The Atlantic: …A conference on “global fraternity” has featured rabbis, imams, swamis, cardinals, and obscure religious officiaries whose titles I had never heard before. …The assembled clerics, seemingly one of every type, were a sort of warm-up crew for the pope, who appeared Monday night with Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar University (the seat of Sunni learning in Cairo), in a double act billed as a moment of public healing that will mend hatreds dating to the Crusades. Tuesday morning, Francis celebrated the first papal Mass ever in the Arabian Peninsula.
I have been coming to the Gulf for nearly 20 years, and for almost that long I have heard quoted a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, to the effect that the Arabian Peninsula (UAE and other Gulf States, plus Yemen) should not contain any religion but Islam. This religious zoning law is enforced with greater zeal as one approaches Mecca and Medina. There one finds no non-Muslims at all. In Saudi Arabia, non-Muslims may live temporarily and worship discreetly. In the UAE, there are churches, but proselytization is still illegal, and Islam is enshrined in law. You can get thrown in jail for blaspheming, and killed for leaving Islam. Practice of magic is criminalized, per Islamic law. And yet Francis performed, before an audience of about 120,000 and with no danger of prosecution, what many Muslims consider an act of sorcery, the transformation of wine and bread into the body and blood of Christ.
What has happened to the Emirates? Whence this turn toward tolerance?
A papal Mass on the Arabian Peninsula is something very new indeed—as evidenced, most obviously and literally, by its failure to occur ever before. Something has happened, and the change has proceeded not slowly and continuously but with surprising speed, and only in the past five years or so. Today’s UAE is more open and tolerant of other cultures.
The old emir, Sheikh Zayed, was an absolute monarch. …Under his rule, Abu Dhabi grew more cosmopolitan, more modern, but at a pace far slower than in the 14 years since his death.
What has changed, in brief, is the dual rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State.
For years, the Gulf gave the hard-liners one-way tickets into exile—ideally so they could die in the cause of jihad far away, without threatening the stability of the Gulf monarchies. That was the deal: The Gulf States would give Islamists wide latitude to operate, as long as they concentrated their efforts elsewhere.
By about six years ago, ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood had separately declared that the deal was off, and that they would seek the eventual overthrow of the Gulf monarchies. (The Muslim Brotherhood exempted only one of them, Qatar, from the threat.)
The pope’s visit was advertised as the UAE’s gift to the many thousands of Catholic guest workers, including nearly 700,000 from the Philippines alone. That was only part of its purpose. Freed from any obligation to Islamists, and faced with the promise that those Islamists would work implacably to end the monarchies, the Gulf States have everything to gain from embracing the West, opening further, and reaping the benefits of cooperation against Islamists. The visit was not a concession to Christianity but a strategic calculation, and a canny one at that.
To see tens of thousands of Filipinos and Indians worshipping together, in front of their Holy Father, in an event that all will someday describe to their children and grandchildren, was to see them achieve visibility. When you are legally required to hide what matters most to you, the chance to proclaim it becomes something greater than just a personal release. It is a collective acknowledgment of humanity long suppressed.
By the time I arrived in the stadium, nearly every seat was full, and Vatican flags that had been left on the seats were wagging in every section. Large screens showed Francis at a nearby church, which in his address to the congregation he called (with obvious affection) “small” and “new.” He then hopped into an open-backed truck, and we watched him proceed, waving in the familiar papal parade posture, a short distance to the soccer stadium that had been outfitted for celebration of Mass. The only part of the scene that would have distinguished it from another, less historic papal visit was the presence of one member of his security detail wearing a thawb, the body-length white garment traditional in Abu Dhabi.
He entered the stadium like a matador, cruising back and forth before each section of seats, so no one was denied a close look and an opportunity to cheer. When he passed by me, about 10 feet away, he smiled broadly and squinted to avoid being blinded by the Gulf sun. He looked energetic—younger than 82—and he must have been grateful that in the heat of Abu Dhabi, his regalia was a heat-reflecting white.
[A]t least a few repercussions of the papal visit will be permanent. The Catholic population of the Emirates will remember the visit—and, perhaps more important, the decision of Abu Dhabi’s ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (MbZ), to invite him. …Western countries will remember that by inviting a Christian idolator to perform sorcery on the peninsula of the Prophet, Abu Dhabi took a step away from Islamists, a step that cannot really ever be taken back.
Of less certain long-term significance is the effect of the visit on global religious dynamics, writ large. Yesterday night, Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Azhar imam, signed a “Human Fraternity Document,” agreeing on general values shared by the two communities of faith. I feel certain that the details of this document have already been forgotten forever; the shared values. . . are bland and unchallenging, and therefore effortlessly ignored. Moreover, they were adopted in the face of, and without mentioning, ongoing humanitarian disasters in which the UAE and el-Tayeb’s Egypt are complicit—namely the war against Iranian proxies in Yemen, and abuses of state power in Egypt.
But the fact that el-Tayeb and Pope Francis signed the agreement is, in a way, more important than the contents. What matters is that they, as the preeminent figures in Christianity and Islam, were joining forces, in a coalition of institutional religious authority, not so subtly united against upstart forces of popular religion. The Catholic Church has worried for centuries about the same concern that now afflicts the Emiratis and Egyptians: that younger generations no longer trust the establishment, and that they will, if not forced into obedience, adopt rebellion both religious and political.
El-Tayeb, in his talk on Monday, argued against what he called “individualism”—which seemed to mean independent thought, outside the scholarly edifice of which he is the superintendent. Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict, is better known than Francis as a doctrinal enforcer. But Francis too, by simple virtue of being pope, is nothing if not the unifier and director of a massive and coordinated religious enterprise.
The Gulf States no longer fear Christianity. Christendom no longer covets Muslim land; Christians just want to be respected and respectful guests. The greater threat comes from chaos—the danger that their Muslim sons and daughters are beyond their command, and will instead embrace entrepreneurial amateurs like the Islamic State. The friendly and conciliatory performances of el-Tayeb and Francis proved that the religious authorities of Christianity and Sunni Islam will happily make peace with one another, and not focus unduly on converting one another or fighting. But the fights within Islam continue to be fought, as they were in Christianity, with catastrophic effects for the Church of Rome, 400 years ago in the Protestant Reformation and Counter Reformation. The institutional authorities of Islam, and the political authorities with which they are aligned, have just bought themselves an institutional ally, if not a theological one. Whether the alliance keeps the theological barbarians at bay is another question.
Will Catholicism join with Islam to crush God’s true people in the end times?
“And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters: With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.” (Revelation 17:1, 2)