The Pope and the Muslims

Given all the work I have to do, I probably shouldn’t be blogging, but I’ve been really itching to comment on this bizarre Pope controversy for a while.  I need to scratch this itch so I can get back to work.

Under Progress has contributed some thoughtful and informative reflections on this mess, along with a useful round-up of what people are saying in the blogosphere. 

I’m of two minds on this sorry affair.

Despite my vigorous objections to the Pope’s charges, I think that many Muslims have greatly overreacted.  The offending observation was an almost parenthetical remark in a long, dry and scholarly commentary on the place of religion in modern life.  If this was an anti-Islamic manifesto or political statement, it was curiously reticent on Islam!

Muslims should not be shocked that the Pope has serious issues with Islam or different interpretations of Islamic history.  And we shouldn’t expect him to tiptoe around our sensibilities (especially given how freely and sometimes rudely Muslims critique Christianity).

Then there is the stature of the speaker, which necessitates respect and diplomacy in Muslim responses.  This is not some right-wing ideologue with a long track record of slandering Islam.  This is the head of one of the world’s great religions, and a profound theologian (not to mention one with whom Muslims have often found themselves in agreement) to boot.  You don’t vilify or hurl veiled threats at the Pope, and for leaders like Yusuf Qaradawi to demand a humiliating "personal apology" of the Holy See is simply outrageous and incredibly irresponsible, especially after the former’s several conciliatory gestures.

Then there’s how counterproductive these overreactions are in the long run.  The spectacle of Muslims burning in effigy a universally respected spiritual leader and seeming to restart the mayhem around the globe that attended the cartoon fiasco is not only sure to scare the daylights out of non-Muslim observers everywhere.  To many if not most observers outside the Ummah, "our" overreaction will seem to prove Pope Benedict right in his dark suspicions about Islam’s inherently violent nature.  And then there are politicaly tone-deaf moves like the latest calls for a "day of rage".  Smooth move, brothers.  With defenders like these, Islam needs no enemies.

Also, I wonder, does Qaradawi and company think that Islam and Muslims have anything to gain from the public humiliation of the head of the Catholic Church? Does he think these bare-knuckle tactics improve the image of Islam or the wellbeing of Muslims in the world? 

It’s sad to see how even today, in an interconnected world of instant communication, grand interfaith dialog initiatives, and the relentless commingling of religious communities around the globe, some prominent Muslim leaders still don’t get what dialog is about or realize that it is their Islamic duty to show respect to other religions–especially those that is explicitly honored in the Quran under the rubric of Ahl-Kitab–even in times of conflict.  If adab (good manners) is required in a Muslim’s dealings with his neighbor, how much important is it in in dealings with revered non-Muslim religious leaders?

Instead, I’m sad to say that we’re seeing Muslims attempt to bully the Pope.   I’m not even a Christian, and the sight of these protests gets me steamed.  Because I have deep respect, as should any Muslim, for the institution and religious tradition that Pope Benedict heads.  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, too.  Another reason I cringe at the sight of these shameful displays is that I as a post-9/11 American Muslim know where socially sanctioned disrespect for other people’s religious beliefs and sensibilities leads.  It creates a vicious circle of mutual fear and prejudice that inevitably leads to conflict.

It’s also striking to see how blind (indifferent?) some Muslim leaders are to the practical consequences–for Muslims in particular–of such geopolitical brinkmanship that raises tensions and creates needless new flash points between Muslims and non-Muslims. 

When you get down to it, this is what was so profoundly repugnant about Jyllands-Posten’s antics in Denmark.  Like the Muslim-bashing schemers in Jutland, some Pope-bashing Muslim leaders are cynically choosing to feed new fuel to the fire in order to promote themselves.

The other day I saw a tongue-in-cheek t-shirt that I found painfully relevant to the state of Muslimdom today.  It read, "God made whiskey to keep the Irish from taking over the world," and featured a leprechaun-like gentleman dozing in a drunken stupor.  Perhaps Allah created Islamists to keep Muslims from taking over the world.   Instead of the drunk, we could have a Muslim "leader" burning in effigy some prominent person about whom they know nothing.

Shabana made a great observation.  "After the first apology, Muslim leaders should’ve just said, ‘We forgive you.’  That would’ve turned the tables completely!"  Boy would it have.  But that’s far too subtle, profound and spiritual a strategy for many of our leaders, alas.

My, look at the time!  I have much pontificating to do on the religious theories of Durkheim,  Weber, Freud, and other worthies, not to mention begin a paper on soteriology in Hinduism  (which is arguably a contradiction in terms).

In my next post, I’ll get to my beef with what the Pope’s talk, which despite the foregoing is a serious one. For now, suffice it to say that, with all due and sincere respect to the Holy See, his analysis of Islam was disappointingly shallow and historically uninformed.  (I must confess that I’ve been struggling with the urge to unleash a brutal pun on the term "papal bull".  I shall refrain, out of taste as well as respect. ) And I feel the choice of quote was breathtakingly unwise, not to mention gratuitously insulting to Muslims.  I hope the offending quote’s inclusion was due to an aide’s hasty suggestion, as opposed to His Holiness’ considered opinion on the matter.

Update (2006-10-02):  A few stylistic tweaks.

  • Abu Sinan

    I agree with you about the response from Muslims, but I would disagree with you about the nature of this Pope. He is no John Paul.
    He is a well known right winger in the Catholic Church, which is saying something. He lead the department within the Catholic Church that used to be the Office of the Inquisition.
    He is not as ecumenical minded as the previous Pope, and I think we will see that more so here in the very near future.
    You wont see him kissing The Qur’an, that is for sure.

  • Svend

    Salaams, AS
    Well, in a way your critique of Ratzinger makes my point that he’s a “kindred spirit”, at least for the people getting the most worked up. They don’t have an ecumenical bone in their bodies, either.
    My main point is that by virtue of his staunch conservativism he’s an ideological ally of many Muslims today on a host of issues concerning the place of religion in modern life. On most pressing issues of the day (e.g., that obsession of many Muslim leaders, “family values”), his current Muslim critics probably often find themselves applauding him.

  • Devin

    I also strongly agree with you on the muslim response to this issue.
    What I found more interesting than the comments that actually caused the uproar however was Pope Benedicts discussion on rationalism. In particular I found it odd that he referenced Ibn Hazm on this point and implied that Ibn Hazms opinion was what muslims believe. As a staunch follower of the ashari school which very much engages and utilizes logic (and I would argue much more effectively than the Christians) I found his assertion that in Islam rationality is not a concern quite disappointing. For a figure so well known for scholastic brilliance I was disappointed he looked no further into that issue.
    As for this Pope in general however, I think that if he is defined it must be as both “conservative” and “intellectual”. And I think if we look long-term and engage him intellectually (rather than in emotional outbursts) and work together on a number of issues that his conservatism would put us in agreement with him on there are a lot of possibilities for us to work together and benefit each other.

  • TM Lutas

    Abu Sinan – I think you have very much misunderstood Pope Benedict XVI’s biography and the nature of the post that he held. In a hierarchical structure, somebody has to enforce the rules, to play the heavy. The good ones hate to do it and you have to keep persuading them to stick it out. Cardinal Ratzinger begged permission to leave his post at the CDF twice and was denied each time. Plenty of people would have wanted that post but the Pope personally refused his good friend on those occasions.
    Once he was freed of his *obligation* to be the heavy, B16 has had a very light touch on disciplinary issues, preferring to ask questions and lead the problem children to a better discernment of what should be done. This has surprised many in the West who thought that the obligations of the job reflected the personality of the job holder.
    Svend – Ecumenism is a very broad subject and ecumenism is certainly *not* limited to Catholicism/Islam. B16′s proposal to reorganize the structure of the Church to create new western patriarchs for instance is a profoundly ecumenical move that will take quite some time to work through. The Church is making itself able to flex sufficiently that quite a few of our theologically nearer “separated brothers” will be able to join the new structure when the old rigidity would have made it much more difficult.
    Even in matters that directly touch on muslim countries, it’s not always about you. B16′s upcoming visit to Turkey is very much a case in point. The Ecumenical Patriarch and the Pope could change the map of the world in the space of a few short hours in an Istanbul Church. In the best, most optimistic case, one concelebrated liturgy and christianity looks very different. Orthodoxy quadruples in size, Catholicism increases by a third, and everybody changes their stationary. Professor Huntington has to go write another book.
    My view on recent Catholic/Islamic ecumenism is that John Paul II, theater man, mystic, charismatic, gave the message to muslims that we love you and God loves you. This is a good message and a strong foundation for further ecumenical progress. JP2 was a very long pope, unusually so. Even he realized towards the end that his ecumenical message of love was not enough, that something different needed to be added. B16, scholar, intellectual, professor, has a different message, not in contradiction to JP2 but building on it, that there must be a mutuality of respect, that we must stand together and reason with one another, peacefully.
    It was in that context that that long-ago barracks bull session where two soldiers of the Ottoman Sultan debated Christianity and Islam. There was a time when a christian could say such things in the Sultan’s barracks and survive the experience being little worse for wear than perhaps a short night and a sore throat from all the talking. Islam can be that mature. History has shown it.