This article originally appears in The American Thinker
Since his election to the papacy in April of 2005, Pope Benedict has bent over backwards in an effort to assuage the concerns of Muslims over issues that place them in conflict with the west. It is therefore something of a surprise that he would knowingly challenge radical Islamists by quoting a long dead 13th century Byzantine vassal Emperor on the “evil and inhuman” practice of forced conversion to Islam.
The fact that both his words and intent were twisted by the fanatics in order to gin up the emotions of their ignorant followers should not have come as a surprise to the Pontiff given similar reactions to other faux “outrages” like the Muhammed cartoons and the fake story about the desecration of the Koran by US soldiers at Guantanamo. This makes one wonder if indeed the challenge was deliberate and designed to augment his main thesis regarding radical Isam; that violence and reason are incompatible and therefore, ungodly.
What is surprising about Benedict’s challenge is that he had given no inkling up to now that he was interested in rocking the boat when it came to relations between Rome and the Muslim faith. He had actually condemned the publication of the Muhammed cartoons saying:
“In the international context we are living at present, the Catholic Church continues convinced that, to foster peace and understanding between peoples and men, it is necessary and urgent that religions and their symbols be respected”.
Benedict added that “believers should not be the object of provocations that wound their lives and religious sentiments.” While many free speech advocates criticized this stance as appeasement, the statements made by Benedict were fully in line with Vatican policy regarding respect for the symbols and beliefs of other religions.
It was thought when the Pope ascended to the throne of St. Peter that he would perhaps offer more of a challenge to radical Islam than his predecessor. In fact, Benedict seemed to go out of his way to avoid this kind of confrontation with Islam. His entreaties to fellow Europeans for interreligious dialogue with Muslims as well as a call for tolerance and understanding of Muslim practices and traditions was felt by some to undercut any effort at Muslim assimilation into European civilization. This may have been unfair given the Catholic Church’s careful nurturing of their relations with mainstream Muslim groups, especially in Europe.
As recently as July the Pope condemned Israel in their war with Hez’ballah, criticizing their attack on a “free and sovereign nation” while telling the people of Lebanon that the Vatican “assures its closeness to these people who already have suffered so much to defend their independence.” The Vatican has also long advocated a separate Palestinian state and Bendict’s recent criticism of Israel regarding the war in Gaza and the West Bank was placed in the context of resuming peace negotiations with Hamas.
The Pope’s solidarity with Muslims doesn’t stop with his condemnation of armed conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza. He has also severely criticized the United States for its invasion and occupation of Iraq. In short, wherever Muslim sensibilities have been touched by Western challenges, the Pope has addressed their concerns in a sensitive and conciliatory manner.
Why then did the Pontiff break with the past and throw down the gauntlet at radical Isamists? The dilemma for the Pope as well as the West has always been a question of whether or not to engage the fanatics by challenging them or try and address their grievances and appease them. Has the Pope finally decided to cast his lot with those who seek to challenge the extremists? It would appear that the Pope has done so and on a plane that he seems uniquely suited to occupy; bringing his considerable intellectual gifts and moral authority to bear in an effort to encourage moderates to step forward and work with him to marginalize the terrorists.
Risk attends both the engagement and appeasement strategies. Engagement, we are told, plays into the radicals hands and strengthens the terrorists. By challenging the fanatics, we create more terrorists and make it more difficult for moderate Muslims to support us. On the other hand, getting to terrorism’s “root causes” appears to be an exercise in futility while agreeing with the extremists critiques of the western response to terrorism only seems to embolden them.
The Pope seeks a higher plane in the conflict. By risking offense, he goes beyond the superficial dialogue between Christian and Muslims of the past and begins a conversation where it should have been all along; on the nature and practice of Islam in the modern world and how that religion can co-exist with a west infused with Christian values.
In this, the Pope’s recent critique of western materialism and secularism which drew plaudits from several moderate Muslim groups in Europe can be seen as a starting point in that it lays out common ground between pious followers of both faiths. And his lecture condemning violence in the name of God also contained several well aimed swipes at those in the west who abandon faith in the name of reason. Both the Pope’s criticisms can be echoed by Muslims opposed to violence in that what even moderates fear the most is that modernity necessarily means the secularization of their culture. They have seen what has happened to Christianity in Europe and are adamantly opposed to the abandonment of Islamic values.
Perhaps the violent reaction to the Pope’s words was anticipated by the Vatican. Even if it wasn’t, the extremists tend to prove the Pope’s point. Unfortunately, even so-called moderate Muslims have been forced to either echo the ignorant criticism of the extremists or keep a low profile.
But once the smoke clears from this episode, there may in fact be a second look by moderates at what the Pope said. This Op-Ed by Souheila Al-Jaada in The Daily Star of Lebanon is encouraging in that regard:
At the same time, rather than lash out at provocative statements, Muslims should welcome such criticisms of the faith because they offer religious leaders an opportunity to explain Islam through dialogue and by example. Muslim leaders should respond by emphasizing the commonalities that bind Christians and Muslims together. They should stress the fact that the two faiths believe in the Ten Commandments. Both revere the Prophets Abraham, Jesus, Noah, Isaac, Jacob and many others. Both religions place the Virgin Mary in high esteem and the Koran includes an entire sura, or chapter, entitled “Maryam,” or “Mary” in Arabic.
But the most important similarity that we must remember is that both religions hold firm to the Golden rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
It is those “commonalities” that Benedict can build upon in order to bring moderate Muslims to the task of confronting the violence perpetrated in the name of the Prophet. He has expressed his solidarity in the past with many issues that confront Muslims in their efforts to co-exist peacefully with the west. One hopes that both sides take the opportunity afforded by the controversy to dig deeper than ever before into the complex relationship that has existed between two of the world’s great religions. At stake may be the difference between a world at peace and a world at war. In that sense, they couldn’t be any higher.