Whoops, a pontiff
The Pope is innocent of charges of stirring up hatred against Islam.
Friday 15 September 2006
Poor old Pope Benedict XVI (not a description I thought I'd ever use) seems to have inflamed some excitable sections of Muslim opinion around the world with his ruminations to scientists at Regensburg University during his trip to Germany this week.
He's not the first elderly academic inadvertently to stir up outrage with what he thought were innocent remarks and, in the modern digital age, he certainly won't be the last, but on this occasion at least I think he's innocent of the charges of stirring up hatred against Islam being made against him.
It is difficult to believe that those making the claims, who include the Muslim Brotherhood, the Pakistan parliament, Sheikh Youssef al-Qardawi (a fine one to feel insulted, given what he says about Jews), the Organisation of Islamic Conferences and a senior religious official in Turkey, can possibly have read the remarks in full or in their proper context.
But as we know, that doesn't stop anyone these days from being outraged or affronted by what they think has been said, or are prepared to believe, or wish to interpret, or misinterpret, or just don't understand. The words go round the world - actually rather slowly in this case since the speech was made on Tuesday and the response didn't crank up until Thursday.
Pope Benedict must have thought he was making a scholarly lecture to his old university, where he was a professor and vice-rector between 1969 and 1971. It was a reflection on faith and reason, not unlike some of the speeches of that other scholarly religious leader Archbishop Rowan Williams. Provocative? No. Sensational? Hardly. Predictable? Maybe.
In the course of it Benedict quoted from a dialogue recorded about the year 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara of the Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, who as I am sure you all know was an educated Persian, on the subject of Christianity and Islam and the truth of both.
It took old Manuel's words a mere 600-odd years to spread abroad, thanks to a recently edited edition by Professor Theodore Khoury of Munster, and the passage which caused offence was not even central to his discussion, but there you go.
In the context of a reflection on the connection between religion and violence - Manuel, surely unexceptionably for modern susceptibilities, if not perhaps for those of his contemporaries, was on the whole convinced that religious belief could not be enforced by violence. That, he said, was unreasonable and incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.
He added apparently: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
Benedict's offence, of course, was recklessly to quote this 600 year-old expression of the point of view of a medieval Middle Eastern potentate. He didn't endorse it, didn't say that it was his own view, attributed it in context. And is now told that he has "aroused the anger of the whole Islamic world". Most of which, probably, had never heard of Manuel II Paleologue before this morning. Perhaps the pope should be careful of bringing such subversive ancient texts to light.
On the other hand, if you cannot, as part of a lengthy and profound academic lecture, cite a 600 year-old text for fear of stirring the aggravation of noisy politicians half way around the world, what CAN you do? We might as well all retreat into obscurantism. And keep our mouths shut, for otherwise, who knows who we might offend. And if, as a result of the outrage, some Catholics get killed or their churches burned down by offended scholars and textual exegesists it might be thought that Manuel's original point had rather been made.