Sunday, September 17, 2006

What the Pope Did Wrong.

Undoubtedly, you have heard of the whole controversy over Pope Benedict's speech at Regensburg University last week. His rather long, scholarly address dealt with reason and faith in the West. His point was basically that coercion of conscience is incompatible with reasoned faith and he ambiguously used Islam as a symbol of the coercive unreasoned faith. Not a very good idea in this day and age.
His speech is available here in English in case you want to put it in context. Of course when you read the whole thing, you realize it is more complex than what the media make it out to be. But the fact remains...
He began his speech recounting a conversation between the 14th-century Byzantine Christian Emperor Manuel Paleologos II and a Persian scholar on the truths of Christianity and Islam.
"The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war," the pope said. "He said, I quote, '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.'" (IHT)
The problem is that he Pope remained ambiguous - neither explicitly agreeing with the statement nor repudiating it.

One thing that strikes me is that while the Pope - and particularly this pope - may be a great theologian and a prolific author on Christian theology, I do not see what business he has in commenting on the theology of another religion. This is what happens when you talk about things you know nothing about! This is especilly true at a time of great tension between the Muslim world and the West.
Besides, why quote a
14th-century Byzantine Christian Emperor who lived during clashes between the Ottoman and the Byzantine empires?
According to Juan Cole and others, the pope gets a number of things about Islam wrong anyway. Suffice to say that despite what you hear quite often, the Qur'an does not ask to spread faith by the sword, even if some extremists do (in the same way that the Bible is not about burning people or killing Jews and Muslims during crusades).
Cole reminds us that this what the Qur'an says about the religions:
[2:62] Those who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians-- any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.
Now of course, if you didn't have a "religion", you were pretty much screwed, but there must have been very few people who would have claimed to be atheists. You would have probably been identified to the religion of the community you belonged to.
The idea of holy war or jihad (which is about defending the community or at most about establishing rule by Muslims, not about imposing the faith on individuals by force) is also not a Quranic doctrine. The doctrine was elaborated much later, on the Umayyad-Byzantine frontier, long after the Prophet's death. In fact, in early Islam it was hard to join, and Christians who asked to become Muslim were routinely turned away.
Strangely, while Benedict endorses "creative reason", he opposes the "strict rationality" of the Enlightenment and believes that the world is "moving towards a dictatorship of relativism. (Wikipedia). Something he shares with some Protestant Christians and Muslims.
Ironically, his response andregret may have been a bit too... relative for some.


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