On a visit to his native Germany, Pope Benedict XVI weighed in Sept. 12 before an audience at Regensburg University, where he once taught, on the contentious issue of rapport between Islam and the West. Calling for a “genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today,” he began his speech by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, in a conversation with a “learned Persian” on Christianity and Islam — “and the truth of both.” But the words he quoted from the emperor were: “Show me just what Muhammad 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.” He went on to say that violent conversion to Islam was contrary to reason and thus “contrary to God’s nature.”
Ironically, the bulk of his speech was an attack on Western secularism which would have warmed the heart of any Islamist. He even criticized secularism as a barrier to dialogue between the West and Islam — as if secularism was inherently alien to the Islamic world. “The world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion from the divine, from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.”
The speech was a central moment in Benedict’s six-day visit home to Bavaria, where he grew up and rose to a cardinal. Earlier in the day, at an outdoor Mass attended by some 250,000, he urged believers to stand up against the “hatred and fanaticism” that he said were tarnishing “God’s image.”
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the chief Vatican spokesman, tried to explain the Pontoff’s comments to the New York Times: “I believe that everyone understands, even inside Islam, there are many different positions, and there are many positions that aren’t violent. Here, certainly, the pope doesn’t want to give a lesson, let’s say, an interpretation of Islam, as violent. He is saying, in the case of a violent interpretation of religion, we are in a contradiction with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.”
The Times notes that in the weeks after John Paul’s death in April 2005, the question of Islam was a key issue in the selection of a new pope. As a candidate, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who took the name Benedict after his election, embodied the more skeptical school within the Vatican. Unlike John Paul, Cardinal Ratzinger did not approve of joint prayers with Muslims and was skeptical of the value of inter-religious dialogue. In 2004, he caused a stir by opposing membership in the European Union for Turkey, saying that it “always represented another continent throughout history, in permanent contrast with Europe.”
In his first trip outside Italy as pope, he met with Muslim leaders in Cologne, where he said Catholics and Muslims must overcome differences, but also told them they had the responsibility to teach their children against terrorism, which he called “the darkness of a new barbarism.”
Last summer, he devoted an annual weekend of study with former graduate students to Islam. Notes the Times: “In that meeting, and since, he has reportedly expressed skepticism about Islam’s openness to change, given its view of the Koran as the unchangeable word of God.”
(Um, excuse us, but don’t Catholics take the same view of the Bible?)
In his invocation of Manuel II’s phrase, Benedict did say “I quote” twice to stress the words were not his. But, not surprisingly, Muslims are not assuaged. The Pope is due to visit Turkey in November and the Turkish outcry over the words has been strong. The BBC reports that “Turks see Benedict as a Turkophobe and commentators call his words just before the holy month of Ramadan ‘ill-timed and ill-conceived.'” Ali Bardakoglu, head of the state-run Turkish religious affairs directorate, called for the Pope to immediately issue an apology. He said the Pope’s comments represented an “abhorrent, hostile and prejudiced point of view”. While Muslims might express their criticism of Islam and of Christianity, he argued, they would never defame the Holy Bible or Jesus Christ. He said he hoped the Pope’s speech did not reflect “hatred in his heart” against Islam.
The BBC quoted a Pakistani Islamic scholar, Javed Ahmed Gamdi, who said jihad was not about spreading Islam with the sword. Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a senior leader of Pakistan’s Jammiat Ulema-e-Islam party and an MP, warned Pope Benedict not to follow the lead of US President George W Bush. “Jihad is a tool for defence and we expect the Pope to speak against aggression,” he said.
In Indian-administrated Kashmir, police seized copies of newspapers which reported the Pope’s comments to prevent any outbreak of reactionary violence.
A Moroccan newspaper warned the remarks risked sparking fresh protests following the controversy earlier this year over the publication of anti-Islamic cartoons in a Danish newspaper.
Haken al-Mutairi, secretary general of the Kuwaiti Umma party, also demanded the pope apologize immediately “to the Muslim world for his calumnies against the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and Islam”. He called on Arab and Islamic states to withdraw their ambassadors to the Vatican until an apology was offered.
Aiman Mazyek, president of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims said: “After the bloodstained conversions in South America, the crusades in the Muslim world, the coercion of the Church by Hitler’s regime, and even the coining of the phrase ‘holy war’ by Pope Urban II, I do not think the Church should point a finger at extremist activities in other religions.” (NYT, 7 Days [UAE], Sept. 15; BBC, M&C News, Sept. 14)
Significantly (as the Chronology of Greek History at the Greek Folk Dance Resource Manual website reminds us), Manuel II Paleologus was Byzantine emperor when Constantinople was first beseiged by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Bayezid I in 1393. Pretty amazing that none of the media accounts have noted this rather salient fact. Constantinople finally fell to the Turks in 1453 under Emperor Constantine XI Paleologus, son of Manuel II.