A detour into the recent history of Islamic thought illustrates the potential for common ground.
Egyptian poet and essayist Sayyid Qutb, hanged by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966, is the father of modern Islamic radicalism. He spent 1948-50 in the United States attending Wilson Teachers College, the Colorado State College of Education (today the University of Northern Colorado) and Stanford University as part of an exchange program. Based on that experience, Qutb penned his famous tract, The America I Have Seen, which still exercises a profound effect in shaping Muslim perceptions of American culture.
The work amounted to a ferocious attack on what Qutb called “the American man,” depicted as obsessed with technology but virtually a barbarian in the realm of spirituality and human values. American society, for Qutb, was “rotten and ill” to its very core.
He wrote: “This great America: What is it worth in the scale of human values? And what does it add to the moral account of humanity? And, by the journey’s end, what will its contribution be? I fear that a balance may not exist between America’s material greatness and the quality of its people. And I fear that the wheel of life will have turned and the book of life will have closed and America will have added nothing, or next to nothing, to the account of morals that distinguishes man from object, and indeed, mankind from animals.”
A particular zone of disgust for Qutb was what he saw as the sexual licentiousness of American culture (and this, bear in mind, was the early 1950s). He wrote that a society in which “immoral teachings and poisonous intentions are rampant” and in which sex is considered “outside the sphere of morality” is one in which “the humanity of man can hardly find a place to develop.” Qutb said that “providing full opportunities for the development and perfection of human characteristics requires strong safeguards for the peace and stability of the family.”
Recently, for example, the Vatican vigorously protested a gay pride march in Jerusalem, arguing that such an event is “offensive to the great majority of Jews, Muslims and Christians.” It’s a classic example of an issue around which Benedict believes engagement with Muslims is possible.
Yet Benedict is also well aware that Islamic radicalism tends to discredit religious commitment in any form by associating it with violence and fanaticism. Hence, when Benedict presses Muslims to reject terrorism and to embrace religious liberty, he believes himself to be doing so not as a xenophobe or a crusader but as a friend of Islam, pressing it to realize the best version of itself.