When he presented an amateur and xenophobic film about the threat of “rising Muslim demographics” a few weeks ago at the Vatican’s Synod to a group of more than 200 prominent bishops, Cardinal Peter Turkson sent an implicit message: religious pluralism and dialogue with Muslims pose an inherent danger to the Vatican’s New Evangelization, a papal call for the renewed sharing of the Gospel message throughout the world.
The video — which has been viewed over 13 million times on YouTube — intends to incite fear among Christians by pointing to untrue statistics about Muslim population growth. Insisting that Europe and North America will eventually become “Islamic states,” the film calls on “believers” to “wake up” and “share the Gospel message with the world.”
The video claims that engagement and evangelization are at odds. But as a devout Catholic, I don’t see it that way.
For me, dialogue with the Muslim community during my years at Georgetown University hasn’t pushed me towards conversion nor pulled me away from my tradition. It has actually made me a better Catholic.
My time serving as a board member of Georgetown’s Muslim Students Association, living a Muslim living-learning community, and working at an Islamic advocacy organization actually led me from a dry spot in my Catholic faith life to a place of devotion. Witnessing the committed prayer life of a close Muslim friend and her tight-knit community, I wanted to rediscover those things in my own tradition.
When before I questioned my Catholic identity, I now attend nightly Mass on campus, participate in a weekly Bible study, lead retreats, and organize Sunday services. Engagement with individuals who are different from me helped me fall back in love with the Catholic tradition in which I grew up.
Though my experience demonstrates the power of dialogue to strengthen the faith of Catholics, the unfortunate narrative about Muslim-Catholic relations that has dominated news headlines in recent years speaks of tension and discord.
Now, after the screening, Vatican officials are engaging in damage control, scrambling to prevent further degradation in relations between the church and the Muslim community worldwide. The papacy is asserting its commitment to dialogue with Muslims, but that may prove to be a hard sell given Pope Benedict’s track record on the issue.
In 2006, Benedict spoke in Regensburg, Germany, quoting a Byzantine pope who said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman.” The remark drew a quick response from Muslim leaders about the common values espoused by Christians and Muslims. Further tensions flared when Benedict publically baptized a Muslim convert who claimed that his former community was “not an intrinsically good religion,” and the Vatican’s commitment to dialogue was called into question when the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue was temporarily placed under the papal council for culture.
While the Vatican’s poor decisions lacked foresight and likely weren’t intent upon harming Muslim-Catholic relations, these missteps nonetheless served to bolster the dominant view that a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and Christianity is inevitable— that harmony is, at best, a long shot.
Having come across this video two years ago when it was circulated widely online, I was shocked to discover that Turkson, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, presented the video while failing to provide any critical commentary on its implicit message. Met initially with stunned silence, the screening later sparked an intense conversation among the bishops.
The screening, and the sentiment it reveals, illustrate that many in the church perceive a detrimental tension existing between evangelization and dialogue.
While some bishops strongly disapproved of the film, others, who according to Vatican Radio “feel threatened by Islam,” expressed less critical views. Though Turkson tried to backtrack, and insisted that the screening of the film wasn’t meant to incite fear of Muslims “or call Christians to arms,” he has, in the past, argued that theological dialogue with Muslims is not possible.
For me, dialogue with Muslims is not only possible but productive.
My re-embracing of Catholicism would not have been possible without my immersion into the Muslim community. I was struck by the beauty of Islam, and the religion provided me with a reference point from which I could see my own tradition more clearly. Before, I had been too close to really notice the beauty of Catholicism.
Stepping back—just far enough to see how much can be learned from religious differences—saved me.
Now, I’m more committed to my prayer life and I’ve found a home in the Catholic community. Every night, I go to Mass in a dark chapel, grateful for my Muslim friends praying in the Islamic prayer room next door. Without them, I would have abandoned my Catholic identity long ago.
It’s unfortunate that stumbles like the Vatican movie screening grab the headlines, and often end up shaping the broader picture of Muslim-Catholic relations. Because, in reality, the church shares my view about the faith-strengthening implications of dialogue. Just take a look at the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which advocate for openness and dialogue. More often than not, however, that optimistic position gets lost in the slip-ups and blunders that feed the fast-paced news cycle, which thrives on scandal and sensationalism.
The cardinal need not worry. Nor do the makers of the video and others who question the compatibility of dialogue and evangelization. It’s because of Islam that I became a better Catholic.
I thank Islam for facilitating my own experience of the New Evangelization, for helping me to re-embrace the Gospel—the values of faith, hope, and love.
Jordan Denari , a senior in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, serves as a co-president of the student Interfaith Council , and is an active leader in both Catholic and Muslim chaplaincies.