A speech on "Faith, Reason and the University" would hardly seem a likely occasion to declare war on Islam. But some in the Muslim world seem to believe that Pope Benedict XVI was doing exactly that in his speech at Regensburg, Germany, last week. The pope has expressed regret that his words — actually those of a medieval Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Palaeologus — have caused hurt in the Islamic world, but the controversy shows no sign of abating.
The quotation that has sparked the outrage came from a translation of a 14th-century text, ascribed to Manuel II Palaeologus, the last Christian emperor of the Byzantine Empire, or what was left of it in 1391. In that year, Emperor Manuel II transcribed his debate with a Persian scholar in which Manuel — not Benedict — says, "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."
The pope has said that he does not share Manuel II’s view of Islam. And in the pope’s speech, he prefaces his remarks first with the admonition from the Koran, "There is no compulsion in religion," and then describes the dialogue he is about to quote from as one that reflects "a brusqueness which leaves us astounded." But these caveats have been conveniently ignored by the pope’s critics.
Very little in Pope Benedict XVI’s speech had to do with Islam. It was, instead, an erudite discursion on the rupture between reason and faith that has occurred in post-Enlightenment Christianity. Nonetheless, the pope did distinguish between Christianity’s and Islam’s understanding of the relationship between reason and faith. The pope argues that for Christianity (at least until the Reformation), reason is inextricably bound to faith. "But for Muslim teaching," Pope Benedict XVI says, "God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality."
The irony is that those who have taken most offense at the pope’s comments have responded in ways that seem to prove Manuel II’s point. Al Qaeda in Iraq has declared, "We will break up the cross, spill the liquor and impose the ‘jizya’ tax [a tax applied to non-Muslims], then the only thing acceptable is a conversion or the sword."
The Mujahedeen Shura Council, a group of Sunni extremists in Iraq, has warned, "You infidels and despots, we will continue our jihad and never stop until God avails us to chop your necks and raise the fluttering banner of monotheism, when God’s rule is established governing all people and nations."
In Iran, the top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has used the pope’s comments to call for "attacks" on "those who benefit from the pope’s comments and drive their own arrogant policies," in other words, the United States. And in Somalia, a Muslim fanatic killed a Catholic nun at a hospital in Mogadishu by shooting her in the back.
These actions hardly suggest that Christianity has declared war on Islam. Indeed, the bloodshed in Iraq between Sunni and Shiite, in Kashmir between Muslim and Hindu, the attacks of Islamist suicide bombers in Israel, England, Spain, Kenya, Bali and elsewhere, and the murderous attacks of September 11th all point to a war by Islamists on perceived infidels.
If the pope decides to give another speech in which he references Islam, perhaps he should quote from Scripture: "By their fruits, you shall know them." Islamists wage jihad on all, including other Muslims, who do not share their specific interpretation of God’s will. Christianity teaches: Judge not, unless you wish to be judged. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. He who is without sin, cast the first stone. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek.
These hardly seem like a call to war.