ISLAM AND CHRISTIANITY, THE ROOTS OF THE CONFLICT An interview with prof. Massimo De Leonardis, head of the Department of Political Sciences of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart

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To discover the origins of such a complex phenomenon as the jihad, we have to go back to the origins of Islam. It is an unusual religion because it is the only one that had a “founder (Muhammad ed) who was a military leader and led the faithful in battle”. Professor Massimo De Leonardis, head of the Department of Political Science at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, explains it to on the sidelines of the conference organized by the Pontifical University Antonianum on the Christian and Muslim testimony to God. We hear about Islam and Christianity every day, sometimes in a context of opposition, sometimes in a context of inter-religious dialogue, but often we do not understand the roots of the current geopolitical scenario. De Leonardis gives us a contribution to understanding, beyond political correctness, the relationship between these two faiths.

Today, the relationship between Christianity and Islam is often envisaged as a conflict; how does Muhammad, the Koran and the historical events related to the constitution of Islam, affect this idea?

While Islam resorted to force from the very beginning in order to proselytize, Christianity “has spread in the first three centuries thanks to the blood of the martyrs, the faith requires a voluntary consent and cannot be imposed by force. The Church did not use temporal power to spread faith, but to defend Christian society against its disturbers”. St. Thomas Aquinas makes it clear that there are unbelievers, like the Jews and Gentiles, who never embraced faith. Yet, they should not be forced to believe: because faith is a voluntary act. However, the faithful have the duty to force them, if they have they can, not to prevent faith in Christ. This is where the argument used by many people on Christianity’s alleged violence comes from. It existed historically, but is not grounded in the sacred texts nor applied by its ‘founder’”.

Islam is marked by a strong monophysitism that lends itself to interpretations favorable to holy war, whose aim is spreading Allah’s cult. Do you think that Islam bears also “historical grudges” towards Christianity and vice versa?

“Recently, the jurist Carlo Cardia recalled an incident that happened during the fruitless bargaining for the signing of an agreement between the Italian state and the Islamic communities. An exponent of the latter asked to include a statement in favor of the restitution of the former mosque of Granada in the report. Cardia ironically replied: ‘you want Granada and we want Constantinople’ and that was it. Yet, you cannot put everything on the same level. First Arab, then Turkish military expansion conquered the whole North of Africa, the Middle East, Spain, Sicily and the Balkans. The Crusades were an attempt to reconquer and European colonialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was not of religious background. The French, for example, followed the principle ‘the Gospel to the settlers, the Quran to the natives’. I fully agree with what Ernesto Galli della Loggia has recently written: ‘To conclude – if actions matter –, I really do not think that there are any wrongs the Muslim world has to forgive Western Europe for.

The Encyclical Pacem in Terris, the first one a pope addressed to all people of good will, claims that peace between peoples is based on truth, justice, love, and freedom. Do you think this may be the key to change the history of conflict between Christians and Muslims?

“The constant Magisterium of the Church has never preached peace at any price. Recently, Joseph Ratzinger recalled this doctrine. ‘Peace and law, peace and justice are inseparably interconnected. When law is destroyed, when injustice comes to power, peace is always threatened and already compromised at least in part. Certainly, the defense of law can and must, in certain circumstances, resort to proportional force. Absolute pacifism, which denies the right to use any means of coercion, would be tantamount to capitulation in front of inequity, it would sanction the seizure of power and would abandon the world to the dictate of violence’. A ‘dialogue’ on the subject of peace between Catholicism and Islam can certainly be looked for on the basis of the principle that we should not kill in the name of God, but to go further on a theological level sounds like an arduous plan to me. ‘If peace is a gift from heaven, a grace’, the utility of prayers for peace that unite representatives of different religions can possibly be political or diplomatic, but it certainly cannot have a supernatural value.”

Is it possible and worthwhile to rediscover common ground between Christianity and Islam in today’s secularized world?

“In fact, the situation has several contradictory elements. Christians in Muslim countries are subject to various degrees of persecution and marginalization, to the point of having to leave the country. At the same time, Catholicism and Orthodoxy share with Islam the defense of some fundamentals of natural law and opposition to sexual relations between same-sex individuals. However Islam admits contraception, which is actively promoted in Iran, for instance, and the destruction of surplus embryos for the purpose of stem cell research, whereas the condemnation of abortion is by no means total. I therefore believe that in some international forums where the secularist thought manifest virulently, tactical convergences between the Holy See and Muslim countries may occur in otder to contrast it. The rest still needs to be built.”

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