Benedict XVI's Statement on Islam and Reason
The Mistakes of the Pope and the Mistakes of the Muslims

Both Pope Benedikt XVI and the Muslims made some mistakes in their recent skirmish. But now it's time to forgive and forget, since Christians and Muslims have much more important challenges ahead, writes media scholar Khaled Hroub

Pope Benedict XVI (photo: AP)
Critical thinking about religious matters should not only be allowed, but expressly encouraged, says Khaled Hroub - "because it is the only way that religions and ideologies can continuously renew themselves"

​​The speech the Pope gave at the University of Regensburg included many mistakes, in terms of content, context, time and place.

On the other hand, many errors can also be found in the reaction of the Muslims to this incident: in the style of their criticism, the level on which the objections were lodged, and the non-acceptance of the Pope's regrets.

On the level of content, the Pope's error was that, when talking about the relationship of Islam and reason, he denied that Islam submits itself to reason.

Another example of poor judgment was the Pope's quote from the Byzantine ruler Manuel II, who believed that the prophet of Islam had brought only evil and inhumanity, spreading the faith by means of the sword.

A well-read intellectual, the Pope surely knows that, while his forerunners in the Catholic Church were caught in the Dark Ages of European Christianity, the philosophers Al-Farabi, Avicenna, al-Razi and Averroes had already taken the first steps toward a reconciliation between religion and science. Averroes formulated his theory of compatibility between reason ('aql) and tradition (nagl) centuries before the European Renaissance took place.

An old Orientalist claim

The error in content was to state that religion was spread by the sword. This is an old assertion made by the Orientalists, which has already been discussed exhaustively.

If the Pope instead had addressed the cultural exchanges that have taken place between the religions during the various epochs, he would have encouraged Muslims to profit from today's Western culture, just as the West benefited from Islamic culture in the past.

The Pope mentioned these points in the context of the compatibility of Christianity with rationality, negating a similar compatibility in the case of Islam. This leads to the conclusion that rationality and modernity are the exclusive province of European Christians. Only they could be at the same time modern and Christian.

The Muslims, by contrast, supposedly have to make a choice between an irrational religion and a rational modern world. Reconciling both would be impossible.

Dangerous terrain

The upshot of this line of thinking not only deepens the gulf between the cultures, but also waves the banner of religious war, because what it ultimately says is: our faith is better than your faith, because our faith goes hand in hand with civilization! You have no other choice but to renounce your religion!

This is dangerous terrain, which the Islamic/Christian dialogue and the religious dialogue in general have always tried to avoid, endeavoring instead to argue various points based on mutual respect, irrespective of what one religion thinks of the other.

The gravest error, however, was the point of time the Pope chose to hold his speech, because it comes during a period in which the climate of tension between Islam and the West has reached an all-time high. Hatred of the others is widespread in both religions.

The Islamic world is going through an extremely critical phase at the moment. The majority of the Muslim population is convinced that there is deliberate Western aggression against Islamic countries and against the interests of the Muslim peoples. Most believe that Western troops or forces allied with them are attacking and occupying countries in the Muslim regions and murdering their inhabitants, and not vice-versa.

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that the Pope's speech was held almost to a day on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. The statements voiced in Regensburg thus only further stress the impression of a modern religious clash between civilizations.

The choice of location was also poorly made. The Pope held his talk before the public and not in the backrooms where theological and academic discussions commonly take place, where unrestricted religious disputation is not only possible, but even necessary.

No ban on religious criticism

But sensitive religious topics that have the potential to enrage millions should not be discussed in an open forum. Unless, of course, an open attack is intended.

Veiled Muslim women protesting the Pope's controversial comments on Islam (photo: AP)
Khaled Hroub: "Attacks on churches in some Islamic countries, the murder of a nun in Somalia and the burning of Christian symbols only serve to indirectly confirm the suspicions against Islam implicit in the Pope's utterances"

​​This does not mean, however, that critical thinking about religious matters should be prohibited. It should not only be allowed, but expressly encouraged, because it is the only way that religions and ideologies can continuously renew themselves and be reconciled with our changing lives.

And what mistakes did the Muslims make? In terms of content, the problem is that few Muslims presumably bothered to read the complete text of the Pope's speech, judging by their reactions and commentaries.

The great majority of the responses do not come up to the philosophical level of the Pope's discussion, but instead suffice themselves with insults, accusing the Pope of expressing animosity toward Islam and being part of the American and Zionist conspiracy.

The speech given by the Pope is a significant statement, in effect challenging Muslim scholars and philosophers to come up with an adequate response. Now it is their turn to take the floor, and not the radical ignoramuses who can offer nothing better than ranting and threats.

As far as style is concerned, the poorly calibrated, aggressive verbal reactions reflect prevailing public opinion in many Islamic countries, as does the violence that broke out in some of them.

Most at fault for the verbal escalation of the Muslim responses to the Pope are the Islamic scholars and key personalities from the Islamist movements and the media.

A disgrace for Muslims and Islam

The political leaders in some Islamic countries also did their part, even outdoing the Islamist movements in their fury. This is a disgrace for the Muslims and for Islam.

Attacks on churches in some Islamic countries, the murder of a nun in Somalia and the burning of Christian symbols only serve to indirectly confirm the suspicions against Islam implicit in the Pope's utterances.

The Islamic reaction was not sophisticated enough to pose a true challenge to the Pope's claims. The response was not based on Islamic tolerance, the principle that could provide the Muslims with the best defense since the Pope neglected to mention it in his speech. The reaction was instead aggressive and intolerant.

This resulted in exaggerated demands. The first demand was that the Pope should apologize for his words. The Vatican replied by expressing his regrets in an explanatory letter, which stated that it had not been the Pope's intention to insult the Muslims.

Shortsighted demand

The Pope then expressed his regrets for a second time, because the quote from the Byzantine ruler was offensive to the Muslims' feelings. The Pope stated that he did not personally stand behind the gist of this quote, that he respected Islam, considered it to be a great religion and held the Muslims in high esteem.

Regardless of whether the Pope was being honest here or not, the Muslims did not accept his retraction – a further mistake. They demanded a clear apology.

The Pope's regrets must suffice, however, because the demand for an apology is like asking the Pope to renounce his ideas and convictions. But he does not believe that Islam is the true religion. So why should he apologize?

Would it be conceivable for Islamic scholars to apologize for not believing in Christianity and Judaism as the true religions? These are convictions, for which one cannot apologize.

An apology was demanded for hurting others' feelings, for making assertions in the wrong place, at the wrong time and in the wrong style. And this is the apology the Pope offered.

Now, the Muslims should accept this and close the case. There are many thousands of cases that are much more important and which demand the attention of both Muslims and Christians, particularly in these trying times. These are the matters that will determine whether the future is a peaceful or a bloody one.

Khaled Hroub

© 2006

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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