A holy but frail alliance: The Vatican and Islam have different aims in opposing this week's UN conference on population, says Michael Sheridan

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The Independent Online
THE UNITED Nations International Conference on Population and Development, which opens in Cairo today, has brought the Vatican and a number of Islamic leaders together in what some are labelling a 'holy alliance'. Their supposed common enemy encompasses family planning, artificial birth control, abortion, confidential sexual advice to teenagers and vague phrases referring to the 'empowerment' of women.

Last week the Pope's spokesman acknowledged only 'a presumed alliance between the Vatican and Islam'. In any case, such an 'alliance' can only be temporary. It rests upon the Vatican's extraordinary diplomatic effort to marshal support for its stance and upon the desire of individual Islamic scholars and clerics to attack Western liberalism and secular Middle Eastern governments. In fact, the 'allies' are pursuing separate aims.

For Pope John Paul II, the crusade on behalf of life from conception and against the decline of the family represents a fundamental test. It has replaced the battle against Communism as the greatest struggle in which the Roman Catholic Church is engaged. It is seen in the Vatican as an issue crucial both to the future of humanity and to the character of the church the Pope will leave behind.

To Islamic fundamentalists, the theological issues are less certain, but the political certainties promise great rewards. Islam does not possess a central recognised hierarchy, nor does it speak with one infallible voice. It encompasses the Gulf monarchies with their tame preachers, and the austere revolutionary clerics of Shia Iran. To Islamists seeking the overthrow of existing regimes and cultural confrontation with the West, the Cairo conference presented a target that might piously be interpreted as God-given.

It brings together, in an Arab Muslim country, emancipated women, advocates of sexual liberalism, planners from the international bureaucracies and sociologists who do not regard the family as sacrosanct. The proceedings are - in the words of the Islamist Cairo newspaper As-Sha'ab - 'a satanic scheme'.

The focus of the hostility is a draft text known as the 'Cairo Document' intended to set out a programme of action to hold world population, currently 5.66 billion, to 7.27 billion in 2015 and 7.8 billion in 2050. The UN normally seeks a consensus on such texts. That seems unlikely here.

The Pope was first to recognise in the draft document a challenge he could not allow to pass. In 1968 Pope Paul VI had restated Catholicism's opposition to artificial birth control in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Under John Paul II, the issue remained a defining moral debate. Theologians and clergy were invited to conform or depart. 'The Pope is uninterested in Catholics in rich Western countries who complain about sexual teachings,' said a conservative monsignor in the Vatican. 'He sees the future strength of the church in the Third World, and in Eastern Europe, in the multiplying numbers of good and faithful people.'

That is why the pontiff devotes so much intellectual energy to a defence of the ageless Catholic reverence for life in all its stages. 'Thou shalt not kill,' he said recently, 'is as valid for the embryo as for individuals already born.'

John Paul II deployed all the urbane resources of the Vatican diplomatic service to emphasise that he has chosen to make a stand in Cairo. He wrote to every one of the world's heads of state to say that the draft programme conveyed 'a troubling impression of something being imposed'. The secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace told African bishops that it was based on the 'exaggerated individualism' fashionable in the US and northern Europe. The College of Cardinals spoke of 'cultural imperialism'.

But the Vatican's assertive lobbying masked diplomatic weakness. In 1984, the Holy See played an influential role at the Mexico City Population Conference because it had support from the Reagan administration, whose policies on population derived from the religious right. Under Bill Clinton, however, US policy at Cairo is set on a more liberal course.

The Vatican and the White House are openly at odds over a section in the document which states that women 'should have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of fertility regulation of their choice'.

In reality, the Vatican is unlikely to muster much numerical support for a confrontation, even from nominally Catholic countries. But there is likely to be a great argument over the draft as Vatican diplomats seek to excise any reference to the desirability of contraception. They may, by contrast, allow through a mention of the role of condoms in avoiding Aids.

Islamic critics of the conference see their priorities quite differently. Whereas the Vatican seeks through conventional diplomacy to moderate a final text and thus to make its point, the Islamists display not the slightest interest in such formalities. The conference is simply an issue that serves to highlight a perceived campaign of oppression and subjugation directed against the Muslim world.

The Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist body with historic roots in Egypt and a strong following among the educated class, sums up the position of such groups. 'Development has not kept pace with population because of despotism, corruption, bad government and the residue of Western imperialism,' it said in a statement.

Some Islamic governments, nervous of their domestic foes, chose simply to shun or downplay the conference. In Saudi Arabia, the leading obscurantist cleric, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz, said it was 'incompatible with the Muslim religion'. The Saudi government promptly cancelled its attendance. Lebanon, a multi-confessional state, also cancelled, as did Sudan and Iraq. The Turkish government announced that Prime Minister Tansu Ciller was unable to attend and the authorities in Bangladesh said Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia could not be present, robbing the occasion of two women leaders from Islamic countries. Queen Noor of Jordan and President Suharto of Indonesia have also dropped plans to attend.

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, an increasingly unhappy host, plaintively raised a simple question: 'Wouldn't it be in the interests of the Islamic nations for their representatives to attend, oppose and stand up to any interpretation that is against religion and the Islamic sharia?' he asked.

There is, in fact, little in the Koran to support any purely religious argument against the conference. Birth-control programmes are widely practised in Islamic countries, including Iran, and some Islamic scholars hold that abortion could be permissible within the first trimester of pregnancy.

Much more insidious, in fundamentalist eyes, is the talk of 'empowering women' and making a link between increased female literacy and declining fertility. The Roman Catholic church, with its long tradition of missionary education and teaching for both sexes, does not share such qualms. But the Vatican and the Islamists are at one in decrying any reduction of the human being to a unit of production or consumption.

The Holy See is sending a delegation of 17 to Egypt. They will use all their diplomatic skill to fend off everything that they regard as inimical to the preservation of decency and the suppression of vice. But the truth is that the 'holy alliance' is unlikely to outlive the departure of the last delegate from Cairo.

(Photograph omitted)