Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
King Abdullah II of Jordan, Pope Francis, and President Barack Obama each had messages for Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast, all of which conveyed that the true nature of religion lay in the paths of peace, mercy and justice. But of these three, the president’s message provoked no small degree of controversy by trying to remind Christians of the failures of their past, when they look at religious violence in the world today.
Although neither the Pope nor King Abdullah were present in Washington, but both had a message that proceeded from their respective Catholic and Islamic faiths. [The Pope’s nuncio Archbishop Carlo Viganò, was present, but King Abdullah, who was scheduled to attend, had to cancel and return to Jordan to respond forcefully against the Islamic State for the horrific execution of their captured pilot.]
An excerpt of the Pope’s message was read aloud, conveying His Holiness’s “prayerful good wishes for you, for the fruitfulness of your work.”
“I ask you to pray for me, and to join me in praying for our brothers and sisters throughout the world who experience persecution and death for their faith,” said Pope Francis.
The message continued, “Upon you, your families, and those whom you serve, I cordially invoke God’s blessings of wisdom, joy, and peace.”
The full message was to be read at the luncheon later that day.
King Abdullah traces his lineage back to the prophet Mohammed himself, and he intended to read Luke 10 as part of his address: where Jesus tells a scholar of the law that to inherit eternal life “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
What follows is the parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus concludes by affirming to the scholar that the one who was a neighbor to the man beaten by robbers was “the one who had mercy on him.”
Implicit in King Abdullah’s speech is the message that true faith, and true Islam, embraces this message of Jesus Christ.
President Obama delivered his address personally at the National Prayer Breakfast that delved into a reflection of “professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.”
But he entered on territory that has generated controversy by mentioning — in the context of all the religious violence going on in the 21st century — that Christians should remember that their history involved extremists who justified evil in the name of Jesus Christ.
Fair-minded people will have to read the passage in full to see its context and judge the controversial remarks (in bold) for themselves:
“As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another -- to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife. We heard the good work that Sister has done in Philadelphia, and the incredible work that Dr. Brantly and his colleagues have done. We see faith driving us to do right.
But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon. From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.
We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.
So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?
Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhi, the person who helped to liberate that nation.
So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.”
The president’s speech continues with many laudable and praiseworthy sentiments. Unfortunately, they will not enter the public consciousness, because they are overshadowed by a perception that the president was making a case for moral equivalency between the examples he picked (the Crusades, the Inquisition, American slavery and Jim Crow) with the genocidal horror being carried out by the Islamic State against religious minorities and any Muslim in Syria and Iraq — including Sunnis both Arab and Kurds — that disagree with them.
The president was trying to make the point that the violence in the Middle East and elsewhere is due principally to sin, and not to true Islam. To be fair, the Pope has made similar points. But simply put, the president has little persuasive power on this subject. He is speaking to a public that only learns about Islam from the U.S. media when it involves Muslim extremists committing acts of terror and barbarity, and finds it very difficult to square with the message repeated by the Bush and Obama administrations that Islam is a “religion of peace.”
Perhaps it would have been different, if the White House since 9/11 had made the case all along that the U.S. and the Islamic world were engaged in a conflict with a “brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism,” instead of vaguely asserting the U.S. was fighting a “war on terror” or oversimplifying the conflict with blanket claims that it has nothing to do with Islam, when the belligerents involved clearly assert otherwise.
As a result, it matters little if the president is correct to say that during the Crusades and Inquisition, “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” That message is not unique: even the Popes have said this: the ill-fated 4th Crusade comes to mind, which has been a wound in Catholic-Orthodox relations for 800 years. Even the gains of the First Crusade — waged principally to make Palestine safe for pilgrimage to Jerusalem — were eventually squandered within 100 years by corrupt Crusader nobles, who invited the wrath of Saladin and loss of the Crusader states by violating the lives and property of the native Arabs.
But the examples cited by the president were inapt to describe the situation in the Middle East: the president could have pointed out that the Middle East is engaged in a conflict similar to what Christendom went through in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the religious authority of the Catholic Church was cast off, and unleashed political forces that saw Catholics and Protestants commit massive atrocities against each other in what is known as the “Wars of Religion.” The slaughters perpetrated by Catholics against Protestants and vice versa reduced the population by a third to two-thirds in the German states during the Thirty Years War.
Few people realize the central political and spiritual authority of the Islamic world came to an end in 1921 with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the abolition of the caliphate and the Sultan. The exportation of Wahhabi Islamist ideology since the 1970s thanks to the billions of petro dollars from Saudi Arabia’s princes has seeded extremism all over the world, and contributed greatly to the rise of an even more extreme Islamist ideologues called “Takfiri”: simply put, if you disagree with them on any point, you’re an infidel — whether you are Muslim or not — and they can do with you as they please. Those are only pieces to a puzzle that involves disastrous U.S. and British interventions in the governments of the Middle East since the conclusion of World War I.
The problem with appealing to historical examples is that it requires one’s audience to have a knowledge of history, contemporary events, and nuances that Americans, unfortunately, largely do not possess.
King Abdullah has the credibility to speak about true Islam, and could speak to how the moderate Muslims in the Middle East are locked now in a life-or-death struggle with the extremists. He could speak about his efforts to defend the rights and liberties of Christians in the Middle East. When I was a reporter traveling in Jordan in October visiting refugees served by Catholic Relief Services, I spoke with different Jordanian Christians and Muslims who spoke very warmly of the King's defense of Christianity and that his efforts strengthened the general public's view that moderate Islam is the true Islam.
I saw it personally on display: the Jordanians cherish life and their history and have a very secure country as a result. They’re not blowing up the ancient ruins of Petra — unlike IS which is eradicating any trace of Islamic, Christian, and ancient history in Iraq along with anyone who disagrees with them — they’re inviting tourists to experience their rich culture and heritage that stretches back thousands of years.
King Abdullah is a more authoritative representative of the Islamic world than the U.S. president to tell the American people that true Islam embraces the path of peace and love toward fellow men. It is solidarity with the king’s message about the true nature of Islam — the one that embraces the message of Jesus Christ about love of God and of neighbor — that the president would have done better to promote, rather than losing part of his audience by pointing to the failures of the past.