27 April 2017, The Tablet

When the meeting is the message


Over many years, Pope Francis has developed his own approach to dialogue with Muslims, as William Eichler explains

In July last year Fr Jacques Hamel was murdered in his Normandy church by two men claiming allegiance to Islamic State (IS). One of the witnesses, a Sister Danielle, described how the attackers “filmed themselves preaching in Arabic in front of the altar”. For many the meaning of this grotesque killing was clear: Muslims, driven by their faith, were waging war on the Christian West.

But Pope Francis viewed it in a different light. He was reluctant to dignify the murder with the moniker “Islamic”. Perplexed, a journalist on a papal flight insisted Fr Hamel was “killed in the name of Islam”. “When you speak of these violent acts,” he asked Francis, “why do you always speak of terrorists and not of Islam?”

This is a semantic minefield. The words deployed when discussing the relationship between religion and violence reveal – or are perceived to reveal – much about your politics. Nowhere is this more true than in discussions about Islam and terrorism. Former United States President Barack Obama was often chastised for refusing to describe IS as “Islamic”; the current President has no such qualms.

Pope Francis’ response was to the point: “I believe that it is not right to identify Islam with violence. It is not right and it is not true.” Acts of terrorism were carried out by “fundamentalist groups” within Islam, the kind of groups with which all religions are burdened. Yes, he acknowledged, IS identifies as Islamic. “But you cannot say,” he continued, “that Islam is terrorist.”

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