Vatican officials have cautiously welcomed the scholars' letter, saying they too see prospects for a tough, meaningful conversation. After all, they point out, the pope has often said that the two faiths have different, but related problems: for the Christian, today's adversary is “reason without faith” or cold secularism. For moderate Muslims, it is “faith without reason” or violent fundamentalism.
The author then goes on to give two reasons for why Benedict is more pessimistic than his predecessor who was more inclined to work with Islamic countries in the UN and according to most objective observers not so inclined to confront Islam's extremist elements.
The first factor suggested by The Economist for Benedict's attitude is of course the fact he was Grand Inquisitor (of course! anything he does has to be because he was the head of the CDF). As such, he had to deal with instances of the Islamization of Christianity by heretical elements.
The second factor is far more credible and less insulting:
Another factor is the increased profile in the papal entourage of Arab Christians whose view of Islam is influenced by their own experience of inter-religious tensions in their homelands. In 2005, a few months after his election, Benedict presided at a meeting of his former doctoral students [a synopsis can be found here from www.chiesa] at which the topic was Islam. One of the two outsiders invited to the discussions was an Arab Jesuit with uncompromising views. The meeting is understood to have ended with broad agreement that there is little scope for discussing the basics of theology with Muslims: as a religion that puts overwhelming stress on revelation, its tenets are fixed and not open to re-interpretation. So (on this controversial view) it would be more worthwhile for the two faiths to discuss practicalities, like curbing violence and ensuring religious freedom.
The article closes with the usual Economist preachiness:
If that view prevails, it will be a disappointment to some of the scholars who wrote to the pope. As many authorities on Islam would point out, Muslim thinkers were arguing hard over the boundary between faith and reason 1,000 years ago—and there are Muslims today who want to revive the “rationalist” side of that argument. Without interfering, the pope could help by indicating he does not see all Muslims as unreasonable types.
The problem with that conclusion is that it mischaracterizes the problem that Islam faces today regarding reason. Islam is fundamentally a judicial faith. Jurists of the various schools of thought regarding the interpretation of the Shariah law are far more prevalent than any true theologians. As my professor liked to drum into my class, Islam is about 'right practice', not 'right thought'. Unlike modern judicial systems, the so-called 'gates of itjihad' (i.e. 'independent juridical reasoning' based on the law) were closed centuries ago in the majority Sunni world.
For those who would introduce a more rationalist approach to Sunni jurisprudence, efforts are severely hampered by the idea that the Shariah is literally the Word of God and cannot be tampered with in any way. Note that the ones who are proclaiming this view are more often than not the very fundamentalists who are willing to resort to violence in order to ensure their view prevails.
The Economist is right in that the Pope can help by recognizing without interfering. The problem is that fundamentalists won't reciprocate; Christians in the Holy Lands are waiting to be driven away one way or another. So it's back to practicalities and arguing over religious freedom.