September 19, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd
It still sounds like some sort of sick, unfunny joke, but we began this year with mobs of angry Muslims rampaging through Europe, the Middle East and Asia in deadly protests over a cartoon—yes, a cartoon. Now, many in the Islamic world are lashing out over an academic lecture ironically about the compatibility of faith and reason—a lecture presented by a pope eager to promote dialogue between Islam and Christianity. Indeed, in apologizing on Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI noted that “the true meaning of my address…was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect.”
But predictably, the pope’s apology is not enough for many in the Islamic world. The episode says more about Islam’s leaders than it does about Christendom’s.
The offending phrase used by the pope is actually a quote from a 14th-century discussion between a Christian Byzantine emperor and a Muslim scholar in which the former impugns efforts to grow and spread Islam by the sword. “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new,” the emperor declared, “and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
By citing the quote, the pope certainly invited listeners to consider the problem of spreading faith through violence—a timely issue, I think. Even so, the pope did not endorse the quote, a fact underscored by his reference to the “startling brusqueness” of the emperor’s comment. Neither was he seeking to offend or condescend to Islam. To the contrary, his speech credits Islam for its faithfulness to the omnipotence of God. “For Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent,” the pope explains. “His will is not bound up with any of our categories.”
Neither was the quote central to the pope’s lecture. The pope was talking about the age-old struggle between reason and faith—a struggle Christianity and Judaism know well. “The inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry,” he concludes, “was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history—it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe.”
Those are the facts about his speech. But the facts do not matter, at least not within the Islamic world, which, according to the Washington Post, “feels besieged in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.” Really? I didn’t know Manhattan, Shanksville, Washington, Netanya, Haifa, Bali, Beslan, London, Madrid and the other places scarred by the jihadists’ war were part of the “Islamic world.”
In any event, the world’s top Shiite cleric demanded a personal apology from the pope “for this false reading” of Islam. One wonders if he even read the pope’s speech, which actually calls on people of all faiths to recognize the “breadth of reason” and to become “partners in the dialogue of cultures.”
According to the Post, the Pakistani parliament condemned the pope for “derogatory comments” and also demanded an apology. A leading Turkish official accused the pope of wanting to revive the Crusades. In Egypt, protesters predictably chanted, “Oh Crusaders, oh cowards! Down with the pope!”
Primed by Hamas leader (and Palestinian prime minister) Ismail Haniyeh, Palestinians held large-scale demonstrations. In Iraq, even as bombs exploded outside an Assyrian Catholic Church, a terrorist group warned that it would begin killing Iraqi Christians unless the pope apologized. And in Somalia, the killing of a nun is being linked to the pope’s speech.
Today, as with cartoon jihad that marred January and February, Islam’s outrage is an outrage.
These violent, pitiful overreactions within the Islamic world beg a thousand questions: Do Muslims outside the West ever turn the critical eye on themselves? Where are the condemnations for those who use a holy book as a weapon of mass-murder? Why doesn’t Pakistan’s parliament condemn what is being done in the name of Islam inside its own borders and what its madrassa teachers are spawning beyond its borders?
Do Egyptian protesters ever take to the streets to show their indignation over beheadings conducted while the Koran is being read? Do Turkish officials condemn how the minarets are used in Iraq and Afghanistan to signal and coordinate terror and slaughter? Do Iraq’s religious leaders notice or care that Iraq’s agony is caused by Muslims? Was there ever a terrorist act committed anywhere that Hamas has condemned?
And perhaps the best question of all: Did the “Islamic world” hear what the pope really said—that faith and reason are not enemies, that violence is not the way to spread faith, that we must listen to “the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity”?
If only Islam’s leaders—and followers—cared as much about what is spoken and done in the name of their religion as they do about other religions.