When thousands of furious Muslims rallied in the streets of the West Bank, Pakistan, and Indonesia to protest Benedict XVI's Regensburg address, many commentators spoke with pessimistic alarm about the "clash of civilizations" that had now become increasingly manifest. The reason for this peril, it was claimed, was religion of any kind. Thus, Sam Harris--a dreamer who hopes to achieve the wishful title of his book, The End of Faith, by atheist proselytizing--declared that the pontiff was "merely giving voice to his religious inanities," which could "start a war with 1.4 billion Muslims who take their own inanities in deadly earnest."
But in fact the pope was not pursuing a clash of civilizations. He actually had a quite different vision. "The true contrariety which characterizes the world of today is not that among diverse religious cultures," he noted in a 2005 address, "but that between the radical emancipation of man from God, from the roots of life, on the one hand, and the great religious cultures on the other." He also alluded to the commonalities of the "great religions," which "have always known how to live one with the other."
Of course, in the past two decades the violence perpetrated by the proponents of Islamism--an ideology distinct from Islam as a religion--has created serious doubts about the potential of Islam to live in harmony with others. The reaction to the pope's comments--which, ironically, used violence to proclaim that Islam is not violent--only vindicated those doubts.
And yet, a month after the Regensburg speech, thirty-eight Muslim scholars and leaders around the world signed an "Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI," which was a respectful and scholarly response to the issues he had raised about the Muslim faith. The letter clarified issues relating to violence and reason according to Islam and expressed an appreciation for the pope's self-declared "total and profound respect for all Muslims." The true Islamic goal, the leaders insisted, was to live together "in peace, mutual acceptance and respect."
And, less than two months after that, there came a face-to-face meeting between the Vicar of Christ and the followers of Muhammad. At Istanbul's Sultan Ahmet mosque, Benedict was hosted by Mustafa Cagrici, the mufti of Istanbul and one of the signatories of the open letter. After taking a tour of the seventeenth-century mosque, the pope stood beside the mufti with his face turned toward Mecca "in a moment of meditation." Then he accepted the gift of a ceramic tile inscribed with the words "In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful" in the form of a dove. Placing his hand on the tile, he said: "Thank you for this gift. Let us pray for brotherhood and for all humanity." "Your Holiness," the mufti replied with a smile, "please remember us." What all this suggested is that the convictions of the Osama bin Ladens of the world, like those of the Sam Harrises, are wrong...