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  • What the Pope Should Have Said to the Islamic World
  • Rosemary Radford Ruether

On September 12 Pope Benedict XVI aroused the fury of the Islamic world with a speech given at the University of Regensburg in which he assailed the Muslim concept of holy war as a violation of God's will and nature. The Pope quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, who derided Islam and the Prophet Muhammad for introducing 'things only inhuman and evil', such as spreading the faith by the sword. The Pope held up (Catholic) Christianity, by contrast, as a model religion that promoted a 'profound encounter of faith and reason'.

Why would the Pope choose to use such negative language about Islam? His choice of this quote seems to reflect his own conviction of the superiority of Christianity over other religions, and his belief that Islam is inferior as a religion because of its use of violence. His reservations against inter-religious dialogue have also led him to downgrade his advisors in this area, particularly in relation to Islam and to fail to consult with them on speeches which he prefers to write himself.

Clearly Benedict was taken by surprise by the depth of the reaction to these words. What he failed to understand was that these words did not merely suggest violence in Islam is a distortion by some groups, but rather than it is essential to Islam, that it is rooted in the teachings of Muhammad himself. It was this reference to the Prophet himself as bringing 'things only evil and inhuman' that was so deeply offensive to Muslims. Imagine if a Muslim were to say that Jesus founded an evil religion, teaching 'things only evil and inhuman'! But a Muslim would not say such a thing, because, for them, Jesus is a great prophet, while for Christians Muhammad has no place [End Page 127] as a religious leader.

These words set off a firestorm in the Islamic world. Unfortunately when western Christians position Christianity as hostile to Islam, some Muslims take this to include all Christians, including local Arab Christians. Embattled and dwindling groups of Christians, in areas such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine, become scapegoats for anger against the western Christian world. So the reaction to the Pope's words included firebombs directed at several Palestinian churches in the West Bank and Gaza, not just Catholic churches but Anglican and Orthodox. It is this connection between good relations between the Vatican and Islam and protection of Middle Eastern Christians which the previous pope understood and Benedict seems to have forgotten.

Some Muslim writers responded by reminding the Pope of the evil history of Christian crusades. Although Western Christians may think the crusades are ancient history, these medieval wars in which Christian crusaders slaughtered Muslims and established crusader states in Palestine are vivid memories for Muslims. Current Western threats against Islam and invasions of Islamic countries, such as Iraq, are seen as a continuation of the crusades. The US and other Western nations who promote such wars are regularly referred to as 'crusaders' in the Muslim press.

The Pope's words condemning Islam and the Prophet for holy war, while holding up Christianity as if a model of the union of 'faith and reason', innocent of any such warlike tendencies, has infuriated Muslims and deeply damaged Catholic-Muslim relations. In using a Byzantine emperor to assail Islam, the Pope also failed to reckon with the fact that the Fourth Crusade (1201-4), called by Pope Innocent III, was diverted into an assault on the capital of the Byzantine empire, Constantinople. The Crusaders pillaged and occupied the city, leading to a weakening of the Byzantine world and its eventual fall to the Muslims. The negative words of a 14th century Byzantine emperor against Islam reflects this embattled historical context.

Although the Vatican has not invited me to be a papal speech writer, I would like to suggest what the Pope should have said about holy war that would have won Muslim good will and opened up new dialogue between these embattled worlds. The Pope might have opened with some generalities deploring the current state of war and violence...


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pp. 127-129
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2009
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