Why the Pope is wrong about Islam

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Why the Pope is wrong about IslamAref Assaf, PhD

The recent speech by Pope Benedict XVI explored the historical and philosophical differences between Islam and Christianity and the relationship between violence and faith. Benedict, who used the terms “jihad” and “holy war,” repeatedly quoted 13th  Century Emperor Manuel’s argument that spreading the faith through violence is unreasonable, adding: “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.” Many Muslims were angered by the inference that Islam has been spread through violence. To most Muslims, was spread through reason and conviction.

A well-read intellectual, the Pope surely knows that, while his forerunners in the Catholic Church were caught in the Dark Ages of European Christianity, the philosophers Al-Farabi, Avicenna, al-Razi, and Averroes had already taken the first steps toward reconciliation between religion and science. Averroes formulated his theory of compatibility between reason (‘aql) and tradition (nagl) centuries before the European Renaissance took place.

The Pope mentioned these points in the context of the compatibility of Christianity with rationality, negating a similar compatibility in the case of Islam. This leads to the conclusion that rationality and modernity are the exclusive provinces of European Christians. Only they could be at the same time modern and Christian.

The Muslims, by contrast, supposedly have to make a choice between an irrational religion and a rational modern world. Reconciling both would be impossible.

The upshot of this line of thinking not only deepens the gulf between the cultures but also waves the banner of religious war, because what it ultimately says is: our faith is better than your faith because our faith goes hand in hand with civilization! You have no other choice but to renounce your religion!

This is dangerous terrain, which the Islamic/Christian dialogue and the religious dialogue, in general, have always tried to avoid, endeavoring instead to argue various points based on mutual respect, irrespective of what one religion thinks of the other.

Admittedly,  the primary purpose and message of Benedict XVI’s address was not about Islam, referred to in only four paragraphs of his eight-page lecture. And, yet, this Papal address to a university audience turned into an occasion for an international protest across the Muslim world.

Although the Vatican stated that the Pope did not intend to offend, his remarks did, in fact, upset many Muslims. Particularly offensive to Muslims was his citation of the  emperor’s remarks about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Prophet Muhammad is revered in Islam as the final Prophet of God and the best model of Muslim life. Moreover, the remark that he commanded the spread of Islam by the sword is simply inaccurate. The Quran and Muhammad did recognize the right to defend Islam and the Muslim community, by fighting those Meccans who threatened and attacked early Muslims. Equally problematic is the Pope’s statement that the Quranic passage, “There is no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256) was revealed in the early years of Muhammad’s prophethood in Mecca, a period “when Mohammed was still powerless and under [threat]” but was overtaken later when he ruled Medina by “instructions, developed later and recorded in the Koran [Quran], concerning holy war. (Read full text) However, both these statements are incorrect. Quran 2:256 is not an early Meccan verse but is itself from the later Medinan period and the Quran does not equate jihad with holy war. This interpretation of jihad developed years later after Muhammad’s death when it came to be used by rulers (caliphs) to justify their wars of imperial expansion and rule in the name of Islam.

Pope Benedict XVI’s insolent remarks on Islam and Prophet Muhammad (PBUP) may have been unintentional. But they nonetheless aggravated the tense relations besetting the world’s Muslims and the West. Notably, his utterances come at a time of great travail and immeasurable tensions. Two things are hoped for, one, moderate Muslims- the great majority of Muslims, must utilize this episode to engage their fellow Christians to strengthen better and mutual understanding between the two great world religions, and second, extremists Muslims ( and Christians) must not be permitted to coin the remarks as representative of the attitude of the Catholic Church and Christianity.

Upon reflections, The Pope’s remarks are unwarranted and untimely. If the Pope was directing his remarks at extremists Muslims like Bin Laden, he should also be including in his criticisms at the most hurtful remarks by President Bush, who unabashedly manipulated fear by declaring his war on “Islamic fascism.” Similarly, the Pope should be critical of self-anointed Christian evangelists like Pat Robertson and Israel’s Rabbi Oveida.

Benedict XVI is a distinguished Catholic theologian but he is not an expert on Islam and certainly not a resourceful diplomat. The Vatican in the recent past has had some first-class scholars of Islam serving the papacy as advisers. The inappropriate references to Islam in the Regensburg address could easily have been averted. If the Pope’s primary purpose was to address the issue of the relationship between faith and compulsion on the one hand and faith and reason on the other, Christian history offers ample examples (the Inquisition, Galileo, and other issues he mentions, violence and extremism, holy wars) without having recourse to passages drawn from mutual polemics.
The Pope clearly stated that his primary purpose was to discuss the “issue of ‘faith and reason’. He did so reacting and responding to a major concern of his, the excesses of secularization: the triumph of secularism and increased weakness of Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church in his homeland, Germany, and in Europe in general, and attempts to exclude religion from the realm of reason.

As A Muslim, I too was offended not only by the Pope’s remarks but also by his surprise at our expected response. Any Pope must realize that outside the realm of ecclesiastical dogma, people around the world, other than Catholic theologians, whether casual or formal, always take his pronouncements, as if made ex cathedra. Any sermons, lectures or just casual addresses by the pontiff log in for all to see where the Church stands on political, social and economic issues… not just religion. And no, they do not have to come in the form of an encyclical.

Have Muslims overreacted to the pope’s statement? Yes and no. Yes, in the context of the disgraceful and unacceptable attacks on Christian properties or persons. Their responses need to be understood in the context of our post 9/11 world with its greater polarization and alarming increases in Islamophobia. Many Muslims feel under siege. One of the strangest aspects of the post-9/11 world is that, despite all the talk about Muslim terrorism, there is hardly any exploration of the complex causes of Muslim rage. Muslims are in a state of crisis, but their most daunting problems are not religious. They are geopolitical, economic and social — problems that have caused widespread Muslim despair and, in some cases, militancy, both of which are expressed in the religious terminology to which Muslims relate and which is permitted by their undemocratic regimes.

A Gallup World Poll of some 800 million Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia indicates widespread resentment over what respondents see as the denigration of Islam and Arabs and Muslims in the West. The cartoon controversy in Europe demonstrated both the dangers of xenophobia and Islamophobia and depths of anger and outrage. Therefore, it is easy to understand why Muslims would express their disappointment and anger and call for an apology and dialogue much the same as Jewish leaders strongly urged meetings with the Pope or other Church leaders for offensive comments or actions. This was the case for American Jewish leaders before the papal visit of 1987 after Pope John Paul II had met with Kurt Waldheim. As prominent Muslim leaders noted during the European cartoon controversy and in the current situation, expressions of concern or outrage do not preclude discussion and dialogue and certainly never justify acts of violence.

Pope Benedict has tried to reach out to Muslims. But more needs to be done. Urgently, the Pope could invite Muslim religious leaders and scholars to meet and discuss the issues that his statement raised and hear their concerns and responses to his specific comments about Islam, the Prophet, and jihad. He could invite them to join with him in mutually acceptable language to express concern about violence in the name of religion and the abuse of human rights. The pope’s upcoming visit to Turkey could be an occasion to demonstrate in his public pronouncements his respect for Islam and Muslims and his desire to continue the major accomplishments that the Catholic Church has made since Vatican II in Catholic-Muslim dialogue. Muslims and Catholics (as indeed all Christians) must now get back on track, building on the significant accomplishments in inter-religious dialogue in recent decades. In the twenty-first century, critical to Catholic-Muslims relations will be how Benedict XVI’s Papacy and Catholics work with their Muslim counterparts to overcome ignorance and hostility as well as the threat from violence and intolerance globally.

When Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope last year, he said: “I wish to speak why I chose the name Benedict. Firstly, I remember Pope Benedict XV, that courageous prophet of peace, who guided the Church through turbulent times of war. In his footsteps, I place my ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples. Additionally, I recall Saint Benedict of Nursia, co-patron of Europe, whose life evokes the Christian roots of Europe.”

Do not be upset because Muslims are offended   For you gave them a reason to so be. If you truly wish to engage Muslims into a frank and a fruitful dialogue, do not start by slapping them in the face.

Aref Assaf, PhD

President, American Arab Forum

Read Pope’s full remarks
Vatican’s Press release
Muslim reactions: Local: Pope angers Muslims
North Jersey Muslims said Friday that remarks Pope Benedict XVI made in Germany this week about Islam were insulting.
Update: NJ Muslims react to Pope’s meeting with Muslim envoys