Tim Winter, a lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, England, and a practicing Muslim, says the letter is a simple attempt to redress what he describes as misunderstanding of the faith implied by the pope's comments. But more important it's a product of a growing awareness on the part of Muslim leaders that they don't communicate effectively with the West, particularly since the religion doesn't share a central bureaucracy like the Catholic church.
"Everyone can see that the advantage that the Christian churches have is that they have efficient hierarchies. If someone who belongs to the Catholic church misbehaves they can immediately issue a denunciation, which is what we saw for years in Northern Ireland,'' he says. "It's hard for outsiders to see what the consensus of Muslim orthodoxy is, particularly with the slide into violence of a fringe of the Sunni orthodox world in the past 15 years or so.
"Even though the [Muslim] religion is traditionally resistant to creating hierarchies, it has to come up with a mechanism of making the opinions of mainstream orthodoxy known," he says. "Finally the Muslim world is waking up to the fact that it needs to improve its public relations skills."
He points to a lack of reporting in the West of the widespread condemnation of 9/11 by Muslim scholars. He also recalls a letter calling for tolerance by largely the same group of scholars in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy earlier this year. That letter was released at a press conference but received little notice. "Journalists actually admitted it was very hard to understand,'' says Mr. Winter.
That was because, he says, it was overly scholastic. "The problem that the Muslim leadership has is that it's basically made up of medieval men that generally have the right views when it comes to terrorism or political violence, but they have no media skills. When asked a question, they look grave, invoke the name of God and then address it in a rather complicated and beautiful way the mass media can't cope with.... This statement seems to be much more on the ball."