Sunday, 17 September 2006

The pope apologises...(v. long!)

On Sunday, the pope apologised for remarks he made at the University of Regensburg last Tuesday. The Muslim world is angry, the Catholic world is defensive, and as an ex-Muslim Catholic convert, I find myself in the odd position of trying to provide a perspective that might help explain Muslim reactions to the papal address.

For those of you who missed it, the Islamic world is up in arms over the Pope quoting
Emperor Manuel Palaeologus' comment: "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."

Let's take care of the links first. For the full text of the papal address, go here:


Follow the link marked "Documents" and click on "Papal Address at University of Regensburg"

For an excellent blog entry with historical background of the quote and some thoughtful reflection, see here:

Jacquetta's blog entry on Pope

Jacquetta's entry gives us the background on Emperor Manuel Palaeologus, though I would go a step further and suggest that his statement was as much a response to the encroaching threat of the Ottoman Empire as it was an informed opinion.
I'd like to bring that context a little more into the present, if I may, b/c I feel that the current climate is a better gauge of why the papal comments were like a match to dry tinder.

We live in a world where Muslims feel as if they're marginalised by the West. From the Crusades to Palestine in 1947 to the world's silence in places like Bosnia and Kurdistan, Muslims feels as if the West doesn't care, and in some cases, as if the West is actively trying to either displace or exterminate them. And when the West DOES pay attention, they feel as if it comes in all guns blazing - literally - without asking them, respect for their way of life and their choices or even a token attempt to understand their culture. What Muslims tend to feel is that the West DOES come in with a desire to replace their culture and keep the oil pipelines open.

Rightly or wrongly, that's how they feel, and Western policies have done little to assuage that fear and anger. Take that emotional state and add the fact that so many of them live at subsistence level, are uneducated and unable to access the resources that we take for granted, and live with instability in their day to day lives, it seems unlikely that they will know - or be able to find out - the context of Emperor Palaeologus' quote or the full text of Pope Benedict XVI's speech. Even if they could get a reasonable translation, I doubt that they would have the leisure and resources to sit around, smoke hookahs, and say, "Ah, yes, that's why the pope quoted Palaeologus. That makes sense. However, Ahmed..." Let's not make the mistake of thinking that they have our resources, our lives and our inclinations.

The danger in this is that they do have access to media and governments that filter information for them. Without unlimited and freely accessible/uncensored resources to look things up for themselves, and with grievances already in their hearts, it becomes easier to see why there was such anger in the streets. Islam is the centre of their lives, from the first haunting sound of the Azan at dawn to the burqa women wear to leave the house to the last rakat of the Ishaa prayer before bed. Muhammad is central to all they say and do - he is their beloved prophet. It's no surprise that they heard the words "evil and inhuman" and heard nothing more. No matter that it was a quote, no matter that the rest of the speech was anti-violence. If an Islamic or Jewish scholar used a quote calling Jesus "evil and inhuman" in a speech against religious violence, how would the Christian world have responded? Would it have stopped to listen to the rest? I doubt it. Would you really listen to the rest of a comment if someone you loved - a parent, a sibling, a friend - had been called "evil and inhuman", even if the person telling you was quoting someone else? If so, you're a better person than I am.

There's the dry tinder.

Jacquetta asks, "
Is controversial scholarship no longer allowed because of causing offence? Shall we just burn all Christian theological texts that are harsh towards Islam, or any other religion?" The answer is, of course, a resounding "No." However, Pope Benedict's speech does not fall under the remit of scholarship. It was given from a university podium, yes, but the speech itself was not scholarly. He quotes a single reference - a compilation on Islam by a Lebanese Christian priest - Adeel Theodor Al-Khoury.

This is not a broad-ranging compilation of Islamic thought, as one might expect. It is a compilation of Byzantine arguments against Islam - understandably the most polemic and fierce, considering the threat they were under from the Ottomans. There is no problem with using controversial works as long as it is clear that a scholar is well-grounded in a broad range of literature - including the mainstream - on a Jacquetta says, "Historically, politically, and theologically, it is important to understand different perspectives. Scholarship must not be emotional." Absolutely spot on - I couldn't agree more. The problem is, the pope didn't study different perspectives to reach a conclusion or educate his reflections, he chose a book that most closely agreed with his own view, a book that would allow him to nod in agreement and stay in his comfort zone regarding Islam. If we step back and imagine his speech being given in front of a scholarly audience at a conference, scholars in both Islam and Christianity would have kicked his intellectual backside to Antarctica - and as I work in a place where the motto is "Veritas", or "Truth", I can name a few friars who might have gotten it started - and rightly so.

Why? Because instead of reading sources and coming to an informed conclusion, he came to a conclusion and chose his source. Leaving aside the use of Palaeologus' quote, which was injudicious at best, his use of Ibn-Hazm's quote left me blinking in incomprehension. From the Pope:

"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 [sic] 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 practice idolatry."

Hmmm. Ok, Ibn-Hazm was an Andalusian, and Pope Benedict has declared his focus to be on Europe, so perhaps that explains his choice. However, Ibn Hazm was leader of only one madhhab, or school of thought, that believed in the literal interpretation of the Quran and the hadith. That school has since died out, so why "But for Muslim teaching"?

It beggars belief that Pope Benedict is unaware of the teachings of another Muslim philosopher born in Cordoba, Ibn-Rushd, whose treatise, Faisl-al-Maqal, emphasised the importance of reason and analysis in faith. Ah, you say, but perhaps he was a less important philosopher than Ibn-Hazm. Not so. Ibn-Rushd's philosophical work - his treatises on Aristotle spanned 30 years - had great impact on Jewish philosophy and on great Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, and Dante had such respect for him that he placed him in Limbo, just outside Heaven. You might know him better as Averroes, the great medieval philosopher. His equally eminent predecessor, Ibn-Sina, or Avicenna, also studied Aristotle and placed great importance on reason, wrote cutting edge treatises on medicine, astronomy, philology, theology...

It seems puzzling that followers of a religion that believed in such an unpredictable God and completely eschewed logic in their faith would look for and find orderly patterns in their illogical Creator's world - Muslims made huge contributions in astronomy, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, architecture - logical subjects, every one
. At one point, Arabic was *the* language of science. In dismissing the Muslim faith as illogical, Benedict seems to be stripping Muslims of the one thing that most philosophers will agree makes us human - reason. And so the underlying assumption, the subtext, seems to be that Muslims are something less than human.

But subtext matters. We are creatures who give 80% of our attention to non-verbal behaviour, to actions, not words. Over the last 18 months, Pope Benedict has scarcely mentioned Islam once, even when it was warranted (e.g., the beatification of Charles Foucauld). He has removed Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, a leading Islamic scholar, from his position as head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious dialogue and sent him to Egypt as nuncio; the Council itself will be merged into the Pontifical Council for Culture. He has made it clear that his priority as Pope is to recover a Christian Europe - to the point where he has expressed disapproval at Turkey entering the EU because it is a Muslim, rather than Christian, state. Add to that the choices of quotes/references and subject matter (both Christianity and Judaism have violent pasts, and an example from those religions would have been very appropriate for the topic of violence in religion) made in this, his *first* speech about Islam during his pontificate, and the emerging pattern of subtext appears coherent and crystal clear. Islam is a threat to Christian Europe, and dialogue with Muslims is very low priority.

Throw in the words "evil and inhuman", and you've just thrown a lit match onto dry tinder.

I am not defending the Muslim reaction - burning churches, threatening Rome, killing people are inexcusable and horrific reactions. But we *know* reactions like that come from the Islamic world - witness the fatwa against Salman Rushdie to name one, let alone suicide bombers, etc. Joseph Ratzinger is leader of one of the world's largest religions; he is a world leader, not a theology professor. What he says is heard as the pronouncement of a spiritual leader and Catholics worldwide. He is not a stupid man - on the contrary, he is deliberate, intelligent, thorough and thoughtful. He cannot have been insensible to how those words could have been heard, how they would have been reported by the press, the reactions they could have elicited. If I *know*, or at least have a sense of how what I say might be taken, it is morally incumbent on me to say what must be said in a way that will be heard - or at least in a way that will do no harm. This isn't about not being able to say anything - we must speak our beliefs and convictions - but we *must* meet people where they are if we are capable of doing so. Joseph Ratzinger must have had some thought of the effect of his words, spoken as Pope Benedict was morally incumbent on him to do his research thoroughly and speak his truth compassionately. He failed. It's a shame, because his words on violence and religion deserved to be heard.

He apologised. But the subtext is still there. Watch this space.

1 comment:

Jacquetta said...

I was hoping you'd post something about this topic, and I was really glad you did. You have a rare viewpoint, and it was interesting reading it.

I agree with you completely about the access to resources being significantly different between the West and the East, and how huge an influence that can have on public perception and individuals' opinions.

I will withold judgment on Ratzinger's personal views. However, I agree that the choice of quote was an interesting one in the current climate...