CAIRO: It’s not every day one gets to sit down with a man who seamlessly combines roles which, on the surface, may not seem to coexist. But soon enough, I learn that coexistence is this man’s gift; and his gift to the world.
The first few moments of my audience with Hans Küng (born 1928), I realized that not only am I in the company of a deeply spiritual man of the church; the Swiss Catholic priest, published theologian and professor at Germany’s University of Tübingen is also an expert on politics and international relations.
His latest book titled “Islam: Past, Present and Future (Published by The American University in Cairo Press, 2007) was lauded by the Archbishop of Canterbury as a tour de force by “our greatest living theologian. Indeed, with this comprehensive work – the third in a series on the three Abrahmic religions, which was preceded by a book on Judaism and one on Christianity – brings his scholarship full circle.
But religion per se does not dominate our discussion. Even when we venture into the thorny issue of his famous fallout with Pope Paul VI over the issue of the pill, the conversation veers into one on politics, legal systems, rights and ethics.
“I don’t see any contradiction between being a competent member of my own Catholic community and my scholarship, says Küng. “As a scholar I have to be critical of my tradition. Without serious scholarship, religious institutions become petrified.
To the dismay of Catholics around the world – and counter to the recommendations of the Papal commission on birth control – the Pope stated unequivocally that the Church remains opposed to all forms of birth control except the rhythm method of abstinence.
“At that time I believed it was necessary to ask what sort of authority the Pope had to make such a judgment. I believe he has pastoral authority but I ask has he the capacity to make statements which cannot be wrong at all because he appeals to the Holy Spirit . I think most Catholics today would agree with me, he said referring to his ensuing controversial theory on papal infallibility crystallized in his 1971 book “Infallible? An Inquiry.
A harsh critic of the US’s “imperialist military policy Küng believes that one need only study the history of Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden to know the origin of the problems that led to the Sept. 11 attacks.
“If the Palestinian problem was resolved in a constructive way . we wouldn’t have had a Bin Laden. I believe the bombs of 9/11 are deeply rooted in the problems of Israel and Palestine, the regime in Saudi Arabia and with the American and European position in the Middle East.
“All these are very complex issues but I tried to be objective having an identical chapter on the Israeli-Palestinian [conflict] in the Islam book, the book on Judaism and the one on Christianity.
Küng is best known for his work on interfaith dialogue through his Global Ethics Foundation (Welthethos) that was the seed of the UN Dialogue Among Civilizations, set up in November 2001.
In 1982, long before Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations, Küng had already formulated his theory which he captured in his famous slogan about the religious situation of our time:
“No peace among the nations without peace among the religions./ No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions./ No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundations of the religions.
Written as a prelude to his three books, Küng says that he is happy that most people around the world accept this as a premise to peaceful coexistence on Earth.
“I participated in the general assembly in the UN after 9/11 [and] was happily surprised that not a single delegation spoke about a clash of civilizations, everybody spoke against a clash and for dialogue.
Asked his opinion about the current Pope Benedict XVI Joseph Alois Ratzinger’s stance vis-à-vis Islam, Küng first admits that the two clergymen were on very different tracks especially when it came to church reform.
However, when they met him for four hours and discussed the problems of the dialogue with Islam, “he affirmed very clearly that he wants a dialogue . and he certainly has good intentions in that way.
Although, he continued, the Pope’s speech at the University of Regensburg in September 2006, deemed by many Muslims as an insulting mischaracterization of Islam, was “a disaster, Küng feels that the Pope has learned from his mistake.
“He was very different in Turkey and recently he received the King of Saudi Arabia and responded positively to a petition by 138 Muslim scholars calling for dialogue. Something has been set in motion and we shall not go back, he said.
“Not everything goes according to Murphy’s Law, he smiled.
Concerning the idea of separating politics from religion, Küng says that we must first agree that there are “different possibilities for the relationship between church and state . religion and state.
“It’s not only one model. Even in the US where they say there’s a clear separation between the two, on the dollar they print ‘In God we Trust’. He also cites Switzerland as a democracy based on separation, but where there is much friendly cooperation between the two.
“Only in the French model, because of the French revolution, he continues, “is there a sharp divide between clericalism and secularism, but in a rather dogmatic way. I don’t think that this model was very successful considering all the problems in the banlieux of Paris and other big cities. If you have a younger generation of Muslims and Christians growing up in the suburbs who have an idea about morality and religion, then you must not be surprised when you get this sort of crime.
Although he agrees that French President Sarkozy’s use of more police would work against criminals, he contends that it will not solve the problem because not all these youngsters are criminals.
“It’s a great deal of frustration which is economic, social, but also spiritual that has led to this. They find no meaning in their life . you cannot just believe in the French Republic.
A comparable example is that of Turkey under Kemal Ataturk.
“His revolution may have started in a constructive way but ultimately it did not satisfy the people. I would prefer Turkey as practiced under Edrogan, that is, to live in a secular society but not to ignore religion . religion must not dominate but cannot be ignored either like they do in French schools . they know nothing about their own religion or about other religions and so there are constant clashes between people because of this lack of knowledge.
Just as a great deal of European Christians don’t know enough about Islam, relying on stereotypes about violence and women, if you ask people in Cairo what they know about Christianity, you’ll have the same problem, says Küng.
The theologian tackles this by making a comparison of paradigms. “People who live in a post-modern paradigm, he explains, “understand each other better if they are from difference religions, but that does not mean they are mixing it up.
“I do not believe in one sole religion, I don’t believe in the unity of religion, but in peace among religions. Muslims have a common ground in the Quran, Christians have common ground in the Bible, but the Bible and the Quran are different Holy books.
This is precisely why he believes the Global Ethics project is so important. “You can keep your Muslim faith and I can keep my Christian faith but we need some ethical standards that are in common.
“If you lie . when you are in a high position in politics, if you are the president of the US and you lie about Iraq, it’s unethical both in terms of religion and philosophy. When you have common ethical standards between people of different religions and secular people, all this helps to keep peace in the world.
But what are the root causes of the tension between Islam and the Judeo-Christian world?
For Küng, these tensions are mainly political, but they certainly have religious undertones.
“To ignore religion as a factor in
world politics is wrong, he says, “even agnostics and atheists should recognize that. But religion can work in two ways. It can create hatred, enmity, resentment or it can work for reconciliation, for forgiveness and peace.
“We would not have had a peaceful revolution in East Germany without the Christian churches. We would never have had the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa without the efforts of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the EU was mostly constructed by believing Catholics like Charles De Gaulle and others who were committed Christians, but Christians who had suffered before under the Nazi regime and under the Fascists. We need more politicians of moral conviction.
As we wrap up the interview, Küng shrewdly recalls a conversation he had with former US President Jimmy Carter.
“Perhaps he never said this publicly before, but once told me: ‘In my time, we didn’t lie in the White House.’
That was a bold statement, continued Küng, explaining why he was interested in Carter’s position because he was instrumental in forging the peace between Egypt and Israel.
“Even though this peace was not ideal because it did not solve the problem of Palestine, it’s the only treaty that was kept. And why was it kept?
Because it was a fair treaty. The precondition was always that it is fair for both sides and if it hadn’t been, then after a certain time, you would get the revenge . Moral and ethical categories are most important in politics.