Friday, September 15, 2006

Response of Muslim World to Pope Benedict's Comments Shame Islam

On Tuesday, September 12, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a speech to a group of scientist gathered in Munich. The speech (more acurately described as a lecture) contained nearly 4000 words or 7 single-spaced, typed pages.

One quote from this lecture, taken out of context, has produced a seemingly choreogaphed and embarrassingly "irrational" response from Muslim leaders (and even leaders from predominantly Muslim countries) from all around the world, but particularly from the Middle East. For examples of this response see the following:

Muslims in uproar over pope’s remarks on Islam.
Muslims deplore Pope speech, want apology.
Muslims express fury over pope’s remarks.
Turkish lawmaker compares pope to Hitler.
Muslims assail pope’s remarks on Islam.
Pakistan parliament demands Pope retract Islam comments.
Pope branded a medieval crusader in India.
Muslims demand pope apologise for Islam comments.

What caused this uproar? You'll never find out from reading the newspapers or listening to the network news. Even CNN and FoxNews' online coverage has been simiplistic, sensationalist and void of any serious attempt to put the Pope's comments into context.

For those of you interested in really knowing what the Pope said and then discovering just how outrageous and pathetic the Muslim response has been, you can take the time to read the entire text of the Pope's speech or trust me to provide you an accurate and concise summary in the following paragraphs.


The Pope's theme concerned the importance of reason and rational inquiry in matters of faith and of God. In this way he was attempting to bridge the growing gap between the academy (which all-too-often mistakenly views the Christian faith, or any faith, as fundamentally anti-reason and irrational) and Christianity. Reason and rational inquiry is central to the understanding of both science and religion (at least the Christian religion).

As part of his introductory remarks Benedict quoted from a record of a historical and reasoned dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a Persian (Muslim) scholar that took place in Ankara, Turkey, around the year 1381. The dialogue concerned the relative merits and beliefs of Christianity and Islam and occurred just before the unsuccessful Muslim seige of Constantinople (which was the captal city of the Christian Byzantine empire) during the years 1394-1402. (Note: A later seige in 1453 was successful...the city was renamed Istanbul...and has remained in Muslim control ever since).

Here is what Benedict said:

In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "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". The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably.

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. 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 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 practise idolatry.

Note the context of this quote. Islam had long ago violently swept across the Christian lands of the Middle East and North Africa and offered either dhimmitude or coversion to all Christians and Jews they encountered. Spain, at this time, was still under Muslim rule, Greece was being infiltrated and the gates of Budapest and Vienna were also being threatened. Constantinople was literally the last island of Christianity in a flooding expanse of violent Muslim expansionism. Only the 1st Crusade had been able to turn back and temporarily stall the otherwise unimpeded stampede of Islam.

In the midst of this "die or become a Muslim" situation, it is noteworthy that the Byzantine Emperor took time to take part in a nonviolent, rational discourse with a Muslim intellectual concerning each other's religious beliefs. It is also noteworthy that the Emperor's comments do not appear to have offended the Muslim he was conversing with. No doubt similar statements were being made by the Muslim in regards to the Christian faith as well!

This is, to a large degree, the very point that Pope Benedict was trying to make. The dialogue between science and Christianity should be like that dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor and the Muslim scholar. The dialogue should be reasonble and polite yet unabashedly honest.

A more subtle point being made here is that Christianity, at least as it is understood by this Pope, continues to be grounded in reasonable thoughts and ideas that are consistent with the Christian understanding of the "person" and "mind" of God as he has revealed himself in the Old and New Testaments.

The Pope's point is that this theological grounding in rational discourse is not central to Islamic belief or thought and is, in fact, incompatible with the Muslim understanding of the nature of God (Who is distant, unknowable and capricious).

The knee-jerk, insecure and irrational response this past week by those who would ordinarily be considered to be rational, reasonable Muslims has gone a long way to prove that the Pope's thesis is essentially correct.

One Muslim leader, Pakistan's Foreign Minister, went so far as to say (without any hint of irony):
Anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence.
Both the Byzantine Emperor and the Muslim scholar in the 14th century knew full well of the Muslim use of violent conversion to their faith. That this was a given fact was not in dispute then nor should it be in dispute today. The only question raised by the both the Pope and the Emperor is, "Can such an approach to faith be considered to be reasonable or rational."

The Pope's answer to this question, the Emperor's answer to this question and my own answer to this question is, and must be, "Certainly not! Never!"

If the Muslim world would calm down and discuss this question with the same calm and confident sense of reasonable dialogue that existed in their "golden age" then, perhaps, there might be some value in conversation. Until then, the apparent approach to respectful debate appears to be: "Agree with us and become a Muslim or we will riot, spit on you, threaten you, attack you and, if necessary, kill you. We are the religion of peace and we will make sure that you have no peace until you become one of us!"

Personally, I'm not convinced by their logic.