Pell on Islam

In the June/July issue of First Things there appeared an important article by Sydney Catholic Archbishop George Pell. Entitled “Islam and Us” he examined the emerging of Islam and its place in the West, and how we should respond.

Unfortunately the article does not yet seem to be on the Internet, so I draw your attention to another article written by Pell. I do so because it is on the Net, and it is quite similar to the First Things article, and was probably the basis for it.

It appears on the Archdiocese of Sydney website and is dated 4 February 2006. Called “Islam and Western Democracies”, it makes the case that most Westerners are under-informed about Islam. Pell confesses that this was true of him as well: “September 11 was a wake-up call for me personally. I recognised that I had to know more about Islam… Although I had possessed a copy of the Koran for 30 years, I decided then to read this book for myself as a first step to adjudicating conflicting claims. And I recommend that you too read this sacred text of the Muslims, because the challenge of Islam will be with us for the remainder of our lives – at least..”

He recognises that Islam is a living, growing religion, and is multifaceted and diverse. And he acknowledges that there are many differences in practice and belief. There are optimistic assessments of Islam to be found. And there are also more pessimistic evaluations. Pell argues that despite the wide variety of thinking concerning Islam, there is much to be concerned about.

For example, the lack of freedom of conscience and intolerance to other religions is a major worry: “Considered strictly on its own terms, Islam is not a tolerant religion and its capacity for far-reaching renovation is severely limited.” The West of course is not perfect but it does make room for plurality in religion and freedom of religious expression.

Says Pell, “Moderation and democracy have been regular partners in Western history, but have not entered permanent and exclusive matrimony and there is little reason for this to be better in the Muslim world, as the election results in Iran last June and the elections in Palestine in January reminded us.”

And there is concern about the Koran itself: “In my own reading of the Koran, I began to note down invocations to violence. There are so many of them, however, that I abandoned this exercise after 50 or 60 or 70 pages.” He acknowledges that Koranic interpretation can vary, but the many verses devoted to violence against non-Muslims is deeply problematic.

And despite many claims to the contrary, “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.”

He continues, “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.”

Besides the imperialistic nature of Islam, there is the question of whether it is capable of reform: “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. What is the capacity for theological development within Islam?”

Then there is the demographic problem, in which Western nations are slowly being depopulated, while Muslim peoples, because of large families, continue to expand: “It is not just a question of having more children, but of rediscovering reasons to trust in the future.”

In spite of the many concerns, there is a place for dialogue and discussion. And this discussion must be based on a careful understanding of what Islam is all about, and in our case, what Christianity is all about: “Both Muslims and Christians are helped by accurately identifying what are core and enduring doctrines, by identifying what issues can be discussed together usefully, by identifying those who are genuine friends, seekers after truth and cooperation and separating them from those who only appear to be friends.”

Despite this cordial ending, Pell was criticised fairly heavily in Muslim circles, and by the PC crowd. Yet his words bear a careful hearing. In times like this we must be better informed about the faith of Islam.

[795 words]

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