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The Patriarch of Venice, father of Oasis Foundation, and the “popular Islam”. An interview by John Allen Jr.

“This is a problem typical of our globalized society. We’re seeing an unprecedented encounter of people, cultures and religions, which is what I have in mind when I use the phrase meticciato di civiltà - a “hybridization of civiliations.” It’s a historical process currently underway, and its results are by no means certain. There are blendings that work, and blendings that don’t.

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The critical point is this: What happens to our identity as a people if a significant bloc begins to call it into question, either because they belong to another religion or because they convert? In some majority Muslim nations, a certain degree of diversity can be tolerated for those who are born into another religion, but the feeling is that the identity of the country would be threatened if those who are born Muslims had the possibility of converting. It’s interesting to note the choice frequently presented to these converts: if you want to leave Islam, you also have to leave the country. The assumption seems to be that the personal dimension of faith interests us up to a point, but we want to avoid the ‘scandal’ of a public gesture”…

John Allen, Jr. is a National Catholic Reporter and analyst for the CNN.
Though the parallel shouldn’t be pushed too far, in some ways Christian/Muslim relations today might be compared to where things stood with personal computers back in the early 1980s. Everybody knew PCs were the future, but they wouldn’t change the world until a simple, appealing, and reasonably standard way of making them work emerged.
Then Apple released the Macintosh in 1984, followed by Microsoft’s first version of Windows a year later. Overnight, personal computing went from a hobby to a necessity, and we woke up in the digital age.
In a similar fashion, everybody knows today that dialogue with Islam is critical to the future. The “market,” however, has not yet settled on a clear model for how it ought to work – who we should be talking to, what we should be talking about, and what we should expect from those conversations. Until that happens, Christian/Muslim relations will remain a bit like the early days of computing … the rarefied pursuit of experts typing in strings of DOS commands to run even simple operations.
So, is there a potential “Windows” of Christian/Muslim relations out there?
One intriguing candidate is the “Oasis” project of Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, an attempt to foster a global network of contacts among Christians and Muslims, attaching special importance to the voices and experiences of Christians who live in majority Muslim nations across the Middle East, Asia and Africa. While Oasis sponsors academic conferences and a journal, it’s also devoted to giving voice to real-life experiences of ordinary people, not just intellectual experts and the professional artisans of dialogue.
In light of the fact that Scola, 66, is widely considered a rising star in Catholicism, his patronage alone makes Oasis worth watching.
Launched in September 2004, Oasis is also sponsored by four other cardinals: Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France; Josip Bozanic of Zagreb, Croatia; Péter Erd of Esztergom-Budapest, Hungary; and Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria. None are identified with what one might consider “soft” positions on Catholic teaching or practice. That distinguishes Oasis from some other initiatives, which bring the avant-garde of different traditions into conversation, but not the mainstream. Among other things, Christian leaders who gravitate around Oasis are often willing to challenge Muslims on issues of reciprocity and religious freedom more forcefully than one sometimes finds in other inter-religious forums.
Scola has said that his aim is not primarily to reach out to “moderate Muslims,” but rather to “popular Islam,” meaning ordinary believers deeply attached to Islamic traditions who nevertheless do not subscribe to radical forms of jihad.
In June, the “scientific committee” of Oasis will meet in Amman, Jordan. The theme is “the relationship between truth and freedom,” with specific attention to freedom of conscience and religion, and how the value of religious freedom can be reconciled with respect for the religious tradition of a given people.
Information about Oasis can be found here: http://www.cisro.it/pages/home_en.html
I recently had the chance to talk with Scola about Oasis and the Amman meeting. The following are excerpts from our exchange.
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Your meeting in Jordan will focus on two values, religious freedom and the traditional identity of a given people. The tension between those two values seems steadily more acute in today’s world. In your view, what are the basic principles for striking the right balance?

This is a problem typical of our globalized society. We’re seeing an unprecedented encounter of people, cultures and religions, which is what I have in mind when I use the phrase meticciato di civiltà – a “hybridization of civiliations.” It’s a historical process currently underway, and its results are by no means certain. There are blendings that work, and blendings that don’t.
The critical point is this: What happens to our identity as a people if a significant bloc begins to call it into question, either because they belong to another religion or because they convert? In some majority Muslim nations, a certain degree of diversity can be tolerated for those who are born into another religion, but the feeling is that the identity of the country would be threatened if those who are born Muslims had the possibility of converting. It’s interesting to note the choice frequently presented to these converts: if you want to leave Islam, you also have to leave the country. The assumption seems to be that the personal dimension of faith interests us up to a point, but we want to avoid the ‘scandal’ of a public gesture.
On the other hand, the modern liberal state is equally unprepared for this question, because it regards only the individual as an interlocutor, and thus thinks solely in terms of individual rights. It’s far more difficult to consider the social implications of individual choices. In the end, this leaves many people unprepared for change and disconcerted by it. We see this clearly on the issue of immigration, where it’s as if many people today are saying: ‘What’s happening? You told us that it was all a question of the individual ideas of immigrants, and everyone is free to think whatever they believe. All of a sudden, however, these individuals have become a foreign body, and we don’t recognize them anymore.’
If we want to overcome this impasse, the solution, it seems to me, must be sought in the recognition of a good that’s also at the basis of every difference, which is the good of relationship. We have to emphasize our common humanity, and to do that, we need to expand the scope of both reason and freedom.

How does the issue of ‘reciprocity’ enter into the discussion?

In majority Muslim nations, [Christians] certainly don’t want to put the dominant social tradition, the social fabric, at risk. To be clear, we [in Europe] ask for the same respect for our traditions from those who arrive to live among us.
Respect for the identity of a given community, however, shouldn’t be invoked to violate the human freedoms of single persons. In the end, what’s the point of compelling people to remain in a religion in which they no longer believe? Is explicitly walking away truly more damaging to the community than a false profession of belief? This is the kind of frank discussion we hope to have with our Muslim interlocutors.

Why the choice of Amman? Do you believe that Jordan has something to teach us on the question of religious freedom and traditional identity?

Jordan is a country that’s 97 percent Muslim, but where the Christian minority faces a situation that, despite some shadows, is without a doubt basically positive, especially compared to other parts of the region. It’s a country that’s fairly poor in terms of natural resources, yet it has a higher standard of living compared to several of its neighbors which are theoretically more endowed with natural wealth. In many ways, therefore, it’s a living example of what the Middle East could be, if the logic of recrimination were abandoned and the path to modernization were opened. In this regard, the support that various members of the Royal Family are giving to dialogue among Muslims, as well as Christian-Muslin dialogue, is universally recognized and appreciated.

In the Middle East today, there’s great fear for the Christian future, above all in the Holy Land. Do you see any signs of hope?

The situation is certainly very difficult. Despite that, every time that I have the chance to meet with our Christian brothers in the Middle East, for example during our Oasis meetings, I’m struck by their tenacity and their willness to keep going. In various editions of our magazine, we’ve amply documented the notable exodus of Christians [from the Middle East], but we don’t want to surrender to the logic of lament or regret. The local bishops have repeatedly affirmed that a Christian who doesn’t understand the special role providence has assigned to him or her, being born and growing up in a prevalently Muslim environment, is potentially a Christian who will emigrate. We want to do our part to build up such an understanding.

Oasis has a ‘preferential option’ for Islam. Today’s threats to religious liberty, however, go well beyond the borders of the Islamic world. There are serious problems, for example, in India and China. Is there a risk that in the West, religious freedom has come to be seen almost exclusively as an ‘Islamic problem,’ thus contributing to the idea of a ‘clash of civilizations’?

Certainly religious freedom – which is a fundamental value, and can’t be reduced simply to liberty of cult – must be defended everywhere, and therefore not just in majority Muslim nations. At the same time, it’s true that religious freedom represents an important unsolved dilemma in the relationship between Islam and modernity. For this reason, I believe it has to be faced in an urgent way by Muslims themselves.

You’re committed to dialogue with Islam. In particular, you’ve said in various ways that your interest is not so much ‘moderate Islam,’ but ‘traditional Islam.’ How is this effort to build bridges with traditional Islam going?

I think it’s too early to start drawing conclusions. In any event, our option is rather for the Islam of the people, which can’t be understood exclusively in terms of the category of ‘moderate Islam.’ The term ‘Islam of the people’ simply designates as clearly as possible with whom we’tre trying to speak. Moderate Muslims have the possibility of exercising influence only if, and to the extent that, they accurately interpret (and perhaps stimulate an evolution in) the sense of the faith held by common people, meaning the grassroots religiosity that really sustains the life of populations facing situations that are often very difficult. Anyone who’s spent even a little time in the Middle East understands this.

Oasis has been around now for almost five years. What fruits do you see so far?

The most beautiful fruit is the gradual construction of a community that embraces Christians from West and East who have intense ties, even though of widely varying sorts, with Muslims. Our hope is that this community will continue to mature.

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Source: John L Allen Jr’s blog http://ncronline.org/users/john-l-allen-jr

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