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# Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I don't watch the news.  I figure what's important will filter down to me through one avenue or another, and it generally does (as far as I know hehe).  Recently, Pope Benedict XVI made a comment in a university lecture that has caused quite the controversy.  Naturally, the controversy wasn't intended, and the Holy Father, numerous bishops, and other Church officials have quickly done what they can to calm the situation down.

It appears that, as is often the case in such brouhahas, words were taken out of context, causing much consternation in the Muslim world and, possibly, even some violence on its account, such as the murder of a missionary nun in Somalia.  Although I know I shouldn't, I still am dumbfounded and in disbelief when confronted with such inhumanity and evil as a group of individuals who would gun down a woman who has devoted her life to relieving ill and suffering around the world.

It does make one wonder if the words of the Byzantine Emperor that the Pope was quoting did not have some truth to them.  Looking at the startling acts of violence, inhumanity, and yes, evil, perpetrated in the name of Islam (such as 9/11, the London bombings, not to mention those in the Middle East) and those acts which have been thwarted (such as the shoe explosive, recent liquid explosives, and more that we probably don't know about), outsiders such as myself are forced to wonder if the central message of Islam is not such evil and inhuman activity.  And then a senseless and violent killing in Somalia only serves to harden such suspicion.

Yet despite all of this evidence, forgetting the unknown, countless lives tossed aside during the jihads that spread Islam across the Middle East, Africa, Turkey, and Persia in the first milennia, let us with good faith assume that the Emperor was not right (though surely he was more learned on the subject than I).  Let us assume that there is some new good that Muhammed brought to religion.  Even so, the point at issue is still a matter of lack of context.

The Holy Father was quoting the Emperor not as an endorsement or affirmation but as an illustration.  He even says that we are "astounded" at the Emperor's "brusqueness."  Pope Benedict continues, as Manuel II Paleologus reportedly does, showing that this is a hyperbole leading into a discussion about the incompatibility of violence with the nature of God (and reason).  I've read the whole text, and while it isn't immediately obvious how the consideration of the Emperor's remarks fit into the greater dialogue other than, as the Pope says, "a starting point," it does fit with the broader theme of giving reason a greater place in human affairs, both in religion and faith and in the university, which these days has tended to want to limit reason to scientific thought stemming from Cartesianism and empiricism.

I believe the parallel between the reference to Islam and the reference to the developments in modern thought is that in both reason and God are seen to be somewhat, if not wholly, incompatible.  With Islam, as His Holiness expounds, there are developments which say that faith is something other than and often in contradiction to reason; such a stance makes believing that conversion by the sword an acceptable means because reason is opposed to violence.  The Holy Father also notes similar developments by some in the modern Christian tradition, so we see that it is not simply a criticism of Islam on this count.

Similarly, the modern scientific worldview sees anything that is not mathematical or empirically observable and verifiable as suspect, subjective, or wholly false, not in line with what is perceived as "reason."  In both cases, the Holy Father is advocating a wider understanding of reason and its applicability to religion and faith--that there are valid, useful, indeed critically important modes of reason outside of the mathematical and empirical, that the mathematical and empirical depend on these, and that reason is in accord with them and with God's nature.

Thus we see a dual consideration: on the one hand, a critique of those who would push reason out of the sphere of faith and on the other those who would push faith out of the sphere of reason, leaving them as disparate spheres of life, more often than not in conflict.  This is not the Catholic (read, historically Christian) way of understanding the relationship between reason and faith, and it is a greater understanding of and appreciation for the interdependence of faith and reason that the Pope is advocating, seeking more open and rational dialogue on both fronts.

All that said, I must say that I think the point could have been made without restating the controversial quip from Manuel II, but there I think we simply see the intellectual side of the Holy Father--the university professor who curiously relates how reading a text struck him and what it made him think of.  Given the context of the address (a university lecture), this seems wholly likely.

It is highly unfortunate that this has been blown out of proportion and taken out of context, even to the point of violence.  Hopefully, Muslims will see this as an opportunity to prove the Emperor wrong and make the noise of the good in Islam louder than the noise of those who would continue to try to spread and defend Islam through violence.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006 10:27:45 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [6]  | 
Wednesday, September 20, 2006 9:13:32 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Ok, I am confused on why people are making such a big deal about the quote. I have copied and pasted the quote everyone is speaking about below. So the worst of the quote, as far as I can see, is stating that the new things brought forth with Islam are "evil and inhuman". Admittedly this is a bit of an insult, but we need to realize that this was only part of a conversation and was made by Manuel II Paleologus around 600 years ago, not by the current Pope.

This quote was used to bring forth the idea that using violence, as some say Mohammed proclaimed all faithful Muslims should do, is not right. Admittedly, this is not the most politically correct way to state such an idea, but being PC is a modern ideal.

Perhaps I am not reading this right. Perhaps, others are just reading into it what they will. I believe that Pope used only a quote and meant no disrespect to anyone. The killing of anyone in the name of religion or anything for that matter is just wrong and that is what I believe the Pope was trying to get across.

[quote part I]
"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".
[/quote part I]
[quote part II]
"God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) 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...".
[/quote part II]
Wednesday, September 20, 2006 11:26:35 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Stanley, I agree, obviously. :) And I imagine that rational Muslims would too. They would, in fact, see the obvious paradox in protesting such a statement with violence. Sadly, many people are not rational, especially when they've taken offense (even where no offense is warranted).

Interestingly, there are numerous Muslim groups who have taken all of it in stride and publicly acknowledged that the Pope is not at fault. But of course, those kind of Muslims are not the loudest nor do they hold sway over the violent types.
Thursday, September 21, 2006 10:01:46 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
It appears (http://www.zenit.org/english/visualizza.phtml?sid=95188) that I was not far off in my estimation of the Pope's intent. Hopefully his words yesterday will help calm the situation. And I guess I should come clean; Zenit is the only news I actively follow. But I still don't "watch" the news. :)
Friday, September 29, 2006 12:51:34 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Muhammad's Sword
By Uri Avnery

Since the days when Roman Emperors threw Christians to the lions, the relations between the emperors and the heads of the church have undergone many changes.

Constantine the Great, who became Emperor in the year 306 - exactly 1700 years ago - encouraged the practice of Christianity in the empire, which included Palestine. Centuries later, the church split into an Eastern (Orthodox) and a Western (Catholic) part. In the West, the Bishop of Rome, who acquired the title of Pope, demanded that the Emperor accept his superiority.

The struggle between the Emperors and the Popes played a central role in European history and divided the peoples. It knew ups and downs. Some Emperors dismissed or expelled a Pope, some Popes dismissed or excommunicated an Emperor. One of the Emperors, Henry IV, "walked to Canossa", standing for three days barefoot in the snow in front of the Pope's castle, until the Pope deigned to annul his excommunication.

But there were times when Emperors and Popes lived in peace with each other. We are witnessing such a period today. Between the present Pope, Benedict XVI, and the present Emperor, George Bush II, there exists a wonderful harmony. Last week's speech by the Pope, which aroused a world-wide storm, went well with Bush's crusade against "Islamofascism", in the context of the "Clash of Civilizations".

IN HIS lecture at a German university, the 265th Pope described what he sees as a huge difference between Christianity and Islam: while Christianity is based on reason, Islam denies it. While Christians see the logic of God's actions, Muslims deny that there is any such logic in the actions of Allah.

As a Jewish atheist, I do not intend to enter the fray of this debate. It is much beyond my humble abilities to understand the logic of the Pope. But I cannot overlook one passage, which concerns me too, as an Israeli living near the fault-line of this "war of civilizations".

In order to prove the lack of reason in Islam, the Pope asserts that the prophet Muhammad ordered his followers to spread their religion by the sword. According to the Pope, that is unreasonable, because faith is born of the soul, not of the body. How can the sword influence the soul?

To support his case, the Pope quoted - of all people - a Byzantine Emperor, who belonged, of course, to the competing Eastern Church. At the end of the 14th century, the Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus told of a debate he had - or so he said (its occurrence is in doubt) - with an unnamed Persian Muslim scholar. In the heat of the argument, the Emperor (according to himself) flung the following words at his adversary:

"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".

These words give rise to three questions: (a) Why did the Emperor say them? (b) Are they true? (c) Why did the present Pope quote them?

WHEN MANUEL II wrote his treatise, he was the head of a dying empire. He assumed power in 1391, when only a few provinces of the once illustrious empire remained. These, too, were already under Turkish threat.

At that point in time, the Ottoman Turks had reached the banks of the Danube. They had conquered Bulgaria and the north of Greece, and had twice defeated relieving armies sent by Europe to save the Eastern Empire. On May 29, 1453, only a few years after Manuel's death, his capital, Constantinople (the present Istanbul) fell to the Turks, putting an end to the Empire that had lasted for more than a thousand years.

During his reign, Manuel made the rounds of the capitals of Europe in an attempt to drum up support. He promised to reunite the church. There is no doubt that he wrote his religious treatise in order to incite the Christian countries against the Turks and convince them to start a new crusade. The aim was practical, theology was serving politics.

In this sense, the quote serves exactly the requirements of the present Emperor, George Bush II. He, too, wants to unite the Christian world against the mainly Muslim "Axis of Evil". Moreover, the Turks are again knocking on the doors of Europe, this time peacefully. It is well known that the Pope supports the forces that object to the entry of Turkey into the European Union.

IS THERE any truth in Manuel's argument?

The pope himself threw in a word of caution. As a serious and renowned theologian, he could not afford to falsify written texts. Therefore, he admitted that the Qur'an specifically forbade the spreading of the faith by force. He quoted the second Sura, verse 256 (strangely fallible, for a pope, he meant verse 257) which says: "There must be no coercion in matters of faith".

How can one ignore such an unequivocal statement? The Pope simply argues that this commandment was laid down by the prophet when he was at the beginning of his career, still weak and powerless, but that later on he ordered the use of the sword in the service of the faith. Such an order does not exist in the Qur'an. True, Muhammad called for the use of the sword in his war against opposing tribes - Christian, Jewish and others - in Arabia, when he was building his state. But that was a political act, not a religious one; basically a fight for territory, not for the spreading of the faith.

Jesus said: "You will recognize them by their fruits." The treatment of other religions by Islam must be judged by a simple test: How did the Muslim rulers behave for more than a thousand years, when they had the power to "spread the faith by the sword"?

Well, they just did not.

For many centuries, the Muslims ruled Greece. Did the Greeks become Muslims? Did anyone even try to Islamize them? On the contrary, Christian Greeks held the highest positions in the Ottoman administration. The Bulgarians, Serbs, Romanians, Hungarians and other European nations lived at one time or another under Ottoman rule and clung to their Christian faith. Nobody compelled them to become Muslims and all of them remained devoutly Christian.

True, the Albanians did convert to Islam, and so did the Bosniaks. But nobody argues that they did this under duress. They adopted Islam in order to become favorites of the government and enjoy the fruits.

In 1099, the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and massacred its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants indiscriminately, in the name of the gentle Jesus. At that time, 400 years into the occupation of Palestine by the Muslims, Christians were still the majority in the country. Throughout this long period, no effort was made to impose Islam on them. Only after the expulsion of the Crusaders from the country, did the majority of the inhabitants start to adopt the Arabic language and the Muslim faith - and they were the forefathers of most of today's Palestinians.

THERE IS no evidence whatsoever of any attempt to impose Islam on the Jews. As is well known, under Muslim rule the Jews of Spain enjoyed a bloom the like of which the Jews did not enjoy anywhere else until almost our time. Poets like Yehuda Halevy wrote in Arabic, as did the great Maimonides. In Muslim Spain, Jews were ministers, poets, scientists. In Muslim Toledo, Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars worked together and translated the ancient Greek philosophical and scientific texts. That was, indeed, the Golden Age. How would this have been possible, had the Prophet decreed the "spreading of the faith by the sword"?

What happened afterwards is even more telling. When the Catholics re-conquered Spain from the Muslims, they instituted a reign of religious terror. The Jews and the Muslims were presented with a cruel choice: to become Christians, to be massacred or to leave. And where did the hundreds of thousand of Jews, who refused to abandon their faith, escape? Almost all of them were received with open arms in the Muslim countries. The Sephardi ("Spanish") Jews settled all over the Muslim world, from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east, from Bulgaria (then part of the Ottoman Empire) in the north to Sudan in the south. Nowhere were they persecuted. They knew nothing like the tortures of the Inquisition, the flames of the auto-da-fe, the pogroms, the terrible mass-expulsions that took place in almost all Christian countries, up to the Holocaust.

WHY? Because Islam expressly prohibited any persecution of the "peoples of the book". In Islamic society, a special place was reserved for Jews and Christians. They did not enjoy completely equal rights, but almost. They had to pay a special poll-tax, but were exempted from military service - a trade-off that was quite welcome to many Jews. It has been said that Muslim rulers frowned upon any attempt to convert Jews to Islam even by gentle persuasion - because it entailed the loss of taxes.

Every honest Jew who knows the history of his people cannot but feel a deep sense of gratitude to Islam, which has protected the Jews for fifty generations, while the Christian world persecuted the Jews and tried many times "by the sword" to get them to abandon their faith.

THE STORY about "spreading the faith by the sword" is an evil legend, one of the myths that grew up in Europe during the great wars against the Muslims - the reconquista of Spain by the Christians, the Crusades and the repulsion of the Turks, who almost conquered Vienna. I suspect that the German Pope, too, honestly believes in these fables. That means that the leader of the Catholic world, who is a Christian theologian in his own right, did not make the effort to study the history of other religions.

Why did he utter these words in public? And why now?

There is no escape from viewing them against the background of the new Crusade of Bush and his evangelist supporters, with his slogans of "Islamofascism" and the "Global War on Terrorism" - when "terrorism" has become a synonym for Muslims. For Bush's handlers, this is a cynical attempt to justify the domination of the world's oil resources. Not for the first time in history, a religious robe is spread to cover the nakedness of economic interests; not for the first time, a robbers' expedition becomes a Crusade.

The speech of the Pope blends into this effort. Who can foretell the dire consequences?

For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other. (Thomas Paine)
When there is no truth in the world, anyone who wants to turn away from evil has no choice but to play the fool (Rabbi Nachman)
Other Side
Saturday, September 30, 2006 9:17:35 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Hi Uri,

It's good to hear a (presumably) muslim standing up and proclaiming that Islam is not what the terrorists and their ilk make it out to be. I suspect there is much truth in what you say about Islam; you only go astray where you cast aspersions on Christianity, the Pope, and even George W. Bush. Perhaps if you temper you arguments to leave out those polemics, you will have success with both Christians and Jews in increasing the dialogue that the Pope was calling for in his address at the university at Regensburg.

Thank you for your comments.
Saturday, October 14, 2006 6:09:45 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
On most part, the Muslims who have propensity to carry out such brutal violence are hardly the types who will surf the Internet, look for your articles like yours and conduct a logical and reasonable discourse over tea and coffee. We are dealing with people who have been brought up vastly different environments and cultural values. The messages and teachings they receive are unlike the rest of the modern world's, making it difficult for them to perceive and understand the western viewpoint.
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