ISIS, the Sunni Islamist movement now wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria, announced its intention to assasinate Pope Francis. ISIS representatives claim the Pope “bears false witness” against Islam and is “the greatest exponent of the Christian religions.” For that, apparently, he deserves to die.
What has the Pope said about Islam that they find so objectionable? Perhaps it’s nothing specific. It might just be that Francis represents world Christianity and that Christianity, by its very existence, is an affront to the claim that Muhammed supersedes Jesus. Maybe they identify Christianity simpliciter with Western military action in the Middle East. Or, perhaps they take issue with what Francis actually has said about Islam.
In his apostolic exhoration Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis called on Christians to “embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries.” He pointed to areas of commonality between Catholic and Muslim faith, and asked for respectful dialogue from both sides. He “humbly entreated” Muslim countries to grant the same freedom of worship to Christians that Western countries extend to Muslim immigrants. He suggested that “authentic Islam” opposes every form of violence.
Francis’s remarks are similar to those made by Pope Benedict throughout his pontificate. He also called for the respectful embrace of immigrants, for dialogue and mutual respect, and for reason, rather than violence, as the resolution to religious conflict. Pope Benedict addressed this last topic in his famous lecture in Regensburg (2006). The Pope argued that God’s nature is Supreme Reason, that spirituality must conform to the dictates of reason, and that violence and compulsion are utterly contrary to the nature of true religion.
Is this what ISIS objects to? Obvioulsy, there are large segments of the Muslim tradition that have advocated violence. “Oh Prophet,” says the Koran, “exhort the believers to fight.” (Koran 8:65) Historically, the Muslim Caliphate had no objection to advancing Islam with the sword. For a thousand years, Christian Europe was hemmed in from Spain to Austria as expansionist Muslim empires threatened the borders of Christian kingdoms. Christian North Africa, the Middle East, and Byzantium fared much worse as they fell to Islamic violence. Christians were either killed or reduced to second-class status. ISIS clearly wants a return to this view of Islam.
Popes Francis and Benedict have appealed to more civil and reasonable proponents of Islam. Some, like Algerian Muslim philosopher Mustapha Cherif, have embraced the Pope’s vision and condemned anti-Christian violence in Iraq and Syria. Cherif, like the Pope, advocates dialogue rather than armed conflict as the way to live together. But others, like ISIS, Hamas, or Hezbollah, obviously demur.
I think it is unhelpful to debate which of these represents “real Islam.” There are over a billion Muslims in the world and they disagree widely among themselves. There is no Islamic “Pope” who speaks for the world’s Muslims. It is simpler to admit that Islam is a diverse tradition with competing and incompatible interpretations, some of which are more consonant with reason and humanity than others. “Real Islam” is, for the moment, whatever the Muslim standing in front of me says it is. Who am I to tell a Muslim what he “really” believes?
So why does Pope Francis appeal to “authentic Islam?” To make sense of this, I would turn to Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture. In that text, the Pope issued a charge not just to Muslims but to all people of good will. Will you submit your ideology to the dictates of reason? The “authentic” is simply fidelity to our rational nature, to what makes us essentially human. On these terms, we can judge any ideology as “authentic” or “inauthentic.” As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” (Letter from the Birmingham Jail, 1963) The Popes challenge Muslims (and all people) to consider their own rationality, and to observe the transcendent dignity of the human person. Perhaps this is what ISIS hates so much about Francis and Catholicism?
There are very important differences between Islam and Catholicism. It was the Catholic Church that first introduced the world to a clear delineation between spiritual and temporal power. “My kindgom is not of this world,” Jesus said. (John 18:36.) Pope Gelasius I (d. 496) made clear long ago that Catholicism is not fundamentally about the political expression of religion. Islam, by contrast, has traditionally embraced precisely such a juridical view of religion. As future Muslims make sense of their faith, let us pray they will heed the Pope’s words and submit that judgment to reason.
Christians are under mortal threat in Iraq and Syria. Pope Francis has said that international military action may be necessary to prevent the genocide of minorities in those regions. This would be an instance of just war thinking: the legitimate and proportionate use of force to prevent a grave evil. But Pope Francis, like Pope Benedict, has decried violence over and over again as a way to resolve specifically religious conflict. He reminds us that authentic religion – any authentic religion – ultimately is about the love and worship of God who is Reason Itself.