Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Pope's Words and Other's Deeds

Even if we take Shadhu's point that Pope Benedict could have made his point in a more diplomatic way, the real story here is the response, not the actual words. Mass demonstrations. Riots. Burning effigies. Burning churches. Threats of violence, including to the life of the pope. The murder of a nun. A call by Turkish officials to have the pope arrested when he comes to Turkey.

Of course, the media, by its nature, will play up events like these, and ignore the many moderate Muslim voices out there. In this vein, I think the right response comes from a French Muslim leader (quoted by Amy Welborn):

"The rector of the Mosque of Aix in Marseilles Mohand Alili thinks his fellow Muslims are making too much of the Regensburg citation. 'The Muslim can't expect that the Pope is going to glorify them. All he did was what a Pope would do,' said Alili to France Info. 'Others have said similar things before....Moreover, he's not Muslim, never has been. He's the Pope. What do they want him to do? Why would he preach Islam over Christianity?' 'Benedict XVI,' he said, 'stands up for who he is. Now why can't Muslims say, 'All right, and this is who we are,' but there's no need to go into all the polemics.' 'Besides, I don't see why they should be taking it out on the Pope when they should have it out among themselves, among those who have discredited Islam. No, I don't see why I should be angry at the Pope.'"
If a Muslim leader had made a theological point about the inadequacy of Christianity, I would disagree with him, but I would not be surprised. In fact, I would expect them to say this, and to be blunt about it. Papering over honest differences does not make for a fruitful debate. The pope knows that. As his student Fr. Joseph Fessio S.J. writes:

"I would expect an intelligent and informed Muslim to consider me a blasphemer (because I introduce multiplicity into the one God) and an idolator (because I worship as God a man named Jesus). Should I be offended if he says so publicly? Should I not rather be offended if he conceals his position for the alleged purpose of fostering dialogue?"
The real issue here, then, is not what the pope said, or whether he intended to say it or not, or whether his language was precise or sloppy. The telling issue is rather the Muslim response, which all too often did not have the self-confidence of somebody like Mohand Alili of Marseilles. But this is just part of a broader trend. When you think about it, even the slightest hint of a critical approach to Islam can generate a violent reaction. We all know that the New York Times and other western outlets refused to publish the Danish Muhammad cartoons not out of genuine principle, but out of fear (it had no problem publishing images offensive to Christians, including the notorious Piss Christ). Christians face this kind of abuse every day, rarely even stopping to think about it. But Islam is treated differently. As Anne Applebaum notes in the Washington Post:

"Nothing the pope has ever said comes even close to matching the vitriol, extremism and hatred that pour out of the mouths of radical imams and fanatical clerics every day, all across Europe and the Muslim world, almost none of which ever provokes any Western response at all."
Applebaum thinks a tougher response is apposite, including from religious leaders. After all, Pope Benedict did (in this way) address the heart of the matter: violence justified by religion. We should not expect Muslims to convert to Christianity, and we should respect their religion, but we should also expect them to respect Christianity, and that respect extends to those that do choose to convert. Reciprocity. As knowledgeable Vaticanologist John Allen notes in the New York Times, Pope Benedict seems willing to address this very issue, and that when he calls for "frank and sincere dialogue", he means "dialogue with teeth". This is indeed the elephant in the middle of the room. While the Saudis funded the huge mosque in Rome, Christianity is a strictly underground phenomenon in Saudi Arabia. Even in Turkey, which seeks membership of the European Union, churches must be inconspicuous (you cannot know it's a church from the exterior), and public Christian worship is forbidden.

One final note: those across the Muslim world threatening the life of the pope seem to have forgotten his staunch opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, and the Israeli assault on Lebanon. Unlike many of his critics, Benedict has the virtue of consistency. Like his predecessor, he is a true man of peace. And the worst kind of violence is violence in the service of religion. As noted by the Catholic Peace Fellowship:
"Christ offers a way of nonviolent, sacrificial love of friends and enemies. Period. No wiggle room for building nukes, whether it is Muslim Iran or Christian America-or using violence to further principles."

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