Interview With Father Mitch Pacwa
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama, 2 MAY 2006 (ZENIT)
The recent riots related to the publication of anti-Muslim cartoons
in Western newspapers were widely viewed as a popular religious reaction
to offensive depictions of the prophet Mohammed.
But according to one expert on Islam, the riots were incited by
governments to manipulate both the West and the Muslim world for
Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa is a theologian, Middle East scholar and
co-contributor to the "Islam and Christianity" DVD series.
He spoke with ZENIT about how the cartoon riots are part of radical
Islam's attempt to seize control of the Muslim world
and what it all means for the West.
Part 2 of this interview will appear Wednesday.
Q: What were your thoughts as Muslim riots over a cartoon of Mohammed
erupted across Europe, the Middle East and Asia?
Father Pacwa: There are two thoughts that I would have.
First, a cartoon of Mohammed in itself is a grave insult to Islam. And
so it is easy for Muslims to be stirred into action.
But that is my second thought: They were stirred into action apparently
by the governments of Syria and Iran who want the attitude on the street
to be one of incitement against the West.
Now the problem of course is that the people who did the cartoons were
not representatives of Christianity. They were secular people who have a
strong commitment, and perhaps even an absolute commitment, to freedom
of speech in the way that the West is accustomed to it.
Unfortunately, the people on the street blamed Christians because they
do not make the distinction between secularized Europeans and religious
So, one of the horrendous things that happened because of the
instigation of the violence is that quite a number of Christians were
killed, including at least two priests, one in Nigeria and one in
This is a kind of lack of responsibility by secular press people over
the results of their work. Should they have to be concerned about this
type of freedom of speech? Should they worry about Muslim reactions?
In one sense they can say they are not responsible, but their lack of
responsibility led to hundreds of deaths. I think they do need to be
more responsible toward Muslim sensibilities.
On the other hand, in their reporting about this, they also need to pay
attention to the Muslims themselves. They have to report the way Syria,
Iran, perhaps al-Qaida, are instigating these riots for their purposes.
The results of these riots of course lead to nothing. They don't really
produce any positive results, except maybe to bully the West into going
along with Muslim sensitivities. But it is not going to really
Q: What does this outburst reveal about the state of the Muslim world
and its relationship with the West?
Father Pacwa: I think one first reaction to the state of the Muslim
world and its relationship with the West is that the Muslim world has
been affected still to this day by the collapse of the Ottoman Turkish
Empire. And they have been making social experiments trying to cope with
One attempt has been the forms of Arab nationalism
the Baath party in Syria inspired by Michel Aflaq in the late 1920s; its
branch, the Baath party in Iraq which is also a nationalist party, not a
religious party, and which had also made overtures to national socialism
in Germany, the Nazi party, and saw themselves as some sort of ally; the
PLO, which is another nationalist group; and the followers of Egypt's
former President Nasser. The nationalist party in Egypt once had great
influence, but not as much anymore.
Those various nationalistic movements had tremendous impact on the Arab
world as a way to try to achieve national identity where it had not
Prior to nationalism, Muslims saw themselves as primarily Muslims and
members of the Ummah, the Muslim people. And the result is that
nationalism took on as an idea to modernize the world and to give
national identities to these new countries
Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan, though Jordan was
not as affected by such nationalism.
So these were one style of reaction to the collapse of the Ottoman
Turkish Empire. But they became far more oppressive than the Sultan had
So what you see now is a religious reaction against the nationalistic
ideas, which are perceived as having been Western ideas imported to the
Middle East. This outburst shows the use of religious sentiment as the
motivating force attempting to go back to a religious identity, even
though nation-states still exist.
One of the ways it is being developed is that a number of people in the
Middle East are trying to regain an Islamic past ideal through a new
Islamic state rather than a nationalist state.
And as a result, they are instigating followers and there are all kinds
of sects, the leaders of which want to become the next Sultan. That is a
part of the issue. It will be a serious question
which sect or what individual will be able to lead the people and be the
next caliph or the next Sultan.
That is partly underlying some of this tension. And different groups
whether it be the Salafi party from Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood from
Egypt, al-Qaida, the Wahhabi sect in Arabia, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas
and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, or the various movements going on in
Iraq and Iran
are all vying for that kind of control.
You also have Abu Sayyaf, which means father of the sword, in the
Philippines; they are all making the same kind of move, and that is part
of the present state of Islam.
The radical groups may represent only about 15% of Muslims but it is an
extremely active part, while the great majority are generally unwilling
or afraid to stand up to the radicals, because the radicals will kill
them as being infidels. That is how bad it is gotten in many parts of
the Muslim world. So it is a very risky situation.
Q: Given the secularized, and sometimes anti-religious, stance of
Western Europe today, what difficulties does that pose for the vast
majority of Muslims who try to live in peace with the society around
Father Pacwa: The vast majority of Muslims do keep themselves away from
the religious parties. But, the majority of that majority, while
unwilling to fight in jihad, will protect those who do, and that is
something that is very important to understand.
While it is only 15% of the population that is radicalized in Islam, you
have the majority of the rest who are very willing to hide them, protect
them, feed them, and even if they wouldn't actively join them, they
would take care of them. This seems to be the study of Tony Blankley in
his book the "The West's Last Chance." This is something that is very
The moderate Muslims who try to live in peace in the society around them
still have a couple of difficulties.
For one, Islam is not prone to democracy or secularism. There is no such
idea of a secular society within Islam. Everyone has to be in some way
related to the religious reality and that is part of the understanding
of God. So, the majority of Muslims will still not be able to fit into a
secular society around them in Europe.
Also, they will have pressure put on them either to convert to radical
Islam or to support them, which will be another tension. And that is why
a number of the mullahs and the imams in the West and Europe say that
Muslims may not vote
the elections are not Islamic, so no Muslim should vote. They are
getting some pressure not to participate.
Also they are encouraged not to marry non-Muslims, except for girls, who
are encouraged to become Muslim along with the children. But they
typically will send their children to their country of origin to marry
So this is something that indicates how little moderate Muslims fit in
to the non-Muslim world, and this is going to be a situation that is
going to continue. And I think it is typical of Muslims that their
commitment to Islam is stronger than their commitment to their local
The only group that would be different is the Druze. The Druze believe
they are required to follow whatever leadership there is in the local
government and give their allegiance to them.
But apart from the Druze
by the way the Druze are a sect, and not considered very Muslim by the
the other Muslims will simply not feel themselves to be part of that
world and that is going to be difficult. ZE06050222
Father Mitch Pacwa
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama, 3 MAY 2006 (ZENIT)
Many observers see the rise of
radical Islam as a response to a lack of economic opportunity or a
defense against encroaching secular values from the West due to
Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa sees the situation differently. An expert on
Islam, he believes that the radical Muslim movements are reactions to
the failed secular Arab nationalist states of the 20th century, whose
leaders are vying to become the next Sultan or caliph who will restore
an Islamic empire that will wage jihad.
Father Pacwa is a theologian, Middle East scholar and co-contributor to
the "Islam and Christianity" DVD series.
In this interview in the wake of the widespread riots over the Mohammed
cartoons, Father Pacwa shared with ZENIT about how the Church can
respond to the increasing radicalization of Islam.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Tuesday.
Q: Given the Muslim-Vatican cooperation at U.N. conferences in the past
decade or so
where they stood up against abortion and anti-family policies
does the Catholic Church enjoy any special advantages in reaching out to
Father Pacwa: There are some special advantages that the Catholic Church
does have because we've had Catholics and Eastern Orthodox living in the
Muslim world for centuries.
And there is a certain type of relationship, usually one of getting
along, but sometimes breaking out into violence as a reaction against
But this kind of cooperation at U.N. conferences between Muslim
countries and the Vatican is not seen as a way to make peace with each
other, but instead to help each other attain their own ends.
And I don't think in the long term that the Muslims in the street are
going to be able to say that "we should be friendlier with Catholics."
This is a key to understanding the Muslim world. They divide the world
into two parts: the home of Islam, the "dar al-Islam"; and the "dar al-harb,"
the home of war.
If you are in a Muslim country where Shariah is the law and Muslims are
the majority, you are in the home of Islam. If you are in a non-Muslim
country, then you are in the home of war or the place of war. This
distinction is a very, very basic one.
There will be polite cooperation and sometimes very positive cooperation
at various levels and that can be marvelous. But we also have to keep in
mind that that background of dividing the world into the home of Islam
and the home of war is very ancient in Islam and is very basic, so I
don't know about any special advantages in reaching out to Islam.
For instance, in Indonesia, where there are quite a few Muslim converts
to Catholicism, you also have a great deal of persecution of Catholics
and lots of Catholics are killed there.
And also in some places where Muslims become Christians, whether
Orthodox or Catholic, they are subject to tremendous pressure, if not
death, for doing so. I don't think that has changed and we have to be
very realistic about that mentality.
Q: An unusual question, if we may: Are there any lessons that the Church
can learn from Islam today vis-ΰ-vis the Muslims' entrance into Western
society? For example, is there a positive side to keeping a bit distant
from secular society?
Father Pacwa: Yes, this is one thing that we need to learn from Muslims.
Is it possible for us to have a distance from Western society? We do not
and should not judge the Gospel by the norms of secular society. Muslims
certainly don't do that and they are wise in that.
We allow secular norms to invade the Gospel message at our own peril,
and we allow too much of our secular society to influence us. We need to
be able to stand up against modern society and not consider modernity
Some of modernity needs to be turned back, and that has been one of the
issues that Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have been talking
about for a long time as well as others.
So we have to have our own identity, and that when it comes to the
Gospel or the secular society, we stick with the Gospel of Christ just
as the Muslims are very wise to stick to their own religious identity
rather than the modern world.
Q: What do you think is the best way for Catholics to respond to Muslims
Father Pacwa: First, we must start out with a stance of respect for
Muslims and their commitment to God. If we have no respect for them,
then we cannot do anything helpful at all.
Second, I think that we also have to understand our own identity over
and against Islam, and not be cowed or treated like the weak kid in the
face of bullyism. And that is just what these riots are. When you have
bullies you have to stand up to them and face them down.
So you show respect, you don't go looking for a fight, but neither do
you back down from it when it is brought to your door.
So I think that we should engage in discussion about the problems in the
Koran, what it says about Jesus and Mary, what it says about God and its
mistaken notion of the Trinity.
For instance, the Koran understands the Trinity to be God, Jesus and the
Blessed Virgin Mary; that is not what we believe. Let's make sure we
clarify that we believe in one God in three Persons. Not three gods. And
these are very basic things. We are going to have right-upfront
For instance, the Koran apparently, at least in most ways that it is
but not necessarily so
indicates in Chapter 4 that Jesus did not die on the cross but another
man died in his place.
We have to say look, we believe Jesus Christ truly died and the Blessed
Mother and the Apostle John were witnesses to this, and the other
apostles were witnesses to his resurrection.
The Koran also claims that Christians distorted the New Testament and
the Gospel of Jesus. Please show us where we did that.
You can't just get away with making a statement that we changed the New
Testament for personal gain, when in fact the ones who passed on the New
Testament died for Jesus Christ and the Gospel that he gave them. They
didn't make gains
So this is the kind of thing that we have to make very clear and stand
for without trying to pick an argument or pick a fight, but neither can
we back down from the claims that Islam makes. And that is part of our
own willingness to be adults and clear about our own identity and
willing to proclaim the Gospel of Christ.
My own hope of course as a Christian is the same hope of Muslims. I hope
that they will all become Christians. They of course hope that we become
How are we going to deal with that difference and speak to each other
honestly? Forthrightly and with a sense of absolute respect that God has
chosen to love us all infinitely. The only way God knows how to love is
infinitely. This is what the Lord commands us to do, to love with our
whole being. ZE06050312