Infidel: my life    Ayaan Hirsi Ali   Free Press, £12.99
Tablet bookshop price £11.70 Tel 01420 592974

 Book Review, 01 March 2007  Reviewed by Jane O'Grady

A Call to liberty, not betrayal

For those of us who are brought up with Islam, if we face up to the terrible reality we are in, we can change our destiny." This is the message of Infidel - the autobiographical story of the notorious Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who travelled across borders of culture and countries, from the restrictions of religion and politics in Muslim Somalia to being a Member of Parliament in the Netherlands, and ultimately to the constrictions of living under constant police protection.

Hirsi Ali's father was a fierce opponent of the Somali regime so the family emigrated to Saudi Arabia, and later to Kenya. In Infidel, she is affectionate and even-handed about her upbringing. Admiringly portraying her mother Asha's courage and independence, she also describes how Asha became embittered and deranged, beating and oppressing her children. Yet, with her characteristic stern, pure impartiality towards all her protagonists, including herself, Hirsi Ali insists on how ineluctably her mother had been broken by loneliness, exhaustion and the "submission" enjoined by her religion. Her father is also clearly and compassionately portrayed - his idealism, intelligence and love ultimately conflicting with his religious beliefs.

These beliefs she herself passionately shared, but what she has always been above all seeking is both truth and freedom, the virtues of the Enlightenment. She "was not content to accept the rules of our religion at face value, but ... felt compelled to try to understand them", to penetrate to their "underlying intention".

She was enthusiastic but always questioning, For a time, in Kenya, her enthusiasm drove her to frequent the meetings of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose mission was to purify Islam and return it to its fundamentals. She admired their efforts to purge the adherence to clan, which is not intrinsically Islamic, and leads to corruption, partisanship and disregard of human rights, and continually questioned the tenets that seemed to conflict with Allah's proclaimed justice and mercy. Why, despite going into such detail about women's veiling, did they not denounce female genital mutilation, also not intrinsically Islamic yet practised in many Muslim countries? If men and women were supposed to be equal, why did women have to obey their husbands, and not vice versa? Why should women be permanently sexually available to their husbands, except during menstruation, "even on the saddle of a camel"?

Escaping an arranged marriage, Hirsi Ali sought asylum in the Netherlands. At first she clung to the tradition of veiling herself, but came to realise that she was actually more invisible walking down the street in Western garb. Men might appraise, but on the whole they ignored her. She discovered the exhilarating liberation of riding a bicycle and swimming, of living in student houses while studying at university, of reading and debating Spinoza, Voltaire, Darwin, of being a Member of the Dutch Parliament, of collaborating in a film to expose the abuses of Islamic women in the Netherlands. It all sounds like a fairy story (and, admittedly, she may, as accused, be a little punch-drunk in her praise of the West), but the book ends with a tumble to earth - the murder of Theo van Gogh (the film's director), death threats against Hirsi Ali, the threatened removal of her Dutch citizenship.

Ironically, thanks to her ecstatic embrace of freedom, and her attempt to achieve it for Muslim women, her own has been brutally curtailed. But why do Western liberals, even women, appear to second the death-threateners in vilifying her?

When Hirsi Ali disputes the wearing of the veil, Muslims and liberals alike are eager to protest it is a matter of modesty, a matter of choice for Muslim women to make in the same way that Western women can decide what amount of, if any, make-up they might want to wear.

Hirsi Ali shows up the disingenuousness of this argument, and how the veil is a synecdoche for an attitude that views woman as sexual prey if they do not conceal their skin and hair. And even if, as hardline feminists and Muslims seem jointly to insist, "All men are rapists", then shouldn't the onus be on them to learn self-control, rather than on women to hide from them?

Hirsi Ali has been accused of being racist, attacking her culture out of "self-hatred", betraying her religion. "Tell me," she writes, "is freedom then only for white people? Is it self-love to adhere to my ancestors' traditions and mutilate my daughters? To agree to be humiliated and powerless?" Or, she might add, were Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, William Wilberforce and Mary Wollstonecraft  self-hating traitors to their culture when they spoke out for religious toleration, the rights of women and minorities, the abolition of slavery? Were they not rather reforming and liberating their own culture?

 Many middle-aged Catholics may be reminded of our own pre-Vatican II youth, and of the struggles we individually, and the Church as a whole, went through in order to reconcile what was essential to Catholicism with modern, humanist Enlightenment values.

But in Christianity, there is a spirit as well as a letter. Theocracy is an undesirable form of government; the Sermon on the Mount is the original and radically humane text to which we must always return. What Infidel asks is: can there be a moderate Islam? Can there be a way of clearing aside the rules to get at some core of compassion and love? I cannot possibly answer that. It does seem odd, though, that when someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, steeped in the Islamic tradition, seeks to do so she should be called a traitor rather than a brave liberator, which is what, as this book indisputably shows, she is.


Benedict XVI Meets With Muslim Philosopher
Mustapha Cherif Tells of Cordial Dialogue

VATICAN CITY, NOV. 13, 2006 ( Benedict XVI received in audience a Muslim philosopher from Algeria who is known for his commitment to battling religious hatred.

"I was impressed by his welcome and attention, face to face," said Mustapha Cherif, an expert on Islam at the University of Algiers, after the audience Saturday. His comments were reported in a message sent to ZENIT.

Cherif, 50, had requested the audience prior to the Muslim reactions to the Pope's address in Regensburg, Germany, on Sept. 12.

The Holy Father had read an appeal for dialogue, launched by Cherif in the Parisian newspaper Le Monde. The Algerian professor also expressed concern after Benedict XVI's decision to appoint the same cardinal to head the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Pontifical Council for Culture.

The Muslim leader had interpreted this latter gesture as a lack of sensitivity by the Pope to interreligious dialogue, lessening the weight and identity of that Vatican dicastery.

The audience took place as the Holy Father prepares for his Nov. 28-Dec. 1 trip to Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

Speaking about the audience, Cherif said that the Holy Father assured him that Christians and Muslims are "allies and friends."

However, the professor continued, "the return of racial and religious hatred, of anti-Semitism, which has as its objective Muslims in particular, is a threat to all."

Cherif said: "The Holy Father, better than any one, knows that, at the ethical level, one of the missions of the Church is to oppose this foul beast, Faustian logic and warmongering policies, the deformation of religions.

"We Muslims, I told him, are convinced that Your Holiness will say what is right in regard to the problems of the world so that injustices and racism will recede. He shared fully the idea that we have need of objective critical thought and messages of fraternity."

What Islam asks

Cherif said he expressed his vision of Islam and "the Pope listened to me with kindness. â | In regard to violence, I explained that Islam asks each one of its believers to forgive in the face of adversity, to be patient and merciful.

"In regard to collective responsibility in the face of aggressions, in order to avoid entering the logic of the wolf and the lamb [and] to protect the right of peoples' existence, Islam codifies in a strict manner recourse to the 'just war' -- which the Prophet described as 'little' jihad -- as legitimate defense."

The principle of the "just war" and not of the "holy war" implies "never being the aggressor, protecting civilians -- and in particular Christian monks, the weak -- the environment and always being equitable," said Cherif.

"St. Augustine did not propose something different. He assented with a smile," added the Muslim. "The great jihad is the effort for self-control, toward spiritual elevation, toward beautiful works. This definition seemed to him to be a salutary illumination, which should be known."

The Algerian philosopher explained that "our duty consists in criticizing vulgar blends between Islam and extremism. The Muslim community can regenerate itself and help the modern world, which is going through a tragic moment, despite the prodigious scientific progress, to reinvent a new civilization which is so necessary."

Cherif said that Benedict XVI "told me that one of the problems of our time is the extreme secularization and that we must witness with courage and reason the religious dimension of existence."

The Algerian professor said he made three proposals to the Holy Father:

-- "the holding of an interreligious colloquium on the topic of the struggle against religious hatred."

-- "the sensitization of the international community on the condemnable character of offenses and attacks against religions' sacred symbols," and on respect for the right "of freedom of expression and criticism."

-- The "expansion of groups and networks of friendship, dialogue and Muslim-Christian research throughout the world."

Cherif added: "The Holy Father told me that he shares fully our concerns, and totally supports these noble objectives. This unforgettable dialogue of faith and thought, open to others, opposed to all hatreds, is a sign of hope."


Educate Women to Defeat Fundamentalism

Interview with President of Moroccan Communities in Italy

ROME, SEPT. 28, 2006 ( Fundamentalism can be defeated through education, especially the education of women, says Souad Sbai, president of the confederation of Moroccan communities in Italy.

A Moroccan native, Sbai has lived in Italy for 25 years, is director of the Arab monthly magazine Al Maghrebiya, for Arabs living in Italy, and is a member of the Islamic Council, established by the Italian government.

She also attended the meeting Benedict XVI held with Muslim leaders Sept. 25 in Castel Gandolfo.

In this interview with ZENIT, Sbai comments on Islam fundamentalism, especially the challenges facing women in Islamic cultures.

Q: What is your impression of the address Benedict XVI gave to the University of Regensburg on Sept. 12.

Sbai: The Pope responded to controversies by turning the page, proposing again the path of interreligious dialogue, reminding of the right to reciprocity.

It was an historic meeting. However, we have never doubted his words. The troubles and violent reactions arose over a misunderstanding, but were also the work of extremists who were waiting for an opportunity to attack the Pope and create unrest among the moderate Muslim community.

We must not fall into the error of the extremists who do not want dialogue. The dialogue between Islam, Judaism and Christianity is ancient; it has existed for centuries and must continue. The extremists must be isolated and, with calm, personalities will arise who can consolidate a moderate and positive Islam.

The presence of the Islamic Center of Rome at the meeting with the Pope was important and significant, as the mosque of the Eternal City is the largest in Europe and there are moderate people who want dialogue.

Q: The Holy Father made an appeal to reason. What do you think?

Sbai: Without reason, one goes nowhere. All religions take reason into account.

Q: So where does one begin?

Sbai: From this point of view, I believe that one must begin by helping women who have been denied freedom and the right to education. In Italy, 86% of immigrant women from Muslim countries are illiterate. It's a scandal! These immigrant women, who cannot read or write, must be helped to emancipate themselves.

They are women who live in segregation, subjected, victims of extremists who want obedience to laws that don't exist. These women must be helped. Christians and Muslims must undertake a mission to remove these people who live in illiteracy and violence from their tragic situation.

When one is illiterate, one is unaware of one's rights and duties. These women are isolated and humiliated in the heart of the West, which is the homeland of human rights. I am not worried by racists, as I can speak with them and fight them. What is worse is the indifference of those who close their eyes as if nothing was happening.

Q: But many Muslims are afraid of Western customs, considering them corrupt.

Sbai: I am concerned to see that some Moroccan women arrive in Italy and begin to wear the veil -- something they didn't do in Morocco. Sometimes there is a mixture of traditions among immigrants from Somalia, Morocco, Afghanistan and Pakistan, who tend to fundamentalism. Thus, we come across women who speak of infibulation, of the total veil, and of polygamy, practices that we have already surmounted in Morocco. Few women know that in Morocco family law has changed and that there are more rights.

From my point of view, the task of the Italian government is to concentrate on the work of literacy of immigrant women, without being too concerned about being criticized for the process of assimilation. I was born in Morocco; I have lived in Italy for 25 years; I feel Italian, but I haven't lost any of my traditions. I certainly don't go looking for negative traditions ...

Q: Is economic development a threat for Muslims?

Sbai: The real threat is fundamentalism, not development. Many Muslim families are afraid that if young girls are emancipated they will go naked on the streets. But not all women in Italy dress in a provocative way. One must not go by exaggerated examples that appear on television programs to think that all is like that. The vast majority of Italian women dress and live in a sober and virtuous way.

The risk consists in adopting the fundamentalist theses as a reaction. The fact is that it is necessary to go forward so that universal human rights are respected. Reference must be made to the values of freedom, as the Pope stressed on Sept. 25. Respect for freedom is a value that cannot be negotiated.


Progressive Thinking in Contemporary Islam
by Christian W. Troll S.I.

“La Civiltà Cattolica” has crossed paths with the Ratzinger-Schülerkreis (i.e., the annual seminar of Joseph Ratzinger's students with the Pope) in another way as well, in an article on Islam it published in its penultimate issue that deals with a topic the pope and his former students had discussed in their September 2005 meeting.

German Jesuit Christian W. Troll, professor of islamic studies at the Sankt Georgen faculty of theology in Frankfurt, wrote the article. He also opened the discussions in last year’s Ratzinger-Schülerkreis seminar.

The 2005 seminar caused a considerable stir, especially in the United States after an account by one of the participants, US Jesuit Joseph Fessio, gave the impression that for Benedict XVI Islam and democracy were incompatible.

Things were not as reported however. Both Father Fessio and professor Troll, as well as Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian-born Jesuit expert on Islam who attended the seminar, and Ratzinger-Schülerkreis coordinator, professor Stephan Horn, made it clear that while the pope thought that a positive encounter between Islam and modernity was difficult, he also believed that it was not altogether impossible.

In his “La Civiltà Cattolica” article, professor Troll takes up exactly this point. In it he looks at what is happening in Islam and illustrates how some Muslims are trying to reconcile modernity and the Qur'an.

The article in Italian, entitled “Il pensiero progressista nell’islam contemporaneo. Un profilo critico [Progressive Thinking in Contemporary Islam: A Critical Profile],” appeared in the July 15, 2006, issue of “La Civiltà Cattolica,” pp. 123-135.

Here are its main passages. It must be said that most Muslim thinkers quoted in the article either live and work in the West, or have had to flee their respective countries.

Three main trends seem to be emerging in the Islamic world. Beside cultural Islam, a form of Islam we might call with some reservations traditional Islam, we find an “Islamist” Islam, one that is literalist in its approach to the scriptures. And in addition to these two, there is another Islam, one that is open to new interpretations, one based on the spirit of the text.

Today the Islam based on the spirit of the text is not in the foreground, [...] but its proponents are making enormous efforts, so much so that it is not uncommon to see them overlap with the goals and views of large segments of Muslim societies.

It is true that this Islam has still left many things unsaid and has purposefully dealt with others in a vague manner – the more so since its proponents fear attacks and accusations by “Islamists” or anti-democratic potentates who use cultural or traditional Islam to leave the status quo unchanged.

Yet on the long run the future might belong to the Islam based on the spirit of the text because it flexibly copes with the challenges of modernity without breaking with at least some past views of Islam. [...] More and more Muslims are converting to a critical view of religion, one that is less and less conditioned by its environment but is instead founded on a personal and responsible acceptance of the faith.

Within this newly-interpreted Islam we see to a great extent the rise of a new Islamic way of thinking. [...] The representatives of this progressive trend view modernity from a different perspective than that of past reformers, i.e. those of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. [...] Like Rachid Benzine, they believe that “at the core of modernity is the idea that the individual acts and thinks freely, that his experiments can penetrate nature’s mysteries, and that through his own efforts and those of others a new and better world can be built.”

In short, for the standard bearers of this new progressive trend modernity must be viewed with a critical eye and they must steadfastly rely on their own conscience and individual freedom. “We need to freely look at our religious heritage. This is the first condition for religious renewal,” wrote Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd in a 2002 article published in “Al-Ahram.” [...]

In general, such an appeal requires freedom, but also a social system that allows the mind to run free rather than oppressed it through violence. [...]

Subjecting religion and religious discourse to an open scientific critique is something new for Muslim societies. For this reason, the label of apostate has been constantly pinned on the members of this new movement of ideas. Not only are they unwelcome to the establishment because of how they deal with specific theological issues, but also because they are always involved in current issues like the relationship between state and religion in Muslim societies or the interferences between Shari’a and positive law in modern states – above all as they relate to human rights and women’s emancipation – as well as concrete social issues such as the Islamic view on faith and social justice, or on whether Islam has its own social or political system.

It would be a great mistake to believe as the adversaries of free thinking do that its proponents have uncritically adopted a Western perspective or that they have blindly and uncritically fallen prey to the West and its value system. Modernity for progressive Muslims does not mean the same thing as it does in the West; rather it refers to the critical light that modern knowledge can shed. This way, by studying Islam and ways to interpret the scriptures, progressive thinkers can favor those broader and more critical perspectives typical of modern social sciences like linguistics, semiotics, comparative religion and especially sociology. [...]

Among the many in the forefront of this trend a few stand out; thinkers like Mohammed Arkoun (Algeria/France), Leila Babès (Algeria/France), Rachid Benzine (Morocco/ France), Abdolkarim Soroush (Iran), Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (Egypt/Netherlands), Abdou Filali-Ansary (Morocco), Abdelmajid Sharfi (Tunisia), Farid Esack (South Africa/USA), Ebrahim Moosa (USA), Ashgar Ali Engineer (India), Abdullahi an-Naim (Sudan/US), Amina Wadud (USA), Fatima Mernissi (Morocco), Khaled Abou El Fadl (USA), Nurcholish Madjid (Indonesia), Farish Noor (Malaysia), Ömer Özsoy (Turkey). [...]

Proportionately, these progressive scholars are more likely to be trained social scientists compared to the “Islamists”, who tend to have a background in the natural and applied sciences. [...]

In practical terms, all progressive thinkers are trying to define the place of religion in a world that, despite appearances to the contrary, is becoming increasingly secular. Indeed the process of secularization has come to the Islamic world unannounced and with such speed that it has left it unprepared to assimilate it from within. Given the circumstances, Muslim thinkers have had to face the challenges this process entails directly – they have had to find ways to reconcile religion, something quintessentially seen as unchangeable, with change itself. [...]

For progressive thinkers, only a fresh, prejudice-free reading of Islam’s fundamental texts can allow its essential values to meet the needs of the modern world in all its varying forms. Only through this kind of reinterpretation can Islamic Law and legal system become more open; only through it can Islam’s political ideas become reconciled to democracy with the necessary spiritual and intellectual coherence and conviction that would allow for equality between men and women. And all this might come about with a clear conscience vis-à-vis Islam and the Sunnah and in an open dialogue with critical approaches to the modern world. [...]

Progressive thinkers are today tackling issues relating to the Qur'an that modern perspectives and scientific approaches are explicitly raising. [...]

Their answers are informed by historical-critical methods which [...] try to analyze a text within its original context. Thus, the Qur'an can be seen as part of history. The Qur'an might be God’s Word, but its words are laden with history. As Rachid Benzine put it, its historical nature is “incarnated” in its textuality, i.e. in the nature and structure of the written text. [...]

According to this new approach, while the Qur'an certainly conveys eternal truths, the way it transmits them is culturally specific and not universally applicable for it reflects the culture of 7th and 8th century Hejazi Arabs. [...]

Linguistics and literary criticism are used today to read and understand the Qur'an, in particular by many new thinkers like Egypt’s Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, a hermeneutics scholar born in 1943 who currently teaches in Leiden, the Netherlands. [...]

It is self-evident that the Qur'an, or any other text, can only be viewed through culturally-specific lenses, those of the reader or listener. [...] The act of reading is always one of re-reading, [...] so much so that reading the Qur'an cannot be done from a single perspective. No one reading can claim to be the one and only, true for all times.

For progressive Muslim thinkers, scientific research and literary analysis are not in contradiction with approaches informed by religious belief and faith in the Qur'an. On the contrary [...] they are meant for and can contribute to understanding the Qur'an’s deepest sense and therefore the truest religious meaning it can convey today. [...]

Perhaps this might open the way to another way of experiencing faith, one that is more strongly held, and more open to issues and problems that can arise, proud of the Qur'an’s wider horizons, but also conscious of the fact that this greater depth allows the believer to grow in humility and in openness to others. [...]

However the case may be, whether openly expressed or not, two questions dog modern progressive Muslim thinkers. The first one is: “How does God speak?” The second one is: “Who speaks in God’s name?” [...]

A problem inevitably arises the moment the bases of the Qur'an are no longer considered untouchable and binding but are instead open to personal interpretations based on the spirit of the text however defined or justified. What was hitherto viewed in a relative unambiguous ways, or was informed by the earliest interpretation formulated during Islam’s first two centuries, is now open to a self-renewing process of legitimation in which new exegeses come into focus. Likewise, it is impossible not to ask how far and by what means the Qur'an, and consequently God’s revelation in our times, can be truly understood.

Furthermore, from a social and political point of view the issue of consensus (igma’) was and is central to understanding Islam. Does Islam have a theologically-based theory of what an Islamic society (Ummah) ought to be? That is to say, does it have a theory of the Ummah? And what would be that theory’s role and how would that role be played out insofar as the theory tried to explain God’s revelation in matters of faith and ethics? And, if necessary, how could that theory be upheld and justified? Ultimately, is it not true that both those who uphold the traditional view with regard to the prophet’s authority or to God’s words of which the prophet was the messenger, and those who have serious doubts about it are ultimately involved in a struggle over who can rightfully claim the authority that were vested in the prophet and the scriptures that were revealed through him?


Islam Isn't Monolithic, Says Muslim
Azim Nanji Speaks at Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies

ROME, JULY 24, 2006 ( Islam must make an effort to "recognize" its plurality and internal diversity, says the director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies of London.

Azim Nanji made that assessment in Rome before the newest outbreak of new violence in Lebanon. "Islam is rich because it is diverse," he had said at the headquarters of the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.

Nanji addressed the topic of "The Muslim World and the Ismaili Community Today: Challenges and Perspectives," and pointed out how a united Islam does not mean "everybody should believe exactly the same."

The scholar indicated, for example, that demographically, Islam is present in non-Arab lands such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

"To impose a monolithic view would be a historical error," he said. In this connection, he recalled historical moments in which Islam and other religions coexisted in peace and mutual respect.

Nanji added that "these are difficult times in which to conduct dialogue," and referred to films such as "The Da Vinci Code" and cartoons of Mohammed, stating that "We cannot allow fiction to be the only forum to inform about what Christianity or Islam is."

"The relationship between Islam and the West cannot be reduced to the Crusades, the Ottoman Empire or immigration," he continued. Nanji instead called for meetings on concrete subjects such as bioethics and poverty.

Building bridges

Nanji belongs to Ismailism, a branch of Shiite Islam. The institute he heads was founded by Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the imam of the Ismaili Muslims.

Father Justo Lacunza Balda, director of the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, noted professor Nanji's efforts "toward building bridges with the Muslim world through its course programs and publications."

Father Lacunza recalled how the pontifical institute "continues to display its efforts to promote understanding, to improve relations and to explore avenues of religious and cultural interaction between Christians and Muslims."

This does not mean that there are no difficulties, as the director pointed out.

"We are fully aware that such noble aims are hard to explain, arduous to follow and difficult to achieve," he said. "A scientific approach to the study of world religions, and Islam is not an exception, is today more necessary than ever. This leads to a continuous interaction in the fields of study, research and education."


"This is particularly true in these times of political turbulence, cultural tensions and religious rivalries," Father Lacunza continued. "But we do not despair in our toilsome enterprise and will not slow down in our day-to-day endeavors to foster better relations between Muslims and Christians in a spirit of freedom of thought, human dignity and mutual respect."

The director added that the "challenges of religious pluralism and cultural diversity often give rise to fiery and senseless confrontation. Therefore, we need the tools of intellectual freedom, profound knowledge and sound scholarship. These are the powerful antidote against easy condemnation, polemical attitudes and superficial perception of human societies."

Nanji spoke at the conference of the Bradley Foundation which every May hosts an expert from the Muslim world to talk at the headquarters of the pontifical institute.


Mary a Meeting Point of Cultures, Says Muslim
Encourages Pilgrimages to Marian Shrines

ROME, JUNE 29, 2006 ( An Egyptian Muslim and deputy director of a prominent Italian newspaper suggested that Mary could be the figure who brings Christians and Muslims together.

Magdi Allam of Il Corriere della Sera spoke to ZENIT about the appeal he launched in the pages of the national daily newspaper to Muslims living in Italy to visit the Marian shrines in their host country.

The journalist said that he is convinced that the Virgin Mary is a meeting point between Christians and Muslims.

"Mary is a figure present in the Koran, which dedicates an entire sura [chapter ed.n.] to her and mentions her some thirty times. In Muslim countries there are Marian shrines that are the object of veneration and pilgrimage by Christian and Muslim faithful," he said.

"Therefore, I believe that if this happens in Muslim countries, why can't it happen in a Christian country, especially in a historical phase in which we need to define symbols, values and figures that unite religions, spiritualities and cultures?" he asked.

In Allam's opinion, "the Marian pilgrimage of Loreto -- Italy's National Shrine -- could represent a moment of meeting and spiritual gathering between Muslims and Catholics, around Mary, a religious figure that is venerated by both religions."

Vittorio Messori, author of book-interviews with Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI), also wrote in Il Corriere della Sera on June 15 in support of Allam.

He said that the dialogue between Christians and Muslims "can begin afresh from Mary."


A Peaceful Form of Islam at the Delta of the Ganges
Teaching it is a Muslim philosopher from the university of Dhaka, side by side with Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu instructors. Here is an interview he gave to a Catholic missionary

by Sandro Magister

ROMA, May 15, 2006 – In his first important address to Muslim representatives, which he gave in Cologne on August 20, 2005, Benedict XVI wanted to speak to the “educators” in particular. The pope said on that occasion:

“You guide Muslim believers and train them in the Islamic faith. Teaching is the vehicle through which ideas and convictions are transmitted. Words are highly influential in the education of the mind. You, therefore, have a great responsibility for the formation of the younger generation. As Christians and Muslims, we must face together the many challenges of our time. There is no room for apathy and disengagement, and even less for partiality and sectarianism.”

Are there any educators in the Muslim world who already embody this hope expressed by Benedict XVI? The answer is yes.

One of these is a Muslim from Bangladesh. His name is Kazi Nurul Islam. He is the creator and director of a department at the university of Dhaka, the capital, that is dedicated to the world religions. The major religions are taught by instructors who profess the same faith that they teach. A Catholic priest with a degree in theology teaches Christianity, and the same is true for Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism: it is the only example of its kind in the Muslim world. Kazi Nurul Islam is married to Azizun Nahar Islam, the director of the philosophy department at the same university.

Bangladesh is one of the most populated Muslim countries in the world. 10 percent of the population is Hindu, while the Christians are a small minority of just 4 out of a thousand.

Last August 17, three days before the pope delivered the address in Cologne cited above, terrorist organizations executed the simultaneous explosion of 400 bombs in various areas of Bangladesh, killing and wounding many and spreading great fear.

But more than the bombs – and the death threats he has received – professor Kazi Nurul Islam says that what concerns him is the growth in his country of Islamic fanaticism, which is spread by hundreds of madrassas, the schools for teaching the Qur’an to boys and young men.

To this fanatic indoctrination, Kazi Nurul Islam counterpoises “an education for the peaceful and harmonious coexistence among the various religious traditions through the understanding of each other’s faith. This understanding is not merely intellectual, but experiential, and comes about through a concrete encounter with the other.”

These last words come from a Catholic missionary who has met with professor Kazi Nurul Islam on many occasions.

These encounters gave rise to the following interview, published in Italy in the May edition of “Mondo e Missione [World and Mission],” the monthly journal of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, to which the interviewer, Fr. Francesco Rapacioli, belongs:

“Ignorance is the mother of hatred”

Interview with Kazi Nurul Islam

Q: Professor Kazi Nurul Islam, how did you get the idea of founding a department of religious studies at the university of Dhaka?

A: I need to go back to my family history, to an experience that forever marked my father’s destiny and my own. Once, when I was a boy, I asked my father what areas I should study. He replied: “I was born into a Muslim family, but for the first years of my life I received my mother’s milk from a Hindu woman. In this country, these two communities hate each other. If you could somehow help the Muslim and Hindu communities to coexist peacefully, you would make me the happiest person in the world.” At that moment, I made a sort of promise that marked all of my later professional choices, and my life itself.

Q: What studies did you undertake?

A: Initially, political science. But since I had an exceptional philosophy teacher, Aminul Islam, in the end I turned toward philosophy, and in 1971 I obtained my master’s.

Q: What are your memories of your years at the university, and those immediately following?

A: During my years at the university, I considered myself an atheist. In 1971, during the war for the liberation of Pakistan, I became a partisan. One day I was captured by the Pakistani army and condemned to death. I remember that, while they were bringing me and one of my fellow fighters to the place where we were to be shot, I made a sort of prayer: “God, if you exist, save me!” I experienced a tremendous peace, and I was convinced that Allah had truly heard my prayer. Our captors suddenly changed their minds, and instead of wasting a bullet they decided to throw us into the river. I come from Barishal, in the south of Bangladesh, where there are many rivers and the children learn to swim at a very young age, so I was able to save myself. After this dramatic experience, I again began to believe and to practice my Islamic faith.

Q: Didn’t you have any other crises of faith?

A: Just the opposite: later experience confirmed my faith in God. I often think about everything I have received in my life, and I thank God for it. I also feel a serious responsibility toward others and toward all of creation. Many in this country are tempted to fanaticism, and I feel a responsibility toward them. On the day of judgment, perhaps I will be able to tell God that I accomplished something.

Q: How did you continue to cultivate your interest in religion?

A: Even though I had received a number of invitations from universities in the West, in 1976 I decided to go to Varanasi, known also as Benares, the sacred city of the Hindus, where I remained for five years. I learned enough Sanskrit to be able to do research on the original texts of the Hindu scriptures. I wrote a thesis on the Vedantas, or Upanishads. I had been married the year before that, in 1975, and I convinced my wife, who is also a teacher, to accompany me to Benares to study Buddhism. My wife wrote a thesis on the nature of the suffering in Islam and Buddhism, and as far as I know she is the only Muslim woman who has systematically studied this religion.

Q: Then you returned to Bangladesh.

A: In 1980, I returned to teach philosophy at the university of Dhaka. Already at Varanasi I had realized the necessity of founding a department of religious studies. Three years later, I tried to persuade the college of professors of the necessity for a department of comparative religious studies, but the attempt failed, mainly because the teachers’ group was not convinced that I was really capable of meeting the challenge. At that point, my wife and I went to England: my wife studied Christianity at the university of Birmingham, while I studied Islam and Judaism. The following year, in 1991, I went to the university of Tokyo to study the field of aboriginal religions. I learned to speak Japanese fluently.

Q: One might say that your understanding of religion is essentially academic.

A: That’s not the case. My approach to the religions has never been simply based upon books: I have always wanted to encounter a concrete community living out the faith in question, visiting their temples and participating in their rituals and prayers. For me, the encounter with a religion is primarily a living and existential experience.

Q: Can you give an example?

A: In Varanasi, I was able to enter a temple where Muslims are forbidden access. I don’t have the religion to which I belong written across my forehead! This seems very important to me: it is only by participating in a community’s religious life that I can know that community from within and understand its faith. Following this, I spent some time in China in order to study Taoism and Confucianism. I also learned the rudiments of Mandarin Chinese.

Q: How were you received in Bangladesh after returning from this long period spent abroad?

A: The teachers’ group at the university was finally convinced that my proposal to institute a department of religious studies was serious, and that I would be able to see it through. In 1996, when the Awami League, the party that is currently in the opposition, won the government, I finally obtained permission to establish the department, and in 1998 it received its definitive approval. But it was not easy.

Q: What difficulties did you have to face?

A: The first problem was the very name of the department, “comparative religious studies,” which did not correspond to the nature of the courses proposed and left room for misunderstandings. After much reflection, I thought of the name “World Religions Department.” I spoke about it with some friends, both in Bangladesh and elsewhere, and they all responded enthusiastically. The department was renamed at this time, even though the syllabus, the catalog of study materials, remained the same.

Q: How does this department distinguish itself?

A: As far as I know, it is the only example of its kind in Asia, and the only such example in the Muslim world. Here each religion is taught by a person who, in addition to understanding the religion he teaches, also practices it. This is true of each of the five major religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism.

Q: More than a university career, this seems to be a vocation that you have.

A: I feel very strongly my responsibility to illuminate the minds of my students, helping them to cultivate a strong ethical fiber. I feel this as my mission.

Q: Was there much opposition to the department at the beginning?

A: Yes. At the beginning of this adventure I received anonymous telephone calls at home and at the university, threatening me with death, threatening to kidnap my family, etc. I always tried to convince the person I was speaking with to come visit me so that I could explain the reasons that had driven me to undertake this initiative.

Q: Is the number of fanatics in Bangladesh increasing?

A: Yes, and in an alarming way! If the governors do not give adequate attention to the problem of education, above all in the Qur’anic schools, the future of Bangladesh is decisively in peril. Those who are now being educated in the madrassas will in the future constitute a burden and a real threat to the country. The madrassas do not teach history, geography, or science. Even though there are provisions for the teaching of the various religions, like Christianity and Hinduism, these subjects are absolutely not among the material studied. Unfortunately, the government seems hardly concerned about this worsening situation.

Q: How would you describe the situation today?

A: There continue to be some forms of opposition. Last August, after the simultaneous explosion of around 400 bombs all over the country, I was interviewed on television. I said that those who had carried out this act should be considered not only as not Muslim, but even as not human. I am not afraid of dying for a cause that I consider just and worthy. I do not belong to any political party, and I feel free to say what I think.

Q: What is the situation in nearby Pakistan?

A: The situation in Pakistan is worse than ours. I have visited the country many times, as recently as a few months ago. The people there are generally more fanatical than our people are. In Bangladesh the majority of people are peaceful and peace-loving. But we still need an enlightened leadership in order to confront the growing fanaticism.

Q: What are your dreams?

A: The first is to create a library at the university where the students and even the common people who wish to can obtain all the information on the major religions. There are no libraries of this sort in Bangladesh, where anyone, from morning to night, can consult texts of this kind. The department’s current library is open to students from morning until midnight.

My second dream is for a museum of the religions. I have already seen how effective it is to show videos on the various religions, with pertinent explanations before and after them. Approaching a religion is an experience of life, and I would like to permit everyone to form an idea of the rituals, art, and different traditions of each religion. The university faculty seems willing to grant me the necessary space, but the funds must be found. I don’t know if I will succeed in my intention, but I want to try, and to make in this way my little contribution to fulfilling the task my father entrusted to me those many years ago.


The Madonna of Kazan

The Madonna of Kazan Has Worked a Miracle in Her Homeland: Peace among the Religions
The pope gives back the highly venerated icon to the Russian Orthodox. But Muslims and Jews will welcome it, too. A report from Tatarstan, a rare model of peaceful coexistence among the faiths

by Sandro Magister

ROMA - This August 28, the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God in the Orthodox calendar, John Paul II will give back to the patriarch of Moscow the sacred icon of the Madonna of Kazan now kept in the Vatican, in the pontifical palace.

The pope will send a delegation for the handing over. But first - he made this known - he will carry out in Rome an act of devotion to the sacred icon, which "it has always been his fervent desire to restore to the veneration of the Russian people." His hope is that "this gesture may contribute to dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church."

The icon depicts the Virgin with the child Jesus, and was originally held at the Russian monastery of Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, a region along the central course of the Volga.

In 1209, during the Tartar invasion, the icon disappeared, reappearing almost four centuries later, in 1579.

In 1904 it disappeared again, stolen, until in 1960 it was bought by a collector in the United States, who donated it to the Marian shrine of Fatima.

In 1993, thanks to a two million dollar donation from the international Catholic organization "Armata Azzurra," headed at the time by American bishop Edward Michael Egan, the icon was given to John Paul II.

And now the pope is giving it back to Russia. He would gladly bring it in person - he wanted to do so in 2003, as a stage of his planned visit to Mongolia, which was later cancelled - but archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the vice-president of foreign affairs for the patriarchate of Moscow, made it known that "the questions of a visit by the pope to Russia and of the restoration of the icon to the Orthodox Church cannot be confused."

The patriarchate has also expressed doubts about the authenticity of the work, which they believe is not the original, but a 16th century copy. And the final resting place of the icon is also uncertain. The return will take place in Moscow. But the mayor of Kazan, Kamil Ischakov, is asking that the icon be given to the cathedral of the Annunciation, in occasion of the thousand year anniversary of the founding of the city which will be celebrated in August of 2005.

Ischakov is Muslim, as is half the population of Tatarstan. But his veneration of the Mother of Jesus shouldn¿t come as a surprise. Tatarstan is today a precious model of the peaceful coexistence of the faiths that are in conflict almost everywhere else in the world: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. It is also a model of good relations among Orthodox and Catholics.

It is the model you will find described in this report by an Italian traveler, a Catholic, who recently returned from the region. The article appeared in the newspaper "Il Foglio" on Saturday, July 31, 2004:

Kazan, Tatarstan, Summer 2004. How Muslims, Christians, and Jews Have Made Peace

by Pigi Colognesi

KAZAN - Seen from the banks of the Volga, the city¿s kremlin offers an immediate and effective image of present-day Tatarstan and the reasons why its governors are proud of their model.

To the left, the blue onion domes of the Orthodox cathedral stand against the backdrop of the sky. Like the overwhelming majority of places of worship, this one was taken away from believers during the Soviet period, and is now being restored. Everyone is hoping that the cathedral walls can host the most important and famous of the city¿s icons, the Madonna of Kazan, now in the Vatican, which John Paul II has given to the patriarchate of Moscow as a sign of the re-establishment of peace and of readiness for dialogue with the Orthodox.

Looming on the right is the imposing bulk of the new mosque, with its great dome and the four minarets at the peak of which shine golden crescent moons. Before Ivan the Terrible arrived, Tatar historians say, there was already a mosque here, and it is right to build a new one for the faithful of Mohammed. They are hurrying forward the work on the mosque, just as on the cathedral. Both will need to be ready for August 30, 2005, the solemn celebration of the millennium of the founding of the city.

Between the cathedral and the mosque there are vast buildings in the neoclassical style. These are the buildings of the national government, the offices and residence of the unquestioned protagonist of political life in Tatarstan, the president of the republic, Mintimer Saripovic Saimiev. He is the originator of the farsighted policy of impartiality that holds in respectful equilibrium the two principal communities of the republic: the Orthodox Russians and the Muslim Tatars.

Tatarstan is about the size of Ireland, and it occupies a territory situated roughly 500 miles to the east of Moscow. The population is less than 4 million, of which more than 1.1 million live in the capital. About half of them are Orthodox Russians, the other half Muslim Tatars.

At the beginning of the 1990¿s, coexistence between the two ethnicities was not easy; especially in the Tatar camp there was a strong desire for independence from Moscow and for ethnic and religious revanchism. It was Saimiev who understood that the situation might become explosive and bring the republic to a Chechen-type crisis. He obtained from Moscow ample political and economic autonomy; he met many of the requests of Tatar nationals (the use of their language, teaching of traditional culture, the reconstruction of their places of worship), but without forgetting the demands of the Russians. The most radical fringes were silenced (even the Arab "missionaries" who had come to Tatarstan to spread fundamentalism abandoned the project) and now the coexistence of the country¿s two major communities is completely peaceful. Like the buildings of the kremlin, the laws and political decisions hold in stable equilibrium cathedral and mosque. [...]

In downtown Bauman Street there is the so-called "baptistry," which recalls the forced Christianization imposed by the Russians after the conquest. Now shops and a small concert hall stand there. The Tatars are not very fond of this cumbersome monument. It is there to recall an historical moment of vexation and opposition. First the Tatars, who converted to Islam in 922, overcame the Christians and imposed tribute on the Orthodox for centuries. Then the Orthodox limited the religious liberty of the Muslims and imposed the faith on many of them by force, until Catherine II gave them back a minimum of liberty. Finally the Soviets wiped out everything. And now that a certain degree of peace has been won, no one has any intention of reopening the chapter of historical recriminations. On the contrary, in a sign of a complete return to peace, they want to recognize everyone¿s faults in order to turn their backs upon these. Thus, if in the middle of the Kazanka river the Russians built a memorial to the Christian victims of the conquest of Kazan, now the president, a Tatar, wants to build one for the Islamic victims.

It is precisely this policy of pacification that inspires such pride in Ludmila Andreeva, vice-president of Kazan¿s parliament with particular responsibility for national and religious problems, who displays all of the data that confirm the success of her efforts: bilingual schools, instruction tailored for each national entity, television broadcast time for all, respect of the different holidays, the restitution and restoration of houses of worship. "All of our visitors," she concludes with satisfaction, "are surprised by the tolerance that imbues the city. This makes Kazan an example for the whole world."

Valiulla Chazrat Jakupov, vice-president of the organization that embraces all the Muslims of Tatarstan, is also satisfied. He describes his country as an "exceptional place in the world, where tolerance has withstood the test of time and where for decades not even a drop of blood has been spilled in ethnic or religious conflicts."


The young vice-mufti, impeccably dressed in western style, explains how the miracle of tolerance was possible. "The first reason is the very nature of the Islam that we profess, which is of a tolerant character because our people accepted this religion with full spontaneity, without any sort of imposition. While other people were forced to accept the faith of Mohammed, for us the acceptance of the proposal that came to us more than one thousand years ago from the caliphate of Baghdad was completely free, deliberate, and of a high intellectual level. Analogously, it must be remembered that the Russians did try to convert us by force, but they never carried out a policy of genocide or of deportation. The most difficult period - for us as for the Orthodox - was that of the Soviets; of the 14,500 mosques in Tatarstan at the beginning of the twentieth century, there remained, at the end of Bolshevik domination, only 80. Our problem now is definitely that of education: 90 percent of Tatars are self-proclaimed Muslims, but this is more a matter of an ethnic tradition than of a convinced faith. The percentage of those who attend the mosque regularly is significantly lower. It is easy to build mosques, but not so easy to instruct the people in faith. For this reason, we are stressing the importance of schools for the formation of mullahs and teachers. Our relations with the Orthodox are very cordial now, thanks in part to the good offices of the government; we even have social projects that we share, or at least coordinate. Similarly, we have good contacts with other religious minorities; our only difficulties are with the new sects with foreign financing. We do not accept any kind of fundamentalism. Some call our faith ¿euro-Islam¿ because we believe that the teachings of the Koran can be united with tolerance and democracy. Do you want some examples? All of our offices are elective; this shows that for us the democratic spirit is innate within the religion we profess. We are also very liberal in regard to women: there is no obligation to wear a veil or anything like that; we even have schools for the formation of the young women."

But doesn¿t anyone object that this interpretation of Islam is a little but heretical? The vice-mufti smiles: "Not a bit of it. It is the Koran that affirms that religion must be free. If a Muslim abandons our faith to embrace another, we do not oppose his choice; we ask what we ourselves did not do or where we went wrong in such a way as to lead him to this decision."


The pastor of the Orthodox half of the country is named Anastasij. He does not live in the cathedral being reconstructed in the kremlin, nor in the historic see adjoining the flamboyant church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, but in the seminary. One understands immediately that for him the most precious good are the future priests to whom is entrusted the responsibility of revitalizing a religious situation heavily compromised by decades of militant atheism. Here, as in the rest of the Federation, the overwhelming majority of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox. But, like a mirror image of the Islam of the Tatars, attendance at the services is minimal, and the response to moral precepts is absolutely unsatisfactory. Anastasij confirms that government policies have brought good results, but he does not paint the scene all in pastels. In his judgment, a certain favoritism toward the Muslims can be discerned. As evidence for his thesis he brings forth the number of mosques either restored or reconstructed: 1,300 as compared to 150 Orthodox churches. "The problem of space is decisive for us, because without structures we cannot set up any kind of educational work, especially for the young."

The bishop accompanies us on a visit to the seminary, his dearest creation. There are eighty young men preparing for the priesthood here (it takes five years to become a priest) and a structure is in preparation for the young women (many of them will become priests¿ wives). There are libraries (with important holdings of ancient books), a large conference room, and even a computer room. Anastasij confirms that relations with the Muslims are very good, in part because "we must both face the same problems connected with the loss of religious consciousness, moral decay, and social and economic difficulties. Like them, we must also resist the incredible invasion of the sects."

We ask whether he would have liked to have hosted John Paul II, who in 2003 wanted to deliver personally the icon of the Madonna of Kazan. Anastasij becomes defensive, and maintains that these are problems of ecclesiastical politics that he very willingly leaves to his superiors in Moscow. It¿s enough for him if he can do his work in peace. Moscow is far away, and the bishop of Kazan certainly has nothing of the anti-Catholic prejudice that one encounters so frequently in the capital. On the contrary; he says he is a close friend of the Catholic pastor of the city, and that he collaborates with him very fruitfully.


The Orthodox and the Muslims do not occupy completely the religious panorama of Tatarstan. One prominent minority group is the Catholic parish, entrusted for nine years to an Argentinian priest, Fr. Diogenes Urquiza, of the congregation of the Incarnate Word. Traditionally, the Catholic community is composed of foreigners who have arrived here for the most disparate reasons: work, deportation, marriage, business. They do not yet have a church, but the local government is considering assigning to them - in conformity with the general policy of impartial collaboration with all confessions - a plot of land near the very centrally located basketball courts.

Fr. Diogenes accompanies us through the ruins of dilapidated houses until we emerge in a forecourt full of weeds, in the middle of which stands a cross. "Here will be the Catholic church and the parish home," he says with satisfaction. "There is still some opposition on the part of the Church of the Old Believers (a schismatic group within Orthodoxy), who have a church next to this spot, but this opposition should be overcome soon. In this way we can improve upon our current meeting place, which is frankly rather inconvenient." It sure is inconvenient! The ancient and spacious Catholic church was used during the Soviet era to house a wind tunnel, which cannot be disassembled, and the provisional church is a chapel located in a cemetery. "Apart from the fact that the location is rather difficult to reach (there are faithful who spend hours on buses and trams to get there), the problem is that there is meager space for the many activities we would like to carry out. And then, just think of celebrating a baptism or a marriage within the boundaries of a cemetery!"


But these things certainly cannot block the initiative of the young pastor, who for two years has been joined by two brother priests. He does not engage in proselytism (to use the abhorred word that the patriarch of Moscow always brandishes to attack the Catholics), but neither does he renounce missionary activity. There are episodes of conversion, especially from Islam. Fr. Diogenes recalls the case of a Muslim public official who came with his daughter on a courtesy visit on Easter. The daughter was fascinated by the Catholic liturgy and began to ask questions about Jesus. After a period of adequate formation, she asked to be baptized. Her father was understandably alarmed, and asked the pastor to postpone the event at least until the girl had finished her schooling. Probably he thought it was a youthful infatuation that would quickly pass. But when the young woman decided definitively to be baptized, her father did not resist. It may be that the "model of coexistence" in Tatarstan is an element of government propaganda, but the fact remains that this kind of tolerance is completely unthinkable in almost all the Muslim-majority countries. The young ex-Muslim is now preparing to become a religious sister.


In the area of Catholic-Orthodox relations, the situation in Kazan is a thousand miles away from the acrimony one breathes in Moscow. We have already mentioned the friendship between Fr. Diogenes and Metropolitan Anastasij, but surprising things happen on a parochial level as well. One evening, we take the car and go with Fr. Diogenes to the lager. This sad word now simply means in Russia the summer camps for young people. We arrive at an old Soviet structure, with a picture of Lenin at the entrance. In barracks poorly converted into a dormitory and kitchen, about thirty children prepare for the camp¿s concluding celebration. The striking thing is that they are children from both the Catholic and the Orthodox parishes. Where the program provided for catechesis, they did this together when the lesson presented no dogmatic difficulties, and separately when there was something specific that needed to be explained.

Shortly before the celebration around the campfire, Fr. Ioann, the Orthodox pastor, arrives accompanied by his strikingly blond wife and their daughter, the youngest of their four children (the first two - as by tradition - are at the seminary, and the third was a participant at the camp). Fr. Ioann speaks freely and abundantly; he wants to make sure that we know how proud he is of his collaboration with the Catholic priest, and he is happy to reaffirm that there is substantial unity between the two confessions. At the end he wants to seal with the most classic of Russian toasts his friendship with Catholics, including the journalist who has come from Italy and his accompanying translator. In a precarious dining room threatened by insects of every kind, he raises the plastic cup that acts as a goblet and toasts his friendship with Fr. Diogenes and his confreres. If his two sons, the future priests, are like him, there will be more room for dialogue and freedom for all.


Another important minority in Kazan is the Jewish one. The synagogue, with its adjoining cultural center, school, and meeting hall, is kept up very well in western style. The director of the Jewish center tells us that about 500 young people attend the high school, and as many go to the youth center. The entire Jewish community of Kazan numbers approximately ten thousand persons. Obviously, comments the bearded head rabbi, Yiutzchak Gorelik, many come to the synagogue only for celebrations of life¿s central moments: marriages and funerals. He, too, is satisfied with the tolerant government policies that permit the believers of all religions to "feel at home in Kazan. Of course, we cannot pray together with the faithful of other religions, but we respect each other reciprocally. I have been here for seven years, and I cannot recall a single occasion on which we Jews have been offended in any way." [...]

Our voyage concludes with a meeting with Igor Kornilov, the head of the "soviet po delam religij," the office for religious affairs. His office is in the tower at the entrance to the kremlin, and he receives us with a bunch of statistics at hand on the situation of the religions in Tatarstan, and with a few scientific publications. To the objection that there is in fact a state preference for Muslims, he has a ready reply: "Because there are more mosques than cathedrals? Building a mosque is easier and cheaper. Also, the Muslims are distributed more diffusely than the Christians, so mosques are needed for more limited areas than is the case for Orthodox territorial organization."

Maybe that¿s not really how it is. But what is important is that, even if Tatarstan is not heaven on earth, at least it shows a way of coexistence that until now has proven attainable and fruitful for all.


Worldwide Islam Has an Oasis of Democracy: Mali  (June 8, 2006)
From Timbuktu and Bamako comes a lesson for the entire Muslim world: a secular detachment from politics and peace with the other religions. The Muslim president asks for the blessing of the Catholic archbishop

by Sandro Magister                                

ROMA - Is Islam compatible with democracy? Yes and no, replies the Vatican. "La Civiltà Cattolica" - the magazine of the Rome Jesuits printed with authorization from the secretariat of state for each issue - is the "No" voice. In an editorial last February 7, they wrote that because democracy "takes the sovereignty away from Allah and transfers it to the people," this "for a faithful Muslim is an act of disbelief."

But one country in sub-Saharan Africa is a living contradiction of the skeptics. Islam has been present there for almost a thousand years; 82 percent of its inhabitants are Muslim. They belong to the Sunni tradition, with a contingent that follows Wahhabi rigorism. They are extremely poor, with an average annual per capita income of 230 dollars, and poverty and freedom almost never go together. They belong to various tribes, which in many African countries is the root of incurable conflicts. And yet, democracy flourishes there. The country is Mali, between the Niger river and the Sahara desert (in the photo, a mosque).

Among the 47 countries in the world with a majority Muslim population, there are only two that the New York think tank Freedom House classifies as fully "free": Mali, and neighboring Senegal.

Mali´s behavior is also impeccable in terms of religious liberty. The Italian section of Aid to the Church in Need, which publishes every year a report on religious liberty in the world, has never noted any abuses there. In Mali, they wrote, "there are no legal obstacles to conversion from one religion to another, and missionaries may work freely; the Muslim majority is tolerant toward the other confessions."

A year ago, in the Vatican, the fear was that the war in Iraq would make this oasis of religious peace fall prey to Islamic fundamentalism. But nothing of the kind took place. Amadou Toumani Touré, currently the president of Mali, says: "What we have here is an Islam that is very ancient, tolerant and enlightened. We see nothing in our religion that would prevent us from being democratic."

Yaroslav Trofimov, who published a long correspondent piece from Mali in the June 23, 2004 edition of "The Wall Street Journal Europe," highlights the native historical roots of this peculiarity: "Unlike in much of the Muslim world, democracy is seen here as an outgrowth of hallowed local traditions, not an alien innovation."

In Mali, Songhay farmers, Arab merchants, Peul breeders, and Tuareg nomads all live together. For centuries, before the arrival of the French at the end of the 1800´s, there was an alternation of multiethnic empires which, together with religious tolerance, cemented the coexistence of the different tribes and generated a solid national awareness. Ethnic conflicts were healed by creating kinship bonds between victors and vanquished. Crossroad cities like Timbuktu, the "city of 333 saints," a landing point for the merchants who returned up the Niger river and a departure point for the caravans heading toward the Mediterranean, reinforced these bonds.

In the second half of the 1900´s, after the end of French domination, Mali fell victim to a pro-Soviet dictatorship and to terrible famines. In 1991 Touré, at the time lieutenant colonel, headed the revolt that overthrew the dictatorship. But the military strike ended there. Touré organized free and peaceful elections for the next year, without running in them. A history scholar, Alpha Oumar Konaré, was elected and then re-elected in 1997, removing himself after the second four-year term, in obedience to the limit fixed by the constitution.

One of the last gestures of outgoing president Konaré, on June 5, 2002, was to go and pray, he being a Muslim, in the Catholic cathedral of the capital of Mali, Bamako, at the tomb of the venerated archbishop Luc Sangaré, who had recently died. At his first inauguration, in 1992, Konaré had gone to the archbishop to ask for "words of wisdom for the challenging task awaiting him," and had received his blessing. Now he was returning to give thanks and to "ask forgiveness for everything he had been unable to achieve." This gesture and these words were made known by the new archbishop, Jean Zerbo, in a testimony made public by the Vatican news agency "Fides."

In 2002, during the last presidential election, Touré, the author of the 1991 revolt, presented himself as an independent candidate; he won, and he included in his government representatives of all of the parties, including the main party among those defeated.

In 2003, Touré´s mediation was decisive in the liberation of the European tourists kidnapped by Islamist guerillas in nearby Algeria, and held in the north of Mali. The United States included Mali among the beneficiaries of the "Millennium Challenge," an aid program for poor countries with good standards of government.

On May 30, 2004, regional elections were held in Mali. Abdramane Ben Essayouti, the imam of the principal mosque of Timbuktu, told Trofimov on the eve of the vote: "I am neutral and I will vote for no one. In case of problem between parties, it will be up to us in the civil society to intervene and restore peace, and how could we do it if we´re not impartial?"

This distance from politics on the part of religious leaders also belongs to the traditions of Mali. And hence the coexistence among Islam, the African animist religions, and the small but vibrant Christian minority.

In spite of the Muslim prohibition of alcohol, in the villages they make and drink millet beer. Nude men and women bathe tranquilly in full view, in the Niger. In Bamako, the faithful who gather in the new mosque built by the Saudis do not forswear the symbols of the animist religions: monkeys´ heads, dried mice, and snake skins.

Even the rigid Wahhabis make adjustments. "It is in everyone´s interest for Mali to remain secular," opines Mahmoud Dicko, the imam of the Wahhabi mosque of Bamako and director of the Islamist radio station of the capital.


The Other Islam: Scholarly, and Written with a Sharp Pen  (June 2006)
Her name is Latifa Lakhdar. To orthodox Muslims, she flirts with heresy. But she also says things that are troubling to Catholics engaged in interreligious dialogue. One of her loves? Saint Augustine

by Sandro Magister    

Latifa Lakhdar is Tunisian, Muslim, a student of Mohamed Arkoun at the Sorbonne. She teaches in the faculty of human and social sciences at the university of Tunisia. She has written important books, notably on the condition of women in Islamic societies.

Her basic thesis is that the Islamic fundamentalism of today, including the terroristic form, is not a loose cannon, but is all of a piece with Islamic orthodoxy: that of the university of Al Azhar, of the Grand Muftis, of the acclaimed theologians, of the imams who preach in the most important mosques, of the Islamic monarchies and governments. It is with this same Islamic orthodoxy that the Catholic Church attempts to dialogue.

She presented this controversial theme last October 11 in Riccione, Italy, at a conference entitled "Islam and Democracy." The bimonthly periodical "Il Regno" ("The Kingdom") published by the Sacred Heart Fathers of Bologna printed the text of her address in its edition dated October 15, with the title "Othodoxy and Fundamentalism: The Obstacles to a Modern Muslim Mindset."

Let´s consider how Latifa Lakhdar presents her thesis in this article. The premise is positive: Islam, "just as the optimists say, can be the foundation of a Muslim mindset that is modern, enlightened, and liberal." Nor is it true that there is no renewal underway. Lakhdar adduces as an example the case of Iran, where the situation is more advanced than is generally believed.

And yet, the task is both great and urgent. It must proceed through "a demystification of the line of demarcation between Islamic orthodoxy and fundamentalism."

This demystification "consists in treating the fundamentalist movement, which is now the most problematic expression of Islam and the one most targeted by public opinion, not as a movement in schism with respect to orthodoxy (as tends to be the unspoken appraisal), but as it is in fact; that is, as a movement at the heart of an orthodoxy that has been fixed, closed, and dogmatized at least since the 5th century after the Hegira [translator´s note: the departure of Mohammed from Mecca], and which has lived ever since in the past... barricaded behind the theological fences of the classical age of Islam."

This antimodern rigidity of Islamic orthodoxy did not remain untouched by the movements of renewal (nadqha) and reform (islah) of the 19th century. "These thinkers wanted to go beyond taqlid (tradition) and naql (literalist conformity), which are the real mechanisms of the perpetuation of orthodoxy, but they tried to use a model that belonged to the past, in this case the prophetic model. Drawing from sources of truth from the past, their discourse could not but be traditional and therefore incapable of participating effectively in the critical reformation of orthodoxy."

This orthodoxy took advantage of their failure, "as demonstrated first by the historical success of Wahhabism, a movement that took its doctrine from Sunni Hanbalism, and second by the birth and significant social entrenchment of notable groups like the Muslim brotherhoods in Egypt and India."

Coming to the present, Lakhdar shows that there is but a marginal difference "between the orthodox, official, legal, and nonturbulent Islam of the oil producing Arab regimes and the contentious, violent Islam sought by Bin Laden and his ilkÉ The two forms draw from the same theological points of reference, have the same cultural perception, and advance or defend the same social project."

As a typical example of the common foundations of orthodoxy and extremism, Lakhdar cites the "Egyptian disciple of the university of Al Azhar" sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradhawi, who in the 1970´s settled in Qatar, the director of the local university of the Research Centre for Sunna Studies and popular preacher on the satellite television station Al-Jazeera. His discourses "have the effect of a devestating bomb on the modern perception of life in Arab-Muslim societies, and above all on the juridical status of women. In a country like Tunisia, which is in the avant-garde as far as this status is concerned, a number of women are veiling themselves again under the influence of the authority of this sheik."

In consequence, "Islamic fundamentalism will not disappear from the modern scene until orthodox Islam (Sunni or Shiite, it matters little), undergoes a critical revolution."

Lakhdar rejects the prediction made by Gilles Kepel and other European intellectuals of a "decline of Islam." The ones being forced to disappear are rather the modernized Muslim thinkers, like Hassan Hanafi in Egypt, the group "15/21" in Tunisia, and Mahmoud Mohamed Taha in Sudan, who was put to death by the theologian-judge Hassan Al-Turabi, another orthodox expert and an inspiring influence on, and protector of, Osama Bin Laden.

This is because "orthodoxy is the breeding ground of fundamentalism," even when the former condemns the latter with words. And "fundamentalism is currently the politically and ideologically offensive, contentious, demodernizing expression of orthodoxy."

Not even the nationalists who have come to power in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco have contributed to the modernization of Islam. In order to neutralize orthodoxy, they have "statalized" it. And from there the state "lends out the word and the trappings of freedom to the modernist forces"; constrains the moderate middle class to conformity; contains fundamentalist impulses solely by repressive force "without realizing that by doing so it helps them in the mid- to long-term."

In short, if orthodoxy "represents the true obstacle to intellectual modernity," it is because "it has long avoided facing its history."

Its rigidity extends from its formation. "Islamic orthodoxy was determined as definitively closed within a short period of time, in a way unparalleled by the orthodoxy of the other monotheistic religions."

From its beginning, it has had a marked legal and political character. "By the 4th and 5th centuries after the Hegira, the dominant Sunni Islam had practically fixed all of its normative texts. Its theology, ´faith seeking understanding´ as St. Augustine defines it, could not advance Muslim thought beyond the 5th century after the Hegira and was halted through a political decision. What did continue and develop fully was the fiqh, which became, in the course of time and through the accumulation of manuals as numerous as they were impoverished, a mechanism consistent with dispensing the faith essentially through laws and norms..."

"Thus Islam inasmuch as it is orthodox finds itself today reduced to juridical expressions, to sharia or the hudud, a collection of disciplinary and punitive laws. These merely reflect historical contingencies in the text of the Koran, which nevertheless is a powerful, transcendent text, with a language full of signs, symbols, and metaphors. It is a message intended essentially for the soul and for the absolute transcendence of faith."

Lakhdar concludes: "The problem is that Islamic theology has ceased to be a mediator between faith and history, as it should be by its essence, to become mere repetition. As a result, Islam is caught in a great historical paradox: that of a link with the modern world established through a medieval method. It is this paradox that clears the way, once again, for fundamentalism."


The Other Islam. The Peaceful Revolution of the Ismaili Shiites
And this is their manifesto, presented in London by the imam Karim Aga Khan. For a fruitful relationship between the great Muslim tradition and Western civilization

by Sandro Magister                                

ROMA - Last October 19, the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London celebrated its 25th anniversary - like the pontificate of Karol Wojtyla - and for the occasion, the imam of all the Shia Ismaili Muslims in the world, Prince Karim Aga Khan (see photo) gave a speech on the interpretation of the Koran that sounds revolutionary in comparison to the thinking dominant in the Muslim world.

It is revolutionary, but perfectly orthodox. The Ismaili are part of Shiite Islam, the strain according to which - in opposition to Sunni Islam - the interpretation and historical application of the Koran is a never-ending work, always open to new solutions. The Khomeini revolution came from Shiite Islam, but it can also give rise to humanistic and liberal interpretations of the same Muslim faith. It is not an accident that, in the history of Islamic thought, the most original authors and those most open to other faiths and cultures have been, for the most part, Shiites and Ismaili.

Nor should it be overlooked that Iraq - the Muslim country now undergoing the trial of a dramatic passage from tyranny to democracy - has a majority Shiite population, and the one best equipped culturally to meet this challenge.

And so, in the speech with which he began the London seminar on the theme "Word of God, Art of Man: The Qur´an and its Creative Expressions" on October 19, Aga Khan began:

"Rich in parable and allegory, metaphor and symbol, the Qur´an-e-Sharif has been an inexhaustible well-spring of inspiration, lending itself to a wide spectrum of interpretations. This freedom of interpretation is a generosity which the Qur'an confers upon all believers."

He continued:

"As a result, the Holy Book continues to guide and illuminate the thought and conduct of Muslims belonging to different communities of interpretation and spiritual affiliation, in diverse cultural environments. The Noble Qur´an extends its principle of pluralism also to adherents of other faiths. It affirms that each has a direction and path to which they turn so that all should strive for good works, in the belief that, wheresoever they may be, Allah will bring them together."


"The power of its message is reflected in its gracious disposition to differences of interpretation; its respect for other faiths and societies; its affirmation of the primacy of the intellect; its insistence that knowledge is worthy when it is used to serve Allah´s creation; and, above all, its emphasis on our common humanity."

Aga Khan has insisted greatly upon the primacy of knowledge - which is consistent with the Gnostic character of Ismaili thought. He cited the 11th-century Persian poet and philosopher Nasir Khusraw, for whom the true jihad, the real holy war, is fought with the light of knowledge against the darkness of ignorance and intolerance.

And Aga Khan said he was certain that "the light of revelation granted to the Holy Prophet Muhammad" will be victorious. "Its message is still potent in the Muslim world today, although it is sometimes clouded over, distorted and deformed by political interests and by struggles for power over the minds and hearts of people. There are attempts at transforming what are meant to be fluid, progressive, open-ended, intellectually informed and spiritually inspired traditions of thought, into hardened, monolithic, absolutist and obscurantist positions."

In a later speech, also on October 19, Aga Khan addressed the students of the Institute of Ismaili Studies.

He painted for them a contrasted picture of the ummah, the worldwide Muslim community:

"There are the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor, the Shia and the Sunni, the Arab and the non-Arab, the theocracies and the secular states, the search for normatisation versus the valuing of pluralism, those who search for and are keen to adopt modern, participatory forms of government versus those who wish to re-impose supposedly ancient forms of governance. What should have been brotherhood has become rivalry, generosity has been replaced by greed and ambition, the right to think is held to be the enemy of real faith, and anything we might hope to do to expand the frontiers of human knowledge through research is doomed to failure for, in most of the Muslim world, there are neither the structures nor the resources to develop meaningful intellectual leadership."

"Yet," he continued, "there are many across the length and breadth of the Muslim world today, who care for their history and heritage, who are keenly sensitive to the radically altered conditions of the modern world. They are convinced that the idea that there is some inherent, permanent division between their heritage and the world of today is a profoundly mistaken idea; and that the choice it suggests between an Islamic identity on one hand and on the other hand, full participation in the global order of today is a false choice indeed."

As proof of this integration of Islamic identity and modernity, Aga Khan cited some of his avant-garde initiatives in the field of education: Aga Khan University, based in Karachi; the brand-new University of Central Asia, with campuses in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kirgisistan; and the international network of primary and secondary schools in Africa and Asia, all of high quality and with a particular emphasis on humanistic subjects, attended by students from every social level and from various ethnic and religious backgrounds.

But, in conclusion, the imam of the Ismaili Shiites asked the West to take a step in the same direction:

"As more and more nations develop increasingly multi-cultural profiles and as the process of globalisation continues apace, educators are confronted by the challenge to provide to the mainstream population of their society, an informed understanding of the culture and history of minorities domiciled in their midst, as well as other major civilisations beyond their shores. In particular, the West should fill the lack, in its systems of education, of a nuanced knowledge or appreciation of the traditions of the Muslim world." In this connection, Aga Khan said that he was in contact with American universities to try to get them to develop their courses related to Islam. He also announced the upcoming opening of a museum of Islamic art in Toronto.

These words spoken by Aga Khan on October 19 are unusually clear for the spiritual leader of the Ismaili community, which always tends toward an understandable reserve in such matters.

The Ismaili, who number about fifteen million in twentyfive countries, live for the most part in areas dominated by Sunni Muslims and are frequently threatened by acts of hostility on the part of fundamentalist groups.

The area in which they are most numerous is the north of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They also have a significant presence in Zanzibar and eastern Africa.

They have always tended to be reserved in relations with the Catholic Church, as well. The Ismaili imamate has never taken part in interreligious dialogue, much less at the meetings of prayer called for in Assisi by Pope John Paul II.

This general reserve has been balanced during the last few decades with important public initiatives by the Ismaili imamate in the fields of education, social development, and the arts. These initiatives are principally aimed at elevating the quality of life of extremely poor populations in scattered regions, but they are also intended to establish a fertile relationship between the great Islamic tradition and the heights of Western civilization.

It is these actions that make good the words spoken by Aga Khan on October 19. Some Muslim leaders who join in interreligious meetings with representatives of the Catholic Church are masters in producing statements all about dialogue, peace, and pluralism. But their actions, in their respective countries, do not correspond to their words.

For the Ismaili, it is different. The words presented above and their actions are in harmony. Is the Vatican taking notice?


If Europe Denies Itself: A Letter to Europeans from a European Muslim
A lesson from Khaled Fouad Allam to Europeans who have forgotten their Christian identity. John Paul II as St. Francis with the islamic sultans

by Sandro Magister                                

ROMA - Many citizens of Europe can´t even stammer it out. But a Muslim has said it, and put it in writing:

"Europe is in debt to Christianity because, like it or not, that is what has given it its form, meaning, and values. Denying all of this means, for Europe, denying itself."

The Muslim is Khaled Fouad Allam, Algerian by birth, an Italian citizen since 1990, and a professor of Islamic studies at the universities of Trieste and Urbino, a scholar highly respected and followed in ecclesiastical circles.

On the front page of the September 23 edition of "la Repubblica," the most important left-wing secularist newspaper printed in Italy, Allam published an open letter to Europeans that resounds as a severe lesson to all those who, by denying the Christian roots of Europe, in reality annihilate themselves and close themselves off from any acceptance of others.

In his letter - reprinted here below - Allam also gives an interpretation of John Paul II´s vision of Europe: "What can the Holy Father do other than renew constantly St. Francis´ travels to the sultans of the world, toward other cultures and religions?"

Over the next two days, the newspaper of the Italian bishops´ conference, "Avvenire," gave a great deal of coverage to the article by Allam.

And they contrasted it with what took place over those very days in Strasbourg, in the European Parliament.

There, on September 24, an amendment by the European Popular Party aimed at introducing an acknowledgment of the continent´s Christian roots into the future constitution was rejected with 283 votes against, 211 in favor, and 15 abstentions.

On October 4, in Rome, the intergovernmental conference that must approve the new constitution will get underway. The most recent draft limits itself to mentioning, in its preamble, "the cultural, religious, and humanistic heritage of Europe."

Here is the article by Allam, published in "la Repubblica" on September 23, 2003:

A link to the newspaper at which Khaled Fouad Allam is an editorialist:

Io, musulmano nell´Europa cristiana

by Khaled Fouad Allam

While concerns about the decline of Europe are making themselves felt more keenly - drastic demographic contraction and the consequent dramatic aging of the population, economic stagnation, political paralysis, divisions among the European peoples, and intellectual skepticism - perhaps we have not considered what the new Europeans think of Europe; those who, like me, have perhaps lived here for over twenty years, and have embarked here in order to rebuild their lives and hope for a better life.

A Muslim brought up within Islam, I left the land that produced Saint Augustine, Albert Camus, and one of the greatest Islamic mystics, Sidi Abu Meddin. I learned to live within a witnessing Islam, capable of meeting confrontation and encountering others, and for this reason the question of the roots of Europe brings into question my being both European and Muslim. There are many complex and difficult questions at stake, but one of them is essential: the question of the foundations of European identity.

At this moment in history there are Europeans, but no Europe, and the call of John Paul II to consider the question of the Christian roots of the continent assumes a central importance and requires much more than a simple historical and cultural interpretation.

Certainly, many have argued against this approach: some fear that this call could be transformed into a means of infringing upon the principles of secularism; others, appealing to the juridical-constitutional sphere, assert that the task of a constitution is that of organizing relations among the different powers.

These arguments have always seemed feeble to me. What is being discussed is not a constitution, but a European convention, which means a pact that demands that we reconsider the reasons for our staying together and for our shared values, and in the end, that we question ourselves as to how the political arena taking shape can also be an arena of hope. The question the Holy Father asks makes us recognize the fact that political thought cannot be reduced to quantifiable expertise, and that it is always necessary to question politics in order to prevent it from becoming an instrument of manipulation or a cynical expression of power. In the case of the question of Christian roots, the political situation is inviting us to make interpretations, to seek out reasons in order to understand, construct, formulate hypotheses. I have often wondered why the topic of Christian roots still undergoes such sustained polemics, while the word "market," which resounds like a leitmotif throughout the text of the convention, has not provoked any reflection on the relationship between the market and the construction of Europe.

Certainly, at first glance it is possible to make an exclusivist interpretation of the phrase "Christian roots," but this is an incorrect reading, because it does not consider the context in which the question is posed: this question is an extension of the pope´s twenty-five years of activity all over the planet.

In reality, John Paul II´s insistence on the question of the Christian roots of Europe must not be separated from his many initiatives for dialogue: from the prayer meeting in Assisi in 1986 to his meeting with Rabbi Toaff in the synagogue of Rome; from his voyage to Israel to his meeting in the mosque of Damascus with the mufti of that mosque, and, even earlier, his meeting in Casablanca with young Moroccans in 1985. All these things have created a new outlook, a new interpretation of Christianity that the history of past centuries had impeded. And the building of Europe at the beginning of the twenty-first century is taking place in parallel with the shaping of this new Christianity that has broken free from its own history and has interiorized secularization. In effect, what can the Holy Father do other than renew constantly St. Francis´ travels to the sultans of the world, toward other cultures and religions?

The polemics over Christian roots lay bare our contradictions: the refusal to acknowledge these roots is the symptom of a fear, an inner block in regard to everything that European youth, now in their forties, learned on their school benches (crusades, religious wars, St. Bartholomew´s Night, etc.); but history demands a critical and honest distancing.

On cannot escape the fact that our modern political structures are rooted in Christianity: our law and institutions are the fruit of a complex elaboration that this civilization produced, apart from the fratricidal struggles that have marked it in past centuries.

But something even more profound has marked in an indelible way this continent, whose cultural boundaries are varied but in which we recognize a single essence, something that is difficult to elaborate rationally in a univocal way, but is present in the deepest heart of the European character. It is the passion for freedom - or rather democratic passions - and the sense of participating in a common history that have made Christianity the focal point around which Europe has defined itself. It is thus that we are moved by a Christ of Cimabue or find ourselves enchanted by Renaissance Madonnas, that we are carried away by listening to a motet by Bach or Mozart´s Requiem. None of this would have been possible without that debt. Europe is in debt to Christianity because, like it or not, that is what has given it its form, meaning, and values. Denying all of this means, for Europe, denying itself.

The question of Christian roots of Europe, at a moment in which everyone is talking about cultural diversity and multiethnicity, brings up other problems: how can one welcome the other while denying oneself? How can we seal a pact among the communities of the world if Europe refuses to recognize itself? Roots go down into the ground, where they meet, and will meet, other roots. The roots of Christianity are planted in Jewish and Greek soil, and now Christianity is facing Islam, while in the future it will encounter Asia and Africa.

This encounter is possible only if one is aware of one´s own roots. Considering the roots of Europe means considering possible, and sometimes unprecedented, extensions of the continent. Today America, China, and Africa are testing us, each with its own roots made of suffering and hope, while in Europe unease has already taken form, and is spreading. Europe, face to face with itself, is rich in wisdom but must still accept itself. To me, it represents the olive tree in the Koran, in verse 35 of the Sura of Light, which "is neither of the East nor of the West."


Umberto Eco Teaches a Lessson, Too

A few days before the article by Khaled Fouad Allam, another unexpected lesson in favor of the explicit recognition of the Christian identity of Europe in its forthcoming constitution came from an Italian intellectual who is among the most famous in the world, Umberto Eco, a semiologist and novelist, author of the tremendously famous book "The Name of the Rose," and a prominent exponent of secular culture and the left.

Here is how Eco concluded his column, with the headline "The Roots of Europe," in the September 18 edition of the weekly magazine "L´espresso":

"I would not see as inopportune the placement within the constitution of a reference to the Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian roots of our continent, combined with the affirmation that, precisely by virtue of these roots, just as Rome opened its Pantheon to gods of all sorts and placed dark-skinned men upon the imperial throne (and don´t forget that St. Augustine was born in Africa), the continent is open to the integration of all other cultural and ethnic contributions, considering this disposition toward openness as one of its deepest cultural characteristics."


The Other Islam. A Peace-Planning Network Is Born
It´s called ArchNet. It builds a bridge between Islam and the West, and unites Harvard and MIT even the most godforsaken villages of Asia and Africa

by Sandro Magister                                

While the world trembles because of Al Qaeda and the Twin Towers, Bali and Moscow, Chechnya and Iraq, an initiative of true peacemakers is born quietly in the Islamic world.

On Sept. 27 in Cambridge, Mass., Prince Karim Aga Khan, an Ishmaelite Muslim imam, Charles M. Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Lawrence H. Summers, president of Harvard University, inaugurated a new Web site that immediately took its position as the largest on-line resource in the field of Islamic architecture.

Access is free. All you need is a computer. And the immense resources taken from libraries, books, images, collections, essays, lessons, projects, and research -- which until now were inaccessible to myriads of people from poorer countries due to distance and cost -- are today within their reach. And vice versa. A humble clay mosque in a village of Mali, illustrated in a paper by its builder, enters into the on-line archives of a German researcher or a Canadian interested in this chapter of Muslim architecture.

Here´s the link to the new site:

Its design is intentionally simple, aimed at those possessing elementary technological means. Those who access ArchNet have at their disposal their own space for personalized work, into which they can put their work and study materials, subject them to discussion and make them ulterior elements of the global network of knowledge. Those registered -- architects, urban planners, historians, theologians, students -- already number 6,000 from 110 countries, and over two thirds of them are under age 35. But their number is rapidly growing. And even faster is the growth of the cultural resources put on line.

And Harvard and MIT are doing their part. MIT has announced that in a few years it will put all of its courses on-line and has already launched the pilot experiment of this globalization of knowledge:

Mit OpenCourseWare Pilot

L´obiettivo di ArchNet è creare una comunità globale focalizzata sull´architettura musulmana e sui rapporti tra essa e il paesaggio naturale e urbano.

The goal of ArchNet is to create a global community focused on Muslim architecture and on its relationship with natural and urban landscapes.

"God has entrusted creation to us," said Aga Khan, inaugurating the site, "and he has instructed us to make it more beautiful than we found it when we entered it. Islamic architecture historically has been attentive to this. In addition, we are moved by the impulse of the ethics of compassion toward society´s most vulnerable, whomever they may be, independent of nationality, sex, or religion."

The Ishmaelite Islam of which Aga Khan is head has dedicated attention for some time to Islamic architecture and the improvement of buildings and the environment in societies of predominantly Muslim population.