On the Issues Episode 19: Archbishop Bernardito Auza

Alon Ben-Meir: I’m Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of On the Issues. My guest today is Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the Organization of American States. Originally from the Philippines, he entered into the diplomatic service in 1990, and has served in Bulgaria, Albania, and Haiti. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode.

Again, I really want to thank you for taking the time.

Bernardito Auza: Thank you Professor also for waiting. The last time there was a little bit of confusion in my calendar on the date.

ABM: No problem. I’m happy always to wait for something good to happen. I feel fortunate to be able to sit down and talk about this very important issue in terms of how Islam is being used as a tool by which to radicalize. And what might be missing in my view is the lack of the effective counter-narrative, using the same religious precepts to counter effectively the propaganda that Islamist extremists use in order to promote their cause. What’s your take on this? What needs to be done, what can we do?

BA: There has been lots of discussion on that. There have been lots of open debates at the level of the Security Council also on how to counter the terrorist narrative using religion or God to perpetrate violent acts. And to further that, we might say really violent ideologies and extremisms. There are certain suggestions like, you could hear so many countries, Muslim countries and Christian countries and countries which you might say do not identify one or the other, that insistence on the social and economic side of the question. As you said, it really doesn’t target directly what you are asking in the sense that there are religious counter narratives that we could use to fight these extremist narratives using religion or religious passages as justifications. That is, I think it’s a certain angulation of the same question, of the same problem, but there is always a tendency to try to avoid that. For people who do think they are not competent to talk about how religion itself or the same religious precepts are being used by violent extremists, to be used to make a counter-narrative against their propaganda. So there is always the tendency of the international community, whether it’s the Security Council or the General Assembly or anywhere, to emphasize the need to fight the root causes of these fundamentalist terror groups. I think there is no question that that’s useful, but it really doesn’t directly answer your question.

ABM: But there’s no question. I mean I agree with you, and I agree with the general consensus. We’ve got to deal with the root causes. That is, it is not mutually exclusive. That is, having a counter-narrative has its own place. But dealing effectively with the root causes is absolutely critical. That is, you cannot have it one way or the other. They both need to be employed.

BA: You are right, they are all to be employed. But the question of, for Christians especially, and thinkers and even religious leaders in the West, there is always hesitation to lead on the kind of a religious campaign or education to make this counter-narrative. There is always that impression that it should be the Islamic religious leaders who should do that. We will support them, we will be there with you. We will have a dialogue with you, but it should be you leading the charge when it comes to countering these narratives.

ABM: Well, there’s no—

BA: I think it’s certainly respectful. I think it’s the right way. Personally, I believe that’s true, how much to each. For instance the Holy See, the Vatican, had just last February a dialogue, a discussion between Al-Azhar [University; school of Sunni thought] and the Vatican, the Holy See, on this question of how to fight this propaganda of religious extremism. So there are initiatives, as an answer to your very direct questions, and we will see how much fruit and whether or really the concrete effects of that.

ABM: Right, right. You know, based on what I see and hear in our research, you are absolutely right to suggest the counter-narrative has to come from the Muslim community – in the imams, in the mosque, in schools. This is the one, because their voices will have more credibility than somebody coming from the West trying to really preach the gospel.

BA: To have a kind of a culture, a counter-productive culture.

ABM: Yeah. The question is, you are a Catholic, I am a Jew, or someone else is a Muslim. We are believers. The three [monotheistic] religions, there is so much in common, a great deal in common. I mean, after all Islam is derived from—

BA: Common father in Abraham. So it’s—

ABM: Judeo-Christian teachings, that’s where Islam came from. 98 percent of the Qur’an is based on the Old and the New Testament. So there’s a great deal of commonality there, which as I see it—To what extent, from your perspective, do we need to have for example a discussion say between Jewish religious leaders, Christian leaders, and Muslim leaders – to sit down together and talk about these issues in terms of, yes, there is absolutely a need for Muslims to talk to Muslims, to disabuse them of the notion that Islam is a violent religion. Islam is not a violent religion. To disabuse them of the notion that Muhammad preached violence, because Muhammad did not preach violence. But you can see in the Qur’an many phrases where the Muslims like ISIS, like al-Qaeda, select pieces; selectively they take a piece of a paragraph or even a sentence and use it in order to promote their agenda. And we know that’s happening, and we also know like you said, that I don’t think there is a major concerted effort by the Muslim religious communities, be that in the Middle East and even in the West, who are actually taking this very seriously and are providing the counter narrative we are talking about. This is absolutely critical.

BA: So what do you think is the reason for that? Is there a fear that they would be targeted by these people who have these extremist interpretations or selective—

ABM: I think there are several reasons. I think one is certainly concern and fear of what happened. So their sermons, their preaching in the mosque, is becoming far more, more or less benign. They’re talking about right and wrong, but they usually don’t touch in a serious way, the question of violent extremism and how religion is being abused in that respect. There’s efforts by the Western community, like in Europe in particular, asking, demanding in a way from the imams in mosques to preach against violent extremism. So there is that concern.

The other thing, I think the reason that many of the Muslim scholars do not necessarily buy into the argument that you need to use religion in order to dissuade or disabuse somebody from certain beliefs is that they are Taqfiris, they are infidels, they don’t belong to us. We do not want to debase the language to the religion.

BA: It’s a very common line. It’s actually a very often repeated line in all the official statements of Islamic countries at the United Nations, that this violence has nothing to do with Islam.

ABM: Exactly.

BA: So it is not really like washing your hands. But it’s correct, it is a very logical declaration, statement, that in fact or indeed, what these fundamentalist terrorists and radicals are actually preaching is not Islam. But how are we going to counter that narrative remains. I mean, the question of how are you going to counter their narrative, I think for you it is not enough just to say that they don’t represent Islam, that the Islam they’re preaching is not the true Islam, is not authentic Islam. And exactly, you know Malala Yousafzai was at the United Nations the other day. She was appointed the messenger of peace at the United Nations. She is the youngest messenger of peace of 19. And in her acceptance speech, she said exactly that. She said I am a proud Muslim, proud Muslim woman in spite of what those radicals did to her. And she said exactly the same thing. Those terrorists who claim to be Muslims, they are not Muslims.

ABM: Exactly.

BA: They don’t practice Islam.

ABM: They distance themselves from them, precisely because they do not want to equate violent extremism with Islam. However, the point they are missing really, given that these Islamic groups use religion to make their case, that does not exempt those who make the claim that these are not Muslims, and Islam has nothing to do with that. They cannot make that claim anymore because the other side is using Islam as a religion, as a means by which to recruit, to indoctrinate, and to commit horrifying acts in the name of God, in the name of Allah. That is the problem with that, kind of the missing link there, that is inability.

BA: So what further steps should it take? I mean how much— Oh yes certainly, I mean even if you preach at the mosque, you say these radicals claim to be using Islam as the motivation of their acts that are violent acts. I think the preachers, the imams at the mosque, they would say, this is not Islam. So it’s a kind of just transferring the same declaration, the same statement from the U.N. to the mosque. Even if that, they may say, would that make a difference?

ABM: Well here my feeling is that there is a very strong need for Western countries—the United States, West European countries—to collaborate very closely with the Arab world, with the Muslim world, on this particular issue. That is, neither the Arab world can resolve that problem by themselves, nor the western community can resolve the problem of radicalization within their Muslim community on their own. There is a need it for because when you talk initially about the root causes, this is absolutely true. There is a problem in West European, Muslim communities in terms of lack of integration. It is happening, but the real root causes actually have been and still are in the Middle East itself, in the Muslim countries. Poverty plays a role with it, lack of education, discrimination, segregation, the use of arbitrary – lack of law and order, so to speak.

So you have all this chaotic situation whereby it is breeding, is alarming, nurturing the root of extremism. So the young men and women who are living in this country with no hope, no future, no prospect for a better life, they become more open to invitations coming from extremist groups that say you’re welcome. You see, if you come with us you will belong to a community, you will have things to do, you’ll have a goal, you’ll have identity. So they are embracing them and using the religious language in order to get them to join, and in order to prevent them from questioning the actual mission subsequently. That’s [unclear]. If, say we want to begin that kind of process, we are going to need to see to what extent the West – let’s take the Vatican in this particular case. To what extent the West, the Vatican, or others, say Jewish, religious leaders. To what extent can they actually work together and to try to promote this agenda that Muslims themselves sometimes are claiming, that they are not Muslims and we have nothing to do with them. And once they feel if they engage them—

BA: Instead of leaving them alone.

ABM: Yeah, leave them alone. If they engage them, it is as if we are admitting to some guilt. That we are actually beginning to accept the fact that they are Muslim and we are Muslim. So this is a problem that is affecting us as just the same.

BA: Actually, certainly dialogues not only between Catholics and Muslims, or not only between Jews and Catholics, have been going on for a long time. As you remember in the 19–s, I think it was, we celebrated the 20th anniversary recently of the first meeting of all the religious leaders in Assisi, and then Pope Francis recently also went there to commemorate the 20th anniversary. So actually there are many initiatives. Probably we don’t see them always.

In the Philippines I know for a fact a number of Catholic priests have been murdered because of their insistence on—there is an association or group, it’s really [unclear] it’s not a dialogue, it’s an association, a space for dialogue. It’s called Silsilah. It was founded by Catholic priests and then by Muslim leaders. And there are the fundamentalists, the extremists who kidnapped and killed some of the priests and also some of the Muslims. So in spite of all these setbacks we might say, this group has continued to grow and has continued to have more. These are really grassroots movements that could hardly be seen from afar. But there are actually many movements like that happening on the ground. These movements, it’s not only religious leaders. Most of the members of this Silsilah group are ordinary people – laypeople, women, men, children. So they come together and not only discuss but above all pray, pray in their own way as a community. But you know pray how their religion, the way the religious teachings pray. And so it’s very effective, but at the same time it has to be accompanied by other means, by other measures. I mean the government, the states, the authorities have a fundamental role to play here. This may be probably, if you think of the Middle East, this is also one of the problems there, the big problems. I mean, how could states, authorities kind of counter these movements within their own states? For instance, how could these states promote, let’s say for instance the fundamental principles of a pluralistic society? How could these states educate their citizens to, for instance, the principle of citizenship, that everyone is equal before the law, no matter what religion they have or what race they belong to. These fundamental principles of living in a pluralistic society are very much lacking. I mean the Arab Spring was so, especially in the West, we all probably sang the praises of liberty, of freedom, but without understanding that these were just eruptions of freedom, yes. But are the elements there to make this freedom really be the real expression of freedom? I mean, in these societies where this society is waiting for a pluralistic society.

ABM: No, no, there’s no question. They are not ready.

BA: That’s a problem, that’s where the violence is disrupting or bringing down [unclear] dictatorial regimes in a society which is completely unprepared to practice and to observe fundamental rules and principles in a pluralistic society. Certainly it’s for, I think were the results. I don’t think it is a privileged way just to bring down the regime. And then it is chaos.

ABM: Yeah, but the point you’re raising, an important point is, can in fact a pluralistic society coexist and complement religious precepts, religious concepts? For example, let’s take Turkey today. Turkey is a good example of a country that was on the path of democracy, and Erdogan was able to sort of combine, wanted to create a model of Islamic democracy. Well things are now of course unraveling in Turkey, and Turkey is moving more and more toward becoming more and more Islamist. So there was a question from the very beginning, can the two coexist or reconcile between the two? Can you in fact have a pluralistic society if religion is a dominant political factor in many of these countries? So, but I want to—

BA: That is a question. I mean, how many of these states would promote that? These states believe in the possibility of a harmonious pluralistic society. While Sharia would be, what I say, a fundamental element of interpretation of the law.

ABM: This is precisely the point. Take Saudi Arabia for example. Under what conditions will they relinquish any kind of religious control, in order to replace it with some democratic form or whatever that may be? So there is an inherent contradiction, inconsistency between the two. And the Saudis never try to reconcile between the two because this is the way it is. This is where we stand. But countries who presumably wanted to go through this experimentation like Turkey, now we see, it’s not working there at all because things have dramatically changed.

But let’s go back. That is, if this is the reality, which it is reality, how are we going to really deal with root causes, much of which exist in the Arab world, where Islam is still dominant? And if you try to distance Islam from the activities of Islamic extremism, where are we going to be a year or ten, five years? We are not, I don’t see progress that is going somewhere, somewhere that’s going to have to be bridged. Somewhere along the line, the Muslim countries ought to recognize that the religion is being used and abused, and they can no longer distance themselves from it and say, Islam is not violent and we have nothing to do with it. How do you go about changing the dynamics of this kind of narrative?

BA: I really think that the role of the state here is fundamental and essential. Because if the state believes in the fundamental principles of a pluralistic democratic society, then certainly the state has not only the right but the duty to—

ABM: But they don’t believe in that, however.

BA: I mean, that’s the problem.

ABM: That’s the problem.

BA: I’m supposing, I mean that’s the fundamental role of the state here, could only be played, could only be performed, done by a state with authorities who believe in these fundamental principles. If the state is not willing or does not believe in these principles, then it’s not to their interest to work for that. I think it’s simple.

ABM: So there is room. However, given this reality in the region, among most Muslim countries, is there room for religious, like we said earlier, scholars from various faiths? Let’s talk about in particular Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Is there a role for the leadership of the three [monotheistic] religions to do something? You mentioned this interfaith conference, and there was a great deal of discussion about it, but you also indicated, rightfully so, what was the follow up? What happened after the conference? To what extent the consensus was ta—

BA: Yeah, the dissemination of what was learned, of what was agreed.

ABM: What was agreed on, the consensus, how that was translated into action on the ground, in order to promote interfaith and as a religion, but also promote the role of each religion and what it’s playing. So to what extent do you think this is going to be necessary in the future to continue, not just with a kind of convocation like this?

BA: Yeah, with the formal level of leaders, but also really in the communities, which is more decisive.

ABM: How do we go about it?

BA: You know, I think the answer to your question presupposes really a number of analyses of how different religions are in their structures and their doctrines. Not only in their doctrines, but in the structures. For us, I mean for the Catholic Church, we set some parameters, a hierarchical structure with institutions all over the place, on the ground, connected to the top. I mean what the Pope says, we do. Well I think that could be, as far as I know, really a very distinguishing characteristic in the Catholic Church, that even other Christian churches could have that kind of pyramidal structure in which you might say the Supreme Authority says, then the others follow. And then, it’s not only what he says, but he has the structure to bring it down to the ground, to bring it down to the last village, to the last chapel, to the last parish, to the last faith community. You see that for instance in the Islamic world. I mean all the Al-Azhar is recognized as the most authoritative of all. At least in the Sunni world, this is the highest religious authority. But does it have, in the Muslim religion, do they have a kind, do they have that structure and that belief that what Al-Azhar accepts, says or teaches, should go down to the very last, to the last post or to the last madrassa, that they would listen to Al-Azhar? I mean, [unclear], is I don’t think, I mean I’m not really talking about Islam, I’m talking about also other religions.

ABM: No, no, you you’re right. I mean to what extent that kind of teaching—

BA: Influence—

ABM: Influence, other. If I may ask you almost like a personal question, you are an archbishop, you’re a believer, which is admirable. But do you also believe in democratic forms of government? Do you?

BA: Yeah, sure.

ABM: Obviously you do, but you don’t see a contradiction between being a deep believer and also being a man who also believes in freedom and democracy. And you’ve been able to reconcile that in your mind. So how do you reconcile that in your mind? Because like you just said, what the Holy Father says, we do. You don’t ask questions. On the other hand, you also believe I’m a free man. Am I right?

BA: Yes

ABM: I can say what I want to say, so somewhere along the line you’ve been able to reconcile between your deep beliefs and a political system that speaks for freedom and rights and laws and order.

BA: Yeah, I always think that is fundamental in our teaching, in our training. I’m sure you’ve heard probably of this very important document of the Second Vatican Council is the, we call it the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. Its title is Gaudium et spes. Of course the first three words of the document are in Latin as traditionally documents are titled. And in there, it is very clear that the church and the state are autonomous.

ABM: Yes.

BA: We are independent of the whole sphere, and yet there is such a huge we might say area in between that they share, and it is precisely because the citizen is also the believer. So when I say ultimately both are working or promoting the good of the same person, how are we going to reconcile the two? We might see being a religion and being a state having the same subject. Of course in the mature, democratic—when I say a system that is progressively being cleared out, sometimes it goes back, sometimes it regresses. Look at the United States. I mean, why did the founding fathers—the founding fathers, they were practically fundamentalist Christians in a sense. They were not tolerant of the Catholics, they were not tolerant of other Christians. And they were the descendants of the pilgrims, et cetera, et cetera, because of religious persecutions. They came to the United States also. And yet, in spite of the fact that they didn’t necessarily love the other Christians, didn’t necessarily love the other people of other religions, they made it the point. I mean the [First] Amendment. Why would the [First] Amendment be possible? Because I think that in spite of the fact that I don’t love you, we respect your religious freedom. So it is already a principle that has been courageously really put into writing, into the Constitution, by the original thinkers of the system. And these are fundamental rights, the fundamental decisive points in the history of the evolvement of the democratic system in the country.

Could that be possible when the country is in the Middle East? Could they say, I don’t like you. I could even hate you, I mean, it’s not your problem. And yet I respect your fundamental freedom of religion, I respect that even Muslims could change their own religion or they could say that I don’t believe anymore. I mean to be an atheist, or now as they are called [unclear] all over the place. I mean this fundamental principle, it has become the backbone of generally harmonious relationship between a state and a religion, church, and between democratic principles and religious principles. So there is not only the possibility we have. For example, there could be tensions, there are regressions. As I’ve said, during the Obama administration, there was a huge question of religious freedom. There was the Hobby Lobby case and there is a case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, and many other Catholic institutions who were forced to do something against their conscience, against their religious principles. And they won practically all the cases. We won because the courts determined that these are violations of your religious freedom. So the state could very well function without forcing the Poor Sisters to distribute abortifacients, for instance. I mean, why would sisters taking care of old people ever be forced by a country where euthanasia is legal, for instance. How can you force the Poor Sisters to kind of administer euthanasia to their guests in a home to care for the old people? So these are principles, I’m sure. I mean, I am not a scholar. I’m not even an expert, but looking at it really from the vast perspective, from that perspective, I’m sure there are many scholars in the Middle East, many Islamic scholars and many other scholars who are friends of the Islamic scholars, know very well this fact, this system. Otherwise they wouldn’t be scholars if they don’t know this. And they think that they will be convinced that this could work also for them.

ABM: They know it, they understand it, but to what extent in fact they are active in promoting what they themselves believe in? I mean, there’s an element of certain freedom in Arab states, specifically in religious matters, specifically when it came to Christians and Jews. Mohammad himself excluded these two from being subject to forced conversion.

BA: That’s what they call the Declaration of Medina.

ABM: Yeah, the declaration. So they did allow freedom for Jews to worship what they want, and the Christians to do that. So there was that level of religious tolerance. It is changing a little because of the last decade and a half or so of what’s happening in Iraq, what’s happening in Syria, it is changing.

BA: I guess many of the— I’m sorry, I want to comment on that, I think especially the declaration, I mean the Medina Decree or really the decrees you might say of Mohammed, certainly preceded the Qur’an. That’s also a problem – I mean, Islamic scholars willing to use the Medina Decrees of Mohammad to interpret the Qur’an, which came after. This is also another aspect of the religious problem, because there is so much hermeneutic, there is so much, what’s it called, the historical analysis of text that should still go on. Of course I think every religion – the Catholic Church, Christianity in general for that matter, experienced this huge progress in terms of interpreting other biblical texts. I’m sure the Jewish scholars have been doing the same. And also the Muslim scholars, there are some Muslim scholars, some of them certainly were persecuted. There are Pakistani scholars who have tried and really explored the side of using the historical interpretation of sacred texts. So I think this, for example, how could you use the Medina decrees, which preceded the Qur’an, in interpreting the Qur’anic texts, or the hadith, etc. So it is something I guess that is going on, and one hopes that there will be really—I think I’m excited to see in the near future how this, what Christianity went through in the 19th century for instance or early 20th century in terms of the interpretation, hermeneutics of the sacred texts. That’s why exegesis is such a demanding science. To get a doctorate you need to know the ancient languages, you need to know ancient history. You need eight years to get a doctorate, all these things. And then it’s only just a start. You are not even yet a scholar, even if you’re already a doctor. You keep on studying. So I’m excited to see it. In the Islamic world it would have schools of thoughts in interpreting sacred texts using various tools in which other religions have undergone.

ABM: I just want to conclude by one question, and we’ll talk about them. That is, we know that conflicts, be that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the conflict in Syria, obviously promote extremism, all kinds. And we recently had a discussion at Villanova University about this issue, and I raised the question, the extent to which for example the Catholic Church can play a role in mitigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because that conflict feeds into extremism just like any other conflict in the Middle East, when you have this kind of problem that has not been solved for 70 years. Do you feel that the Catholic Church has a role to play in mitigating these kinds of conflicts which are, at least in part, root causes behind extremism?

BA: Well, I think there will always be a role, but if you look at it, there are so many influences within the Israeli-Palestinians, the Jews there are of course various currents of how they should approach a problem. I will mention that in the Holy See statement next week at the Security Council. But you know, look at Hamas. I mean, how much do you think the Catholic Church or whatever religion could influence them, when we know that there are concurrent influences. But I’m not saying that we should give up. I have in mind several examples of how we have been. There is a Catholic priest who is milk guy in Galilee. He has a school where all the Jews and Christians and Muslims are welcome. And the school really encourages dialogue.

ABM: I just want to—

BA: But it’s only a kind of a small initiative in this sense. If we could multiply; there is another one in Jericho now.

ABM: Yeah.

BA: And then the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem will be here next month, and we’ll see what he can do. And the people mostly in Syria will be here also next month. So we have probably—

ABM: One final thing I want to say. Do you think for example, if the Holy Father were to invite religious Israeli Palestinian religious leaders, Arabs, Israelis, to come and have that kind of dialogue, do you think that can be useful?

BA: The Holy Father has done that a number of times, yeah.

ABM: No, actually inviting them for this specific purpose.

BA: And then I think there’s been a series of encounters, meetings, and that already. And of course he could continue. I am sure he will continue, not even only inviting religious leaders from all the Palestinians and the Jews, but also the political leaders. As you remember, when Abbas and Shimon Peres came to the Vatican and, et cetera, I do believe that – I don’t have really a list of all these meetings going on in the Middle East, and in particular in what we call the Holy Land. That is, whether it’s the Israeli territories or whether it’s the Palestinian territories, but indeed as far as I know, there are dialogues in different levels, different sizes, different actors you might say, their dialogues and the [unclear], there are dialogues conducted at the level of communities.

ABM: The only thing is, I know, I agree with you. They are happening, but something like when the highest authority.

BA: The threshold is not yet reached in which they could really influence.

ABM: That’s the whole point, I mean we have the highest authority actually more visibly has given far more cover. This is what role the Christian church can play. Anyway, I think I think we all need to do a little bit more.

BA: That’s for sure. Pray more, work more, be friendlier, be more compassionate.

ABM: That’s right. And care, and love. Yeah, and that is what it’s all about. And I wish the Islamic extremists just learn one simple lesson. That there is a better way to achieve their objective without killing and maiming and destroying. Well anyway—

BA: Pray for that, that’s what the Holy Father prayed last, Palm Sunday, after the bombing in Egypt happened, when the pope was celebrating Palm Sunday also in the Vatican celebration and said, let’s pray for the conversions of the violent. This is really true. I mean there are, as they said solutions to the problems. The big problem should be pursued in different levels—the level of states, the level of national authorities, the level of the international community, at the level of local communities and authorities, and at the level really of individual lives.

ABM: I agree. I agree 100 percent.

BA: It is so much there.

ABM: Thank you so much.

BA: Thank you, Professor.

ABM: Thank you for taking the time, I really appreciate it. It’s wonderful to be here.

BA: Thank you for coming.