Catholic-Muslim relations: The Pope offers lessons for Islamic reform

On-the-job training?

In a couple of weeks it will have been a year since Pope Benedict XVI delivered the infamous Regensberg lecture that caused such an international uproar. In the year since the lecture, the issue has been politicized to no end by the Western right who are hoping to further inflame the absurdity of the clash of civilizations. It has also been relied upon by Muslim extremists to turn all of the West into a seething mass of Crusaders. My position is that what should have been an important debate about the role of reason in reducing religious violence went haywire when the Pope tried to score cheap points for Christianity.  The lessons he has learned from that mistake, however, signal a silver lining for Christians and Muslims alike.

In his speech the Pope was looking for a way to make Christianity consonant with reasonableness. He therefore needed someone in the past to have said something pro-violence so he could then strike them down by saying that violence was contrary to reason. This would then be followed up by saying that Christianity had always been consistent with reason.

But if you are the head of the Catholic Church trying to take an anti-violence position, and you survey the last two thousand years trying to find some pro-violence people to smack down, you can’t escape the fact that for nineteen centuries your own institution was the face of violence in the world. You can’t escape the reality that your institution trademarked such practices as the Inquisition, Jew killing, witch-burning, slavery, and colonialism. You can’t escape the fact that no matter how much you talk about reason today, you have spilled a lot of blood. As Steve Tompkins points out, even if the Church really did believe in reason, history shows that “reason told it that swords were a pretty damn good idea.” So, as the Pope, how are you supposed to affirm the superiority of your institution with such a legacy, much less make it appear as if your institution was always anti-violence?

Well, you do what your institution has always done: you make Islam your fanatical doppleganger, the Venom to your Spiderman.

Enter Manuel II, a forgotten Byzantine emperor. He comes into your speech out of left field, and starts spouting off about “evil” and “inhuman” Islam. Quoting him you convince yourself that you were never evil or inhuman yourself. Violent? Us? No way, you say. It was always “they” – those people of Muhammad – who acted like savages. We on the other hand were always logical logocentric logicians full of love. Thus freed from having to address the sins of your own institution you can easily spout beatific words like “reason” and “freedom” and “enlightenment.”

The Pope went onto to lay down more detailed proof of Muslim anti-rationality (not to prove the point, but to categorically free Christianity from being ridiculed for its own anti-rational history), and thought that by discussing one of Islam’s pre-eminent theologians would be the way to go.

Enter “Ibn Hazn” – whose name I put in quotes because there was no such person in history (there was, however, an Ibn Hazm). The Pope first completely misconsrued Ibn Hazm’s views on theology – blowing an opportunity to see how much of a rationalist Hazm really was. Then without quoting anything meaningful from Hazm, the Pope, in his own words no less, posited a multitude of nefarious things about the God of Islam. Allah was rendered treacherous (“God is not bound by his words”), deceitful (“nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth”), irrational (“his will is not bound up with…rationality”), and evil (“not even bound to truth and goodness). By turning someone else’s divinity into the paragon of negativity, Benedict XVI was able to free Christ – in whose name so much violence was sanctioned – from accountability at the altar of history.

Everything the Pope did up to this point was shameful and wrong. Christianity has been as anti-rational as any other organized religion. It really serves no purpose to try to “spin” one’s way out of the legacy of the faith by pointing to the history of another. The Pope didn’t deserve the violence he evoked, no one did, least of all those who were killed by extremist Muslims; but the Pope did deserve much of the scorn.

But then, Benedict XVI did something surprising.

Just a few days later, when the world speculated whether or not the he had apologized, Benedict XVI shook off the latently anti-Muslim conditioning that had colored his lecture and refreshingly, changed his perspective completely; his about-face demonstrating to Christian and Muslim alike that one can de-condition his own prejudices and become a force for reconciliation and unity.

In an address to the Muslims of Cologne, which came shortly after his Regensberg lecture, the Pope concluded with hopeful words, reflecting none of the enmity of his earlier speech: “Christians and Muslims, we must face together the many challenges of our time. There is no room for apathy and disengagement, and even less for partiality and sectarianism. We must not yield to fear or pessimism. Rather, we must cultivate optimism and hope. Interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is in fact a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends.”

There are lessons in this de-conditioning – by the head of Christianity no less – for the Muslim world, vast parts of which have become incredibly averse to any minority religion, and casually persecute religious minorities. The lesson is this: there is no one who is above modifying and correcting his behavior, not even someone purportedly infallible. One can be as hardline, as orthodox, as rigid as one wants, but if those views exist in the service of animus, they should be abandoned.

The Pope is one of the few Western leaders who is recognized as legitimate by Muslims across every spectrum and nation. If he would honestly and painstakingly discuss the manner in which his change of heart took place, Muslims would learn from it. His openness might even convince British Muslims to stop trying to use a “collaboration” with the Pope as a way to “check” homosexuality and “defeat” relativism (see how low British Muslims think of the Pope that he is invoked only when exclusion is the order of business). His ability to raise the stature of any leader whom he has international convocations with could give much needed breath and media exposure to a reform movement in Islam.

The Muslim world itself is as cognizant of the authority of the Papacy as the most conservative Catholics. To the Muslim world, the Pontificate represents the Christian equivalent of the Caliph, or the Amir ul Mumineen (Commander of the Faithful). By casting their own longings for a single titular head onto Christianity, Muslims indirectly allot to the Pope the kind of authority that the Church wishes it received from Christians in Europe. In other words, while in the West the Pope may be in constant competition with his Protestant critics, in the Muslim world, the Pope is the be-all and end-all of Christianity. This is an important point worth getting into. Consider this: in recent years there has been no shortage of Protestant leaders deriding, mocking, and vilifying Islam. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have often made patronizing remarks towards Islam, and have even directly insulted the Prophet. Even evangelical leaders, generals and bureaucrats have made anti-Islam remarks, all the way from suggesting that Mecca should be nuked, to that Muslims should be converted to Christianity by force. Yet at no point during these remarks did Muslims worldwide give the kind of response (or any response for that matter) as they did when Pope Benedict said something negative of Islam (in a scholastic speech of all places). This makes the essential point that in the Muslim world there is only one representative of Christianity, and it is the Pope. Neo-Conservatism, headed by George Bush, never commanded this kind of recognition in the Muslim world. It was seen as a bastardized version of colonialism and immediately distrusted. As such, any intervention from it was deemed by Muslims immediately suspect. On the other hand, Muslims are less likely to believe that the Pontiff is, or needs to, engage in geo-political posturing, or is driven by a lust for oil. As such, when the Pontiff puts forward his version of a compassionate global conservatism, he has a greater chance of being believed.

On the other hand, if the Pope engages in more chicanery he’ll become indistinguishable from the supremacist mullahs of the world. That is hardly something we need more of.

Ali Eteraz is a free-lance writer and essayist. He is also the founder of States of Islam.

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