Web | September 21, 2006
Pope And Islam
The characterisation of Islam as "evil and inhuman" by a Byzantine king he quoted was pointed and provocative. But the violence - both verbal and physical - that engulfed the Muslim world also, ironically, illustrates the hair-trigger climate, and lends credence to the larger point he was making.
Pope Benedict is not the politically correct kind. In these tough times, that can either be refreshing or troublesome. The tidal wave of outrage in the Muslim world triggered by his speech in Germany points to the latter. His interlocutors are not ready to discuss and deconstruct theological ideas across the table as he would like. Not yet anyway. He needs a new approach that invites rather than insults pundits of other religions.
Explanations and rationalisationsthat he was delivering an academic speech, that his words were taken out of context, that his larger point was about faith and reason, that he was berating the west more than Muslims, that the media fuelled the controversy are important but not crucial. He chose a terrible quotation as a diving board to launch into a complex theological argument about uniting faith and reason, about religion and violence. For that he must bear responsibility. The characterisation of Islam as "evil and inhuman" by a Byzantine king he quoted was pointed and provocative. There is no getting around that.
But the violenceboth verbal and physicalthat engulfed the Muslim world also, ironically, illustrates the hair-trigger climate, and lends credence to the larger point he was making. The sad irony in angry protesters attacking churches, killing a nun and burning effigies to protest the Pope’s comments about Islam and violence was largely lost in the tumultuous ten days. Islam will "conquer" Rome, came the battle cry. Respond with "strength", replied the Christian warriors. Apologise, shouted the Muslim clerics. Don’t back off, warned the western hardliners.
Pope Benedict offered an apology, but it was qualified. It was a mea kinda, not a mea culpa. He regretted the "reaction", not his "action" and therein lies the core of this ten-day Odyssey of provocation, anger, fear and reprisals. He is faced with a resurgent Islam and a receding Christianity. The church might be growing fast and furious in Asia and Africa but the real battleground is Europe where increasing secularism, low church attendance and falling birth rates have made the Pope a worried man. He has endlessly berated western societies about losing their faith and moving inexorably in the other direction. And when thousands of white Europeans and Americans cite the west’s moral vacuum as a reason for turning to Islam to find answers, he must get even more upset.
The Pope thinks Islam needs serious critiquing from within and without. He wants to force a "frank and sincere" dialogue and get down to real issues such as terrorism and religious freedom and drop the old pretence of "we-are-all-friends". This new theological engagement is more robust. Benedict is clearly tougher on Islam than John Paul who actively promoted inter-faith dialogue, became the first Pope to enter a mosque in 2001, and reached out to moderates in the Muslim world. He even condemned western policies that radical Muslims often cite as a reason for terrorism.
Not Pope Benedict. For him violence cannot and should never find religious justification. Those who attack in the name of God claiming they have direct orders are irrational. They lack reason because reason would tell them direct knowledge of God is impossible. This is the kind of talk he wants with representatives of Islam. Fine theological battles can and must be fought but the Pope needs to come at it another way, a bit more like John Paul in style but with his arsenal of arguments intact.A real dialogue between religions might help sort out tangled minds waiting to clash along civilisational lines.
Pope Benedict also wants "reciprocity" from the Muslim worldtreat us as we treat you in the west. Christians in Muslim countries should get the same rights and religious freedom as Muslims are accorded in Europe and elsewhere. A fair point. If they can build mosques in Rome, so should the Christians be able to erect churches in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis financed Europe’s largest mosque in Rome in 1995, home to the "father" of the Christian faith. Was there a message in that? Sure. The Saudis have funded mosques-building around the world as a foreign policy objective. Pope Benedict sees his turf under attack and it is no coincidence that the Pope has spoken of Turkey as the "other," of being in "permanent contrast to Europe" and therefore not a fit candidate for the European Union. It is not just the Pope but a swirling eddy of "why-should-we-always-do-the-right-thing-while-they-don’t?" in European minds that works against Turkey’s accession to the EU.
Benedict is the first Pope chosen post 9/11the before and after of modern times. He embodies the simmering anger within the Catholic hierarchy and the larger western world at being hemmed in and under constant threat of terrorism, as it were. He is trying to channel it but the road will be rocky. Watch out for more Popeisms.