The reaction of many on the Arab street to Pope Benedict XVI’s quotation of a medieval text, which was critical of Islam for its history of violence, has raised new doubts about the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Outraged by the perceived slight, angry Muslims have called for the Pope’s execution, burned him in effigy, bombed Christian churches, and—the evidence suggests—shot a Catholic nun in Somalia (whose dying words were "I forgive, I forgive"). Such a response undermines the characterization of Islam as a "religion of peace" and reinforces the notion that it is a religion that spreads at the point of a sword or the barrel of a gun.
The Pope was on a pastoral trip to his native Germany when he gave the lecture that has caused the international ruckus. The speech was not actually about Islam; it merely touched on the Muslim religion briefly before launching into a much larger discussion about the limitations of secularism and the importance of reason in the Christian faith. His speech was a serious challenge to Western secularists who think faith is irrational. If anything, Benedict probably thought his lecture would anger those atheists and agnostics whom he clearly challenges, but instead Muslims are protesting his words.
The protests erupted because the Pope began his talk by quoting a medieval conversation between Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a learned Persian. Benedict quoted the emperor, who "brusquely" said, "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 then discussed how "the emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul."
The violent response to the Pope’s remarks is not an isolated incident. It comes within a year of the Danish cartoon fracas that, by the time it was over, produced well over a hundred deaths. It also comes within a month of the release of Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig of Fox News, who were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint. Similar incidents abound. Names like Salman Rushdie and Theo van Gogh come immediately to mind. All of these names and events raise larger questions: in general, does the Muslim world have respect for the indispensable pillars of democracy—freedom of speech and freedom of religion?
This is much more than an academic debate. Current U.S. policy is predicated on the fact that, given the opportunity, the Muslim world will embrace democracy. Yet over and over we see a vocal segment of the Muslim population attempting to limit speech and impose religion. Indeed, Islamic religious leaders commonly issue a fatwa, or a legal decree, when someone says something they consider blasphemous. A fatwa has been issued in Iran for the deaths of Salman Rushdie and Jerry Falwell, for example. When religious leaders have the power to condemn men and women to death for statements deemed to be blasphemous, what hope is there for freedom of religion or freedom of speech? Can democracy really flourish in the Muslim world?
While freedom of speech isn’t a reality in some countries, it is a reality in America, and we should use it to join Benedict in asking tough questions: Is the relationship between faith and reason as strong in Islam as it is in Christianity? Are forced conversions ever legitimate? Is the use of violence to support the expansion of religion unreasonable? To what extent is honest inquiry and dissent permissible under Islamic law? The list of questions could run very long. Muslims in America, who enjoy freedom of speech and religion, should be in the vanguard of those participating in the dialogue.
Despite these many unresolved questions, America is moving full steam ahead with efforts to democratize the Muslim world. At the same time, a number of Muslim scholars abroad are arguing that Western democracy is simply incompatible with Islam and Sharia law. Perhaps they are right, perhaps they are wrong, but regardless we should not ignore them. We should listen as they describe the possibilities and limitations in their own religion. We may find some of the answers disappointing and inconvenient, but it will be much better in the long run to work with Islamic self-understanding rather than deluding ourselves by imagining that Muslims are eager to embrace Western democracy.
We are told that the vast majority of Muslims would embrace liberal democracy if given the opportunity. Perhaps they have been intimidated into silence by extreme elements of their co-religionists. If so, we in the West would do well to encourage them to find their voice, and to urge them to speak up and prevent the extremists from projecting a vision of Islam that is incompatible with democratic ideals. If Islam is a religion of peace, if the majority of Muslims reject violence and support freedom of religion and speech, they should make their voices heard. Too often terrorist attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam are followed by the silence of those who would have us believe Islam rejects such acts. Democracy stands no chance of flourishing in the Middle East until a chorus of Muslim voices reject terrorism and embrace the notions of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Until then, we should join the Pope in asking tough questions, and we should insist on honest answers.