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A Stain on Islam

by Carlos

September 16, 2006 - Pope Benedict has incurred the wrath of the Muslim world. Reaction has been widespread and intense.

Yemen's president became the first head of state to denounce the Pope.

Morocco recalled its ambassador to the Vatican.

In Tehran, a leading ayatollah called the Pope "rude and weak-minded."

Ín Pakistan, the parliament passed a motion condemning the Pope.

In Britain, Muslim Council Secretary General Muhammad Abdul Bari accused the Pope of regurgitating the words of a bigot.

In India, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, chief cleric of India’s largest mosque, urged Muslims to "respond in a way that forces the Pope to apologize." Demonstrators burned the Pope in effigy.

In Egypt, at al-Azhar University in Cairo about 100 people demonstrated, calling Christians "infidels" and chanting "Oh Crusaders, oh cowards! Down with the Pope!" Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, Grand Sheik of the al-Azhar Mosque, the most powerful in Sunni Islam, claimed the Pope's remarks showed a "clear ignorance of Islam." The Muslim Brotherhood called on Muslim governments to cut off relations with the Vatican unless the Pope apologized personally.

In Indonesia, as many as 1,000 Muslims demonstrated against the Pope. Outside the Palestinian Embassy in Jakarta the organizer of the protest, Heri Budianto, shouted "God is great." He went on: "Of course as we know the meaning of jihad can only be understood by Muslims. Only Muslims can understand what jihad is. It is impossible that jihad can be linked with violence. We Muslims have no violent character."

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi warned: "The Pope must not take lightly the spread of outrage that has been created."

In Beirut, Lebanon, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, one of the world's leading Shiite clerics, said: "We ask him to offer a personal apology - not through his officials - to Muslims for this false reading [of Islam]."

In Turkey, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan also expressed fear of dire consequences: "The statements are ugly and unfortunate. The Pope needs to take a step back to preserve inter-religious peace." Salih Kapusuz, deputy leader of Turkey's ruling party, stated: "He has a dark mentality that comes from the darkness of the Middle Ages. He is a poor thing that has not benefited from the spirit of reform in the Christian world." And he added: "He will go down in history in the same category as leaders like Hitler and Mussolini."

In the West Bank, Christian churches were attacked with guns, firebombs, and lighter fluid, riddling the buildings with bullets and scorching the doors and walls.

In Gaza, hours after a grenade attack on a church there, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said the Pope had offended Muslims throughout the world. Thousands of Palestinians protested in Gaza City. Ismail Radwan, a Hamas official, addressed the protesters, saying: "This is another Crusader war against the Arab and Muslim world." A group calling itself the Swords of Islamic Right claimed responsibility for a shooting attack on a Christian church and threatened to blow up all churches and Christian institutions in the Gaza Strip. The group issued a statement with this warning: "What the Pope said is unforgivable. We will continue to target churches."

In Iraq, a previously unknown group posted statements at mosques in Anbar province threatening to kill Iraqi Christians in three days if the Pope did not apologize. In Basra the Assyrian Catholic Church was bombed, and a church leader said the attack came in response to the Pope's speech. One Shiite cleric compared the Pope's remarks to the offense of the cartoons of Muhammad that appeared not long ago in the Danish press. Many echoed that sentiment.

How did this all begin?

The Pope's Offense

On Tuesday the Pope delivered an address to scientists at the University of Regensburg in Germany. The theme of his lengthy address was the consistency of faith and reason. Just as reason challenges faith, faith challenges reason to expand its scope and embrace the rational structure of the universe that underlies both reason and faith. One must really read the entire address to appreciate the Pope's comments in context (see sources), though readers without a theological background may find it rough going.

The match that lit the tinderbox was a brief section at the beginning of the talk, in which the Pope quotes a dialogue between a Persian Muslim and the Byzantine Emperor that supposedly took place in the 14th century. This moment of Christian-Muslim encounter was only meant to set the table for the ensuing discussion on faith and reason. It was peripheral to the Pope's main topic, though central to his critics:

It is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: This, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by professor Theodore Khoury (Muenster) of part of the dialogue carried on - perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara - by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.

It was probably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than the responses of the learned Persian. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Koran, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship of the "three Laws": the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran.

In this lecture I would like to discuss only one point - itself rather marginal to the dialogue itself - which, in the context of the issue of "faith and reason," I found interesting and which can serve as the starting point for my reflections on this issue.

In the seventh conversation... edited by professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that sura 2:256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion." It is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under [threat]. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Koran, concerning holy war.

Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels," he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: "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 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. "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.... 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."

The Pope did not explicitly endorse the Emperor's comments; he quoted them to illustrate a principle. He was trying to say that God does not act outside of reason (the biblical term is logos) and that spreading faith through violence is unreasonable. Therefore what is needed between religions is a dialogue based on reason, and not a violent clash. He chose one particular example, from over 600 years ago, to set up his theme. Did Islam spread by violence? To deny it would be a lie, though that does not seem to stop many today from trying to rewrite history. Christianity also spread by violence during certain periods of history. The Pope might have used that too as an example. And the proper response from Christians would have been: Yes, that cannot be denied, but Christianity has reformed and has even expressed regret for its violent ways, which were contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

So what is the response from the Muslim world? Violence, and the threats of more violence.

One might have expected something more like this: "Yes, of course Islam resorted to violence during the days when its empires spread, and of course there are those even today who use Islam to justify more violence against nonbelievers, but that rightfully belongs to the past, and like Christianity, Islam must move beyond that stage of its development and join the dialogue based upon reason."

But this is not what we see and hear. Instead, around the world we find not only vocal demonstrations - which are the people's right - but also intimidation, violence, and the threats of further violence. Sermons in mosques throughout the world vilify the infidel and attack Judaism and Christianity in far harsher terms than any Pope Benedict has ever used, calling Christians idolaters and Jews apes and pigs, and that is supposed to be OK. Christians and Jews do not march on mosques and bomb them in protest. But let even one critical word about Islam be uttered, and the world catches fire.

What does this say about Islam? Non-Muslims only know about Islam what they learn from Muslims. And now Muslims are teaching them that perhaps the Byzantine Emperor was right, and that Islam may really be an inherently violent religion. Ahmad Khatami of Iran says that "Muslims' anger will continue" and that the Pope "should go to clerics and sit and learn about Islam." Khatami is himself a cleric, and the lesson is loud and clear: Islam is an autocratic system that will not stand questioning or the independent use of the mind and that ruthlessly punishes dissent. A world under the dominion of Islam - long an Islamic ideal - would regulate thought and speech to an extent most Westerners can hardly imagine.

The attempt to silence all criticism and to stifle inquiry and debate is so chilling because it is succeeding. In Europe, anti-hate-speech laws have been used to prosecute critics of Islam like Oriana Fallaci. Salman Rushdie went into hiding for years, all because he wrote a novel with an unfortunate reference to a character that satirized Muhammad. Theo van Gogh was murdered because he made a film about the abuse of women in Islamic societies. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote the film's script and who wants to continue this work, almost lost her Dutch citizenship and now must be protected by bodyguards. The Danish paper that published the Muhammad cartoons that offended so many and led to a violent uproar has apologized, but the furor still hasn't subsided.

These are not isolated cases. Even moderate Muslims are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation. Meanwhile we do not hear calls to end this intolerance from any major source within organized Islam. Instead, those who dare to voice any criticism of Islam are compared to Hitler. In the face of all this evidence all over the world, should non-Muslims be threatened for concluding that Islam may not really be sweet and benign?

The Pope's Muslim critics have called him "ignorant." Just who is the ignorant one? Are educated Muslims going to deny with a straight face that Islam used violence to spread its influence? A protest leader says: "It is impossible that jihad can be linked with violence." Will Muslims deny that Muhammad pursued his jihad with violence? Will Muslims deny that Muhammad said this:

I have been commanded to fight against people, till they testify to the fact that there is no god but Allah, and believe in me that I am the messenger from the Lord and in all that I have brought. (Sahih Muslim, 1:31)

This is one of the most important ahadith, or sayings of Muhammad, since it is found in a major collection and is repeated several times.

Right now signs are that the violent reaction to the Pope's speech is intensifying. Since the first reports came in, the number of Christian churches firebombed in Gaza has increased to five. The Mujahedeen Army, an Iraqi insurgent group, posted a message on the internet threatening a suicide attack on the Vatican. Addressing the Pope as "You dog of Rome," the message stated: "We swear to God to send you people who adore death as much as you adore life," and promised to "shake your thrones and break your crosses in your home." All of this because the Pope quoted a Byzantine emperor who criticized Muhammad for promoting his faith with violence. The Muslim response: How dare you even suggest Islam is violent! We'll show you! With violence!

A Need for Real Tolerance

We need more than ever a call to true religious tolerance by all faiths. It is not enough for Muslims to keep repeating that the Qur'an states "There is no compulsion in religion" (even though the original context of that statement is anything but tolerant) and to continue practicing intolerance. Tolerance must come from all sides. Non-Muslims must reach out to moderate Muslims and invite them as friends. Above all, we must not equate Islam with Muslims. Criticism of Islam as a religion or set of ideas must not become wholesale condemnation of Muslims as people. Once we lose that distinction, we become like that which we are criticizing. Muslims also need to help non-Muslims by showing them the tolerant side of Islam, if in fact one exists. All of this can happen only in an atmosphere in which free expression of ideas is allowed.

This is precisely what Pope Benedict called for in his speech. He said, quoting the emperor: "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." To respond to these words with a strong arm and threats of death only proves how vital this message is. One can only hope the Pope will stand firm and not recant just to satisfy the angry mob. His message is one the world badly needs to hear.

Update: The Pope Apologizes

September 17, 2006 - In his weekly address Pope Benedict apologized for remarks in his speech last Tuesday that preceded a firestorm in the Muslim world. He said he was "deeply sorry" and that his words "were in fact a quotation from a Medieval text which do not in any way express my personal thought."

The Pope's apology is at least partially disingenuous. While the Pope may not go as far as endorsing the emperor's statement that Muhammad "brought things only evil and inhuman," clearly he quoted the vignette to support an important point he wanted to make. A prime example of these "things evil and inhuman" was the "command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." We know this command goes back to Muhammad, from the hadith previously quoted and from others as well. The Pope's point is that spreading faith by violence is contrary to reason, and in this he agrees with the emperor. As he stated in his address:

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.

In the dialogue between the emperor and the Persian, it is clear on whose side the Pope's sympathies lie.

Just a little further on in his address the Pope becomes much more explicit, in a passage not quoted in the press and probably not even read by his Muslim critics but that reflects more directly the Pope's own view of Islamic teaching:

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that [Muslim theologian] Ibn Hazn [sic] went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry.

The Pope's theme was the necessary link between faith and reason, and he found his counterexample in the words of a Muslim theologian. If Ibn Hazm did in fact make that statement, saying so should be no crime.

Thus the Pope did at least partially backtrack from his comments. His motives are understandable. He is a world religious leader and a man of peace, and does not want to become an excuse for a worldwide explosion of Muslim violence. Nevertheless, it is important not to let violence and the threats of violence choke off the free expression of ideas, especially when those ideas are supported by scholarship.

Reaction to the Pope's apology in the Muslim world was mixed at best. In Egypt, Mahmoud Ashour, former deputy of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque, told al-Arabiya TV that the Pope's apology "is not enough. He should apologize because he insulted the beliefs of Islam. He must apologize in a frank way and say he made a mistake." Muhammad al-Nujeimi, a professor at the Institute of Judicial and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, was similarly dismissive, saying on al-Arabiya that "the Pope does not want to apologize. He is evading apology and what he said today is a repetition of his previous statement."

Meanwhile, in the West Bank today two more Christian churches were bombed. In Tulqarm a stone church almost 200 years old was torched and its interior destroyed. In the village of Tubas, Muslims attacked a small church with firebombs. In Iran today schools closed and hundreds demonstrated against the Pope. In the holy city of Qom, Iranian cleric Ahmad Khatami compared the Pope to President Bush, saying that both are "united in order to repeat the Crusades." He added: "If the Pope does not apologize, Muslims' anger will continue until he becomes remorseful. He should go to clerics and sit and learn about Islam." More violence and more threats.

What did the Pope do? He made a statement about Islam based on scholarship and history. What was the Muslim reaction? To try to silence this criticism through violence and intimidation. And it is the Pope who needs to apologize? The reaction of both Muslim clergy and Muslim street is an absolute disgrace and a stain on Islam. When does the civilized world get to demand an apology from Muslims for all the atrocities still committed in Islam's name?


Associated Press. "Hundreds of Iranians Protest Pope's Comments." Jerusalem Post, September 17, 2006.

CIto, Pier Paolo. "Pope Sorry for Reaction to His Remarks." Washington Post, September 17, 2006.

CNN News Staff and Associated Press. "Pope Upset that Muslims Offended.", September 16, 2006.

D'Emilio, Frances. "Pope Stops Short of Apology to Muslims." Associated Press, September 16, 2006.

McElroy, Damien. "Pope Angers Muslim World." National Post, September 16, 2006.

National Post Editorial Staff. "Jihad and the Pope." National Post, September 16, 2006.

Pope Benedict XVI. "Faith, Reason, and the University.", September 12, 2006.

Reuters News Staff. "Pope Expresses Regret for Remarks." New York Times, September 16, 2006.

Shadid, Anthony. "Remarks by Pope Prompt Muslim Outrage." Washington Post, September 16, 2006.

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