In his speech to academics at Regensburg, Pope Benedict detonated a thought bomb outside the mosques of the world. A truck bomb might have caused less grief. In an atmosphere of heightened tension, the last thing needed from public figures, and particularly religious leaders, is yet another polemic. Politicians take note.
In a world where tension, between countries, cultures and religions is heightened, the comments are provocative and grossly inappropriate. What Pope Benedict was thinking when he quoted 14th century emperor Manuel II Palaeologus, suggesting that Prophet Mohammed had only brought evil into the world, God only knows. Was he actually thinking?
The Vatican has since offered public apologies over the weekend, the second a personal apology from the pontiff, saying his quote did not reflect his personal thoughts. The quote is incredibly inflammatory and its inclusion in his speech displays a blatant lack of sensitivity. Furthermore, it undermines legitimate points made in the speech.
The pontiff makes some profound points, warning of the propensity of those with the political aim of obtaining power to misappropriate God and religion. Palaeologus’ comments were essentially a criticism of the use of violence to spread Islam. The criticism has merit, but this particular quote is not necessary in prosecuting the point.
Pope Benedict would no doubt be aware that Muslims were not the first to practice “conversion” at the sword. Charlemagne was the first to make widespread the practice of “conversion” by the sword in spreading his mediaeval Christianity among Saxon armies. Then, as now, such a practice was extreme, as his Anglo-Saxon advisor, Alcuin duly reprimanded him, suggesting that the religion should spread through appeal, not through conquest. And yet, the process was widespread throughout the Protestant Reformation.
A couple of hours’ drive from his address at Regensburg would have brought Pope Benedict to Munster, the scene of arguably the worst example of religious violence of Reformation-era Germany. In 1535, Catholics and Lutherans combined forces to kill every Anabaptist in Munster, “provoked” by the expulsion of citizens who did not agree with the radicals, led by John of Leiden in the year leading up to the massacre.
Christianity has episodes of history which are every bit as dark as the excesses of other monotheistic religions. Perhaps this is where Manuel II Palaeologus’ comments are useful. If we understand God to be good, then the perpetration of acts of violence and evil in God’s name are human innovation.
Yet time and again we see global conflict couched in religious terms. The use of religion to define the terms of conflict make the battle intimately personal and the bounds of rationality are weakened. If we are in a war between the forces of good and evil, perhaps all does become fair in war.
Or does it? How can Islam reasonably defend the indiscriminate deaths of civilians in pursuit of economic justice for Muslims who suffer from poverty and injustice? By the same token, how can conservative Christians rationally condone the use of cluster bombs or techniques of torture in Iraq in defence of “our way of life?” Or how can Jews reasonably defend the imprecise use of force against Hezbollah in Lebanon, resulting in disproportionate scores of civilian casualties and injuries?
It is useful to create a distinction between acts perpetrated in the name of religion and those who are followers of the religion. But if Muslims are to be continually reminded of their inextricability from extreme manifestations of Islam, Christians and Jews should be reminded of what is respectively said and done in their names also.
In today’s climate, Muslims of all colours are under sustained pressure in many parts of the world. Extremists meet the pontiff’s comments with outrage, and respond by violence. Some have suggested that a level of political unrest in the specific locations precipitates such violent reactions and that the response is less about the nuances of the particular comments and more about the local climate.
But the vast majority of reasonable Muslims, who are already typecast by the polemics of a “them and us” mentality, suffer another injustice of the prosecution of Muslims in two-dimensional terms. It cements a fallacious and prejudicial stereotype, and it’s the last thing we need.
In an uneasy world, human beings of all colour and religion have a tremendous amount to offer each other in dialogue. Unlike war, dialogue begins with respect for the other, and comments that fail to articulate this are more divisive than silence.
Our church recently hosted a young Muslim woman at a contemporary worship service. The topic was “Do we have anything to talk about?” Over our discussion lasting the best part of an hour, our congregation shared in the story of this young woman, as she gave some insights into her faith. It was no surprise that she was anything but the two-dimensional bearded extremist preferred by conservative polemicists.
The world does not grow any richer when dichotomies are reinforced by ill-advised comments. We have much more to learn from each other than to fear. Perhaps one day our leaders will realise this. It is the only pathway towards peace.