The Vatican's leading expert on contemporary Islam tells Ed Pentin why he rejects the term 'moderate Muslim'
you could say that White Father Fr Justo Lacunza-Balda is the complete antithesis of an Islamic militant extremist. Everything about him, from his rather unkempt, longhaired but beardless appearance to his vast book collection and wild gesticulations, suggests a broad, open-minded and adventurous thinker.
But if he resembles an eccentric professor, then it's because he is, indeed, a highly learned scholar. He has a degree in theology, studied Islam in Rome and Tunis, completed a doctorate at the . School of African and Oriental Studies in London, and has undertaken research on Islam in 34 different countries. He spent eight years in Kigoma and Tabora in Tanzania. He is courted by leading journalists for analysis on contemporary Islam.
For the past six years Fr Lacunza-Balda, 62, has served as director of what has become a vital teaching body in the Church: the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies. The institute, entrusted by the Holy See to the Missionaries of Africa, helps form Christians for encounter and dialogue with Islam. Pope Benedict XVI is understandably supportive of its work and, on a table in Fr LacunzaBalda's office, sits a recently framed photograph of the priest meeting a delighted Holy Father.
"He was happy. to see me," he says modestly. "He's very keen that we carry on."
We had arranged to meet at his Rome offices not to discuss the institute so much as to talk about his views on Islam, terrorism and, in particular, the July 7 London bombings. As it happens, he was due to be in London for a Catholic-Shia conference at Heythrop on the day of the atrocity but due to a strike in Italy he arrived in the capital a day later.
"In a certain way, I had been spared my life", he says. "Travelling on the Underground a day later was difficult — you had to break a psychological barrier and say to yourself that it won't happen again."
His first reaction to the atrocity was obviously to condemn it. But he also realised that Muslims are the "first to suffer" from such acts of terrorism, victims of a narrowing of attitudes that results from such evil acts. He dismisses the terrorists as having nothing to do with Islam. preferring to call them criminals. But he adds: "Just because you have a criminal at home doesn't mean you have a whole family of them. Life in Islam is sacred and depends on God — no one can simply say, 'I'm goingto wipe you our." He also opposes the view that these militant extremists are against the West. .
"They are very eager to take and profit from the comforts, the scientific and technological resources of the West, using the media and the internet," he says."They want to impose their own vision of Islam on the world using all the discoveries of the West to make their cause possible."
Yet Fr Lacunza-Balda acknowledges the ongoing crisis within Islam. He says its lack of central authority, leading to conflicting interpretations, is one of its "greatest difficulties". lie also cites problems with Islam being too Arab
centred, saying Muslims "have to shake off the religious colonialism of the Arabs". They are too heavily influenced, he argues, by a predominantly Arab belief that politics, Islam and national identity must be closely intertwined. He points to constitutions of Muslim-majority states where that is not so, such as Senegal, Nigeria, Cameroon, Indonesia and Malaysia, but he concedes that historically it has been "very difficult to disassociate religion and politics from the vision of Islam". Partly for this reason, he says, it's not possible to export some Western values and systems into Islamic countries.
"You can't put a truck engine into a Morris Minor, it won't move an inch, it won't fit," he says. A lack of rights for minorities — especially Christians — in Muslim-majority states is, he insists the fault of governments. Controversially he argues that Muslims are happy for Christians to practise their faith.
"I've never met a Muslim who doesn't want to be respected for his own dignity, or a Muslim who is happy when things are being imposed," he says.
"I really haven't found Muslims who. don't want Christians to practise their religion in Muslim countries."
But what does he think about the view, held by polemicists such as the Italian author Oriana Fallaci, that there is no such thing as "moderate Islam" and that its major purpose is to forceably convert the "infidel"?
Fallaci argues therefore that the extremists and jihadists are being faithful Muslims. Fr Lacunza-Balda says again that this is due to misinterpretation and reading texts in isolation. "A Muslim who does not believe in submission to a merciful and compassionate God who illumines individuals, communities, groups and nations in Islam, is replacing that with something else and therefore poisoning the Interpretation," he says.
But he, too, rejects the term "moderate Islam". "It's most inappropriate," he says. "Human beings, individuals in groups, are living their faith in a particular way and they show moderation, good behaviour or animosity, hatred, violence."
Those who kill, he repeats, are simply criminals. He adds that humanity has always abused religion, and this is no different within sections of contemporary Islam. And yet some argue that these misinterpretations and abuse go all the way back to the time of Mohammed.
The founder of Islam left no writings, no anointed successor and no clear instructions to his followers.
The writings of the Koran were, according to the majority of scholars, mostly put together under the weak and unpopular Caliph Uthman Ibn Affan, who reigned 12 years after Mohammed's death.
Fr Lacunza-Balda replies indirectly to this argument. He quotes John 3:8.
"The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit," inferring that the Holy Spirit is not only restricted to Christians and he mentions the history of Muslim poets, philosophers, mystics for whom Islam had been their faith and way of life.
"We need to be extremely careful of leaving room for God and not having the last word," he says. And he is very aware of the dangers of subjectively looking at Islam through Christian eyes — and vice-versa.
"We fail very often to listen and perceive the language, mind and the voice of millions of Muslims who want to live in peace with each other," he says.
To discover the true reasons for terrorism, he argues shrewdly, it is necessary to look at the motives behind the terrorist leaders rather than, perhaps, the terrorists themselves.
"On the question of Jihad, we need to break it open like a nut to see what's in there: who is pushing this idea, for what economic and political gain? Is the antagonism of the opposition, talk of a clash of civilisations, real or constructed so that it helps someone else?"
As to the future, he points to three areas in need of attention: the need to take seriously the teaching of Islam in schools, mosques and madrassas, especially in Britain where several imams have instigated hate among Muslims; to respect and treasure difference and to see the richness of pluralism; and to realise that without various faith and cultural communities it is difficult to construct bridges of understanding, learning and peace.
He sees all faiths and cultures as potentially complementary, particularly in a university setting.
"Not enough is being done to bring together different people from different walks of life, not just in one big seminar now and again, but constantly," he argues.
"Too much is being left in the hands of politicians — they have the last answer but probably not the best solutions in any human society."
Echoing Pope Benedict's desire to unite the world's cultures around values, Fr Lacunza-Balda sees endless possibilities for collaboration and exchange.
"There is so much ground around which we can try to solve problems," he says.
"Education, health, the elderly, children, the handicapped, the less fortunate, people who have problems with relations, faith and culture — there are thousands of areas to discuss."
If only the bin Ladens and Fallacis of this world could be so broadminded.