Return to the dark ages

The Pope’s response to the anger his statements sparked in the Muslim world was more offensive than the statements themselves. He apologised not for what he said, but for Muslims’ failure to grasp the intended meaning.

That the Pope should have quoted from a Byzantine text on Islam is hardly surprising. The line of continuity between Emanuel Paleologos’s conception of Islam – quoted in the papal speech – and Benedict’s has never been severed. The massive body of terms, images and narratives on Islam which the church inherited from the middle ages survives intact. There, Islam is depicted as a false creed propagated through violence and promiscuity, with Muhammad as scoundrel, magician, heresiarch, and precursor of the anti-Christ.

Though Constantinople’s Latin enemies shed few tears over the loss of two-thirds of its territories to Muslims in the seventh century, they did much to ensure the survival of its literature on Islam. Between the 11th and 14th centuries, this was used by the church’s propaganda machine as it strove to arouse crusading fervour across Christendom. The Reformation further developed this literary corpus and ensured its transmission into modern Europe. In a 17th-century Christian text, Muslims are described in the most chilling of terms. They are “poison, scabies, venomous snakes … the dogs in the church”.

Even if this metaphorical language has retreated in favour of the profane language of reason and subjectivity, its structural foundations remain. Islam is still perceived as the other, the embodiment of evil. Only in this context can we make full sense of the Pope’s statements, and indeed of much of what is said today on the subject of Islam. We must defend freedom of expression, but freedom of expression should not be used as a disguise for the incitement of hatred of other races and religions.

It is ironic that the Pope, who stresses the unity of reason and faith, which he uses as proof of Christianity’s superiority over Islam, has inherited this formula from Ibn Rushd, or Averroes, the Andalusian Muslim philosopher. It was on the basis of this Rushdian equation that the medieval church could reconcile itself with Benedict’s beloved logos.

The Pope speaks much of religious tolerance in his lecture. Unfortunately for him, the church’s historical treatment of its religious others has been marked by violence and aggression, against pagans, Jews, heretics and infidels alike.

Not a day goes by without calls to reform Islam being raised-a mission which Pope Benedict XVI has declared impossible. Perhaps it is time to make the same demand of Catholicism and its infallible head. It certainly needs to introduce dramatic reforms to its terrifying conception of Islam, its prophet and followers. Rather than apologising for the church’s bloody legacy against Muslims in the dark years of the Crusades and Reconquista, the Pope has chosen to twist the knife in the old wound. He has driven the gulf between the two faiths even wider. He has again pitted the cross against the crescent.

The Pope’s statements have done much to convince Muslims from Tangier to Jakarta that an open war is being waged against them on three fronts: political, military and religious. The pontiff should not be surprised that his words generated such strong responses in a Muslim world seething with rage at being dragged back to the age of colonialism and civilising missions. Who is to convince Muslims now that the west is not waging a crusade against them, in an alliance between Bush and Benedict, between the powers of the temporal and the sacred?

· Soumaya Ghannoushi is a researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, specialising in medieval Christian literature on Islam [email protected]


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