Friday, September 15, 2006

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Let's get some odds of the Pope being burned in effigy

The BBC reports that some Muslims are none too keen on what the Pope said yesterday... or rather, who the Pope quoted yesterday:

A statement from the Vatican has failed to quell criticism of Pope Benedict XVI from Muslim leaders, after he made a speech about the concept of holy war.
Speaking in Germany, the Pope quoted a 14th Century Christian emperor who said the Prophet Muhammad had brought the world only "evil and inhuman" things.

Pakistan's parliament passed a resolution on Friday criticising the Pope for making "derogatory" comments.

The Vatican said the Pope had not intended to offend Muslims....

The head of the Muslim Brotherhood said the Pope's remarks "aroused the anger of the whole Islamic world"....

In his speech at Regensburg University, the German-born Pope explored the historical and philosophical differences between Islam and Christianity, and the relationship between violence and faith.

Stressing that they were not his own words, he quoted Emperor Manuel II Paleologos of the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox Christian empire which had its capital in what is now the Turkish city of Istanbul.

The emperor's words were, he said: "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."

Benedict said "I quote" twice to stress the words were not his and added that violence was "incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul".

"The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application," he added in the concluding part of his speech.

"Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today."

Click here for the controversial excerpts from the speech. And here's a link to the full text of the speech, as posted by the Vatican.

Question to readers -- will this be the sequel to the Muhammed cartoon controversy, something not quite as serious, or something even more serious?

UPDATE: OK, less than 24 hours for the burning of the Pope in effigy. If the Feiler Faster Thesis ever gets applied to world politics, I expect to see effigy-burning take place within an hour of whatever triggers the controversy.

Meanwhile, Juan Cole has little sympathy for the Pope, "The Pope was wrong on the facts. He should apologize to the Muslims and get better advisers on Christian-Muslim relations."

posted by Dan on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM


One can only hope that the response to the Pope's speech will be more serious than the "cartoon" circus, but nothing gives me any confidence it will.

The full speech is available in English translation on the Vatican website. The ostensible subject is whether the Greek concept of logos is integral to the Christian understanding of God, and to the idea of the Divine more generally. The Pope contrasts various statements from Islamic sages, to the effect that the freedom of God precludes any effort to limit the characteristics of the Divinity within the confines of mere human rationality. The Pope rejects that view, citing (among other things) the opening of John's Gospel ("In the beginning was the Word [logos] ..."). He also makes the more general argument that, for the religions of the Book (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the fundamental notion is that Man was created in the image of God, and thus, by making reason and rationality the defining human characteristic, God has revealed an important truth about Himself as well.

The speech is quite interesting purely as a philosophical and theological argument. But it defies common sense to think that the Pope chose the particular frame with which he started off his argument -- the quotes from a 14th century conversation between the Emperor and a Muslim cleric that have the usual suspects riled up -- without a more specific objective in mind. Surely, the Pope understood full well that his selected quotations would go off like a bomb in funadmentalist Islamic circles. Certainly, with the recent "cartoon" controversy and all past precedent, the Vatican had to be seeking, in part, a strong reaction that his decision to quote the Emperor's harsh description of the Prophet's handiwork was bound to elicit, particularly where the Pope could easily have picked some other rhetorical starting point to launch into his ostensible subject. The only question is why.

Given the long temporal horizons with which the Vatican typically works, I think this may have been a first, tentative stab by the Pope at trying to address what he evidently sees as the defining problem for the world presented by radical Islamofascism in the coming decades -- like the demise of the Communist regimes that his predecessor addressed and, by doing so, helped partially to bring about in the 1980s.

In part, I think he was reacting to the timidity and near paralysis of the EU powers in confronting Islamofascism in general, and the inability of the US to engage with Muslims on the subject of the excesses of contemprorary fundamentalist Islam. Thus, I suspect that there is a feeling in the Vatican that the Pope is uniquely well placed to try to raise these issues where other players on the world stage cannot or will not. In part, I think he was reacting to the view among many Muslims that it is acceptable to enforce a favored position among religions for Islam by force rather than whatever inherent persuasiveness and appeal Islam may present. It seems to me that the Pope may well be trying to get a dialog started with "moderate Muslims," assuming he can find any, to address and perhaps start to redress, those excesses.

While the use of violence to advance Islamic beliefs is clearly contrary to the demands of reason as outlined by the Pope in this speech, there are many more Islamic practices defended and pursued by Islamic fundamentalist regimes that are equally objectionable from his perspective. Among them are the prohibitions, backed by severe sanctions (including in some instances the death penalty), for Muslims converting to another religion, for any efforts in Muslim countries deemed to constitute proselytization (including the mere possession of a Bible), and for the practice of religions other than Islam. The more general problem that the Pope's speech hints at but never directly addresses is the glaring contradictions between fundamentalist Islam as practiced and preached by the Taliban, the Iranian mullahs, and many other factions, and the demands of Christian love as understood in the Western tradition. No doubt, the Pope was also reacting to the many controversies in the EU sparked by violence directed at anyone deemed to have been critical of Islam.

I think he is trying to find common ground with Muslims to condemn that view of Islam, and first he has to find the Islamic scholars willing to engage with him on it. Obviously, it is far from certain that he will succeed, assuming that I am right about his objectives. But, as the cliche goes, every journey starts with a first step, and that's what this speech looks like to me. Whether quoting the harsh comments by a 14th century Emperor was a smart way to start on that journey is another matter.

posted by: RHD on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

Benedict's comments were interesting coming from a leader of an institution which was quite succesful in spreading Christianity through the sword! What he said would have more weight had he acknowledged the fact that the Catholic Church had sinned greatly in its past by using violence in the name of God, but had since sought forgiveness.

Still, it was good for such a high profile person to rebuke the violence currently employed by extremist Muslims.

And I guess we shouldn't be surprised that such a controversial words came out of his mouth as he is well known in the Catholic world as a man who speaks his mind regardless of the fall out. When he was Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was the Pope's strong man and made several controversial headlines.

posted by: mem on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

Too late, Benedict is already being burned in effigy: check out

for pictures.

posted by: Colin on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

I believe that the religious affairs editor at the Guardian (the newspaper)says it best:

"Benedict's offence, of course, was recklessly to quote this 600 year-old expression of the point of view of a medieval Middle Eastern potentate. He didn't endorse it, didn't say that it was his own view, attributed it in context. And is now told that he has "aroused the anger of the whole Islamic world". Most of which, probably, had never heard of Manuel II Paleologue before this morning. Perhaps the pope should be careful of bringing such subversive ancient texts to light. On the other hand, if you cannot, as part of a lengthy and profound academic lecture, cite a 600 year-old text for fear of stirring the aggravation of noisy politicians half way around the world, what CAN you do? We might as well all retreat into obscurantism. And keep our mouths shut, for otherwise, who knows who we might offend. And if, as a result of the outrage, some Catholics get killed or their churches burned down by offended scholars and textual exegesists it might be thought that Manuel's original point had rather been made."

posted by: Greg on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

Muslims express outrage at criticism. Why is this news? They are not exactly models of open debate.

posted by: KXB on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

i agree with the sentiment expressing openness of speech, and i hope that everyone can talk about everything openly. For example, I was in support of Larry Summers when he said women were likely inferior in math and science, which lead to furor and his eventual release as president of harvard.

But unlike being scientific, academic research that is being debated here, what was the purpose of the pope bringing up a completely obscure quote that specifically references something that was not even true:

The problem in these case, whether the cartoon eruption or this speech by the pope, is not the actual content so much as that it represents a much deeper hatred for Islam. That these instances of criticism are directed at islam rather then the acts of some people. And it is especially sensitive coming out of the mouth of someone who rules over one a religious organization that has one of the world's most brutal and evil histories. the pope would never say something like that about Judaism, even though some Jews are targeting and killing innocent palestinians and Lebanese. And considering the Catholic history toward Jews, I am sure he would be roundly (and rightly) attacked if he did. The same holds true for Islam. And especially when he doesn't know what he is talking about.

posted by: lobro on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

I will just add, i do not know enough about the debate to say whether i agreed or disagreed about Larry's statements. but his right to say them should be protected.

and to KXB, are Jews open to debate about whether their religion is evil? are christians? are hindus? especially coming from someone like the pope, what he said was just ignorant and wrong. before he becomes a scholar of islam, let's hear him reject the 2000 years of violence and horror caused by the catholic church.

posted by: lobro on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

I will just add, i do not know enough about the debate to say whether i agreed or disagreed about Larry's statements. but his right to say them should be protected.

and to KXB, are Jews open to debate about whether their religion is evil? are christians? are hindus? especially coming from someone like the pope, what he said was just ignorant and wrong. before he becomes a scholar of islam, let's hear him reject the 2000 years of violence and horror caused by the catholic church.

posted by: lobro on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

Is anybody else just really sick of Muslims flying into rage at the slightest affront? It would be one thing if the Muslim world were models of tolerance, but coming from a culture that denogrates all other religions as a matter of course, it's hard to take their hurt feelings seriously.

posted by: William H on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

"...are Jews open to debate about whether their religion is evil? are christians? are hindus? especially coming from someone like the pope, what he said was just ignorant and wrong."

Do Muslims look upon their history in the way that, say, Catholics look upon the Inquisition? Are they taking steps to address the Shia-Sunni divide in the way that Hindus are trying to deal the caste system?

It seems that Benedict was attempting to discuss how Christianity and Islam have interacted through the situations, and how impressions of the religion changed over time. How do you discuss past viewpoints without quoting them?

posted by: KXB on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

How about a trade-off? Let non-Muslims go sightseeing in Mecca, and Westerners will be more delicate in discussing Islam. Oh, that's right - non-Muslims can't go to Mecca. Luv that tolerant religion.

posted by: KXB on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

I just wanted to tip my hat to RHD for outstanding analysis of this episode. I doubt I will see its equal in the following weeks as journalists around the globe blather unintelligently about war of civilizations and religions.

As for me, I can only wonder at the way in which Islam is "defended" from the charge of tendencies toward irrational violence with...well, irrational violence. It's almost like the Pope knew what the response would be.

posted by: Clio on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

KXB, you are just wrong. I am not a muslim and i have been to hundreds of sacred Muslim sites, including many of the most sacred. Mosques all over the Arab and Muslim world. You are trying to equate the decisions of a state government, with the entirety of a religion. My guess is that you are racist against Muslims or Arabs (though, i don't know you enough to say). I am not saying that the Saudi government is tolerant, but the pope was not criticizing the Saudi government. For example, despite 1,500 years of history, they are now trying to ban women from going to Mecca. Is that the religion or is that the State?

So this new pope comes in and starts criticizing Islam as a religion, and starts trying to tell muslims what they think and what they should believe, and you expect that to be accepted? Who is he to talk? and when did the catholic church condemn the crusades? when did it condemn its plundering of Africa and the Americas? when did they condemn their wealth, their pomp, their excess, their active support for fascism and the holocaust? I don't know how they treat their history of the inqusition, but that is just a small part in their 2000 years of blood. this man has no right to open his mouth to condemn anyone until he shows the humility to honestly represent his own religion's history.

Too, again, why did he quote this random emperor and not quote someone else? if his goal was to make a philosophical point about how all religions should not use violence to grow, then why didn't he quote from the violent history of his own church? well, it seems to me that he was trying to point out specifically how violent he believes Islam to be. and, he is wrong and doesn't know what he is talking about (as Juan cole pointed out).

Europe has been the most violent place on earth for the last 1000 years. why not point to that if you want to make a point about violence? i assume because he has something against the religion of Islam specifically. and that is a problem and people should be mad about it (though, i don't think they should do violence over it).

and I agree, the Middle East is not as tolerant as it should be these days. and it is getting less so by the day. But it seems absolutely obvious to me that this is a response to the political repression (and colonial repression that continues to this day) in the region, rather then the religion. In south America, the "liberation theologists" were violent and crazy when they had the type of repression the middle east does now. No one blames the catholic religion for that though. that point is pretty telling.

posted by: lobro on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

Amusing that I am called an anti-Semite on this blog back in July and anti-Muslim in September.

lobro - Muslims are free to practice their religion in their lands as they see fit. What they are not permitted to do, and you will not convince me of, is that I have to watch what I say about here in the West.

If the Pakistani "Parliament" wants to pass a resolution condemning the popes remarks, will they then move onto removing the laws that treat their Ahmedi community as non-Muslim?

And simply laying the blame at the Saudi gov't may be handy - but it does not address the fact that Muslims in other lands are not applying pressure on Saudi Arabia, as caretaker of Islam's holiest sites, to present a more friendly image to the world.

As a man who believes most religions are well developed fairy tales, I can visit the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the Vatican, the Angkor Wat, Confucian and Shinto sanctuaries - but the birthplace of one of the largest religions in the world is a no go area. Again, a peculiar interpretation of tolerance - where I am free to stay out and shut up.

posted by: KXB on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

I am not asking you to watch what you say, nor do i think Muslims are. I, for example, say countless stupid things every day that i hope no one tries to hold me accountable for. I also agree with you on the fact that religions are probably fairy tales. But here is the difference, you are not the pope (I assume) and yuo do not have the history of intolerance the catholic church does, nor do you rule over a huge mass of people.

Anyway, i said you are anti-muslim because you are confusing a religion with the people who claim to believe in the religion. I think pat robertson is a criminal of the highest order, but that does not reflect my feelings toward the "christianity" in general. it is an important distinction, the same holds true for Islam.

And, come on, the American constitution is not much more then 10 pages long, yet any two people can come to amazingly different conclusions as to what it means and is saying. If you want to judge Islam, do it based on what the religion is, not based on what someone says it is.

posted by: lobro on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

Lobro, what is Islam besides what Muslims say it is? What you say it is?

posted by: bgates on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

Was the pope agreeing with the qoute or simply recounting an exchange between an eastern orthodox leader and a muslim rep. 600 years me with the context of the qoute?...I'm hearing conflicting versions.

posted by: centrist on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

I was just saying that religions, philosophies, ideas... they are very big and wide ranging things. I am not going to judge what Islam is, or is not. But, i feel like a person should be serious about understanding Islam, reading about it and living it and finding your own understanding for it, if you want to seriously analyze it. I mean that i don't trust an analysis that is done without respect for what you are analyzing. that does not mean you have to love it, but at least know what you are talking about....

posted by: Lobro on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

The opening comments by RHD are indeed good and the central thesis of those comments is true - this Pope is indeed attempting to make an opening salvo against the great looming conflict: using Islam for justifying violence. Given his strong theological pedigree and moral courage, it makes perfect sense that this Pope would try to engage in such a polemical battle of ideas with relevance to day to day conflicts.

But the questions raised about the wisdom in quoting some obscure emperor, whose empire finally gave way to Islam, are all applicable here and are valid. Looks like from a scholarship point of view that quote was not appropriate.

Finally about the most important issue: it has been a suspicion that established Christianity ignores it's own violent past of 1000 years (especially medieval times). Pope's utterances confirm that. If you are familiar with Hindu Fundamentalists in India, you see the point: these fundamentalists ignore the violent (and exploitation by way of Hindu Caste System) and tend to point fingers at others, say to Islam or Christianity. However, those who ignore their own past essentially loose the basic credibility in pointing mistakes of others. This Pope has made that cardinal mistake. Unless he acknowledges blood on hands of Papacy, there is no way through the 'window' of God's house this Pope can get any ray of ‘grace’. The utterances of this Pope are all in the mean and narrow tradition of these religious leaders – arguing for monopoly of one religion over others. Amazing that 2000 years have passed and still these religious leaders do not get it and they still engage in petty and narrow world view.

There is indeed a right case to be made against those who use Islam to justify violence. Further, at theological level one can debate what violent ways did the Prophet advocate to spread Islam - is it true and whether it is right. Unfortunately this core debate will be set aside due to this Pope's failure in apologizing for the past violence undertaken by Christianity in the name of Jesus.

There is so much desperate need of a ‘shepherd’ in today’s world. One wishes the current Pope would fulfill that role. But it does not seem so.

posted by: Umesh Patil on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

Given all the invective spewn toward Christians and Jews from powerful state-sponsored imams all the time, I hardly see place for Muslims to get upset. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

However, rather than start hurting people, perhaps we should let the Pope and the Grand mufti of Mecca get together for a cage match where they can use their magical powers upon one another and prove whose God is bigger.

posted by: Jackal on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

To answer Dan's question, this is in fact a sequel to the cartoon controversy, fundamentally a product of people seeking a cause of offense and finding it. It will not be the last.

posted by: Zathras on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

Islam never had an equivalent of a "Reformation".

For that matter neither did Judaism if I recall.

Frankly all religions need to undergo a defanging or watering down in my opinion.

Islam is just kicking and screaming the loudest because they know this has been creeping up on them over a half century and the zealots are trying to roll things back.

posted by: Babar on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

The Pope recanted, he didnt want to upset the Muslims. Amazing!

posted by: jaimito on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

To various above but particularly Lobro:

a) He's the Pope - the head of a religion. Why should he be tolerant of others? His JOB is to convert them.

b) You're doing what you accuse others of doing: Painting with a broad brush. Why does it matter if Catholics - not all Catholics, even - were trouncing about the world chopping off heads 300 years ago? They're not doing it now. The Muslims are doing it now - and they're our heads. There's a bit of a difference.

As to the choice of people to quote, Paula Cella pointed out (sorry, link not handy) that Manuel II's son was nailed to the wall of the city after losing the it to the Turks - after having gone begging through Europe for help.

The choice was not an accident.

posted by: mrsizer on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

At the time of Manuel II, Islam had already spread violently in North Africa, Iberia, Persia, what is modern-day Iraq, the Levant, and Sicily. How did this differ from the expansion of Islam in Arabia under Mohammed's leadership?

posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

Pakistani Kashmiri protesters burn an effigy of Pope Benedict XVI for his remarks about Islam which hurt the sentiments of Muslims, Monday.
Photo: AP

posted by: Jose on 09.15.06 at 10:53 AM [permalink]

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