It was a case of the pot calling the kettle black—and the pot in this instance was 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologos II.
It was bad enough that this Christian emperor described the prophet Muhammad as not having brought anything new into the world except “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” What was worse was Benedict XVI’s quoting and apparently agreeing with him.
In the same speech at Germany’s Regensburg University, the Pope also quoted a scholar who had claimed that the Muslim view of God was not informed by the Western tradition of rationality–which certainly is true, but which doesn’t mean much one way or the other. (Western “rationality” did not prevent Europe’s wars of conquest and racial annihilation, or Germany’s murder of six million Jews during World War II.)
The belief that Muslims have a monopoly over the use of violence in propagating their faith is common among Christians including Catholics. The official, politically correct view says there is no necessary link between Islam and violence, and that the concept of jihad, for example, does not sanction the use of violence to impose Islam. (Muslim scholars assert that the use of force in jihad is a last resort, undertaken only in self-defense or against injustice.)
The idea that only Muslims have propagated their faith through violence ignores centuries of Christian conquest in the name of material gain as well as religion. The peoples of Central and South America, as well as the Native Americans (“Indians”) of what is now the United States were certainly familiar with Christian violence, as were the inhabitants of these Philippine Islands. Let’s not even mention the Crusades and the Inquisition–although some Muslims did in reaction to the Pope’s speech. While in many Christians’–especially Christian fundamentalists’–minds it is today associated with suicide bombings and 9/11, Islam’s history hasn’t been as bloody.
But the myth persists that Islam is inherently violent. Popular Western culture depicts Islam as unreasonable and even absurd. The cartoons a Danish newspaper published in September 2005 were typical examples of the conventional Western and Christian view.
The cartoons first appeared in Denmark’s Jyllands Posten newspaper. They equated Islam with violence and backwardness, and painted it as an object of ridicule. The resulting controversy–which included protests and the burning of the embassies of Denmark and other countries whose newspapers reprinted the cartoons–persisted until the first quarter of 2006.
What was puzzling about the offending passages in his speech was that the Pope certainly knew what the Muslim reaction would be, as well as what those remarks could contribute to the widening of the Christian-Muslim divide.
One way of looking at it is that he’s convinced of the truth of the claims he quoted–and that he was trying to make Christianity, specifically Catholicism, the religion of choice among peaceable, reasonable men and women. Unfortunately, as anyone could have told him, this kind of evangelizing from the leader of the world’s leading organized religion can only provoke further acrimony and tension between Christians and Muslims.
As should have been expected, the Muslim reactions are threatening to replicate, if not to be worse than, the wave of anger that swept the Islamic world over the Jyllands Posten cartoons.
The reaction of political parties, various Islamic groups, Muslim scholars and ordinary Muslims have so far ranged from mild to severe, with Morocco recalling its ambassador to the Vatican for consultations. Of course any violent response from Muslims–and there have been some– would only serve to validate the Christian view that Islam is inherently violent.
Given all this, and assuming that the Pope knew how his remarks could be taken, were the remarks not as recklessly made as they might seem? The Pope has expressed regret for the way they were interpreted. But he has neither apologized for making those remarks nor withdrawn them, which could suggest that, for all the furor and protest that it could create, he’s drawing a clear line between Christianity and Islam regardless of its repercussions. If that is the case, we can expect an era of greater tension and mutual suspicion between Christians and Muslims, to the injury of dialogue and understanding.