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The Universal in the Particular. The Oasis Approach to the Encounter with Islam

Cardinal Scola with Jawad al-Khoei in Milan, 2013 [photo: Oasis]

Interfaith and intercultural dialogue, métissage, immigration. In an interview with writer Luca Doninelli, Cardinal Scola illustrates the themes and the approach of the Oasis Foundation, which he founded in 2004

Last update: 2021-11-05 15:24:34

Luca Doninelli’s interview with Cardinal Scola, revised for Oasis by Martino Diez

 

The Oasis Foundation, which you created in 2004, works to promote understanding between Christians and Muslims in the global world, a theme which seemed to have disappeared from the public space in Italy with the pandemic, but which returned emphatically to the fore with Pope Francis’s trip to Iraq. Does Oasis have a specific approach to the theme of dialogue? 

 

I would begin with Pope Francis’s trip to Iraq in March. That visit, which it is no exaggeration to call historic, is part of a process of constant attention on the Muslim world. To mention just one figure, since he became Pope, Francis has visited eleven countries that have a majority or a strong Muslim presence: the Holy Land (Jordan and the Palestinian Authority), Turkey and Albania in 2014, Bosnia and the Central African Republic in 2015, Azerbaijan in 2016, Egypt and Bangladesh in 2017, the Emirates and Morocco in 2019 and, as we said, Iraq in 2021, not to mention that he has already announced that a trip to Lebanon is a priority. These figures help us understand the extent to which this theme is felt by the Pope; and naturally so, since, together, Christians and Muslims make up at least fifty-five per cent of the world’s population.

 

Establishing a personal relationship was—it seems to me—the first step. This has not always been possible, but where it has happened, as it has with the Sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, it has laid the foundations for the next steps, including the declaration on Human Fraternity signed in the Emirates in 2019. The Iraq trip is a further step towards starting the same dynamic with the Shiite world, particularly with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Despite their differences, both these Muslim representatives—the Sheikh of al-Azhar and the Grand Ayatollah of Najaf—are united in the idea that it is necessary to maintain a certain distance between religion and politics, and to avoid an overlap of the two dimensions, as happens in Iran, for example, to the increasing dissatisfaction even of clerics, or as the Muslim Brotherhood has attempted in Egypt. This distinction—I wouldn’t say “separation”, that’s not what these Muslim clerics have in mind—creates a civil/civic space in which it is possible to develop a dialogue on the great evils afflicting the Middle East today, which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has once again brought to everyone’s attention.

 

If you like, Iraq embodies these evils to the highest degree, because Mosul is where the ruthless ISIS caliphate was proclaimed in 2014. We know that there were understandable fears in the Vatican precisely for this reason, but the Pope wanted to put his finger on the sore spot to show that, even at the worst of times (tens of thousands dead, refugees, suicide attacks, sex slaves) it is always possible to start again. The Pope told Iraqi Christians, who are the target beneficiaries of his visit, where to start from and he entrusted them with two tasks: “the capacity to forgive and the courage to fight.”

 

Obviously, this undeniable new momentum, which we are seeing in the relationship with Muslims, requires a shift in the way we Catholics think. We need to go back and understand how universality and particularity go together. According to the pluralist interpretation of the Abu Dhabi document and, more generally, of interreligious dialogue, the saving event of Jesus Christ is not one of the various forms in which the divine manifests, but is a particular event that contains the whole of the universal within it, and it throws light on—because it already holds within it—the partial and sometimes erroneous answer that the various religions provide to the drama of existence. In other forms, it is the same theme as the relationship between the Gospel and human “values” that has often been debated in the Italian Church, too, for example in relation to Marxism in the post-1968 period. We know there exists, and perhaps there will always exist, a tension within the Church between those who, albeit in absolute good faith, see the Gospel as a cue to say and do something else—what I call the crypto-diaspora, more prevalent today than ever—and those who see nothing positive in non-Christian cultures and religions, whether it is the secular West, the Islamic world or the Asian religions, as if ascribing a value to them or a role in God’s plan would be tantamount to denying the salvific uniqueness of Christ. To understand this, we can think about the relationship between nascent Christianity and Greco-Roman civilisation. There were those who were so enthralled by it that they ended up confining Jesus Christ to the narrow framework of Gnosticism. And—we have to admit— there were the fundamentalists who, as soon as they came to power, began persecuting pagans, Jews and their Christian brothers, and ended up tearing the Church apart (the “distorting grip of political integralism,” von Balthasar said). Only at great effort have Christians been able to embrace St Basil’s advice to gather, as bees do from flowers, what is useful from pagan authors. This led to Christian humanism, one of whose greatest exponents we celebrate this year, Dante Alighieri.

 

In short, for me, the path to correctly establishing interfaith dialogue, at the level of conscience among us Christians, passes through recovering the Trinitarian dimension of our faith—the Trinity as a place of differences—and requires us to return to reflecting on the dialectic between the particular and the universal that manifests in the Incarnation.

This is exactly the position that we are trying to develop at Oasis, even somewhat ahead of time, if I may say so, since, as you mentioned, we have now been working on these issues for more than fifteen years. It is precisely for this reason that the emphasis you place on “Christians and Muslims in the global world” is important; it is the tagline of our website and journal. We don’t talk about Islam and Christianity in the abstract, as two systems of dogma and thought—even though dogma and thought are fundamental to us!—but about Christians and Muslims, hence, people in the concrete. And we don’t talk about them against a timeless backdrop, but, in homage to the rationale of the Incarnation, at a precise time, the here and now of the post-1989 global world, which first experienced a phase of great, excessive enthusiasm, followed by a period of equally excessive fear and self-withdrawal.

 

Over the years we have been joined by several fellow travellers. It’s interesting, if you like, to look at the profiles of our followers on social media. Some clearly lean to the “left”. What interests them is our focus on certain issues like migrants, Italian Islam, the 2011 uprisings, Arab music, literature and cinema, which, by the way, give us an image of those societies that is very different from the dominant one, less religious, more secular and distressed. Others, on the other hand, are “on the right”. What counts for them primarily is the work we do on Eastern Christians and the serious study of Islam and the great Muslim thinkers, a focus on tradition and continuity. For me, this varied community, which, by the way, also includes several Muslims, especially young people, is an excellent sign. It means we’re not easy to pigeonhole. And that we are also reaching those who are famously “distant”, perhaps them more than those from whom, considering their background, it would be natural to expect greater harmony and appreciation.

 

We are living in times where relations between cultures are important, that is what everyone is saying. What words and ideas, in your view, should be kept in mind so that we don’t lose our way?

 

I’ve already answered that a little in the previous question. I’d say there are two things we have to understand: the first is that Christianity transcends all culture. This should make us very free and serene when we see that a culture, like our Western culture, is going through a great crisis. Just think of the demographic issue in Italy today. If things continue as they are, in a century’s time it’s not that there’ll be no more Italian culture, there will simply be no more Italians. Luckily, after a lot of rhetorical grandstanding, the issue now appears to have finally made it onto the political agenda, with several concrete measures, such as family allowance. However, even though it is not pleasant, Christians can draw on their faith for the strength to withstand even these times of decline, by trying to maintain what exists, the life of society—the intimist route has never appealed to me—and welcome the emergence of something new. Ambrose is a role model without equal in this. Nor, however,—and this is the second consideration—can we wash our hands of the word “culture”, as if it were a luxury we can do without. Indeed, Christianity always operates through a people and its culture, its cultural interpretation, as I say, which never absorbs it entirely, but without which it would remain on an abstract level. As St John Paul II said, “A faith that does not become culture is a faith that is not fully received, not entirely thought through, not faithfully lived.”

 

It is against this backdrop that we can also understand the relationship between Christian cultures and non-Christian cultures. Since no cultural interpretation entirely absorbs the entire richness of the Christ event, even a non-Christian culture can lead me to rediscover or investigate elements that I had forgotten, downplayed, or not yet understood in my faith. Let me give a very banal example. Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, has just ended. If I invite a work colleague to have a coffee at the machine and he says, “thanks, but it’s Ramadan,” or if I invite a school friend to go for a pizza and he answers, “let’s go after sunset, otherwise I’d have to watch you eat,” as a Christian I am reminded of the reality of fasting, which is also central to the biblical experience and the life of Jesus—the forty days in the desert were the necessary prelude to his entire public mission!—and which we have all but forgotten today.

 

The reverse is also true. It goes both ways. For example, there is no doubt that rejection of violence in the name of God, introduced to the world by Christianity when Jesus identified with the victims and not with the oppressors, is also beginning to bear fruit in other civilisations. Or think of the movement to abolish slavery. Why is the fate of the Yazidi women enslaved by ISIS repugnant to Muslims today, when historical sources tell us that such facts have been common currency in the history of the Middle East, right down to the Armenian-Syriac genocide and beyond? I don’t think it’s too farfetched to see a Christian influence there, to the extent that we find Muslims who are so close to the Gospel, albeit without explicitly adhering to it, that it’s very hard to find a category for them.

 

You launched the term “métissage” in Italy. What do you mean by that? What is the cultural premise for it?

 

Métissage is a reality. Today this process is more evident than when we started talking about it. It’s a mixing of cultures which, in the Mediterranean, is reminiscent of late antiquity. Think about young Italian Muslims, on whom Oasis has a long-running research project, and the way they experience a dual identity, down to the level of clothing and food. Many films talk about a state of being in the middle, which can be excruciating: not Egyptian enough for Egyptians—to give one example—not Italian enough for Italians. So far, it’s an undeniable fact, all sociological studies show us this dynamic, even in those experiencing fundamentalist influences, which normally aren’t simply about going back to tradition, but rather a totally new invention on their part.

 

However, I always add another note to the theme of métissage as an undeniable process, which is that it should be guided. By this I mean that there are ways of experiencing a dual identity that work and have a future and others that will not last. You sometimes see a certain naivety around this. The fact that you wear a veil and jeans, put Parmesan on pasta but also buy halal meat, speak Bergamo dialect and go on a pilgrimage to Mecca doesn’t in itself guarantee a successful process of identity negotiation, as sociologists say. Sometimes these are hybrid solutions that are destined to succumb to the enormous global arena in which we are all immersed.

 

So what are the criteria that enable us to distinguish between short-term actions of identity bricolage and forms of culture that are destined to last, as occurred in the case of the mestizaje between Hispanic culture and indigenous culture in Latin America? For me, the political criterion today is firm acceptance of religious freedom, on which I wrote a book when I was Archbishop of Milan, on the anniversary of the Edict of Constantine. Once the stable comparison between conscience and truth is established, based on Dignitatis humanae, in a plural society such as the present one, I have to ask that my faith be recognized even publicly, while also accepting that, on a practical level, it is possible to both enter it and leave it. In the end, that’s the difference between a religion and a sect. When it comes to a sect, if you leave the group you’re dead (sometimes not only figuratively speaking). For a religion, you remain a brother to be prayed for. We know that this is very difficult for Islam. It is undoubtedly tempted by sectarianism, which always generates violence. I think religious freedom, on which there is still no law in Italy, is the real issue we should be talking about today, perhaps even more than the jus soli question.

 

There is something else I have always really liked. You talk about difference and not diversity. I wanted to ask you what you mean by that term.

 

To understand this question, it is essential to consider carefully the shared, integral and elementary experience that every man has by the very fact that he exists in a sexed body. It is primarily a matter of understanding the full force of the singularity of sexual difference. One of the roots of the crisis of marriage is the confusion around this fundamental dimension of the human experience, whereby every man is situated as an individual within sexual difference. To downplay the insuperability of this phenomenon is precisely to confound the concept of difference with that of diversity. In fact, contemporary culture often replaces the pairing identity/difference with that of equality/diversity.

 

Proper promotion of equality between all people, especially between men and women, has often led to difference being considered discriminatory. The misunderstanding lies in the fact that difference and diversity are not, if we look closely, synonyms. At least in anthropological terms, they refer to two profoundly dissimilar human experiences. It can help to look at the etymology of the two words. The root of the word diversity is the Latin di-vertere, which normally refers to one subject moving in another direction from another subject. Therefore, two or more subjects are diverse if they are autonomous and can enter into a relationship or go in opposite directions, while retaining their autonomous subjectivity. Diversity thus brings interpersonal relationships into play. For example, there is diversity between a German and an Italian, between an AC Milan fan and a Juventus fan…

 

Difference, on the other hand, comes from the Latin verb dif-ferre which, at its most elementary level, means to carry somewhere else, to displace. Difference relates to an intrapersonal reality. It concerns the constitutive identity of an individual. The arrival of an individual of the opposite sex “carries me somewhere else”, “displaces me” (difference). All individuals find they are affected by this difference and are always confronted with the other way—inaccessible to them—of being a person.

 

How is the Church addressing the issue of immigrants? On one hand, in Italy, there is a recurring appeal to good-heartedness, while on the other, there is increasing aversion. What cultural stance do you think can help us address this issue as Christians?

 

As the Pope reminds us, the act of migrating involves two rights: the right to leave one’s country if life becomes unbearable (think of Syria or, today, the Sahel ravaged by jihadists), but also the right to remain in one’s country. I am convinced that out of every one hundred people, at least ninety would like to stay in the country of their birth, if only they could. As a political community we should create the conditions for this to happen; as a Church we should demand it. Finally, the third factor is that the receiving societies also have rights: beyond certain limits, the influx of migrants is not sustainable and only ends up generating more poverty for everyone. For example, Lebanon is always mentioned as an example of having welcomed Syrian refugees, and it is absolutely true, there were admirable scenes, I even saw some of them myself when I went to Beirut. But there was no policy; not least because of the deep division between the Lebanese parties, corruption and, more generally, the international situation; and in the end, not only is Syria not back on her feet, Lebanon is floundering. It’s a lesson to reflect on.

 

Related to this: do the two traditional European models (multiculturalism and assimilation) still work or do we need to move on?

 

The two models are a pure theoretical abstraction and, in practice, actually produce very similar policies. If you look at Britain or France, which have respectively championed the two positions of multiculturalism and assimilation, not in words, but in actual political choices, I don’t see much of a difference in the relationship with Muslims. In any case, the two models do not work, as everyone now says, because they try to establish an abstract, universal, value-based footing, which is always difficult to define. Like those famous European values, which no one really knows what they are, although now, with the European Recovery Plan, we finally have a litmus test to identify them: they’re the ones where the money goes, the rest is rhetoric.

 

In any case, to me it seems much more constructive to start from the European Christian and humanist tradition and say that it is on that basis and within those limits that we are willing to welcome Muslims and members of other religions or cultures. In short, the issue is always about Europe’s roots; once again, the universal in the particular. Is it a coincidence that the crisis in the European Union as a political project began precisely when it said no to John Paul II’s request to acknowledge its past? Is it a coincidence that France, a country that has never come to terms with its past, the terrible revolutionary violence, is the place with the most tense relationship with Muslims today?

 

Mosques and churches. It is often my impression that more Muslims attend the mosque than Christians do church, even in Italy. I wonder what kind of Islam they find in the mosque.

 

We have to distinguish clearly between Islamic societies, where participation in religion is required by the social context and sometimes even the law, and Western societies, where it is a free choice, albeit family and group pressure does exist. Two very different pictures emerge: almost universal practice of religion, on the one hand and, on the other, conscious participation at very different levels. Studies say that in the West, Ramadan is the most widespread practice among Muslims, whereas regular practice of the five prayers is less common. In an interview with Oasis a few years ago, the Mufti of Bosnia estimated that twenty to twenty-five per cent of his community were “practising” Muslims, meaning observers of all the requirements of worship.

 

These are still larger numbers than in our parishes. In that sense, I think we should question ourselves about how we transmit the faith. Usually a young, practising Muslim man or woman is supported by a family model, a father or a mother who is viewed with respect and admiration. Then comes the mosque. I know that many places are getting organized to provide religious instruction, perhaps a little Arabic. But the starting point is a solid family, a morality that sometimes also translates into professional success, because, as Weber has demonstrated, a certain kind of work ethic and personal commitment also has concrete effects: less time wasted, less money wasted, more endurance in difficult times etc. People of great value can emerge from such environments, and others who are a little rigid, given to moralism or pietism, but not terrorists. Terrorists have normally broken with their culture of origin, and often come from social hardship, delinquency, prison.

 

What initiatives are there for relations between Christians and Muslims in our country? Do you know of any?

 

On that topic I can only invite you to browse the Oasis website, particularly the pages on Italian Islam. You’ll find many surprises.

 

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