What Pope Benedict XVI actually said was vastly overshadowed by the Islamic reaction to one line from a lengthy, intellectually complex speech given on September 12 at the University of Regensburg, Germany.
We know by now that the Islamic response was to burn Catholic and Christian churches throughout the Middle East and, in one case, to shoot a nun in the back, killing someone who had labored more than three decades as a nurse to serve the poor in Africa.
Nothing more perfectly frames the real issue at stake. Islam cannot and will not accept anything other than the surrender and domination of all other faiths. For Islam, it is either dar al’Islam or dar al’harb. The latter translates the world of war.
For those too squeamish to address this too obvious fact, Islam has been at war with the West since its inception and, in the modern era, most actively since the 1970s.
Its war with the Hindus in India dates back and beyond that nation’s independence and the partitioning that led about the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh as places of separation for Muslims. That said, a sizeable Muslim population continues to live in India and, not surprisingly, whenever there is a bombing in Mumbai or something ugly occurs in Kashmir, you don’t have to look far to know who did it.
The reaction of Muslims living in Paris and other urban centers in France was to devote themselves for weeks to burning cars and other mayhem when they became incensed and, in London, native-born Muslims of Pakistani descent so no reason why they shouldn’t kill their countrymen on buses and in the subways of London.
To this day, there are Americans so frightened of the notion of a holy war—a Jihad—against the United States (and the West) that they cannot bring themselves to accept the fact that it was Muslims who hijacked four commercial jets and flew two of them into the Twin Towers and one into the Pentagon in 2001.
Instead, they embrace ludicrous conspiracy theories that the Bush administration did it. In the Middle East and elsewhere, Muslims are so convinced that Arabs could not have been smart enough to pull off 9/11 that it is widely believed that it was done by Jews. Strangely, despite Osama bin Laden’s many efforts to take credit, they don’t even want to believe him!
So, what did the Pope say? With supreme irony, his speech was devoted to faith and reason. Suffice it say, this Pope is an intellectual, a man deeply interested in questions regarding the exercise of both faith and reason.
The words of his lengthy presentation that led to the usual rioting with which we most associate the Middle East, but no longer limited to it, were a quote from the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus as he engaged in a dialogue with “an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.”
The discussion took place around 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara. It was the emperor who wrote down the account of the discussion during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402.
In the account of the seventh conversation, the Pope notes that the emperor “touches upon the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256, reads: ‘There is no compulsion in religion,’” but as the Pope pointed out, “According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat.”
Later surahs, however, reflect a very different point of view, and the Pope quotes the emperor who wrote “Show me just what Mohammad brought that was new, and there you find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
“Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul,” said the Pope, extrapolating on what the emperor from so long ago had observed. An emperor who said, “God is not pleased by blood and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body.”
“Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats,” said Emperor Paleologus. “To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”
History demonstrates that Islam was spread rather swiftly after the death of Muhammad in 632 AD and that was accomplished as much by the sword as by any other means. Those who refused to accept Muhammad as the new prophet of the new god he proclaimed frequently found their heads separated from their body. Even today, Islam’s prescribed punishment for apostasy or adopting another faith is death.
It was this resort to historic violence the Pope was addressing and the Islamic response was violence.
There are layers of irony in both the Pope’s speech and the Islamic response because Benedict XVI is the leader of a Church known for its orthodoxy and he was an enforcer of that orthodoxy in a former Vatican role. The speech was a fascinating and powerful call for reason as an essential component of faith.
Suffice it to say it is a speech that only an intellectual could deliver and only an intellectual—someone devoted to the world of ideas, free expression, and the truth—could or would read in full and in depth. Towards the end, the Pope said, “The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby.”
The rational response to the violence of Islam these days is to fight it, to suppress it, to insure that it does not overwhelm and destroy the great triumph of the West that has given us the Renaissance, the Reformation, scientific inquiry, and all the many advances that have brought advanced societies into the modern era.
A Western civilization that will not recognize the essential role that Judaism and Christianity played in its development and will not defend its faith in these religions and the right of other faiths to exist unthreatened, will fall victim to the irrationality and violence of Islam, and the light of reason will be turned off.