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Fr. Khalil Samir S.J., an advisor to Pope Benedict XVI on Islam, writes today that the pope’s speech at Jordan’s University of Madaba was “really the key point of this pilgrimage.” Fr. Samir, who helped prepare the pope’s visit to Jordan, argues that “religion has suffocated the Arab.” On April 30 I called attention to the new Ignatius Press translation of his book, 111 Questions About Islam.

A few years ago Arab academics analysed the situation of scientific knowledge in the Arab world and wrote catastrophic report: from primary school to university the question of the Arab world’s contribution to universal knowledge was posed, and we discovered that it was non-existent. More recently on March 13th, the Algerian journalist Anwar Malek, speaking on Al-Jazeera TV, berated Arabs for having failed to contribute in anyway to progress in this century.

We really have regressed from the scientific point of view. And in the field of religion, we are being suffocated by a religion of form, increasingly controlled from the outside, careful to appearances (to wear the veil, beard, burqua, or Niqab), to the infinite rules that the Imam’s emit in their fatwa. It has come to the point that for even the smallest aspects of private and social life fatwa’s are necessary: it is forbidden to wear lipstick; pluck one’s eyebrows; eat with a Christian; for Shiites and Sunnis to live together…..Dozens and dozens of fatwa’s to regulate how we dress, how a husband and wife make love, how we spend money….All of this is suffocating freedom and it is seen in the absence of science, democracy and freedom.

The pope’s simple, humble and courageous discourse, welcomes science, the critical spirit, freedom. He asks everyone to seek that which is good noble and just. At the same time, he proclaims the right to practice faith, urging the world of non-believers to find ethical foundations. In my opinion this message of Benedict XVI’s is a continuation of the Regensburg address on the relationship between faith and reason. There he developed the theme in a western, Christian context; here he developed it in a Muslim context.

To reduce this discourse to “something that is only for the Muslims” means being short-sighted. The pope spoke to the entire world, even to the west, which is still drowning in relativism, in lack of faith and in contempt for religions. In fact, in his discourse at the al-Hussein bin-Talal mosque the pope warned against the danger of secularism: “we cannot fail to be concerned that today, with increasing insistency, some maintain that religion fails in its claim to be, by nature, a builder of unity and harmony, an expression of communion between persons and with God. Indeed some assert that religion is necessarily a cause of division in our world; and so they argue that the less attention given to religion in the public sphere the better”.

This is a clear criticism of the relativism and atheism of the west. But he also corrects the Muslims by noting that there is some truth in this secular stance: “Certainly, the contradiction of tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions, sadly, cannot be denied?”. But he also clarifies that it is not religion in itself that is the problem, rather “the manipulation of religion”.

“Muslims and Christians,- he concludes - precisely because of the burden of our common history so often marked by misunderstanding, must today strive to be known and recognized as worshippers of God faithful to prayer, eager to uphold and live by the Almighty’s decrees, merciful and compassionate, consistent in bearing witness to all that is true and good, and ever mindful of the common origin and dignity of all human persons, who remain at the apex of God’s creative design for the world and for history.”

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