Pick your epithet: Pope Francis may either be hypocritical 'wall builder', as one trumpeting jingo recently inferred, or else 'great bridge builder' as implied by an ancient Roman attribution. Whichever you fancy, concerning that complex relationship between Christianity and Islam, his name-choice as Bishop of Rome begins to bear new relevance once again. Bergoglio could little have imagined how, by retrieving from popular legend that audacious medieval of Assisi, he was inadvertently playing accidental harbinger of his own evolving legacy. Perhaps riding a fortuitous wave, his May 2015 exhortation to us to revisit Dante's Divina Commedia over the 750th year since the poet's birth seemed rather more calculated. Whether or not Francis was closing an eye to some of the work's infelicitous Islamophobic verses in the eighth circle of Inferno is anybody's guess. However, we may hope, more optimistically, he was anticipating how a complete reading of that celebrated Florentine would eventually lead us to Paradiso XI. There, Thomas Aquinas acclaims our poor mendicant while referencing the saint in Egypt before Sultan Melek-el-Khamil.
Significantly, the last papal election was soon followed by a swift downward spiral from Arab spring to persisting Arab winter. Albeit lending weight to the prospect of some future Franciscan rapprochement with Islam, any inter-faith engagement was a powder keg even then. As for the pontiff, though his two pennies' worth can doubtless either hurt or harm any straight-talking dialogue between Muslims and Christians, one thing is sure: no longer reducible to a solely Western idiom, our Great Conversation should ring manifestly more sonorous after the added melody of so many rich Islamic traditions. Why this is not so is a story already known to us. Once haggled over at Versailles by those protagonists among our Great War victors, today's version of the self-determination of nations is still visibly influenced by developments prior to, and arising from, that earlier hegemonic posturing. It gets harder by the day, in hindsight, to imagine how resistance against such powermongering by the emerging industrial titans could ever have played itself out more benignly. There again is one interminable tale within another -- a tale of which, irrefutably, we could never presume to remind ourselves in a few modest lines. It gets related to us as a simmering discontent at home towards the West which eventually boiled over into that familiar factional infighting. This, in turn, was succeeded by a foreseeable series of national revolutions. Of course, any initial backlash in resistance altogether lacked the technology of today's leading-edge mobilization. Current deployment, having since traversed the globe, reaches us now following a distinct archaeology of transformation within various angry cells about the globe, with tactics ranging from surprise IRA assassinations to inner city bombings by the ANC to the caprices of Basque separatists or that skittish Boko Haram machismo.
Now with ISIS as new-kid-on-the-block, those inscrutable papal pretensions to broker world peace and inter-confessional harmony as potential 'bridge builder' might arguably come in handy. Here, possibly mindful of the ill-fated spark ignited by Pope Benedict's 2005 Regensburg address, Francis has been very vocal against the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and somewhat raised his tone when criticizing our media in early March for being so mute before the murders of patients and Catholic sisters at a hospital run by Mother Teresa's Missionary's of Charity in Aden, Yemen. Indeed the reticence of the press already spoke volumes -- signaling, at worst, that we have all begun to settle for 'a new normal.' In the anxious aftermath of Charlie Hebdo, of Paris and of Ankara, can we seriously wonder why contemporary psychopaths can as easily deal us their trump card in capitalizing upon any ensuing irrational fears? Here again we would do well to proceed cautiously. Knowing how the Gospel parables can as opportunistically be harnessed to buoy up competing ideologies and interest groups as can the surahs of the Koran, any cheap monotheistic backslapping that lacks responsible intellectual provocation will as likely promote its facsimile in xenophobic jingoism. Speaking to that regrettable syndrome of 'non-exchange', and already attentive in 1835 to the structural flaws in that fledgling brand of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville famously raised his own qualms about the hidden peril of a 'tyranny by the majority'. However in our case, rather than facing the hazards of some tyranny of a Muslim minority we may unwittingly be courting the more dangerous tyranny of a populism dead intent on hijacking the discussion.
Differences between the personalities of Muhammad and Jesus are recounted in various key biographical sources. One among these relates how the former not infrequently ordered the killing of his enemies (for our purposes, the execution of Al-Harith bin Suwayd al-Ansari in March 615 may serve as an example). Jesus, on the other hand, is reported to have leveraged his authority to defend human life and protect so-called 'sinners' (we recall the woman caught in adultery episode). Contenders will fairly reason that there is little to argue here in the first place. Muhammad's enduring chronicle derives from subsequent claims that, prompted by the archangel Gabriel, he was only God's mouthpiece whereas Christ is presented by his apologists as being God himself (according to accounts which finally won out over contesting versions). Further disparity between our unlikely duo returns again in their conflicting propensities touching political power. Broken and humiliated from his Cross Jesus reigns, paradoxically, through altruistic self-sacrifice over a kingdom which, says he to Pilate, is 'not of this world.' Conversely, the Prophet is remembered as being Allah's chosen messenger in restoring all seekers of true faith to its original Abrahamic model - ostensibly contaminated over time only to be revealed to him generations later. Muhammad performs this enterprise as a mere man, and so he remains. From the outset we are led to understand, given his tribal milieu, how the logic of any resultant proselytism would necessarily have involved some strategic geographical expansionism to complement that socio-religious conquest. Whether in the service of Allah or no, as merchant his project could never have been free of personal economic interest. Moreover, not being an apocalyptic Jew in that Roman Palestine of the late Second Temple Period (and thus uninfluenced by any accompanying eschatological scheme), his perspective would conceivably have been more long-term, this-worldy and so territorially competitive.
Mindful of those rival constructs in narration, Christians denouncing Muslim incongruence owing to violence in the cause of Islam are quite palpably speaking out of turn, whereas any informed member of the Ummah pointing the same accusing finger at, say, the Crusades, would be decidedly spot on. In identifying human killing as entirely unChristian, his observation would correctly posit that warfare advocated by Church or pontiff could in no way be justified by Jesus' teachings. Indeed, given that such blood -shed in the name of the Cross- has certainly stained the centuries, we can only reasonably acknowledge that there have been legions more perfidious Christians in history than ever there were subversive Muslims. Here, assigning ourselves self-blame and humbly acknowledging our mutual hypocrisy would assuredly be polite and may even be amusing. Yet not addressing people's immediate election angst could prove riotously counter-productive and potentially get us nowhere in a hurry. Silence by our news networks in the face of any associated brutality also risks fueling a reductionist view that the idea of jihad amounts to some international Islamic agenda against America and the West. Such is likely to stay the case as long as a Divine sanction for punitive killing, where perceived as righteous in Islamic thought, continues to be seen as enjoying an unchecked latitude of interpretation. That ignorance fosters agitation and could potentially spell a raw deal for our Muslim communities. Tenable or no, it is hardly relevant at this stage : the success of Trump's oratorical rampage should suffice at least in bellowing loudly at us that enough frightened voters among that swarming US electorate remain uneasy on this score.
In sum, and to return to our conspicuous juxtaposition between the motivating vision of those two earliest voices within Christianity and Islam: Whereas some will still insist that, given their very dissimilar contexts, the stories of our two religious heroes cannot usefully be compared, we can as plausibly skirt around the issue as merrily expect that such patent asymmetry will simply go away.