Benedict's 9/12/06 Speech: Popes Who Live in Stained Glass Houses Should Not Throw Stones
The recent speech by Pope Benedict XVI, wherein he referred to the text of a rusty speech by a Byzantine emperor that cast Islam as an evil and violent religion, aroused a great uproar in the Muslim world. The Vatican’s subsequent public hand-wringing over the effects of the remarks made by the recently instated Pope - half-baked as these efforts were - did (predictably) little to quell Muslim fears and anxieties about the future of Catholic-Muslim relations. After all, the Pope, far from distancing himself or the Catholic institution he leads from the incendiary references, merely expressed ‘regret’ for the adverse impact that the remarks produced. Until such time that the Pope disavows the sentiments behind the speech he quoted, his utterances will continue to be seen as the first salvo in an escalated ‘clash of civilizations’, one where the Pope has now firmly cast his lot with George Bush II and his Islamophobic flock.
Pope Benedict's apologists claim his September 12th sermon, on the compatibility of reason and religious belief in Christian doctrine, was intended to condemn the denial of Christians' civil rights in the Muslim world. In this context, Pope Benedict began his address by citing a dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus and an unnamed Persian Muslim scholar. According to the Pope, as the dialogue between the two became heated, there was a point at which the Byzantine Emperor thundered at his Persian interlocutor: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
It is difficult to discern just what agenda or message the Pope sought to further with this attribution. Viewed against the backdrop of the entire address, these remarks resonate as a mere allegory, a bridge, if you will, to Pope Benedict’s central theme concerning the essential harmony of faith and reason. Only by imparting it to the soul, not by drumming it into the body by force can faith be spread, the Pope claimed. Thus, the ostensible Islamic injunction to spread the faith by the sword is unreasonable and indeed antithetical to faith itself. Fair enough?
Even if we accept the Pope’s interpretation of the Islamic approach to spreading the faith, though, as valid, the Pope was still on shaky ground if he meant to suggest thereby that Christian doctrine has somehow achieved a better or truer synthesis between faith and reason than Islam. In fact, the best and brightest of both religions have wrestled with this question for centuries, if not eons. To name but one example, one of the most intellectually fertile and avant-garde Muslim scholars and jurists of the late nineteenth century, Mohammed Abduh, extensively addressed the relationship between faith and reason in his Risalat al-Tawhid (“the Theology of Unity”).
Alternatively, the Pope’s remarks may have been designed to direct the reader’s attention to present-day strains of intolerance towards non-Muslims evident in contemporary Islamic societies. Indeed such manifestations of intolerance, albeit far from omnipresent, exist. Take for instance, the murder of Daniel Pearl, an unassuming Wall Street Journal reporter of American Jewish extraction who merely sought to provide a forum for the Pakistani jihadist organizations (at whose hands he was brutally murdered) to air their worldview(s) in the U.S. print media. Also recall the headline-grabbing controversy from last year of an Afghani Muslim man bombarded with death threats for the mere desire to convert to Christianity. Or consider the violent reaction in some quarters of the Muslim world to the Pope’s address itself (e.g. the desecration of churches in the Palestinian West Bank – hardly a dignified response or compelling corrective to the substance of the Pope’s remarks).
However, assuming that the Pope meant to throw light on bona-fide, present-day instances of intolerance in the Muslim world, his approach - namely to resurrect the old canard that Islam is an inherently violent religion with a clear historical predilection towards spreading its faith by the sword – was quite maladroit. Such discourse constitutes a lamentable throwback to a state of affairs not seen for several generations, if not centuries, which also in many respects vitiates the hard-won gains by the former Pope John Paul II in overcoming the Church’s checkered past and promoting inter-faith dialogue.
More to the point, the Pope’s remarks are blatantly hypocritical and inaccurate. In times past, avowed representatives of Catholicism and Christianity writ large shed far more blood in religious wars than did their Muslim counterparts. To be sure, fanatics exist on both sides, and no major religion (save for Buddhism perhaps) has been free from the taint of violence. Yet even a cursory glance at the historical ledger of religiously motivated persecution and violence reveals on balance a far more commendatory record on the part of Muslim political authorities than on the part of Christian officialdom.
While Islamic empires expanded their territorial domains primarily by force and not by gentle persuasion, more often than not they left the inhabitants of newly absorbed domains with the latitude to worship as they wished. There is simply no equivalent of the Crusades or the reconquista in the history of Muslim empires’ outward thrust. While Muslim administrators offered distinct incentives (special tax exemptions and the like) to Jews, Christians and other religious minorities to convert to Islam, the process was altogether devoid of coercion. Simply put, Muslim administrators and armies never forced conquered people to convert to the conqueror’s faith on pain of expulsion or death. Instead, they bestowed the protected status of Ahl al-Kitab, or ‘People of the Book’, upon Jews, Christians and other monotheistic minorities.
Comparison of the treatment of minorities under Christian empires in the Middle Ages with their treatment under Muslim empires during the same era reveals other stark differences. For instance, consider the status of Jews under the Ottoman Empire vis-à-vis their status under the various Christian principalities of Europe. In the Ottoman Empire, Jews were one of the four religious minorities organized into the millet system. According to this arrangement, Jews functioned as an autonomous religious community, free to practice the Judaism of their forebears as they wished, and to educate their children and administer matters of personal status – e.g., marriage and inheritance – free from the intervention of imperial authorities. This is not to say that Jews were co-equals with their Muslim counterparts. Alongside functional religious autonomy existed a two-tiered social system, rendering Jews and others subject to restrictions that by today’s standards would be considered archaic, if not obtuse, such as having to dismount from their own horses if they encountered Muslims traveling by horseback.
Contrast these slight if gratuitous social restrictions, though, with the pervasive condition of Jews in Christian Europe. With the possible exception of seventeenth/eighteenth century Russia and Ukraine, where they resided in the Pale of Settlement under a set of arrangements similar to the above-mentioned millet system, the lives of European Jewry were quite precarious indeed. Frequently, in times of economic downturns, their Christian neighbors and authorities turned on them and made them out to be Public Enemy #1. Typically, what started out as scapegoating quickly morphed and escalated into terrible spasms of violence, or pogroms, against Jewish lives and property.
Compounding their precarious situation in economic, social and political terms was the fact that Jews were often shunted into undesirable occupations. Consequently, Jews represented a disproportionate share of moneylenders and tax collectors, excluded as they were from many professions that entailed ownership of the means of production and access to socioeconomic benefits, such as membership in guilds. Such arrangements worked to the distinct advantage of ruling elites. When the exploited population threatened to rise up against an oppressive socioeconomic order, blame could be easily shifted to Jews as the agents and executors of that order. Thus did Jews become a ready-made target of discontent in tough economic times, resulting in a vicious cycle at the heart of European Jewish life – discrimination begetting violence begetting further exclusion and alienation.
In the Ottoman domains, Jews similarly functioned as middlemen, but more typically as merchants than moneylenders. The key difference is that in Europe, institutionalized discrimination relegated Jews to serving as economic intermediaries, whereas in the Ottoman Empire, the presence of Jews as a prominent mercantile class was a position born of strength and empowerment. Specifically, the Sultan and the imperial authorities endowed Jews and other religious minorities with the autonomy and freedom of movement necessary to forge wide-ranging, cosmopolitan connections conducive to economic success.
Whereas under the Ottoman Empire, Jews carved out a reasonably prosperous and secure existence, in Christian Europe, they were constantly hounded and harangued. Jewish life in Europe through the centuries was in many respects akin to how English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes described society without effective governance – ‘nasty, brutish and short’. Further, in Jews’ greatest hour of need, the Holocaust, while many European nations either actively collaborated (e.g., Switzerland) with the Nazis or became criminally complicit by their silence, Muslim nations and groups often responded a good deal more energetically to the Jewish plight. Muslim Turkey was one of the largely unsung heroes of the day. Turkish authorities worked feverishly to rescue its Jewish nationals in Europe from the clutches of the gathering threat in France and other countries either occupied by or on the verge of being overrun by Nazi forces. In some cases, Turkish diplomats went to extraordinary lengths to amend the status of recently naturalized European Jewish citizens so that they once again came under the protective wing of their native Turkey. Another Muslim entity or institution that spared no effort was the Mosque of Paris, which managed to rescue hundreds of Jews from almost certain destruction at the hands of Nazi Germany by offering shelter in a mosque frequented by Muslims of North African origin. However, more than a few Christian and Catholic figures and institutions rendered life-saving assistance to beleaguered Jews as well, ranging from the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg - who rescued en masse the Jews of the Budapest ghetto - to the German officer Oskar Schindler, to countless Catholic bishops, priests and nuns.
All in all, though, the Holocaust is only explicable against the backdrop of centuries old anti-Semitism in Europe. Even with the advent of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the granting of equal rights and duties to all citizens of the European nation-state, irrespective of religion or creed, Jews remained on the fringes of society. Chauvinistic nationalism reared its ugly head once again by the nineteenth century, reaching a fever pitch in the Dreyfus Affair. The promise of emancipation and normalcy that ushered in the Enlightenment Era remained elusive. At least in Europe, Jews remained, as is said of them in the Book of Isaiah, as a ‘nation that dwells alone.’ While the Holocaust was certainly unique and unparalleled in scope and intensity, it was only the latest and most virulent manifestation of a regrettably uniform pattern across a large expanse of European space and time. No parallel trend or phenomena existed in the Muslim empires of that era.
Nonetheless, exceptions can be found to the general pattern. For instance, otherwise legitimate contemporary criticisms of Israel’s behavior and policies that emanate from Arab and Muslim majority countries are too frequently laced with anti-Jewish invective. Furthermore, Israel’s large-scale dispossession of much of the indigenous Christian and Muslim Palestinian population there at the time of its creation (1948) was followed in short order by a large-scale exodus of Jews from Arab lands. This mass departure was attributable in much greater measure to political pressure and persecution by wary, insecure Arab regimes (and citizenry) than it was to a proactive desire on the part of Arab Jews to plant roots in the modern Jewish state.
Even as the bastion of inter-faith tolerance and pluralism itself, the Ottoman Empire, went through the convulsions at the turn of the twentieth century that marked its imminent dissolution, Muslim authorities lashed out at non-Muslim minorities as the cause of the declining empire’s troubles. Most notably, spasms of violence were directed against Armenians that culminated tragically in their mass expulsion from Anatolia. In the course of the marches they were forced to endure through the Syrian Desert between 1915 and 1916, over two million Armenians perished from starvation and genocidal murder.
Even these examples of Muslim intolerance, though, are of a rather recent vintage. Across the broad sweep of history, religious minorities have fared decidedly better under Muslim empires than they have under Christian states and principalities on economic, social and political grounds. In this light, Pope Benedict’s derisive comments concerning the ostensible Muslim tendencies towards violence and religious intolerance, at best represent some sort of historical amnesia on his part, and at worst, an instance of rank hypocrisy. To make matters worse, the remarks were issued forth not from some fringe evangelical organization, but rather, from the leading global representative of one of the two major branches of Christianity. As condemnable as similar remarks by Jerry Falwell (“Muhammad was a terrorist”) and other American evangelicals are, at least their organizations have a comparatively small following. Not so for the mass religious organization of which Pope Benedict is the leader, numbering at a minimum in the hundreds of millions. Moreover, even the egregious Danish cartoon parodying the Prophet Muhammad that aroused so much controversy last year could not be legitimately pinned on any organization with a substantial mass base, despite the efforts of Muslim protesters to assign accountability to the Danish government itself. In the current controversy, however, a spiritual and political leader, with responsibility for a vast constituency, voiced the odious remarks about Islam and its prophet, Muhammad.
Therefore, the old adage that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones is meaningful here in a double sense. First, the Pope, as the representative of global Catholicism, should refrain from leveling accusations at other religions when such accusations can be legitimately turned against past Catholic spiritual and political leaders themselves. The blemished historical record of the Catholic Church and European Christian political authorities in their disposition towards non-Christian minorities speaks for itself.
Secondly, given his formidable influence over the lives and welfare of a significant number of the world’s inhabitants, Pope Benedict should desist even from the temptation of uttering such inane and insensitive remarks. At least so long as he wishes to avoid seeing the religious edifice that he leads come crumbling down, and with it the newfound respect accorded to the Church since the former Pope John Paul II made amends for many of the Church’s past misdeeds and shameful utterances. Let us hope that the Pope and his associates in the Vatican quickly and sincerely recant their deleterious statements and prevent this controversy from opening up a new front in what some regard as a burgeoning ‘clash of civilizations’.
Matt Weiss is a Ph.D candidate in Political Science at the University of California, Davis.