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The Regensburg address: reason amid certainty

By Michael Walsh - posted Tuesday, 10 October 2006

"Should the Pope apologise further?" asked the young man from the BBC.

"The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has said his apology was sufficient", I responded, relying on the BBC's own news service.

There was a scuffle at the other end of the phone, presumably as the researcher consulted his producer. "Yes", he answered, "but they are saying it was not sufficient enough". What, I wondered, would constitute a "sufficient enough" apology. More to the point, who would decide? Christians, and Catholics in particular, tend to forget that most world religions do not have a central authority that can speak in the name of all the faithful.


Did Pope Benedict need to apologise at all for quoting a remark in his Regensburg address on September 12, 2006? Most commentators seem to think so. Karen Armstrong, writing in The Guardian ("We cannot afford to maintain these ancient prejudices against Islam", September 18, 2006), asserts that the Pope quoted the 14th century Byzantine emperor "without qualification and with apparent approval".

I do not imagine that rioters in Pakistan had read Benedict's words in full, but I would have expected Karen Armstrong to have done so. As an academic might, the Pope put Manuel II Palaelogus's words in context. He pointed out that they were the emperor's own record of the debate with the Persian sage, and said they were spoken "brusquely".

More to the point, perhaps, the Pontiff himself quotes the Koran as saying exactly the opposite of what the emperor alleges. In other words, even in the Regensburg address, quite apart from his Angelus address on September 17, the Pope distanced himself from the views of the emperor.

The Byzantine emperor had good reason for thinking as he did. His empire was under siege from the predominantly Muslim troops of the Ottoman Turks: Constantinople, his capital city, was to fall just over half a century later, in 1453. The Muslim army rolled on to the gates of Vienna. There they were finally stopped in 1683 by a Christian army commanded by the Polish king, John (Jan) Sobieski. The Ottoman aim was, however, conquest rather than conversion: Christians and Jews were - at least for the most part - allowed to practice their religion, so long as they paid higher taxes.

Conversion was rarely the issue. When in 630 the Muslim army first rode out of Arabia, Mohammed was exporting the violence which had been endemic in the tribal warfare of the Arabian peninsula. He was also invading what were by then largely Christian lands.

Curiously, it is possible to interpret the crusades in exactly the same light, and to see Pope Urban II's launch of the crusades in 1095 as exporting the violence which was endemic in European society. And, after a particularly bloody initial slaughter, the Franks of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem largely left the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants of their newly-conquered lands to get on with life much as before.


It seems to have been overlooked that the Regensburg address was hardly about Islam at all. The quotation Benedict used which created all the fuss was simply a starting-point for discussing a topic about which he feels strongly: the relationship between faith and reason.

Some have commented that the Pope appears to think that Islam is less "reasonable" than Christianity. He does indeed claim that in Muslim teaching "God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality", and quotes a Muslim theologian, Ibn Hazm, to that effect.

How true of Islam this assertion is I do not know, but it is not a criticism of Islam as such. The Pope takes to task some Christian theologians for holding similar views - specifically the 13th century Scots theologian John Duns Scotus.

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About the Author

Michael Walsh is a writer and broadcaster. He was librarian at Heythrop College from 1972 to 2001. Among his books are The Secret World of Opus Dei (HarperCollins, 2004) and The Conclave: A Sometimes Secret and Occasionally Bloody History (Canterbury Press, 2003).

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