Political error or calculated move?
Pope Benedict XVI succeeded in galling the Muslim world by citing a quote that the Prophet Mohammed brought "only evil and inhuman things" to the world, but also succeeded in instilling fear into Christians in general and Catholics in particular. Christians now fear the new pope seeks to push the Catholic Church in an extreme conservative, if not reactionary, direction. It is not for nothing that a columnist in yesterday's Guardian suggested in his analysis of the incident that "God's Rottweiler" was "show[ing] his teeth."
The outcry followed Pope Benedict's speech last Tuesday in Regensburg, Germany, which was devoted to an attempt to displace science as the central pillar of contemporary secular thought. But from the beginning the pope came into sharp conflict with Islam.
"Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new," Benedict said, quoting the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II, "and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
Benedict implied in his speech that he agreed with Manuel II.
It is no wonder the pope's remarks are threatening to release a storm several times greater than that provoked by the caricatur es of Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper a year ago. They were created by an anonymous Danish cartoonist, but the latest remarks were spoken by the earthly representative of Jesus.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel attempted to quell the storm, saying the pope's remarks were misunderstood, but a reading of the speech in its entirety produces the opposite impression: Not only does the pope believe Islam is a violent religion spread by force, he also believes there is no room for reason within Islam, in complete contradiction to Christianity, which is based on reason. This does not look like a misunderstanding or slip of the tongue - this is apparently what the pope believes.
The pope's speech is an embarrassment. He is mistaken on the factual level when he says the Koranic injunction against forced conversions appears in an early sura, when every beginning scholar of Islam knows it appears in a late one, whose prescriptive force is greater. He also erred by selecting, of all Christian comments made during Islam's 1,500-year history, the particularly harsh and insulting statements of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor. No Muslim (or Jew) could forget that the Byzantines had taken part in the Crusades 200 years earlier. The very term "holy war" was coined by Pope Urban II, who sent his Christian soldiers off to massacre Muslims and Jews simply for refusing to convert to Christianity.
Vatican sources say Pope Benedict writes his own speeches. If so, why did he say these things? Perhaps out of political inexperience. Before becoming pope, Joseph Alois Ratzinger was a theologian. His last position was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the contemporary incarnation of the Holy Inquisition. Unlike his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Ratzinger has little contact with the outside world. Perhaps he was unaware of the consequences his remarks would bring.
But maybe this was a calculated move. A few months ago, when the issue of Turkey's accession to the European Union was mentioned, Pope Benedict opposed it in the name of preserving Europe's Christian character. A few months ago he downgraded the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and merged it with the Council for Culture. Now the talk is of reciprocity: Europe cannot provide religious freedom to Muslims when the Muslim world does not give Christians religious freedom.