The Pope and Islam : The True Debate

A few sentences spoken by Pope Benedict XVI were sufficient to touch off a fire-storm of impassioned reaction. Throughout the Muslim world, religious leaders, presidents, politicians and intellectuals joined their voices to protesting masses angered by a perceived “insult” to their faith.

 Most did not read the Pope’s speech; others had relied on a sketchy summary according to which the Pope had linked Islam and violence.

But all railed against what they saw as an “intolerable offence.”
Whatever the judgments of these scholars and intellectuals, one would have hoped that they adopt a more reasoned approach in their critical remarks, for two reasons. First, the unquestionable sincere love and reverence Muslims have for Prophet Muhammad notwithstanding, we are well aware how certain groups or governments manipulate crises of this kind as a safety valve for both their restive populations and their own political agenda. When the people are deprived of their basic rights and of their freedom of expression, it costs nothing to allow them to vent their anger over Danish cartoons or the words of the Pontiff. Secondly, what we are witnessing is, in fact, mass protest characterized primarily by uncontrollable outpouring of emotion which in the process ends up providing a living proof that Muslims cannot engage in reasonable debate and that verbal aggression and violence are more the rule than the exception.

Muslim intellectuals bear the primary responsibility of not lending credibility to this counter-productive game.

Some, arguing that the Pope had offended Muslims, demanded a personal apology. Benedict XVI offered his regrets, but the polemic has not abated.

There is ample reason to be startled by an obscure 14th Century quote attributed to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos critical of the “malevolent works” of the Prophet of Islam. Indeed, the Pope’s choice of examples in his attempt to take up the relationship between violence and Islam does raise questions, if not eyebrows.

Equally surprising was his reference to the Zahiri erudite Ibn Hazm (a respected figure but whose school of thought is marginal) to raise the issue of Islam and rationality.

 Perhaps the whole exercise was rather elliptical, lacking in clarity, superficial and even a bit clumsy, but was it an insult for which formal apology should be demanded? Is it either wise or just for Muslims to take offense at the content of the quote-simply because the Pope chose it-while ignoring daily questions they faced for the past five years on the meaning of “jihad” and the use of force? Pope Benedict XVI is a man of his times, and the questions he asks of Muslims are those of the day: questions that can and must be answered clearly, with solid arguments.

To start with, we must not accept that “jihad” be translated as “holy war.” Our priority should be to explain the principles of legitimate resistance and of Islamic ethics in conflict situations, not to encourage people to protest violently against the accusation that they believe in a violent religion.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the crisis is that the real debate launched by Benedict XVI seems to have eluded most commentators, and particularly Muslim commentators. In his academic address, he develops a dual thesis, accompanied by two messages. He reminds those rationalist secularists who would like to rid the Enlightenment of its references to Christianity that these references are an integral component of European identity; it will be impossible for them to engage in inter-faith dialogue if they cannot accept the Christian underpinnings of their own identity (whether they are believers or not).

Then, in taking up the question of faith and reason, and in emphasizing the privileged relationship between the Greek rationalist tradition and the Christian religion, the Pope attempts to set out a European identity that would be Christian by faith and Greek by philosophical reason.

 Islam, which has apparently has no such relationship with reason, would thus be foreign to the European identity that has been built atop this heritage.

 Few years ago, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger set forth his opposition to the integration of Turkey into Europe on similar basis. Muslim Turkey never was and never will be able to claim an authentically European culture. It is another thing; it is the Other.

These are the messages that cry out for an answer, far more than talk of jihad. Pope Benedict XVI is a brilliant theologian who is attempting to set down the principles and the framework of a debate on the past, present and future identity of Europe. This profoundly European Pope is inviting the peoples of the continent to become aware of the central inescapable Christian character of their identity which they risk to loose.

The message may be a legitimate one in these times of identity crisis, but it is deeply troubling and potentially dangerous in its double reductionism in the historical approach, and in the definition of European identity.

This is what Muslims must, above all, respond to; they must challenge a reading of the history of European thought from which the role of Muslim rationalism is erased, in which the Arabo-Muslim contribution would be reduced to mere translation of the great works of Greece and Rome.

The selective memory that so easily “forgets” the decisive contributions of “rationalist” Muslim thinkers like al-Farabi (10th c.), Avicenna (11th c.), Averroes (12th c.), al-Ghazali (12th c.), Ash-Shatibi (13th c.) and Ibn Khaldun (14th c.) is reconstructing a Europe that is not only a deception, but practices self-deception about its own past. If they are to reappropriate their heritage, Muslims must demonstrate, in a manner that is both reasonable and free of emotional reactions, that they share the core values upon which Europe and the West are founded.

Neither Europe nor the West can survive, if we continue to attempt to define ourselves by excluding, and by distancing ourselves from, the Other-from Islam, from the Muslims-whom we fear. Perhaps what Europe needs most today is not a dialogue with other civilizations, but a true dialogue with itself, with those facets of itself that it has for too long refused to recognize, that even today prevent it from fully benefiting from the richness of its constituent religious and philosophical traditions.

Europe must learn to reconcile itself with the diversity of its past in order to master the imperative pluralism of its future. The Pope’s reductionism has done nothing to help this process of reappropriation along : a critical approach should not expect him to apologize but it must simply and reasonably prove to him that historically, scientifically, and ultimately, spiritually, he is mistaken.

It would also give today’s Muslims a way of reconciling themselves with the immense creativity of the European Muslim thinkers of the past, who ten centuries ago were confidently accepting their European identity (not obsessed by the on-going sterile debates on “integration” ) and who deeply contributed to, nourished and enriched with their critical reflection both Europe and the West as a whole.