim armies reached Spain and India) to be resumed when possible?

Do they believe that democratic majorities of Muslims in Europe would impose Sharia law? Can we discuss Islamic history and even the hermeneutical problems around the origins of the Koran without threats of violence?

Obviously some of these questions about the future cannot be answered, but the issues should be discussed. Useful dialogue means that participants grapple with the truth and in this issue of Islam and the West the stakes are too high for fundamental misunderstandings….

Catholic News: Pell affirms commitment to dialogue with Muslims

Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell has defended himself against accusations from Muslim leaders that he is “ill-informed” following the publication on his website of a speech on Islam delivered to US Catholic business leaders.

In a media statement, he said that isolated suggestions that he is uninformed on Islam “are clichés, smokescreens to distract, to divert attention rather than address basic issues which need to be discussed”.

Commenting on Cardinal Pell’s speech, Keysar Trad, founder of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, said this is not the first time the Cardinal has made “ill-informed comments”.

The comments, Mr Trad said, “seem to be totally subjective, an off-the-cuff dismissal of the teachings of one of the world’s great religions.”

“I think there will be many Catholics out there who’ll be cringing when they hear these comments, and they’ll be saying ‘what happened to the legacy of Pope John Paul II?” he said, referring to the late Pontiff’s commitment to interfaith dialogue.

Cardinal Pell says that Islamic terrorism is not a “figment of anyone’s imagination” and the history of Christian-Muslim relations “is full of conflict”.

“I continue to be completely committed to dialogue with Muslims, to supporting moderate forces on all sides,” he said. “We need a lot of continuing dialogue, based on truth, history and the current situation.”

From an interview with John L. Allen, Jr., National Catholic Reporter

You said that you would accept “with reservations” that Christians and Muslims both worship the same God. What do you mean?

We’re both monotheists, we both believe there is only one God to be adored. That’s an ontological point. Another notion is to what extent our concepts of God are compatible.

For example, Christians believe God is Triune and Muslims don’t.

That’s right. Also, whether God is love. To what extent there’s redemption through suffering. Some of the things you mere mentioning, about the difference between individualism and corporatism, or the state. An enormous difference follows from the presence or absence of the Incarnation.

In inter-faith settings, would you recommend against use of this formula that we are common believers in the one God?

No, I don’t think so. An initial reason I wouldn’t dissuade people from that is because John Paul II used it. I wouldn’t recommend against it, but I know that it’s disputed. It’s disputed by some Muslims and by some Christians. Ontologically, there’s only God. It’s just to what extent you can match the different understandings.

You also said there are different concepts of the human person, and you expressed the Christian concept as a unique intersection of freedom, love and intelligence. How do you understand the Muslim concept?

I’m not nearly as well informed on that side of it as I am the Christian side, but I’m happy to say something. I don’t know to what extent they have a concept of conscience like we do at all. It’s tied up with their understanding of the Koran, which they believe is directly the word of God as dictated by Gabriel. The pope has made this point. Whereas with our Scriptures, we recognize that there is a human author who worked under the power of the Spirit. Although I’ve gotten into trouble for saying this, there are errors in Scripture. Not religious errors, but misunderstandings of geography and other matters. Even when there’s no separation of church and state, that makes a difference.

So one problem might be whether a Muslim anthropology can account for the intersection of reason and faith?

That’s a nice way of putting it. It’s a question, and I’d be very interested in hearing an educated Muslim talk about that.

You’re raising questions rather than proposing definitive conclusions?

Exactly. I know enough to be a nuisance. I’m continuing to read and talk with people, and I think this is a legitimate question.

You said, “Considered on its own terms, Islam is not a tolerant religion.” What did you mean?

I’d be thinking about the general historical and political record of Islam. Now you might say that for a lot of our history, we weren’t particularly tolerant either. To that objection, I’d say, ‘Show me where they’re tolerant.’

But you seem to want to say that Christian intolerance is a distortion of Christianity, but Muslim intolerance is not a distortion of Islam.

The million dollar question is whether they are distortions of Islam. I’m not sure. It’s difficult to find periods of tolerance in Islam. I’m not saying they’re not there, but a good deal of what is asserted is mythical.


Oriana Fallaci and others warn that Europe may become an outpost of Islamic civilization. Do you think that goes too far?

I do. I don’t think that’s the more immediate danger at all. The greater danger is that there would be white fascist reaction. I think both dangers are remote at the moment, but between the two, the danger of an anti-Muslim reaction is greater. I don’t think Europe is going to go Muslim at all, but I would be frightened of the turmoil if things got out of hand.

What about Europe as a religious smorgasbord, upon which Christianity can lay no special claim?

I think it will continue to lay a significant cultural and historical claim. To what extent it will be a vital religious force for a lot of people, I don’t know. I sometimes compare Europe today to the Roman Empire as the Christians were coming to power. In those days, people were lapsing into Christianity, and now they’re lapsing out of it. For a long time, there was fierce struggle among various brands of Christianity as well as the old paganism, remnants which survived in the mystery religions and all that sort of stuff. It was a religious smorgasbord. … [The rise of Islam] might in fact be working against all this. It might be regenerating in people a sense that we need something to believe in.


What kind of dialogue do we need with Islam?

First of all, we must dialogue with Islam and Islamic leaders. I’ve been part of the Australian delegation for inter-faith meetings in Yogyakarta and Subu. I participate in these dialogues in Sydney. I’m committed to the dialogues. It’s nearly always better when we talk together. Some people say it would be more productive to talk to them about the role of religious people in society, things of that ilk, rather than attempt to discuss theological differences in the Koran and so on. Tony Abbot is the Minister for Health in Australia, and he attracted a little bit of attention because he said he’d be quite willing to talk with hardline Islamists. In the unlikely event it was ever a possibility, so would I. I’ve listed some of the issues which are close to the bone that I’d like to be able to talk with Islamic leaders about, and there are one or two groups in Australia who have said they’re going to prepare a response and them come talk to me about these things. We also have to discuss things they’d be interested in talking about. We should try to talk to one another. We need some sort of substantial agenda.

Many people have detected an evolution from John Paul II to Benedict XVI with regard to this question of what kind of dialogue we should have with Muslims, with a more challenging tone on terrorism and religious freedom. Do you see that?

I do. I think he’s introduced a key term: reciprocity. I think that makes good sense. It’s definitely more explicit, and that’s to the good.

Cybercast News Service: Violent Muslim Reaction Justifies Pope’s Stated Concerns, Cardinal Says

As the Vatican continues trying to placate Muslims angered by Pope Benedict XVI’s recent remarks, a senior Catholic leader has said the violent response justified the concern the pope had been expressing in the first place.

Citing threats of violence against the pope in Somalia and Iraq, Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell said “the violent reactions … showed the link for many Islamists between religion and violence, their refusal to respond to criticism with rational arguments, but only with demonstrations, threats and actual violence.”

The Australian: Muslims are too sensitive, says Pell

The Muslim community is overly sensitive and is the only migrant group to have plotted violence against Australia, Catholic Archbishop Cardinal George Pell has claimed.

Dr Pell said Muslim leaders needed to develop more appropriate responses to criticism.

“In a democratic society, every group is criticised – Prime Minister (John) Howard said quite rightly last year that if Catholics rioted in Australia every time they were criticised, there would be regular riots,” Dr Pell said.

“It’s not appropriate that Muslims regularly reply to criticism with insults, denigration and evasions while avoiding the point of issue, and unfortunately we’ve seen too much of this from some Muslim public personalities.”

The comments came during Dr Pell’s appearance on a panel about Muslims and non-Muslims in Australia as part of the national deliberative poll.

Dr Pell, who began studying Islam after the attacks of September 11, 2001 on the US, said he had met “many wonderful Muslims”.

“But there are Islamists who are at war with the Western world – most of the victims of these extreme Muslims are fellow Muslims,” he said. “So its important to distinguish accurately your real friends from your enemies and from those who only seem to be friends.”

See also:
Archdiocese of Sydney: George Cardinal Pell (official)
Cardinal Rating: George Cardinal Pell

Dhimmi Watch: Dhimmitude in Australia: Cardinal Pell to host Muslim cleric at Cathedral Interfaith Prayer
Dhimmi Watch: Anti-dhimmitude from Australia’s Cardinal Pell
Andrew G. Bostom: Cardinal Questions for Muslims


From → Themes

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