Last week, speaking to a packed audience in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict XVI revisited his September 12 lecture to academics at the University of Regensburg. The pontiff explained that his now controversial reference to an episode from the life of the penultimate Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos had been intended as a pedagogical device “to introduce the audience to the drama and the actuality of the topic…[of] the problem of the relationship between religion and violence.”
What the pope got instead was a lesson of his own—in modern political correctness. The editors of The New York Times were quick to condemn Benedict’s speech as “tragic and dangerous” and demanded a “deep and persuasive apology” for the “pain” the papal words had caused. Other media followed the lead of the Gray Lady.
After a weathering an increasingly furious storm for two days, the Vatican did the unthinkable: it slowly backtracked from a papal pronouncement. First it sent out a spokesman to declare that it was “certainly not the intention of the Holy Father to undertake a comprehensive study of the jihad and of Muslim ideas on the subject, still less to offend the sensibilities of Muslim faithful,” and to assure the mob—which consisted not just of radical rioters, but also the chattering classes of the West—that the pontiff desired nothing more than “to cultivate an attitude of respect and dialogue towards other religions and cultures, including, of course, Islam.”
When the press secretary’s words failed to appease the mob, which now smelled blood, the Holy See had to send out the newly ensconced Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to issue a further apologia: “The Holy Father thus sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful, and should have been interpreted in a manner that in no way corresponds to his intentions” which is “respect and esteem for those who profess Islam.”
Finally, the Pope himself was produced to tell a Sunday audience: “I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims."
Still the furor continued unabated:
• In Jerusalem, at Islam’s third-holiest shrine, the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, hundreds of worshippers gathered to protest the pope’s alleged linking of Islam and violence by hoisting black flags and banners that read “Conquering Rome is the answer” and chanting “The army of Islam will return.” Half a dozen Christian churches in the West Bank suffered attacks.
• In Tripoli, the elder son of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi, Muhammad, speaking at the awards ceremony for an international Quran-memorization competition, dismissed papal apologies as “irrelevant” and instead called on Pope Benedict to convert to Islam immediately as a way to atone for his remarks. Gaddafi junior also lashed out against “those Muslims who look for comfort in the words of a non-Muslim,” arguing that Muslims “should not look for charity from the infidel...but should fight Islam’s enemies who attack the faith and the Prophet Muhammad.”
• In Ankara, influential Turkish lawmaker Salih Kapusuz, deputy leader of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), declared that the Pope would go down in history “in the same category as leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini.” Kapusuz said Benedict’s remarks were either “the result of pitiful ignorance” about Islam and its prophet or, worse, a deliberate distortion. “He has a dark mentality that comes from the darkness of the Middle Ages.” The Foreign Ministry in Islamabad termed the remarks “regrettable.” Spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam asserted that “anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence.” (One recalls, inter alia, that the “tolerant” Turkish government shut down the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Halki Theological Academy in 1971 and has yet to allow it to reopen. We expect Ms. Aslam’s superiors are preparing to ground to use Benedict XVI’s remarks as a pretense to cancel the pontiff’s visit next month to Patriarch Bartholomaios I of Constantinople lest the visit focus unwanted attention on Turkey’s less-than-stellar record with respect to the religious liberty of its non-Muslim minorities.)
• In London, according to a report in the Daily Mail, Anjem Choudary of the Islamist organization al-Ghurabaa (“the strangers”) led a rally outside Westminster Abbey demanding the Pope’s execution. The group is a refoundation of the former Al-Muhajiroun (“the emigrants”) of the radical Omar Bakri Muhammad. Choudary, who abandoned his wife and three children to devote himself to Islamism, is best known for his calls for the imposition of sharia in Britain. Speaking to several hundred supports, he declared: “Whoever insults the message of Mohammed is going to be subject to capital punishment.”
• In Mogadishu, not to be outdone, Sheikh Abubukar Hassan Malin, a leader of the Islamic Courts Union which recently seized power in what was the capital of the former Somali state, told worshippers at Friday prayers that “whoever offends our Prophet Muhammad should be killed on the spot by the nearest Muslim.” Members of his congregation, not having ready access to the pontiff, did what they evidently regarded as the next best thing: they hunted down and killed a 66-year-old Italian nun, Sister Leonella Sgorbati, who had devoted her life to training nurses at a children’s hospital in this wretched city.
• In Islamabad, hundreds of radical Islamists, joining their fellows in several Pakistani cities, gathered to chant “Down with the pope.” The protesters, supporters of a coalition of six Islamist parties known as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (“united action front”), or MMA, demanded the pope’s removal and accused him of supporting the policies of President Bush. “If I get hold of the pope, I will hang him,” parliamentarian Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, deputy leader of the MMA, told the demonstrators who carried placards reading “Terrorist, extremist Pope be hanged!” and “Down with Muslims enemies!” (Hussain Ahmed has subsequently decided that hanging was too good for the pontiff, telling supporters after Friday prayers—many of whom brandished signs which read “Illiterate Pope should be handed over to Muslims”—that Benedict should be crucified for suggesting that Islam was spread by anything but peaceful means.)
Finally, four days later, Benedict returned to the speech that started it all. While pundits gleefully spun his September 20 address (as well as his meeting this past Monday with ambassadors from twenty-one Islamic countries and representatives of the Muslim community in Italy) as further humbling of the papacy, one cannot help but wonder if the erudite Benedict had had enough and decided to score a point or two at the expense of his shallow critics.
The precise Italian word the pope used in his St. Peter’s Square address when referring to the “drama” of the question of religion and violence, was not the common drama, but the more rarified drammaticità. The latter not only means “drama,” but also “dramatic power” in the theatrical sense of tragic or dramatic irony—as when the words and actions of characters belie the real situation, which the spectators fully realize. The significance of the term could not be unknown to a pontiff who, during his academic career, co-founded an influential international theological journal, Communio, with another scholar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose central work was a five-volume treatise, Theo-Dramatik, on the possibilities of using categories of drama to expound philosophical and theological truths. One thing seems certain: Benedict has introduced the world audience to a spectacle of irony that Sophocles would have trouble besting: the pope quoted a long dead monarch of a lost empire who had, in Benedict’s words, the “startling brusqueness” to contend that Muslims of his time obeyed Muhammed’s “command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”; large segments of the Muslim world erupted in protest, heated rhetoric, and even murderous violence. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
At his meeting this week with the Muslim representatives, Pope Benedict refused to kowtow once more, as his critics had expected him to do. He told the diplomatic envoys: “The circumstances which have given rise to our gathering are well known. I have already had occasion to dwell upon them in the course of the past week.” Rather, he told them: “I am profoundly convinced that in the current world situation it is imperative that Christians and Muslims engage with one another in order to address the numerous challenges that present themselves to humanity.” But, the pontiff told them, this can only occur if there is “a spirit of sincere and respectful dialogue, based on ever more authentic reciprocal knowledge.” And therein lies the greatest irony of this whole dramatic episode: by their own words and actions these past two weeks, Benedict’s most vociferous critics—both in the Western world and in the Muslim umma—have given us far more knowledge of the ideologies driving them in the here and now than any quote from a king of yesteryear.
Michael I. Krauss is professor of law at George Mason University School of Law. J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University. Both are adjunct fellows of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
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