Interfaith Dialogue after the Murder of Father Jacques Hamel

A year ago this week, a French Catholic Priest named Father Jacques Hamel was murdered while saying mass in the parish of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, in northwest France, by two young men pledging allegiance to Islamic State.

Shortly after the event, there was a strong rally of religious leaders, groups and people who refused to legitimise hatred, terror and Muslim vilification across Europe.

The leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, issued a statement about the event, citing "absurd violence" which needed to be condemned along with "all forms of hatred."

Not for the first time in his pontificate, he went on to say that the world is in the grip of a "piecemeal war." Father Hamel, he said, was one its latest victims.

Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois responded to the murder of Father Hamel by encouraging Catholics to "overcome hatred that comes in their heart" and not to "enter the game" of ISIS that "wants to set children of the same family in opposition to each other." The French bishops reacted in much the same way, calling on Christians to resist feelings of vengeance and hatred and instead help build a civilisation of peace, love and acceptance.

Scenes of interfaith solidarity could be seen in France, Italy and Britain during the last weekend of July.

In France, the Catholic cathedrals in Lille, Calais and the Basilica of St. Denis outside Paris saw Muslims fill the front rows in remembrance vigils and during Sunday Mass. In Italy, churches also welcomed Muslims to Sunday Mass; three Imams attended a service at the St. Maria Church in Rome's Trastevere neighbourhood. In Great Britain, similar scenes were seen at Westminster Cathedral in London, as Rabbis, Imams and Priests also gathered for an interfaith vigil on Sunday morning.

However, these expressions of solidarity were not welcomed by all.

#PasMonPape (Not My Pope), a hashtag created shortly after the Pope's comments, is reported by BBC News to have gained so much traction in the first hours of its appearance that it temporarily became the number one trend in France. The hashtag was one of the ways in which people expressed their disapproval at what could be seen as the Pope's failure to take a strong stance against Islam and its connection with violence.

An article written shortly after the events by Austen Ivereigh raised a number of thought-provoking points on the varied responses to the murder of Father Hamel.

In comparison to the now common flood of indignant responses to the killing of innocent people by violent extremists, Ivereigh examined the reasoning behind what appeared to be an "almost trite" response from Pope Francis and the French bishops. Ivereigh focused on what he believed was an effort from the Pope to deny ISIS the legitimacy they seek - that is, that Islam is waging a war on the West and on Christianity and that, consequently, a clash of civilisations is inevitable.

Ivereigh also commended Pope Francis's and Cardinal Vingt-Trois's refusal, in the first instance, to describe Father Hamel as a martyr. Ivereigh stated that the Pope's and the Cardinal's instincts were right because just at the moment when the responses to the murder were most vicious, the use of the term "martyrdom" would most likely have been used in a weaponised form against the perpetrators of the crime, or to fuel cultural division and interreligious hostility. Essentially, the use of the term in that particular moment would have betrayed its very meaning, which is that of being a "witness" to one's faith - something Father Hamel tried to do throughout his life.

The question therefore begs: How can this civilisation of peace come about so that the calls of the Pope and bishops do not vanish into thin air? Will the voices of those who announce the inevitability of a clash of civilisations speak louder than those who call for a civilisation of peace?

Challenging the Clash of Civilisations Theory using Soft Power

Since the 9/11 attacks, the Western media has frequently referred to American theorist Samuel P. Huntington's "Clash of Civilisations" theory in public debate. Huntington's idea, first developed in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article, that post-Cold War conflict would be dominated not by ideological but by cultural and religious contention seemed, to many, the best way of making sense of religiously motivated acts of terrorism on a global scale.

Despite criticism by many scholars that Huntington had misinterpreted the history of civilisations, his prediction of the kind of intercultural and interreligious clashes in the twenty-first century continues to make his theory a viable starting point for analyses of contemporary events.

One of the Catholic Church's organs of information that has challenged Huntington's thesis and has been searching for ways to de-escalate interfaith and intercultural tension, is the bi-weekly Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica. The journal's "semi-official" status allows it to circumvent boundaries imposed on official organs of Catholic information and still reflect the views of the highest Vatican authorities. Its articles are overseen by the Press Office of the Holy See before publication.

La Civilta Cattolica has extensively covered the development of Islamic violent extremism since 9/11, and continues to do so through research that analyses the impact of Islamic terrorism in the West and in Islamic countries.

The journal calls for interreligious and intercultural dialogue as it seeks non-violent solutions to violent extremism. It contributes to the current literature on this unconventional and under-explored method of countering violence. One of the bigger questions the Jesuits ask is whether the persistence of local and international acts of terrorism can be linked to what they see as self-defeating hard-counterterrorism policies of the past fifteen years. According to the Jesuits of La Civilta Cattolica, the failure of the War on Terror to stamp out Islamic terrorist violence suggests that violent extremism cannot be defeated through hard security measures alone.

The way La Civilta Cattolica addresses the failure of hard power to end terrorism is by advocating an alternative "soft-counterterrorist" approach based on interreligious and intercultural dialogue. In their arguments against the use of hard power, such as that seen in the military and police interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Jesuits champion the use of soft power, a concept developed by American political scientist Joseph Nye to describe the ability to attract and coopt rather than coerce as a means of persuasion. The journal views the collaborative efforts of peace-seeking Christians and Muslims in the Western and Islamic world as a powerful weapon against the challenge of violent extremism. It also considers the improvement of Christian-Muslim relations as a useful tool in countering the kind of extremist propaganda that calls for a twenty-first century "religious war."

In a 2005 article on interfaith dialogue and cooperation entitled "Il Dialogo tra Cristiani e Musulmani in Europa [Dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Europe]," La Civilta Cattolica writer Edmond Farahian S.J. suggests two points of discussion worthy of attention: preparing the territory for improved Christian-Muslim relations and promoting the positive aspects of what both religions have in common. The first point focuses on challenging Westerners' preconceived ideas about Muslims and avoiding superficial assumptions that foster hatred and resentment. The categorisation of Muslims as an alienated community unable to adapt to a democratic environment and unwilling to respect liberty of conscience is, according to Farahian, a major obstacle to cooperative efforts to defeat violent extremism.

Negative representations of Muslims can be found in current narratives on Islamic terrorism that link "home-grown" terrorist violence to the alienation, lack of integration and unemployment of Muslims as well as to the general failure of multiculturalism in Europe. In other words, Western Muslims are a potential "enemy within" which can be indoctrinated, or radicalised, into terrorism often through extremist madrasas, mosques or the internet.

This representation of Muslims reinforces the belief that punitive hard counterterrorism strategies are justifiable and that the only way to defeat violent extremism is to use force. In this view, non-violent alternatives such as dialogue and compromise appear counterproductive.

Farahian's work, consistent with the pro-dialogue approach of La Civilta Cattolica, not only denounces forceful punitive strategies as ineffective but sees Western Muslims as the key to defeating violent extremism and establishing peaceful coexistence.

Farahian discusses how Muslims living in Europe can be better integrated into a Western system that allows for religious freedom yet may not permit certain traditional customs that are at odds with European laws.

First, he raises some related contentious issues at the heart of contemporary cultural and political debates in Europe. While the practice, claimed only by a small minority, of violent extremism is one of the significant causes of friction between Westerners and Muslims in Europe, Farahian touches on other local issues of contention. For instance, he focuses on the creation of religious schools unrecognised by European states, citing the example of an Islamic school in the Italian city of Milan which endorsed a curriculum completely unrelated to the Italian school system. He clarifies that Muslims should be entitled to their own private schools, yet these should follow a curriculum that is related to the guidelines of national education. Failing this, according to Farahian, could lead to a further "ghettoization" of new generations of Muslims rather than to integration.

Within this discussion of how the education system can be better suited to promote intercultural understanding, Farahian introduces his second point: bringing intermediaries into play. He emphasises the need to prepare cultural mediators to facilitate better relations between Westerners and Muslims. These will not only facilitate the formative experiences of young people in schools, but may be used in the context of the wider European community according to the numbers of Muslims residing in specific areas.

According to Farahian, these cultural mediators would expose Europeans to difficulties faced by Muslims as well as encourage Islamic migrants to know what is expected of them in order to avoid needless conflict. His ultimate goal is to promote an enriched, preventative and not repressive European multicultural society that focuses on respect for liberty of conscience, respect for the dignity of the human person and reciprocity.

On a religious level, Farahian believes that the training of Islamic religious leaders is paramount to the future of Western Muslims. He argues that Imam and Ulema preaching in European mosques should be bilingual and should actively help their followers to coexist within the West; for him this is a prerequisite for the creation of better relations between Christians and Muslims in the West.

In addition, he suggests the foundation of a confederation of all the great European mosques that could be used as a means of a more centralised form of communication with other religions. In the context of what is often seen as a lack of central authority in Islam, Farahian's suggestion to establish a confederation of mosques that, he hopes, will make clearer distinctions between violent and non-violent interpretations of Islam, emerges as a method of countering the propaganda of Islamic terrorists.

However, the potential Islamic fear that this may in fact be a way for the West to better control Islam, or worse, to create a diluted Islam that is in line with Western models, is also considered in his work. He therefore emphasises that the aim of this initiative is to allow Islam to be freely practiced according to its true principles, without interference from those who seek to manipulate the religion for violent ends.

Farahian's fears that his initiatives may be seen by Muslims as new Western attempts to colonise the East is an evident reminder that soft power comes with limitations. Muslims must find these ideas appealing and non-invasive before their implementation is championed.

The Regensburg Lecture: Relativism and the Rediscovery of European Christian Identity

The calls from French bishops to set aside feelings of vengeance and to strive for a civilisation of peace build on guidelines laid down not only by Pope Francis, but by Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, as well as the current President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran.

These prominent Catholic figures have all spoken of the need for Christians and Muslims to "know each other" and build on common ground in order to develop an attitude of mutual respect. In order for this to happen, however, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have argued that a rediscovery of Christian identity rooted in the unity of faith and reason needs to take place. This rediscovery of Christian heritage must be accompanied by a conscious act of Christian self-criticism and self-awareness and by a caution towards what Enrico Cattaneo S.J. calls "the ills of modern society"

In "L'Invito di Benedetto XVI all'Autocritica [Pope Benedict's Invitation to Self-criticism]," published in 2008, Cattaneo lists modern relativism's denial of objective truth, ethical relativism and the Western crisis of morality as some of the so-called "ills" of modernity that often emerge in the work of both John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger (in his role as both Cardinal and Pope). Among these, he frames relativism as an obstacle to the improvement of Christian-Muslim relations.

According to Ratzinger, relativism has become one of the great challenges of the twenty-first century. An excerpt from his speech at the April 2005 Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice Mass (the Mass celebrated before his election as Pope), captures what he believed was at stake:

"How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves - flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth.

"Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labelled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be 'tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine', seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires."

In "Il Relativismo Moderno [Modern Relativism]," published in the same year, La Civilta Cattolica writer Giuseppe De Rosa S.J. framed modern relativism as a radical challenge to Christian morality and faith, for it undermines its rational premises, namely the philosophy of being (metaphysics), the existence of an objective truth, the existence of natural law, the existence of a triune God and the existence of divine Revelation.

In the past sixteen years, the journal has attempted to elucidate this modern day negation of the fundamental elements of the Christian faith. With respect to addressing ills such as violent extremism, it has tried to communicate that, without a rediscovery of Christian identity rooted in the unity of faith and reason, Western society is paradoxically at greater odds with the Muslim world and thus closes off possibilities of working together to counter terrorist violence through dialogue.

While the Church has generally opposed Huntington's "clash of civilisations" theory, it nonetheless believes that if the West does not re-evaluate and re-embrace its Christian roots, the instances of conflict with Islam will become more frequent.

In Benedict's infamous and largely misunderstood 2006 Regensburg lecture, the two concepts of self-criticism and relativism come together into one discussion about the rediscovery of the unity of faith and reason. What Benedict attempted to convey at Regensburg was that a West which has become incapable of considering the religious dimension in discourse - whether it be of a political, cultural or social nature - is a West which finds itself unable to properly interact with the Islamic people, who base much of their thinking on religious principles and the guidance of spiritual teachers. In the same way, one could say, an Islamic person who excludes rationality from his or her interaction with members of a Western culture will find it impossible to engage with members of this culture, let alone have a respectful dialogue with them.

In his address, Benedict began his analysis of rationality by emphasising the good which modern reason, the Enlightenment and scientific method have brought to the West. However, the lecture asserted that if reason is reduced to the empirically verifiable, and Christianity to an irrelevancy, then humanity risks being ruled by subjectivity. The danger, as seen by Benedict, is that through this subjectivity - or relativism - "ethics" risks losing its power. He asserts that questions of origin and destiny, of religion and ethics, have no place within collective reason as defined by science and are therefore relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of experience, what he or she considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective conscience becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical.

In essence, the Pope was drawing attention to the dangers posed by a rationality divorced from faith in the West and by a faith separated from reason in Islam.

Refusing Revenge

Here the essence of Catholic thought on what has been defined as "soft-counterterrorism" comes together. La Civilta Cattolica and the papacies of John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Francis suggest that there is a possibility for the supposed clash of civilizations to turn into a dialogue between civilizations. The lens through which they see this happening consists of a new, balanced unification of the concepts of faith and reason that reside at the core of both Christian and Islamic civilizations. They emphasise that the West faces the same challenge as Islam, in that it has lost sight of the unity between a sense of religion and of rationality that complement each other and work together to build a balanced character. For this reason, the Westerner finds it difficult to be self-reflexive and develop that self-understanding needed to progress to an inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue with Islam.

The Jesuits of La Civilta Cattolica also warn that the consideration of a unification of faith and reason, while leading to a stronger sense of Christian identity, should not lead to a comparison of which religion is better, but should encourage believers to cooperate in the battle against the common enemy of violent extremism. It should, first of all, encourage an awareness of the true Christian spirit, a spirit which recognises that Christians are always unable to live their religion fully and are therefore unfaithful to it.

For this reason, the Christian faith requires its followers to be in a continuous conversion to God, because they must be aware that their human nature renders them inadequate to live their religion to the full.

Here, an excerpt from Joseph Ratzinger's first book as Pope Benedict XVI, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, provides a fitting observation. Speaking of the Christian roots of Europe, and of the claim that the mention of such roots might offend the feelings of the many non-Christians living in Europe, Pope Benedict asserts:

"Whose identity is offended by this? The Muslims, who so often tend to be mentioned in this context, feel threatened not by the foundations of our Christian morality, but by the cynicism of a secularised culture that denies its own foundations."

The encounter between Christians and Muslims following the murder of Father Hamel took place in churches and cathedrals across Europe. Those who participated in the commemorative Masses did so in the name of non-violence and in the rejection of revenge. The Christians present did so by clinging to a religious tradition that has had its own history of engagement with force but has come to teach and to strongly support, particularly in the twenty-first century, the way of coexistence, dialogue and peace.

The Muslims gravitated to Churches because they knew that within them a message of unity, not division, was being preached. Amid a time when belief in an inevitable clash of civilisations seems rife, encounters such as this demonstrate that hope for the construction of a culture of peace between Islamic culture and the Christian West has not been extinguished.