Eight centuries ago, Francis of Assisi traveled to Damietta hoping to negotiate a peaceful end to the Fifth Crusade. Francis crossed the Egyptian desert to meet Sultan Malik, commander of the Muslims. While Francis was respectfully received as a man of faith, his mission to end conflict between Crusaders and Saracens was unsuccessful and after a several-day stay as a guest of Sultan Malik, Francis returned safely behind Crusader lines.
Today’s Pope Francis would recognize that it was the Quran, which is to Muslims as Jesus is to Christians, “which was the source of all good things which Francis (of Assisi) discovered in the behavior of the Saracens and which made such an impression on him: their prayer, their faith, their respectful use of the word God. And since all these good things in the Quran did not come from the Saracens, but from God from whom all good comes, Francis wished to also respect the Quran.” (From Francis and Islam by J. Hoeberichts.)
I believe both Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis to be exceptional figures, each reflecting a nuanced understanding of Islam lacking in much of Western contemporary thought – each respecting the Qur’an.
Their recognition of Islam as a monotheistic Abrahamic faith distinguishes them from their contemporaries – and in both cases endured criticism for their principled positions.
Francis of Assisi was heavily criticized for reaching out to Sultan Malik, and Pope Francis has been criticized for his progressive positions on liberation theology, climate change, Islam and on his support of the Palestinian people.
That is not to diminish the inspirational power and beauty of this extraordinary man of faith who is fighting against entrenched privilege and power but when someone writes, as someone recently did, that he is waiting for a Muslim Francis, both Muslims and the pope may well be offended.
Quite aside from the fact that Islam has no central authority as do Catholics – and have no desire for one – the suggestion is presumptuous and Orientalist. Implicit in such a suggestion is a Western assumption that Islam is monolithic. Muslims, however, like their confessional cousins in other traditions, are quite catholic, varied in religious observance and traditions, and range from devout to disenchanted – and to the dispossessed.
After 9/11, America had a choice: either demonize and attempt to disenfranchise from the global community one-sixth of humanity – Muslims – or engage and forge partnerships with peace-loving Muslims in order to delegitimize and destroy the criminals that perpetrated such terrorism.
President George W. Bush chose demonization, and most Arabs and Muslims were immediately marginalized and battle lines were drawn. Americans preached and practiced absolutist doctrines that defined anyone who didn’t agree with them as “terrorists” or “Radical Islamists.” Within that mythology endorsed by Bush and his neo-cons, and supported by a compliant media that yielded to its own fears and ignorance of any world outside the West, America succumbed to the Us versus Them conflict that persists to this day: even the New York Times, enthusiastically encouraged by pundits like Tom Friedman and Roger Cohen, supported the 2003 Iraq invasion.
America, mobilized through fear and war-mongering, cheered on by the likes of Dick Cheney, Bill Kristol, Richard Pearle and John Bolton, invaded and “broke” the Middle East, further radicalizing peoples already scarred by decades of exploitation and oppression.
They broke it. They own it. They just can’t admit it. Still.
A horrible colonialist imperial adventure became a so-called “war on terror” and a war against Islam, Muslims and Arabs – whether we call it that or not. And yet we ask from where will the Muslim Francis emerge.
Let us ask, instead, from where will humility and understanding emerge.
From where will we glean knowledge.
Why can we not understand the difference between Islamists – Hezbollah, Hamas, Taliban – who are nationalist in impulse and who have specific, localized goals, and jihadists – al-Qaida, Da’esh (ISIS) – who are trans-nationalists and live in a world without borders.
Islamists, because they have goals, have the potential to be negotiated with. Why can we not understand why that difference matters?
Jihadists live in a fantasy world – a world without borders – and are so convinced of the righteousness of their cause they cannot be negotiated with and must be destroyed.
They cannot be destroyed by air strikes or “boots on the ground,” whether American or Arab/Muslim boots. To destroy Da’esh in Iraq, for example, would be simply to move the conflict theater to some failed state or other dysfunctional part of the world – or to move the theater to a global platform peopled by lone wolves fighting asymmetrical battles against entrenched governments.
No. Until the West allies itself with global interests to combat the grievances and disenfranchisement of the oppressed the battle will continue no matter how many Francises appear.
The issue is not to locate the battlefields. The issue is to find and confront the breeding grounds where historical resentments, exploitation and dispossession inspire lone wolves and terrorists.
With little consideration of the circumstances from which Da’esh and its antecedents emerged and with no consideration of the role the United States and its allies may have had in fragmenting, destroying, impoverishing and dispossessing entire communities, it is arrogant and presumptuous to lay the burden of peacemaking on people who can barely feed themselves and protect their families.
The evil and the terrorism is but a symptom of a frightening malaise that is global and spiraling downward. From Baghdad, where 55 percent of the married population was Sunni-Shia mixed before our invasion, to Iran where Iranians spontaneously held candlelight vigils in Tehran on 9/11 in sympathy with America’s pain, an entire region was engulfed in trauma not entirely of its own making.
Today, neither side knows how to speak truth to intolerance, knows how to denounce ethnic hatred, or condemn violence and terror.
Dr. Iyad Madani, Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which represents 1.4 billion Muslims in 57 countries, said ISIS (Da’esh) has “nothing to do with Islam” and has committed crimes “that cannot be tolerated.” Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, said Da’esh is the “No. 1 enemy of Islam,” and in America the Council of American-Islamic Affairs condemned Daesh as “un-Islamic and morally repugnant.” In 2014, hundreds of Islamic leaders and scholars wrote an open letter to Da’esh leader Al-Baghdadi (lettertobaghdadi.com/index.php). Such denunciations are not uncommon if one would but look for them.
Yes, of course we should condemn barbarity and cruelty – the physical, the political, the economic and the personal. To listen, to understand, to reveal historical parallels and connections, even to listen to grievances and fight for rights, is not the same as justifying evil deeds that may or may not have been inspired by them.
The Arab Charter on Human Rights was adopted in 2004 by the Council of the League of Arab States affirming the principles contained in the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Human Rights and the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam.
While for some critics ACHR doesn’t go far enough because it is based in Sharia, rather than secular and Western enlightenment principles, it is a measure of the hunger for self-governance, justice and dignity that such debate is occurring.
As long as America and the West see themselves as the normative experience to which everyone should aspire, whether through universal declarations or through unilateral drone strikes, such confrontations will continue. Thinking themselves an exceptional country, morally neutral, advantaged by resources and military might, America never doubts the righteousness of its assumptions, its impulses or its actions, and that kind of certitude is dangerous.
The Qur’an cautions, “Hence, if you have to respond to an attack (in argument), respond only to the extent of the attack leveled against you; but to bear yourselves with patience is indeed far better for you, since God is with those who are patient in adversity (16:126).”
To the oppressed it is not whether Francis is coming. It is from where the next drone, or the next meal, will appear.
This column appeared originally in the Concord Monitor.