Fresh off a six-day tour to the United States, Pope Francis is on a roll. The Catholic leader’s progressive remarks on controversial issues along with his general humility and compassion impressed not just Catholics but people of varying faiths all over the world. Media coverage of his visit -- as well as reactions from non-Catholics and non-believers alike -- has been overwhelmingly favorable.
Here’s why: During his brief trip to America, Pope Francis prayed with the homeless, visited prisoners, immigrants and sexual abuse victims -- despite the negative light this would cast on the Church. In speeches in New York, Washington DC and Philadelphia, Francis advocated religious tolerance, chided US bishops for their overly “harsh and divisive” approach to same-sex marriage and abortion, and spoke passionately of the need to give asylum to immigrants and Muslim refugees, saying they had the power to “renew society from within.”
Francis’s message is not new. It is the same as it has been since he became Pope two-and-a-half years ago: Be accepting and respectful of one another, even if it means violating the Church’s long-held principles, like opposition to abortion and homosexuality. In short, Francis says, it’s more important to show love and compassion than it is to be doctrinaire.
The Pope’s humanity, sensitivity and embrace of pluralism begs the question of where in the vast Muslim world one can find a leader espousing similar values. Where is the Muslim’s Pope Francis? The answer is that there isn’t one -- even though one might be desperately needed.
Instead, the Muslim world is split a hundred ways. Where there was once a caliph, now there are myriad imams, sheikhs, muftis, ayatollahs and others who claim to offer legitimate interpretations of the Quran. Further complicating matters are the dictators and other political leaders of Muslim countries that co-opt Islam to serve their own ends.
Too often, those claiming to wear the mantle of “true Islam” only sow strife and stir up further antagonism and division. When Pope Francis addressed those fighting in Syria, saying “Conquer your deadly reasoning, and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation,” there was no Muslim leader of any real influence encouraging the same. When the Pope goes head to head with conservative Catholic forces by supporting evolution, science and women’s rights, where is the Muslim leader who dares to do the same?
The lack of a Pope-like figure in Islam is due partly to the basic differences between the two faiths. Unlike Catholicism, Islam doesn’t afford any human the authority to judge, pardon or offer repentance to other humans -- only God can do this. Still, if Muslim clerics can steer behavior to align with their interpretation of religious texts (for example, through fatwas and ijtihad) where is the similar action towards inter-faith tolerance and acceptance of different lifestyles?
While the majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims aren’t radical, it’s radical Muslims who are winning the PR game. “The rare Muslim religious figures that do champion religious and sectarian tolerance have unfortunately been marginalised on political grounds or are only heard by a minority of Muslims,” writer Mohamad Ali Musawi put it eloquently in a recent column in Al Araby Al Jadeed, a news website in London. A few moderate Muslim voices manage to poke through the noise -- like Reza Aslan or Hamza Yusuf -- but they are merely the exception that proves the rule.
Torn by perpetual war and political power-play, the Muslim world needs a spokesman who can stand up to the radical elements that corrupt Islam every day. It needs a clear voice to cut through the cacophony. Right now, Daesh’s deafening roar is silencing Islam’s message of peace.
By Hunter Stuart
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