Dialogue with Muslim world must continue

April 19, 2005|By R. K. Ramazani

LET US HOPE that the successor to Pope John Paul II, the first pope in history to step inside a mosque, will continue his unprecedented policy of talking to the Muslim world.

Muslim leaders who expressed sympathy after his death did not do so simply because the pope opposed the invasion of Iraq or spoke out against the wall of separation in the Israeli-occupied territories. They did so because the pope believed firmly that Christianity should engage in a dialogue with Islam.

Western and Middle Eastern cultures have been in contact since ancient times. While the savage 9/11 attacks on America by a handful of Muslim extremists has colored our view of Islam in recent years, the intermingling of Western and Islamic civilizations has benefited Western civilization in many ways.

Muslim philosophy has helped shape Western philosophy. Muslim patterns of arches, courtyards, marbles and fountains have influenced Western architecture. And the English language has adopted as its own such Persian and Arabic trading terms as "bazaar" and "tariff" and Arabic seafaring terms such as "admiral" and "arsenal."

Indeed, the ancient Middle East interacted with Western civilization for thousands of years before the arrival of Islam in medieval times. In recognition of this, the parliament of the Council of Europe declared in 1995: "Our own civilization is a result of this intermingling."

A continuation of this millennial legacy of dialogue and interaction between Middle Eastern and Western civilizations by the Catholic Church will serve the United States' strategic interests in the Middle East. The issues are clear: We get 22 percent of our crude oil imports from the region, we are committed to the peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we are pursuing our fight against the remnants of the Taliban regime and al-Qaida terrorist network.

There is also our determination to create a federal, pluralistic and democratic Iraq as a model of democracy for the entire Middle East. Still, it has never been more important than now to combine military strength with diplomacy.

A robust dialogue with the Middle East also would serve U.S. national interests in the wider Muslim world.

First, we should abandon the mistaken assumption that the Muslim world constitutes a monolithic system. The 54 countries that are considered Muslim and that convene in the Organization of Islamic Conference are very different in size, resources, language, history, culture, society and political system.

Second, Islamic law - sharia - long considered the hallmark of the Islamic character of a state, is by no means practiced universally throughout the Muslim world. Even in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East's most conservative state, where Islamic law forms the theoretical basis of its constitution, sharia is not fully observed in practice. In Nigeria, the largest Muslim country in Africa, Islamic law governs only one province. And in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the most populous states in Asia, Islamic law does not prevail at the national level.

Nor is there a monolithic Islamic view toward the West. Most of the 1.2 billion people of the Muslim world lack firm opinions about the West. Muslim extremists who commit acts of terror are in the great minority, and intellectuals are generally divided into conservative and liberal camps.

Diehard Muslim conservatives may perceive the West as the enemy of Islam, believe that Islam is the solution to all their problems and reject dialogue with the West. But many Muslim liberals tend to see compatibility between Islam and modernity and Islam and democracy. They entertain such ideas as the separation of religion and state, and generally welcome dialogue with the West.

We should hope for a successor to Pope John Paul who will continue to reach out to Muslims. This would further not only world peace but also U.S. interests. Above all, a policy of dialogue by the Vatican and Washington would give hope and encouragement to millions of democracy-minded young people who are demanding social and political reforms that challenge the age-old hold on power of traditionally minded, autocratic rulers throughout the Muslim world.

R. K. Ramazani, a Middle East specialist, is professor emeritus of politics at the University of Virginia.

Columnist Clarence Page will return Friday.

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