VATICAN CITY — Father Justo Lacunza-Balda, director of the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies in Rome, has a personal link to last year’s bombings in London — he had planned to travel to London on the same day that Muslim terrorists launched their deadly strikes against the British capital’s transit system.

Father Lacunza-Balda, a 62-year-old native of Pamplona, Spain, 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 countries. He spoke recently with Register correspondent Edward Pentin about the London bombings July 7, and about what can be done to prevent similar atrocities in the future.

What was your immediate reaction when you heard about the July 7 bombings and what it means for interreligious dialogue?

I was due to travel to London on July 7 but due to a strike, the travel agency said it was better to travel on July 8.

That was much to my regret because on July 9 there was to be the second international conference between Catholics and Shia at Heythrop College (London) and later at Ampleforth Abbey. All the places [the terrorists struck] were ones very familiar to me. I know the Edgware underground, I know Russell Square from my days at the School of African and Oriental Studies. I had taken the double-decker from Aldgate a number of times.

So all these places were very familiar to me, and traveling on the Underground on July 8 and July 9 was not only difficult but you had to break that psychological barrier, and so you say to yourself, ‘Hopefully it won’t happen.’

To come to your question, any kind of terrorist act, evil or violence — a single attack or well-planned conflict, invasion or war — has direct impact on they way people think and behave, and narrows attitudes of people towards each other. You also have issues of race, culture, nationality, religion or faith in the mix, and then things get worse as you have an extra component.

London is known for its openness, freedom, liberty, ideas, universities, colleges, places that many dreamed about on the other side of the channel. It’s in Europe but something different to Europe.

That dream was then shattered by a well-planned terrorist action and done in the name of their interpretation of Islam. It all has a direct impact on the way Muslims and Christians relate to each other, and how people as a whole look at Muslims.

What specific areas of difficulty did this atrocity produce?

It produced three levels of difficulty: First within Muslims themselves, there is a variety of opinions, diversity and pluralism, and Muslims themselves are the first to suffer from acts of terrorism. Just because you have a criminal at home doesn’t mean you have a whole family that has to be considered as criminals.

It is very painful and hard for the average Muslim to say, “I want to go about my own business,” and face difficulties of integration, and to work and grow up with the language of English. So there are difficulties within Muslims themselves.

Secondly, with terrorism there is an international dimension — the context of Iraq and Afghanistan — and we can’t avoid that connection that is being made in press, television, radio. Britain was one of those countries that supported the planned action of the United States of America and sent troops to Iraq, and that makes it complicated.

On a third level: How can we tackle these difficulties? It’s no good saying relations between Muslims and Christians are excellent and good.

We do have difficulties because of the complexities of our own world, because after September 11 the world has completely changed in terms of security, and of who pulls the strings in the Muslim world. These are realities we have to face.

But we can progress and move forward, and we must be aware of difficulties for the average person, who’s not immersed in an institution, an intellectual, filmmaker, author or politician, but the person in the street who finds it extremely difficult to understand how a person can blow himself up in the name of religion.

What can be done to stop these terrorist atrocities happening again?

Three things are fundamental. First, teaching and education, especially in schools, mosques, madrassas: who teaches what and under what credentials. Are we really serious about the academic credentials and the training of all those who teach religion, in madrassas, mosque leaders? Are we really serious about it or not? We have to be extremely careful about that.

That doesn’t mean I’m blaming anyone, but people get the training they need and interpretation from somewhere, and in Great Britain there are a number of leaders who have problems, who instigate people to hate others. In a free liberal democratic society, there’s no room for taking an attitude of violence, of hatred on account of religion.

The second element is: We have to agree on one simple fact: that Individuals are very different, whether they belong to the same family or religion, individuals are very different. Individuals are different when you look at questions of faith, and different in communities and groups — they create their own identity. This is a reality.

This has to be taken seriously, this is a richness. Pluralism is not something negative; it’s a positive thing. We have to be aware of this.

The third element is that our way of addressing other faiths has to be changed. We have to realize our differences but also to be complementary in a society.

If I want to do without the Sikh community there is something missing. If a society is without a Muslim community, then something is missing.

The reality of Great Britain is that all these things are there, together. They bring not only economic wealth, but also ideas and writing; this is the way we have to approach and how we can deal with it. At the moment we speak about only diversity, then we find it difficult to construct bridges of understanding and learning from one another.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.