Some of my best friends are Muslims. So I was glad to read of the respect we should have for them and their beliefs, as outlined by Pope Francis in Evangelium Gaudium. But many people have a serious concern about fundamentalism, within our society or elsewhere. The impression that Islam is, in some way, structured to impose its tenets, forcibly, if need be, wherever it has power is widespread. The pacific Muslim is merely waiting for his opportunity.
Some years ago I heard a heated debate on the radio between a Muslim and a Christian. To reinforce his points, the Christian reminded his opponent that, since Islam started in the seventh century, we should not be surprised that it was 700 years behind Christianity. It was a debating point of course, and the Muslim was not pleased. But I was reminded recently by a contributor on Secondsightblog, who asked if there was any form of reprehensible Muslim activity which could not be paralleled within Christianity. No one took up the challenge.
You may remember that Archbishop Rowan Williams sparked a big row in 2008 when he suggested that some aspects of Sharia law might be used in Britain. His defence, that we accepted aspects of Jewish and Catholic law, did not quench the fury. You will not need me to document the Church’s history of imposing its principles on secular cultures. The Irish and Spanish constitutions were recent examples – and mild when compared with Pope Boniface in 1302: “We declare announce and define, that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff.” We held that what we required was right and good – just like the Muslims. We imposed our principles because we could.
We shuddered recently at the progress of a cruel Muslim invasion in Iraq. How many innocents were killed by these foul people? Unbelievably, the two factions shared the same religion. Try the Albigensian Crusade in the 13th century. In one incident the entire population of Béziers was slaughtered. The Crusaders were assured by an abbot that the faithful would not die because God would know his own.
But perhaps this was a blip in true Christian values – we would not, of course, sustain for long our intolerance of others. Or would we? St John Chrysostom was, and remains, a Father of the Church yet he was a fierce anti-semite who would have supercharged the Nuremberg rallies. The Third Lateran Council (1179) ruled that no Christian ought to be servant to a Jew, and that Christian evidence should always overrule Jewish evidence. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ruled that Jews should be distinguished by their clothing, forbade them from appearing in public at Eastertide. And some 50 bulls were to follow over the next 500 years, disadvantaging Jews in a whole range of ways. Undoubtedly the soil of the Holocaust was well composted by our holy forefathers.
Does that make you a little uncomfortable? And I haven’t even mentioned the pious Spaniards sprinkling holy water on the slave ships to baptise their captive passengers. Indeed the American bishops at the time of the Civil War were, as a group, notably pragmatic rather than moral over the slavery issue. Even the Jesuits, who had done such marvellous work in rescuing indigenous slaves from cruel secular masters in Latin America, were ready to use African slaves in their bastions of true Christianity in Maryland, and to sell them on when they were no longer economically viable.
Our principle of the freedom of conscience is laudable, but it was a rare commodity under the Inquisition. Pope John Paul declared that the Holy See “has always been vigorous in defending freedom of conscience and religious liberty.” Unless some strong qualifications to this statement went unreported there are a few heretics who would raise a scorched eyebrow at that.
But look at the issue of the hadith (official rule), proclaimed by the Prophet, that Muslim apostates are liable to execution. That is surely beyond the pale of any decent religion. Let’s see what Aquinas had to say about Christian apostates: “There are unbelievers who at some time have accepted the faith and professed it, such as heretics and all apostates: such should be submitted even to bodily compulsion, that they may fulfil what they have promised, and hold what they, at one time, received.”
We have to acknowledge that the great St Thomas, on whom we lay such authority, taught a Christian version of this hadith. We may argue that his stricture was only aimed at Christians who had been unfaithful. But many Muslims will tell you that their hadith was aimed at apostates, who might betray the group – which, at that time, was small and surrounded by enemies. It’s a better excuse than St Thomas had in the flush triumphalism of the Middle Ages.
I do not have the slightest sympathy with Muslim fundamentalists. But I abhor them, not because they are Muslim, but because they are fundamentalists. The only excuse I can conjure up for fundamentalists, either Christian, Muslim or secular, is some evidence that the common motive is fear. It takes some degree of confidence to live with uncertainty. Unchallengeable ideologies can comfort the nervous mind.
Fortunately the Catholic Church had the strength to change in many ways, precisely because we accept that our impoverished grasp of truth must develop. But if we should wish to condemn the extreme Muslim, we would do well to make an act of contrition first.