French Muslim Leader on Papacy: 'A New Beginning Is Necessary'

Dalil Boubakeur is one of France's most prominent Muslims. In a SPIEGEL ONLINE interview, he discusses what retiring Pope Benedict XVI did wrong in bridging the Muslim-Catholic divide and how the two religions need to make a fresh start at interfaith dialogue.

Is Pope Benedict XVI's retirement an opportunity for improved Catholic-Muslim dialogue? Zoom
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Is Pope Benedict XVI's retirement an opportunity for improved Catholic-Muslim dialogue?

Dalil Boubakeur is in his office at the Grand Mosque in Paris, where he has poured mint tea. The mosque is an imposing example of Muslim architecture, not far from the Seine, and was built in 1926 to recognize the colonial Muslim troops who had fought for France during World War I.

Boubakeur, who knows Latin and is as well-versed in the history of the Catholic Church as he is in the Koran, is an admirer of Germany, which he got to know after World War II. "I love its regions, its literature and its history," Boubakeur says. He apologizes for his somewhat rusty German. "I don't have much of an opportunity to speak it," he said. "The last time was with Pope Benedict."


SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your excellency, Pope Benedict XVI is stepping down on February 28. What do you wish for from the future pontiff?

Boubakeur: A reversal. Christianity under Pope Benedict XVI started becoming more doctrinaire. He was not able to understand Muslims. He had no direct experience with Islam, and he found nothing positive to say about our beliefs.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You met Benedict XVI during his visit to Paris in 2008. What impression did he make on you during your personal discussions?

Boubakeur: Benedict was shy, reserved, very much the result of a traditional, strict upbringing -- friendly, but always keeping a distance.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: At the World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005, only a few months after he was elected, the pope said that inter-religious dialogue between Christians and Muslims shouldn't be an optional extra. Were his words followed by actions?

Boubakeur: No, not at all. They turned out to be empty words, a fact which I have deeply regretted. And his speech in September 2006 at the University of Regensburg only deepened my disappointment.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In that speech, Benedict quoted the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, saying: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only bad and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." What did you think at that time?

Boubakeur: I knew that it was a lecture in front of students and professors, so he was sending an educational message. But the appearance was shaped by an outdated approach to the relationship between Christianity and Islam.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It resulted in uproar in the Muslim world, protests in Arab countries and attacks on Christians in the Middle East.

Boubakeur: Understandably. The decisions of the Second Vatican Council for inter-religious dialogue seemed to have been forgotten, and we are back to the relationship that has been described as the "Muslim-Christian polemic." To me, it seemed like a return to those early days when the Christian Church judged Islam to be heresy.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Have any bitter feelings remained?

Boubakeur: It was wrong to remind people of the conflicts between Christianity and Islam, of these terrible confrontations that lasted for centuries. In doing so, Benedict made room for a dogmatic, misleading interpretation.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Criticism has to be allowed. The pope had reminded people of religious freedom when Christians in Arab countries were being discriminated against and persecuted.

Boubakeur: Correct. But sometimes this espousal came with an undercurrent of Islamophobia, when the criticism was made using terms that were otherwise disseminated by opponents of Islam. Benedict XVI repeated what he was told, but without personal sympathy. Where was the talk of brotherhood?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Has the German pope been more of an inspector of theological purity than a shepherd?

Boubakeur: Benedict XVI was undoubtedly profoundly influenced by his work as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an office he held before his election (to the papacy) in Rome. That was his role, his function, his mission.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: One of your many publications is entitled "The Shock of Religions: Jews, Christians, Muslims -- is Coexistence Possible?" In the book, from 2004, you answered the question positively. And today?

Boubakeur: Still the same answer. But it requires that, in order to coexist in a society, religions have to feel committed to the same values. It is only when no single belief exclusively receives preferential treatment that the conditions exist for a true democracy and conflict-free coexistence. So, with a new pope, one would hope to have a fresh start for dialogue between the religions.

The interview was conducted by Stefan Simons in Paris.

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About Dalil Boubakeur
  • AFP
    Dalil Boubakeur, 73, was born in Algeria and is the rector of the Muslim Institute at the Grand Mosque of Paris. A physician, Boubakeur studied in Egypt, Tunisia, Ireland and France. Boubakeur has often gained attention in the past for his liberal views. He has spoken out against burkas and has called on Muslims to make more efforts to integrate into European societies.

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