Papal Offense Against Islam?
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Pope Benedict XVI‘ has offended Islam in his speech at the University of Regensburg, a chorus of criticism grows ever louder and accuses the pope of a crusader’s mentality. What happened?
In his academic lecture the pope quoted a text by the Byzantine emperor Manuel II, Paleologos, which was written between 1394 and 1402. In this text the emperor relates a debate he had conducted with an educated Persian Muslim. In the dispute the emperor challenged his opponent by 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”. (1) The pope goes on to explain that Manuel II insisted that faith should only be spread by convincing others nonviolently of its truth, for the reason that violence was incompatible with the nature of God and with the nature of the human soul. By Manuel and by the mainstream of Christian theology, the pope continued, God’s nature is seen as reasonable, as conforming to logos. According to Prof. Theodore Khoury, the editor of the dialogue between the emperor and the Persian, this is not so in Islam. For Islam God is so transcendent that He is not bound up with the category of human reason.
Pope Benedict claimed that the question of the relation between reason and the divine will is an essential one: for Western secular culture, which has to relate secular, scientific reason with faith, which by many is not seen as reasonable anymore; for the dialogue between cultures and religions, which also takes place with cultures that do not acknowledge secular reason as a relevant criterion. To clarify the relation between reason and God’s will is an essential task also for the dialogue between cultures and religions, the pope emphasized.
What in all this offends Islam? Of course, Emperor Manuel’s assertion that the Prophet had only brought evil things would be offensive to a believing Muslim. Yet this is not the pope’s assertion but that of a 14th century Byzantine emperor, whom the pope only quotes; und he does so only because his text offers a good “starting-point” (2) for his own idea: the argument that faith should only be spread by non-violent and reasonable means. The pope agrees with this proposition of Manuel II but not with his assessment of the Prophet Mohammed. That Benedict did not emphasize this latter point— in retrospect—seems unfortunate. It only underscores, however, that the pope’s attention was completely directed toward the other part of the quotation. The pope indicated his reservation against Manuel’s opinion by twice emphasizing (3) how brusque those remarks were. Members of Parliament, leaders of government agencies and religious leaders—from whom the criticism originated—should be able to discern that difference, they should be able to distinguish between quoting someone and consenting to the quoted opinion, and they should be able to explain this to other persons who might be less educated. The fact that the pope immediately reacted to the criticism and regretted the wording of his speech also testifies to the fact that he had not anticipated the way in which it was (mis)understood. Only two days prior to his Regensburg speech the pope admonished Western culture to respect what is sacred to others—clearly hinting at the incident of the infamous cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed (4) —which makes it the more evident that the pope in no way intended an offense to the Prophet. In today’s Angelus prayer the pope stated that explicitly: “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.” (5) Since, however, this had already been clearly discernible before, the question arises why such a misinterpretation was attributed to the pope?
If there is no objective basis for an accusation, it is permitted to search for other reasons. Could it be that the pope’s clear but subtly formulated invitation to all religions to take a stance on the question of how they view violence in the name of God and how they see the relation between reason and religion has touched upon a sore spot with some Muslims? Is the real reason for the fuss about a purported offense against Islam an attempt to conceal that Islam has found no genuine answers to these pressing problems of today’s world, no answers to which the majority of Muslim religious leaders and their flock could agree on?
The pope mentioned in his lecture that within Christianity too, there have been currents which exempted God from human reason. It should also be noted that the important right of religious freedom only developed out of the manifold experiences of senseless bloodshed in the religious wars of Europe and had to be established against the tenacious resistance of the institutional churches. Thus we have no right, not as Westerners and certainly not as Christians, to look condescendingly on those who do not (yet?) accept this fundamental achievement of our history. Yet we can point to our painful way towards this achievement and appreciate that the Christian churches have learned from it. It has to be permissible to pose the question of whether others will have to suffer again what we suffered (after all it is mainly Sunni and Shiite Muslims who kill each other in Iraq and on other battlefields) or whether a dialogue between cultures could also lead to the insight that religion and violence do not belong together, an insight that the Christian Church did not accept from Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos—with fatal consequences.
Pope Benedict’s intention was to underline: God and religion on the one hand, violence and intolerance on the other hand do not belong together; and human reason, the reason of beings, who are created in God’s image and likeness, helps us to recognize this. Quoting the opinion of a 14th century man cannot constitute an offense to Islam and its Prophet. Are not rather those offending this religion who commit violent acts in its name and are now even threatening attacks on the pope? Should not Islam’s religious leaders speak out against these acts much more unanimously, clearly and unequivocally?
1 Quoted according to the English translation of the pope’s address on the Vatican Homepage online: http://www.vatican.va/holy_fath er/benedict_xvi/speeches/2006/september/documents/hf_be n-xvi_spe_20060912_university-regensburg_en.html
2 Ibid. In the spoken German version of the pope’s address, which was broadcast live by Bavarian Radio Television, the pope emphasized “only as a starting-point”, an emphasis that does not occur in the published versions (English or German) of the Vatican homepage.
3 The English translation gives this only once but the German original stresses this point by repeating it.
1 “This cynicism [that considers mockery of the sacred to be an exercise of freedom] is not the kind of tolerance and cultural openness that the world’s peoples are looking for and that all of us want! The tolerance which we urgently need includes the fear of God—respect for what others hold sacred. This respect for what others hold sacred demands that we ourselves learn once more the fear of God. But this sense of respect can be reborn in the Western world only if faith in God is reborn, if God become once more present to us and in us.” Online: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_ xvi/homilies/2006/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20060910_neue-messe-munich_en.html
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