Recently Pope Benedict came under vehement criticism from leaders of Muslim countries for his comments regarding the prophet Mohammed and Islam.
The pope, a former professor of Regenburg University in Germany, gave a lecture entitled, “Faith, Reason and Universality”, to a welcoming crowd of 25,000 people as well as those who watched it on live television. The main theme of the lecture was that reason and rationality should define the nature of religion, not violence.
In his lecture, the Pope referred to criticism of the Prophet Mohammed by 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus in a conversation between the Emperor and a Persian scholar on the truths of Christianity and Islam.
“The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war,” the Pope said. “He said, I quote, ‘Show me just what Muhammad 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.’” The full text of the Pope’s lecture can be read here.
The reaction to the Pope’s statement was swift and critical:
“The Pope has thrown gasoline onto the fire in a world where the risk of a religious clash is high,” Kaluk Koc, deputy leader of Turkey’s nationalist Republican People’s Party said.
“The pope’s words have caused a deep wound in the hearts of Muslims that won’t heal for a long time, and then only after a clear apology to Muslims,” Egypt’s religious affairs minister, Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, wrote in a column in the government daily Al-Ahram on Monday.
Responding to the demands for an apology, Pope Benedict issued a statement regretting the reaction to his speech but not going far enough, in the opinion of many Muslims, to apologize or retract for the specific comment regarding Islam being a religion based on spreading its faith by the sword. Vatican representatives around the world have been called upon to meet with Muslim leaders to explain the pope’s perspective and full context of his speech in order to defuse tensions.
In an interesting twist of irony, radical Islamic groups, protesting the Pope’s reference to a historical negative characterization of Islam as being a faith coerced upon people by violence, issued their own statements of “God’s rule” over “all people and nations” which is to be achieved by continued jihad until “God avails us to chop your necks”. Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that those who would “benefit from the pope’s comments” should be “targeted with attacks and protests.” Predictably, al-Qaeda threatened to “smash the cross”, armed groups in Iraq threatened the Vatican and a hardline cleric in Somalia called upon Muslims to “hunt down” and kill the Pope.
While warning the West that the pontiff’s statement and lack of what they considered to be an acceptable apology would fuel the fire of religious hatred, it didn’t seem to occur to some Muslim leaders that their own verbal rhetoric could be used to validate violent actions upon Christians. Seven churches in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were firebombed and a nun in Somalia killed.
The irony of being offended by the reference of Islam being forced upon people by violence was emphasized by the recent forced conversion to Islam by kidnapped Fox Reporters Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig as a condition of their release. Their captors told them that they had to “convert to Islam or die.”
Reaction to the Pope’s apology was mixed. On one hand, Turkish minister Mehmet Aydin, pointed out that, “You either have to say this ‘I’m sorry’ in a proper way, or not say it at all,” he said. “Are you sorry for saying such a thing, or because of its consequences?” Conversely, the second most senior leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood said he accepted the clarification. And certainly not all Muslims misunderstood the context of the Pope’s comments and therefore did not see a need for an apology.
Does a religious leader speaking in an academic context have an obligation to apologize for references to historical statements used to illustrate his points that all religions should be based on a reasoned, rational approach rather than violence? Should an apology be necessary if the hearer misunderstands the context or worse, doesn’t bother about context at all? Vatican secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone claimed the pope?s words had been taken out of context and ?heavily manipulated?.
One can make the argument that the Pope didn’t exercise tact in his choice of historical references but poorly chosen words do not validate an aggressive, even violent response as if Islam had been once again assailed by repeatedly offensive comments from the same person. Particularly since this Pope cautioned the world in a Vatican Radio address in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 that, “It is important not to attribute simplistically what happened to Islam. It would be a great error”.
Those claiming to be so deeply offended by what they view as the Pope’s insult to Islam and the Prophet Mohammed that they have resorted to violent threats and actions were primed to believe the worst of anything the Pope said anyway. US and Philippine Intelligence revealed that al-Qaeda has had two known assassination plots on Pope John Paul II planned by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Since Mohammed remains at large, experts fear that it is matter of time before al-Qaeda attempts the assassination again. Whether it was Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVII, it didn’t matter since the Pope represents a “significant Vatican target” as an enemy of Islam according to radical groups such as al-Qaeda long before Pope Benedict’s lecture at Regenburg University.