[NY Sun title: "The West Should Be Free To Criticize Islam"]
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI offered the above quote, expressed six centuries ago by a Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, in dialogue with an Iranian scholar, neither endorsing nor condemning it, in his academic speech, "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections," delivered in German last week in Germany. It served to introduce his erudite critique of the Western concept of reason since the Enlightenment.
But did he have other purposes? The head of the Benedictine order, Abbot Notker Wolf, understood the pope's quote as "a blatant allusion to [Iran's President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad." Vatican insiders told the London Sunday Times that Benedict "was trying to pre-empt an aggressive letter aimed at the papacy by the president of Iran, which was why he cited the debate involving a Persian."
These words spur three reflections. First Benedict has offered elusive comments, brief statements, and now this delphic quotation, but he has not provided a much-needed major statement on this vital topic of Islam. One hopes it is in the offing.
Whatever the pope's purpose, he prompted the near-predictable furor in the Muslim world. Religious and political authorities widely condemned the speech, with some calling for violence.
"The Pope and those who live under his cloak," Al-Risala, a Palestinian newspaper, September 18, 2006.
- In Britain, while leading a rally outside Westminster Cathedral, Anjem Choudary of Al-Ghurabaa called for the pope "to be subject to capital punishment."
- In Iraq, the Mujahideen's Army threatened to "smash the crosses in the house of the dog from Rome" and other groups made blood-curdling threats.
- In Kuwait, an important website called for violent retribution against Catholics.
- In Somalia, the religious leader Abubukar Hassan Malin urged Muslims to "hunt down" the pope and kill him "on the spot."
- In India, a leading imam, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, called on Muslims to "respond in a manner which forces the pope to apologise."
- A top Al-Qaeda figure announced that "the infidelity and tyranny of the pope will only be stopped by a major attack."
The Vatican responded by establishing an extraordinary and unprecedented security cordon around the pope. Further away, the incitement spurred some violence, with more likely on the way. Seven churches were attacked in the West Bank and Gaza, one in Basra, Iraq (prompting this ironic headline at the "RedState" blog: "Pope implies Islam a violent religion ... Muslims bomb churches"). The murder of an Italian nun in Somalia and two Assyrians in Iraq also appear connected.
Second reflection: this new round of Muslim outrage, violence, and murder has a by-now routine quality. Earlier versions occurred in 1989 (in response to Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses), 1997 (when the U.S. Supreme Court did not take down a representation of Muhammad), 2002 (when Jerry Falwell called Muhammad a terrorist), 2005 (the fraudulent Koran-flushing episode), and February 2006 (the Danish cartoon incident).
Vatican leaders tried to defuse the pope's quote, as well as his condemnation of jihad (holy war). The papal spokesman, Federico Lombardi, S.J., said Benedict did not intend to give "an interpretation of Islam as violent. ... inside Islam there are many different positions and there are many positions that are not violent." Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the secretary of state, indicated that the pope "sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful."
Then, in what may be an unprecedented step by a pope, Benedict himself proffered the sort of semi-apology often favored by those feeling the heat. "I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address," reads the official Vatican translation into English, "which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought."
Third reflection: the Muslim uproar has a goal: to prohibit criticism of Islam by Christians and thereby to impose Shariah norms on the West. Should Westerners accept this central tenet of Islamic law, others will surely follow. Retaining free speech about Islam, therefore, represents a critical defense against the imposition of an Islamic order.
Feb. 16, 2007 update: Five months later, I note in a blog that "Pope Benedict XVI Changes His Tone."