An insufficient apology

When Pope Benedict recently delivered a lecture and managed to find the time and space to take a swipe at Islam, the Prophet Mohammed and effectively every Muslim, he must have expected the kind of reaction that followed across the Muslim world. If he hadn’t, then he has either been on another planet these last few years or he shouldn’t be in the high position he is.

Therefore, the cold reaction with which his so-called apology was met did not come as a great surprise. A true and sincere apology would have been to retract his remarks, however the Pope merely expressed regret at how Muslims had been “offended” without actually apologising for the quotation that he used in his lecture in Germany last week. In other words, he was sorry that Muslims took it badly.

While Pope Benedict stated that he was merely quoting a medieval Byzantine emperor (ie don’t shoot the messenger), it is beyond ridiculous to assume that this quotation came as a by the by, and did not formulate a main element of the argument he was trying to make in what was clearly a well-prepared speech.

Quotations are an odd thing, you see. When they are employed by the likes of a president, a prime minister a figure of authority or a pope, they potentially become a dangerous weapon. To pick a quote that asserts one thing is essentially to exclude many, often hundreds or even thousands, others that assert the exact opposite. However, since such an esteemed figure has cited the quote, then of course it must be true and his argument must hence be valid and taken at face value. This is why the Pope’s apology for the offence caused is almost meaningless as the original sin, as one may say, has caused immense harm and possible lasting damage.

The Vatican was expected to be at the helm of the campaign to build bridges, to reach out and to mend what politicians had managed to savagely destruct over recent years. If ever there was an antidote to the frenzy of an inevitable clash of cultures and civilisations, it was to come from people of faith, all faiths. At a time when all main representative Islamic organisations and figures of authority are speaking out against terrorism and against the barbarism of killing others under the false guise of faith, belief, ideology or religion, one would have thought that such calls would be supported and backed by the likes of the Pope.

However, when he spoke of “reason” it was clear that he was asserting that such notion is almost exclusive to Judaism and Christianity, whilst Islam is void thereof. In a sense he was ridiculing all attempts to conduct dialogue or communication with Islam, as it demonstrated no sense of “reason”; an accusation that Islam is inherently violent, fundamentally blood-thirsty and an enemy of all others. An extremely dangerous assertion to make, albeit implicit and embedded between the lines, when the world lies on the verge of an all out clash that threatens everyone and everything.

However, what makes the Pope’s words even more incredible is that he conveniently chose to ignore the reality that whilst the Catholic church was cementing the barbarism of Europe’s dark ages for centuries, in which atrocities of unspeakable volumes within its lands and beyond were committed under its very guise and with its blessings, the Muslim world stretching from southern Europe to the far borders of China was busy writing literature, philosophy, art, architecture, medicine, chemistry, physics, biology, algebra and music. Manuscripts on law, botany, etiquette and fashion were being produced and students from Europe, Africa and China converged in their tens of thousands upon the vast and illustrious universities and libraries of Baghdad, Damascus, Cordoba, Seville and Cairo. Indeed, Spanish historians hold in pride the 100 years of glorious co-existence among Muslims, Christians and Jews, which saw an outstanding leap on technology, medicine and science as well as the production of the most amazing fruits of human endeavour on all fronts. It is notable that the rulers of the time were Muslims, who did not think twice about employing Christian and Jewish ministers, advisors and ambassadors as long as they were the best suited for the job.

Only a few days ago, I ended my first ever visit to Iran where I took part in the regional meeting of the World Health Organisation in the exquisitely beautiful city of Isfahan. Among the 14,000 or so historic and heritage sites and monuments that adorns this city alone, we were taken on a tour to the city’s cathedral and were shown what was claimed to be the biggest synagogue in the region, both constructed many centuries ago. Both were in beautiful and impressive condition and were guarded and kept clean by local men and women. This, in a country which is being paraded as backward, autocratic, regressive, barbaric, oppressive and intolerant to other faiths and ideologies. The same can be said of Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Malaysia, Indonesia and countless other Muslim countries where the oldest and most ancient Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Bhuddist sites, shrines, temples and sacred places are kept in perfect condition for the pleasure of pilgrims and religious tourists from all around the world.

When I visited Spain a few years back for the first time however, I was met with the sad spectacle that despite Muslims ruling and populating the Iberian peninsula for many centuries, almost none of their mosques or places of worship had been left without being desecrated or raised to the ground by the Christian rulers who conquered Spain thereafter and expelled the native Muslims to the shores of north Africa. The Grand Mosque of Cordoba had its heart and essence ripped out and saw the installation of gothic Christian statues and monuments in between its main and original pillars that continue to provide the greatest attraction and source of amazement for tourists nevertheless. The same could be said of eastern Europe where Muslims settled and set home for centuries, only to see that everything they constructed was later demolished, mainly with the blessings of the church.

When I raised this issue in a lecture in Chicago last year, someone mentioned the Taliban government’s destruction of the Bhuddist statues in Bamyan in 1998 as evidence of Islam’s intolerance of the “other”. In fact, the issue of the Bamyan statues is proof of my very thesis, for had it not been subsequent Muslims states and rulers of that region over more than 1,000 years preserving those statues, they would have been no statues left for the Taliban to blow up, as a mere political gesture -and a foolish one at that- rather than a religious course of action.

The charge that Islam is intolerant and that it spread by force rather than by conviction is not only factually wrong, it is outrageously naïve. How anyone could actually believe, let alone promote the idea that anyone could be compelled to believe in anything he or she does not in their heart of hearts, is bewildering. But more importantly, the most populated countries in the Muslim world are those that lie in southern and south-east Asia; parts of the world where no Muslim battalion ever roamed. Islam spread many times more rapidly at times of peace than it ever did at times of war, both during the time of Prophet Mohammed and ever since. Indeed, the fact that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world today, with scores if not hundreds embracing Islam as their faith of choice throughout the west every day, despite the vicious attacks and attempts to demonise Islam and Muslims, is one that the Pope seems to have neglected. Surely he’s not suggesting that those too are compelled to embrace Islam by the sword??

It would be a sad day indeed if some decided to throw in the towel and give up on creating a future in which all faiths, creeds, races and cultures live side by side in peace and in prosperity, as a result of the Pope’s remarks. The process of reaching out, initiating forums from upon which constructive dialogue could be carried out and accepting the other while agreeing to disagree with certain aspects of their faith, ideology and culture, must continue unabated. The Pope should have recognised the importance of his support of such a noble pursuit.

He didn’t, and in the process drove people further apart then they were before.

Other Topics:

Pope Benedict did not insult Islam – Washington,D.C.,USA
I am deeply sorry, says Pope
Hindustan Times – India
Muslim Brotherhood sees “sufficient” Pope apology
Malaysia Star – Malaysia
Pope’s apology ’sufficient’: Muslim Brotherhood
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The Pope speech  at the Vatican website
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Pope statement not enough – Muslim Brotherhood
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Muslim leaders condemn Pope’s speech, want apology
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MB Chairman Condemns Pope’s Statements
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Ghanoushi Demands Pope To Apologize To Muslims
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Islam and the West: a historical background
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