Pope Benedict’s address at the Regensburg University has created an uproar in the Muslim world similar to that following the publication of the Danish cartoons two years ago -- similarly absurd, violent and revealing.
First, the absurdity: The topic of the Pope’s address was one dear to him for a long time: the relationship between God, reason and truth – not the nature of Islam, in the past or now.
A major problem is that, unlike his critics, Benedict XVI is a scholar. He therefore went to the past to strengthen his point. The past in this case was Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (1391-1425 A.D.). The Pope quoted his views on Islam’s violent nature and made sure that he quoted, not shared that view. And even Manuel’s views have to be seen in context.
By the time Manuel II Palaiologos became Emperor of Byzantium, or more specifically of the tattered remnants of what for seven centuries had been the guardian of Europe’s eastern door against an aggressive Islam, his own capital, Constantinople, was under Ottoman siege. As basileus (emperor), Manuel was also the only legitimate head of the Orthodox Church, a position strongly supported at the time by Orthodox Patriarch Anthony IV against Russian claims of equal importance for their Tzar. The Greek Manuel, like so many Byzantine emperors before him, was an intellectual and born philosopher, all attributes Pope Benedict XVIII knew, and made quite clear in the speech.
This has to be kept in mind when the words of Manuel were quoted by Pope Benedict. The basileus was speaking as much as the head of the Orthodox world as he was speaking as the emperor of a shrinking state limited to a great city and a few isolated outposts in the Aegean and southern Greece.
One has to assume that Pope Benedict, as well as some of his prominent Islamic critics knew their history – not like the rented Islamist mobs in India, the Pakistani parliament leaders, or Din Syamsuddin, the chairman of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organization. Din Syamsuddin claimed that “The pope's statements reflect his lack of wisdom” and that "the language used by the pope sounds like that of his 12th-century counterpart who ordered the Crusades" -- missing by a century the Pope who called for the First Crusade (Urban II, 1042-1099). If there were some historical mistake in Pope Benedict’s speech, it was his apparent belief that Manuel II spoke in Ankara, a place by then under Ottoman rule after some three centuries of Seljuk rule. But that is minor.
However, in an eerie repetition of the Danish cartoon affair, we are now seeing yet another worldwide attempt by Islamists to force a rewriting of Islamic and world history that is convenient to them. Islam’s umma, or world community, has again been mobilized, this time supported by even the otherwise domesticated Turkish Muslim establishment led by Ali Bardakoglu. This is what makes this firestorm even worse news than the campaign arranged by radical Danish imams before, since it reflects Turkey’s steady and officially encouraged move closer to Islamism.
The Pope’s main point at Regensburg was not Islam or its differences with Christianity, but the relationship between faith and science or faith and truth as pursued by science. This might explain the venom of the Islamist scholars and the throngs they influence in criticizing his remarks. For some millennium, Islam and reason, logic and science had a “problem” – one realized by courageous Muslim scientists like Pervez Hoodbhoy, in his Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality (Zed Books, 1991).
The passage in the Pope’s speech referring to Manuel II and Islam was only a small portion of his speech, with the relevant passages the following:
It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point - itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole - which, in the context of the issue of "faith and reason", I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.
In the seventh conversation….the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion"….
Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached".
The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably ... is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...".
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature….For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident.
But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. ..Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry.
Pope Benedict’s approach to Islam and Christianity’s different relationship to rationality is not a new development. Indeed, as two Jesuits pointed out in a very important analysis:
While the pope is asking Islam for dialogue based on culture, human rights, the refusal of violence, he is asking the West, at the same time, to go back to a vision of human nature and rationality in which the religious dimension is not excluded. In this way--and perhaps only in this way--a clash of civilizations can be avoided, transforming it instead into a dialogue between civilizations.
As Times’ Ruth Gledhill observed, “the Pope has a history of criticism of Islam. According to another leading Catholic who took part in a secret meeting with him on the subject last September at the Pope’s summer residence in Italy, Benedict XVI believes that Islam cannot be reformed and is therefore incompatible with democracy.” How politically incorrect - and how easy this makes it to explain the present anti-Pope hysteria.
The violence. As in the case of the Danish cartoons, mostly illiterate mobs demand the death of the Pope in northern India and Gaza. In the latter case, these angry mobs burned down Protestant and Orthodox churches – yet another demonstration of illiteracy. This begs the question who is capable to mobilize the violence? Remember—the Pope spoke in German in Germany—who made that “translation” available to the Gazan or Kashmiri mobs?
And that is probably what Islamist leaders—forget the mobs, such as the “students in Jammu (India), who are allegedly incensed by the Pope’s speech—have a problem with. Manuel II probably knew—as some Muslim leaders and thinkers, Pervez Hoodbhoy included, and we certainly know—that Islam’s connection with science and rationality has been largely cut off for almost a millennium. The Muslim world of more than a billion people as a whole publishes fewer translated books per year than a small European country. That hurts—as it should. However, for the supposed leadership of Islam—the “moderates” so many hope will find a solution to terrorism—the answer is denial, denial and ... attacks on the Pope.
The unpleasant revelation. The moderates are either not “moderate” or they follow rather than try to influence the mobs – a contradiction in terms. Hence, they are a weak reed indeed for those who still hope to change Islam from within, into what they pretend it to be – a religion of “peace.” But this time the “revelation” – if one is needed – is more serious.
The Turkish Prime Minister, the Pakistani Parliament (if that is the term?), even the Moroccan kingdom, all previously seen as example of “moderates,” engaged in the present brouhaha. The reason is as clear as it is threatening — they all have a hard time fighting Islamism and Islamist hysterias.
Pope Benedict XVI’s words will now be misinterpreted, twisted, and manipulated like the Danish cartoons were. The Muslim Council of Britain, joined by loud voices from Islamabad, Damascus, Cairo, and elsewhere, has already asked the Pope to “retract” any interpretation of Islam that does not fit the politically correct line of “Islam is a religion of peace,” or that requires any serious effort to fight al Zawahiri’s view to the contrary . What Islamic and Islamist “moderates” are telling us through their attacks against Pope Benedict is that they are not prepared, or capable to engage, or interested in engaging that fight. Rather, they want to avoid it and manipulate political correctness. This does not bode well for those who want to harness Islam’s moderates in the struggle against al Qaeda and its associated mass murderers.