The Pope and the Muslims

The Pope and the Muslims September 27, 2006

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.

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