The Pope and American Muslims

When John Paul II traveled to Syria in 2000, he became the first pope ever to visit a mosque. He stood in Damascus's Umayyad Masjid, kissed the Qur'an and stated, "For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and to offer each other forgiveness." It's no wonder many Muslims look back on John Paul's reign as the golden days of interfaith relations--and as Pope Benedict XVI's first few years as anything but.

Today, more than a few U.S. Muslims wonder if Pope Benedict is simply tone deaf when it comes to interfaith sensitivity, or if he really does have it in for Islam. During a 2006 lecture at a German university, he quoted these lines from a 14th-century Christian Byzantine emperor: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The lecture spurred outcry and protests, and though Benedict said that he was "very upset" that Muslims were offended, he never clearly apologized. A visit to Turkey, where he prayed in a noted Istanbul mosque, seemed to cool things off ... until Easter Day of this year. At Rome's St. Peter's Basilica, the pope himself baptized Italian journalist Magdi Allam--an Egyptian Muslim who'd moved to Europe and become an outspoken critic of Islam. "The act of conversion itself was not offensive, but rather, the high-profile nature of how the conversion was carried out was insulting to Muslims," said Washington's Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) in a recent statement. "The fact that the conversion took place at St. Peter's Basilica, one of the most sacred locations for Christians, and on the holiest day of the Christian calendar carried a negative message of competition and superiority. Unfortunately, these recent events are neither constructive, nor conducive to effective interfaith dialogue."

Though the pope's first official trip to the U.S. is likely aimed at energizing America's 77 million Roman Catholics, the nation's 8 million Muslims will also be listening--closely--for any comments or clarifications that might soothe Benedict's strained relations with the followers of Islam. Though the pope has not scheduled any sort of meeting specifically with Muslim leaders, he will host an interfaith dinner in Washington, D.C., on Thursday night with 150 representatives of every major world religion. Dr. Muhammad Shafiq, director and imam of the Islamic Center of Rochester, N.Y., and head of Interfaith Studies at Nazareth College, will be one of at least 15 Muslim attendees. "There's an awakening in Muslim America, and we know that we cannot live in isolation," says Shafiq. "We need to be global partners. If I get a chance, I would like to ask [the pope] for an international agreement that will bring us together--a mission statement from each community to abide by. We need that from the pope, and our top Muslim leaders."

Other representatives of Islam in the United States, skeptical about the depth of the pope's commitment, declined the invitation. "We've had no indication that the pope would engage in any meaningful dialogue beyond the exchange of gifts, and perhaps a photo op," said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director at MPAC. "We want a meeting with his bishops and key Muslim figures in the U.S. The topic should specifically be Muslim-Catholic issues. But it doesn't seem to be a priority [for them] right now, even though the pope seems to be a person with very strong views about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad."

For Muslims not on the Vatican's VIP list, the pope's elicits mixed reactions. Zaheer Ali, a doctoral student in history at New York's Columbia University, says the pope's ideas about Islam are not a priority right now in terms of defending the faith. "I'm more concerned about some of the things American religious leaders have to say about Islam," he says. "Pastors Rod Parsley and John Hagee, who are closely aligned with the McCain campaign, have said some really disparaging things about Islam, and a lot of other groups, including Catholics. Political pundits have accepted this idea of the word Muslim being a slur when discussing the 'accusations' that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Those things are more concerning to me than something the pope said."

Political sociologist Younes Abouyoub, who grew up in Morocco, feels that while the pope may not have as much influence in America as he does in Europe, the Vatican should do something to repair relations with the Muslim world. "The pope could explain in his speeches the strong relationship that exists between the three monotheist religions instead of accusing Islam of being a violent and irrational religion," says Abouyoub. "He could mention that Muslims have to believe in the Virgin Mary and Jesus to be considered Muslim. Why not stress the common characteristics--and there are many--instead of mentioning the disparities?"

Highlighting commonalities may be the key to improved relations, especially at a time when new data--cited by the Vatican, no less--shows that Islam has overtaken Roman Catholicism as the biggest single religious denomination in the world. "We know it's important to have dialogue of civilizations," says M. J. Kahn, a Houston city council member and a Muslim. "We believe the more people talk, the better off we will be. But we as Muslims don't need to have some sort of confirmation from the pope to say we're OK. We know we are, it would just be nice if he noticed, too."