Last Thursday the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci died after a long battle with breast cancer. After a long and successful career, her writings turned toward harsh criticism of Islam after the September 11, 2001 attacks. She has famously stated that Muslims "multiply like rats" and "the children of Allah spend their time with their bottoms in the air, praying five times a day.” Although she was critical of the Catholic Church for being weak in confronting the Muslim world, she had a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI after which she praised him for his stronger stance against Islam:
“I am an atheist, and if an atheist and a pope think the same things, there must be something true,” Fallaci told The Wall Street Journal in a recent interview.
That was before Pope Benedict XVI waded into the intersection of religion and politics last week with his speech at the University of Regensburg.
In his speech the Pope quoted the Byzantine emperor Manual II Paleologus’s critique of Islam and its prophet Mohammed:
The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. [Emphasis added by me.]
The Pope went on to say:
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practise idolatry.
In response to the uproar that was caused by the Pope’s speech, the Vatican initially suggested that the Pope’s speech had been misunderstood and that the Holy Father was criticizing violent jihad and extremism and not Islam itself. Today the Pope released a statement saying that he was "deeply sorry" for the reaction to his speech. His statement fell short of the apology demanded by Muslim leaders and in classic macaca-esque style he apologized for how his speech was perceived rather than the content of his speech:
At this time, I wish also to add that I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims.
These in fact were a quotation from a Medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought.
Yesterday, the Cardinal Secretary of State published a statement in this regard in which he explained the true meaning of my words. I hope that this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect.
However, I suspect most Muslims would be very reluctant to engage in dialogue after the Pope chose to say, though through indirection, that Islam’s prophet only brought things "evil and inhuman" into this world. The Pope’s choice of words and his use of the quotation was not a critique only of violent jihad, but a criticism of Islam itself.
The impact of the Pope’s words will be felt much more broadly in the Muslim world than the manufactured furor over the Danish cartoons. Certainly the extremists in the Muslim world will take this opportunity to practice violence (in that they need very little excuse), but more importantly these words will have impact on the moderate and majority Muslim population. After the papacy of Pope John Paul II, during which he made great strides in bridging the gaps between the world’s peoples, the Church under Pope Benedict XVI had already begun to pull back from such reconciliation. Pope John Paul II, who was the first Pope to set foot within a mosque, was revered and respected in the Muslim world as a man of God. Pope Benedict XVI was already viewed with suspicion in the Muslim world, even before Tuesday’s speech, after he removed Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald from his post that promoted dialogue with other religions:
One of the first signs of a toughening of the Vatican’s stance came with the removal from office of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald.
The British-born cleric ran a Vatican department that promoted dialogue with other religions. A distinguished scholar on Arab affairs, he was an acknowledged expert on the Islamic world.
The decision by Benedict XVI to remove him from his post, and send him to Egypt as papal nuncio, was widely seen as a demotion.
Some wondered about the wisdom of the move.
The Pope’s speech last Tuesday only served to confirm for Muslims concerns about the direction of his papacy.
If the Pope had left out the reference to Mohammed and Islam at the beginning of his speech, his later call for dialogue and his position against violent spread of religion would have been warmly welcomed by the majority of Muslims. However, he chose for his own reasons to include criticism of Islam and its prophet.
Over the last century Islam has already been under attack from within by Islamism. Islamism is a political ideology that seeks to transform Islam into a political system from a religion. In that Islam the religion is quite distinct from Islamism. The rise of extremism in the Islamic world in the 20th century is intertwined with the rise of Islamism and in many instances the two are indistinguishable. On September 11, 2001, extremism (and Islamism) broadened its attack on Islam and brought it to America’s shores. After 9/11, there was a natural ally waiting to join forces with the United States in combating extremism and Islamism – that ally was the majority of the Muslim world. However, as we all now painfully know, the last five years have brought division where there could have been alliance.
Into this cauldron of division the Pope has now thrown in his hat. Already the extremists in the Muslim world are using his words to justify further violence and further destabilization of the Muslim world. In the West and in the United States, the far right is already using the Pope’s speech as approval, if not religious sanction, of a violent approach to confronting Islam. Neo-conservatives have been using "Islamo-fascist" as a synonym for "Islam" for quite some time – now they will find new life and a wider audience.
The Vatican is trying mightily to lower the temperature of this crisis. The Muslim leaders should also try to do the same. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, demands from prominent Muslim leaders that the Pope apologize are counterproductive and add fuel to an already volatile situation. I hope these leaders will come to their senses and join the Vatican in calming the waters. The Pope has expressed himself in his speech and the message has been heard. The Vatican, since then, has stated that the official position of the Church regarding Islam has not changed in spite of the Pope’s speech. Muslim leaders need to take the Vatican at its word. The alternative is to let the Islamists and neo-conservatives fight to the death at our expense.
[Cross posted at Taylor Marsh]