Pope Benedict Controversy: Papal free speech

No hard feelings?

I’m not sure if the late Benny Hill was Catholic. I’m quite sure he wasn’t Muslim. In any event, I hope readers forgive me for using a characteristically Benny Hill phrase.

A very small and very loud minority of Muslims around the world (hopefully they won’t grow by the time this article is published) have been getting their spiritual knickers in a knot over one anecdote mentioned in a speech Pope Benedict XVI gave at a German university on 12 September 2006.

The speech takes up around 7 pages of standard print. The allegedly offensive anecdote concerns a dialogue that took place in the 14th century between a Byzantine emperor and “an educated Persian” on the subject of Christianity and Islam.

The emperor was having the discussion while the capital of his empire was under siege from Ottoman troops. In the circumstances, one would expect the emperor to regard Islam as a somewhat violent faith.

Imagine if New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark decided to invade Australia. Imagine her sending a traditional Maori army to lay siege to Canberra. Somehow I doubt John Howard (or indeed Cardinal Pell for that matter) would be extolling the peace-loving indigenous cultures across the Tasman.

The entire speech was about the relationship between reason and religion. The Pope was attempting to show that Christianity made room for the logic of Greek philosophers. He also suggested that perhaps Islam didn’t have such a strong tie to reason.

Personally, I think the Pope needs to do some more research on the matter. He might then discover that so much medieval Catholic understanding of Greek philosophy was in fact based on manuscripts and commentaries collated and written by Arab scholars, both Muslim and Jewish.

Indeed, the Koran is filled with passages calling upon us to ponder over the wonders of the universe and the wonders within ourselves which point to the existence of a Creator. The Koran appeals to our reasoning and logic in its treatment of numerous doctrinal controversies.

But that’s religion for you. Christianity and Islam are two Abrahamic monotheistic faiths. They insist they alone are sole repositories of absolute truth. They want to share that truth with the rest of us, and compete with each other to gain converts. From time to time, their leaders talk about each other’s faiths.

That’s religion. And that’s life. At least it should be.

Hysterical minority

Unfortunately, we are living in a world where some people don’t like rational discussion and debate on religion.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported on Tuesday 19 September 2006 of around 150 people gathering in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city. They decided to hold a loud protest and burn effigies of the Pope. Apart from sore throats and used matches, it’s unclear exactly what their protest achieved. It certainly didn’t further the cause of what the protestors believed was Islam’s theological supremacy over Christianity.

Thankfully, the balance of Basra’s 3 million other people decided not to turn upto the march. Though things weren’t as peaceful in other parts of the world. In Somalia, a failed state wracked by civil war, suicide bombers failed to kill the President. However, gunmen did manage to kill a Catholic nun while she was attending to sick Muslims in a Mogadishu hospital.

Then there were attacks on four churches in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians attacking Christians? It makes no sense. Palestinian Christians like Dr Hanan Ashrawi have worked tirelessly to ensure that the plight of Palestinians (most of whom are Muslim) is given maximum international attention. Christians have always played a constructive role in Palestinian society.

On 18 September 2006, Australian Radio National’s AM program broadcast a disturbing interview with Father Peter Madros who is responsible for Catholic churches across the West Bank.

Well, it’s not just the church burning, it’s hearts burning, it’s minds burning, or actually minds burning so much that at the end there is no mind anymore… This is the very thing that his holiness had denounced, mainly violence in the name of religion. And here you go, it is in order to react to his criticism that you exactly apply what he had actually criticised. I don’t think this is very smart… Of course we fear not because Muslims are Muslims, but simply because, in either side, and especially on the Muslim side this time at least, you have fanatic people who are anything but reasonable. It’s enough to have just one of them. But the Palestinian Authority seems very, very keen on not having such drastic effects.

Given the devastating effects of Israeli incursions and bombardments, one would expect Palestinians of all faiths to be working together to rebuild their communities. Instead, a small group of extremists are throwing Molotov cocktails into churches in a region regarded as sacred by both Christians and Muslims.

And all because of one paragraph from a philosophical discussion by the Pope. The same Pope who has in recent times used his authority to call for the international community to protect the rights of Palestinians, and who has been critical of Israel’s incursions into both Palestinian territories and Lebanon.

I guess the words of the Prophet Muhammad mean little to those committing atrocities against Christians. The Prophet promised that on the Day of Judgment he would personally testify against anyone who committed even the most minor injustice against a non-Muslim citizen of a Muslim state. Such warnings mean little to those who can only express their faith through violence.

Australian responses ᠃tholic & Muslim

Thankfully, Muslim leaders in Australia (both those appointed by Muslims themselves and those appointed by the Prime Minister) have been far more restrained in their comment. The chairman of the Prime Minister’s hand-picked Muslim Community Reference Group recently said that Muslims should behave magnanimously and accept the Pope’s apology.

His comments were echoed by Melbourne lawyer and Islamic Council of Victoria spokesman Waleed Aly, who also addressed certain comments made by Sydney Catholic Archbishop Cardinal George Pell.

The Pope’s comments on Islam were nowhere near as provocative as those made on numerous occasions by Cardinal Pell. In the past, Pell has suggested that Islam may have difficulty fitting into democratic pluralist societies, and that the Koran seemed to promote violence. He delivered a lengthy speech on the topic in Florida in February 2006.

Pell is entitled to his opinions. He has invited Muslims to provide some explanation of the relationship between Islam and violence. However, before doing so, it is important for Muslims to understand where the Cardinal is coming from.

I took the opportunity of asking the Cardinal about his comments concerning the Koran. Our discussion took place on the evening of 14 August 2006 following the Big Ideas Forum organised by the Centre for Independent Studies.

Cardinal Pell acknowledged that he had not read the Koran in its original Arabic text and that he was not conversant in Arabic. He was forced to rely on a translation, and could not remember the name of the translator. I listed a number of translations for him, but he could only identify the translation as being a Penguin edition.

(I note that the notes to his Florida speech refer to the Arberry translation.)

I then asked the Cardinal which authors he relied on most to understand the Koran. To my surprise, the only name he mentioned was that of Bat Ye’or (Giselle Littman), an aggressively anti-Muslim author and proponent of the “Eurabia” conspiracy theory which claims European nations have virtually lost their identity to pro-Arab policies and from militant Muslim migrants.

Littman also plays a leading role in the film “Islam: What the West Needs To Know”. The film’s message, as described on its website, is as follows: “Islam is a violent, expansionary ideology that seeks the destruction or subjugation of other faiths, cultures, and systems of government.” The film also claims Islam teaches its followers to lie and deceive others with a view to hiding and sugar-coating their true and nefarious agenda.

There are numerous authors Cardinal Pell could consult, including Catholic scholars of Islam from private Catholic universities (such as Georgetown University in Washington). Within Australia there are numerous authorities on the Koran, including Professor Antony Johns of the Australian National University.

Instead of relying on the works of experts, the good Cardinal chooses to rely on a writer seeking to prove that all Muslims are inherently violent, that Islam has no role to play in Europe and that Muslims are plotting to take over Europe.

Whether Pell shares the views of Ms Littman remains to be seen. His colleague, Cardinal Edward Clancy, spoke in more measured tones during a forum held in Sydney and organised by the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta.

Cardinal Clancy reminded his mixed audience of Catholics and Muslims that the Church had only recently come to terms with some 2,000 years of persecution of European Jews. He also spoke of over a century of sectarian prejudice against Catholics in Australia. He said Catholics should show empathy to Muslims now facing similar prejudice

Our responsibilities to Christian minorities

Muslim minorities living in the West should also feel empathy with Christian minorities living in Muslim-majority states. We should be pained when we read about churches being firebombed and Christians being attacked by Muslims claiming to be defending the honour of Islam.

In January, the Australia-Indonesia Institute sent me with a group of 4 other Aussie Muslims to Indonesia. That trip included a visit to a private Protestant university in Yogyakarta, that gorgeous Javanese town recently rocked by earthquakes and living in the shadow of a rather nasty volcano.

The students and staff at this university were all members of a religious minority in the world’s largest Muslim country. I couldn’t help but notice these Indonesians expressing virtually the same concerns Muslims express in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and other Western countries.

If Western Muslims aren’t concerned about the plight of Christian minorities in nominally Muslim countries like Indonesia, they shouldn’t expect anyone to care about their problems in the West. Further, Muslims have strong theological reasons to act in this case.

With that in mind, here are some practical suggestions for Western Muslims:

  1. Imams and Presidents of all local mosques contact and offer support to their local Catholic clergy.
  2. All peak Muslim bodies should write letters to embassies of all member-states of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) demanding their governments take all necessary steps to protect Christian churches and other property and to bring to justice anyone who so much as threatens Christian civilians and property.
  3. The Boards of Imams of each state, province, locality in all Western countries should write to their equivalent boards in each province or state of each OIC state and (unless it be deemed in some cases to breach anti-terror laws) to each Islamic party and remind them of their religious and legal responsibilities toward Christian minorities.
  4. Prominent and wealthy Western Muslims should sponsor full-page advertisements in as many English-language dailies published in OIC states as possible. These advertisements should remind Muslim readers of the extensive religious and legal duties Muslims have toward their Christian brethren.

These are just some of the things that come to mind. I’m sure there are more suggestions readers might come up with.

Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer and writer based in Sydney, Australia. He is also an occasional lecturer at the School of Politics at Sydney’s Macquarie University. He can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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