by Anthony Egan SJ

I really like to see, amidst the populist appeals of many politicians to the lowest – the very lowest – common denominator in humanity, that a public figure has the courage to talk sense about religion. The figure is (I am tempted to say again) Pope Francis. The occasion: his interview with the French newspaper La Croix. And the religion is Islam, with a thoroughly appropriate dig at the excesses within Christian tradition and modern secularism as well.

It is really a pleasure, at a time when rabble-rousers try to trump reason (pun intended), to hear the Pope calling us back to a more balanced perspective on Islam. He is quite right I think in his intuition that Western home-grown Islamic extremism is a product of ghettoization, and that further marginalisation of Muslims feeds the lunacy that is Islamic State. This in turn plays into the hands of cynical populist politicians who manipulate legitimate fears of violence to gain power. This further intensifies Muslim feelings of being marginalised and oppressed, giving its lunatic fringe the ‘justifications’ it seeks.

As an outsider I find much about Islam with which to disagree. On a theological level the idea of a literal reading of sacred scriptures seems to run counter to the historical and critical approaches that are second nature to my way of thinking. Such a reading opens itself to reading things into a text that aren’t there; at worst it can open religion to demagoguery.

Aspects of the social and ethical dimensions of the faith also worry me, particularly where it’s used to enforce gender inequality, treats other religions with less than equal respect, or encourages religious conquest.

But, as Francis noted, Christianity itself is also not blameless with regard to religious conquest. Nor, I would add, have we been models of tolerance or paragons of gender justice. Many Christians also have literal readings of the Bible and are fundamentalist when interpreting doctrine. Much of the progress we’ve made in becoming more accepting of religious difference is the result of the rise of secular democracy, often despite the resistance of many Churches.

So is secularism the answer? Well, it depends what one means by secularism. If by secularism we mean deliberately marginalising religion in society, often treating faith with disdain: No. This creates ghetto mentalities that breed resentment and religious extremism. If it means that the state adopts a neutral policy to religion, both protecting the right to express faith – without any faith using the state to further or police its beliefs – and defending the right to differ within faiths, and even the right not to believe: Yes.

Francis rightly rebukes the French state for leaning too far towards the former model of secularism. Many Christians will agree with him.

I suspect many Muslims share his view too, detest religious extremism and welcome the opportunity to live as believers in a tolerant state that embraces pluralism. Before we Christians get swept away by anti-Islamic demagoguery, we should remember this.