Tuesday September 26, 2006
A neoconservative at the Vatican
By Niranjan Desai
The outrage caused in the Islamic world by Pope Benedict XVI’s citation of an obscure Islam-baiting 14th century Byzantine Emperor who claimed that Prophet Mohammed brought “things only evil and inhuman” to the world has been sought to be explained away by sophistry by the Pope’s defenders. At first, Vatican representatives claimed that the Pope’s remarks were misconstrued and were not intended as an anti-Islamic broadside, but were aimed at the West, especially its tendency to separate faith and reason.
Later the defence was that any criticism of the Pope’s remarks violated the Pope’s right of freedom expression. Finally, mindful of the extreme reaction to his remarks, the Pope expressed regret at any offence he might have caused. It is significant, however, to note that he has not retracted his statement. That is the crux of the matter. His choice of that particular quote, so offensive to all Muslims, has to be seen as a deliberate provocation. After all, the Pope is not an ordinary politician or a religious leader; the Catholics world over revere him as “God’s vicar on earth.” As it is said that a gentleman is never unintentionally rude, his remarks seem to have a definite context and intent.
Pope Benedict is a shrewd and ruthless ultra conservative operator whose election as successor to Pope John Paul II came as a surprise even to many seasoned Vatican observers; he is referred to as the “Rottweiler” by his detractors precisely for these qualities. His track record amply shows that he is a man who is not remotely afraid of controversy and that he has very little sympathy or imagination for other religious faiths. His description of Buddhism (before he became the Pope) as “auto-erotic spirituality” even today offends all Buddhists.
His views on Islam also are significantly divergent from those of Pope John Paul II. He is definitely more of a hawk on Islam than was his predecessor. In an interview in 1997 with John L. Allen Jr, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, he said, “One has to have a clear understanding (of Islam) that it is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of pluralistic society.” And in the same interview, he accused some Muslims of fomenting a radical “liberation theology,” meaning a belief that God approves of violence to achieve liberation from Israel. He also said that he opposed Turkey’s candidacy of the European Union, arguing that it is “in permanent contrast to Europe” and suggesting that it play a leadership role among Islamic states instead.
In contrast to his predecessor’s efforts to reconcile the ancient enmity between Muslims and Catholics, Roman Catholic Church under Benedict, according to some Vatican observers, is moving into a more critical posture toward Islamic fundamentalism. Last February, the Pope removed Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who had been John Paul’s expert on Islam, as the president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, sending him to a diplomatic post in Egypt. Fitzgerald was seen as the Vatican’s leading dove in its relationship with Muslims.
That same February, Bishop Rino Fischella, the rector of Rome’s Lateran University and a close confidant of the Pope, announced that it was time to “drop the diplomatic silence” about anti-Christian persecution, and called on the United Nations to “remind the societies and governments of countries with a Muslim majority of their responsibilities.” So when the Pope said in his apology on September 17 that he wants a “frank and sincere dialogue”, the word “frank” was not an accident. He wants dialogue with teeth.
The Pope’s remarks have also to be seen in the larger context of the West’s war on “Islamic” terrorism. Ever since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, a sense of paranoia has gripped the western societies making them suspicious of Muslims within their societies and outside. Consequently, there has been a growing demonisation of Islam and a gratuitous reawakening of the most entrenched and self-serving of western prejudices that Muslims have a unique proclivity to violence. The quotes below illustrate this graphically:
**“Islam … is the only cultural system that seems regularly to produce people like Osama bin Laden or the Taliban who reject modernity lock, stock and barrel”:
** “Islam is quite simply a religion of war”:
Paul Weyrich and William Lind
**“And one hardly needs to labour the similarities between Islamism and the totalitarian cults of the last century. Anti-Semitic, anti-liberal, anti-individualist, anti-democratic, and, most crucially, anti-rational, they too were cults of death, death-driven and death-fuelled”:
Could it be that the Pope is now indicating that he too is willing to throw the full weight of the Roman Catholic world behind this growing demonisation of Islam to lend a moral justification for the unpopular and floundering Bush-Blair war on Islamic terror?
Niranjan Desai is former Ambassador of India to the Vatican