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Benedict's Fears

by Ahmad Atif Ahmad
September 25, 2006

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Benedict's Fears
The fact that Pope Benedict XVI chose to engage in anti-Islamic polemics does not justify a response that amounts to an anti-Catholic polemic, let alone responding with violence. If the Pope thinks that Islam is violent, it would be good, as I tell my Muslim friends, if Muslims could prove the Pope wrong through calm rejection of his claims. The one positive Muslim response to the Pope's speech, in my view, came on Sunday 9/17 from the prestigious, Cairo based Council on Islamic Affairs at al-Azhar (an old institution of learning of more than 1000 years of history), which expressed disagreement with the Pope's ideas without attacking Catholics or Catholicism.

But let us back up a little and ask why anybody should be angry at the Pope. The Pope dedicates three paragraphs (about a page out of his seven-page speech, delivered in Regensburg on 9/12/06) to a comparison (or, rather, a contrast) between Islam and Christianity. Since the Pope's speech is about the Christian faith's compatibility with reason, the contrast between Islam and Christianity attempts to make the point that Islam is not a faith that is compatible with reason (by no means a new idea for medieval Christian polemics against Islam).

The Pope begins with a quote from Manuel II Palaeologos, a Byzantine Emperor who ruled in the waning days of the Byzantine Empire (he died 1425 and Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453). Manuel was particularly unfortunate in his encounters with the Turks: He was held hostage in Ottoman land before becoming Emperor and lost all his important wars with the Turks after becoming Emperor. The quote that is attributed to Manuel was part of a dialogue (likely with an imaginary Persian interlocutor) where Manuel expressed his view of Islam and Muslims while Constantinople was under Ottoman siege.

By choosing this particular historical moment, the Pope sets himself up for psychoanalysis, especially given his reputation since he was ‘Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith' as a religious leader with abundant fears about the future of Christianity in Western Europe. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, attacked many religious and political leaders for being complacent in the decline of Christianity as a cultural force in everyday life, where some Western Europeans of the new generations already answer the question of ‘what their religion is' by saying that ‘their parents are Christians' or that ‘they grew up in a Christian household' as opposed to simply saying that they are ‘Christian.' That is, the new generations' relationship with Christianity is now historical rather than personal. Benedict XVI criticized the freedom given to grade school students to choose which religious studies classes to attend as well as some European politicians' initiatives to replace religion classes with classes in ethics to be attended by all students regardless of religious orientation.

The Pope describes Manuel as the ‘erudite' Emperor, which explains why his apology to Muslims and attempt to distance himself from Manuel's opinion sounded hollow to Muslim ears. The erudite Emperor makes the assertion that Islam spread with the sword and attributes that to the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad. Then Benedict XVI asks himself an implicit question: Could Manuel have been unaware of a Qur'anic verse that states "There is no Compulsion in Religion" (The Qur'an, Sura/Chapter 2, Verse 256) and answers that the Emperor must have been aware of this verse. Then Benedict XVI continues to defend Manuel's thesis by saying that the abovementioned verse represents only the early revelation of Muhammad, which does not include the real position taken by the Qur'an on violence, i.e., condoning it as a means to spread the Islamic faith. Note that this verse belongs to what is known as the Medina period of the Qur'anic revelation, which is supposedly the period Western scholars believe was the one that witnessed Muhammad's violence against his opponents as he grew stronger in the last few years of his life. Furthermore, the language of "no compulsion" will have a context only if compulsion was possible, which is another reason this verse does not represent a stage where Muhammad was incapable of using force against his opponents. But Benedict XVI seems to be sure that Islam is violent no matter what.

The last piece of the Pope's treatment of Islam includes the surprising claim that the Muslim God is believed to be absolutely ‘transcendent,' and one of the things this God transcends is ‘rationality.' The strongest argument I can make to support this claim from Muslim history is to point to a controversy in Muslim theology about the divine quality of ‘justice' and whether it entails that humans have freewill. Some Muslim theologians supported the thesis of freewill and some said that God's justice may not be totally explicable in terms similar to those in which one understands ‘human justice.' But to simply take that controversy to indicate a general lack of commitment to rationality on the part of all Muslim theologians betrays the Pope's genuine lack of interest in understanding the complexity of Islamic theological philosophy. The irony is that Joseph Ratzinger is a religious leader with a strong commitment to tradition even when it seems to contradict what modern intellectuals would call ‘rational reasoning.' Cardinal Ratzinger was known as "Cardinal No!" as he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he developed a reputation for inflexibility, stemming from his rejection of what his opponents would consider plain rational arguments (but of course, as Alastair MacIntyre indicates in the title of his book "Whose Justice? Which Rationality," rationality does not come in one-size-fits-all).

The worst part of the speech lies in another irony. The Pope's speech pretends to project a confident tone arguing for Christianity's ability to ‘penetrate the soul' and convince the intellect, while his personal history and language reflect unique insecurities and fears of Islam's growing presence in Europe. Worse still, the Pope's speech seems to have put us on a path of violence that will likely replicate the cycle of violence following the Muhammad cartoon of yesteryear.

Comments (1)

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Robert Wilson from Maryland writes:
September 26, 2006
Christian: Your religion is stupid.

Muslim: No, your religion is stupid.

Christian: No, your religion is stupid!

Muslim: No, your religion is stupid!

etc, etc, etc, blah, blah, blaaaaaaaaaaaaah

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