This was originally an email, but I thought what the heck: it works as a blog post. My mom asked me what I thought of the Pope’s much-debated speech at the University Regensburg recently, where he quoted a Byzantine emperor who said unflattering things about Muhammad and his religion.
For what it’s worth, I think his speech was worth reading: what snippets you get from the media aren’t exactly reflective of what he actually said. The speech is here. The quote is in the third paragraph, but the first four paragraphs are actually relatively easy (and interesting!) to get through.
The comment, in context, is far more benign than it is made out to be. It could have been approached with a bit more appreciation for the fact that the whole world, including the known-to-be-rather-touchy Muslims, is/are listening. At the same time, though, I’m unconvinced that being more delicate would help: some of the Muslim leaders (fascists that they are) derive their power and influence by directing the outrage of their populace away from themselves, and so have a vested interest in reading mountains into any mole-hill that can be twisted into sounding like an offense.
Anyway, as I read the passage in question, it sounds something like this, in layman’s speak (I’m being only slightly facetious here):
I was reading this book recently, about this Muslim and this Christian who did a lot of arguing about religion. The Christian was so upset by the Islamic endorsement of the use of violence in religion that he said some very shocking things, for example, ‘Muhammad was an idiot, and added only evil to the Jewish faith; God hates violence and we all know it, and anyone who says otherwise is probably selling weapons.’ The point he makes about God and violence is a valid one, which I will now discuss at length.
See what I mean? The first part of the quote didn’t need to be there, though he isn’t explicitly endorsing it… but it still sticks out. I suppose it could be compared to someone saying:
As someone once said, “Mohammad is evil”
While that’s an overly simplistic reading of his speech, there’s a valid point there. The way the speech is written, the objectionable part of the quote in question appears to have been quoted to give the listener an idea of how outraged at the religious endorsement of violence the fellow who said it was. As such, it’s hardly something that needed to be said to make the whole logical train work, but the Pope certainly isn’t indicating explicit agreement with that part of what the Byzantine emperor said.
Personally, I think this is essentially a case of an “academic” throwing a somewhat out-there quote into his lecture to keep his audience awake. He forgot that he is neither a professor working in an ivory tower anymore, nor is he the high-profile Catholic theologian whose work will only ever be read by priests, theologians, and devoted Catholics. A serious mistake.
Something I would point out that doesn’t get much attention in the media: the official penalty for insulting Muhammad is death. This isn’t quite a matter of ruffling some feathers, this is a matter of prompting the Al Qaeda cells in Italy to be awakened and set in motion to assassinate the Pope (assuming there are some). Of course, that would only further demonstrate his point, about the ludicrousness of using violence to spread faith (I don’t know which word should be in quotes: “spread” or “faith”).
I find the reactions to this speech particularly interesting as well. Much of the news media seems quick to condemn Benedict for using such a shocking quote. On the other hand, these are the same people who were the first to defend the free speech rights of the Dutch cartoonists. But of course, since the Pope isn’t a cartoonist and is instead that odious head-Catholic, his “free speech” rights don’t even come up. Better still, the point the Dutch were trying to make is the same that the Pope was trying to make: violence has become entwined with religion for many Muslims. (Of course, there were also plenty of cowards in the media, who stifled attempts to publish the Dutch cartoons (not that the cartoons were very funny, I don’t think).)
I’ve also heard a priest give his own take on the row, which was predictably very defensive of the Pope. He pointed out that this wasn’t the only quotation in the speech. The Pope also quoted Muhammad himself, as part of his point, practically in the same breath. In the Qur’an, there is a passage (surah 2,256) that reads “There is no compulsion in religion.” That’s a passage written by Muhammad early in his life, and one which the Catholic Church would agree with (if you don’t believe it, don’t do it: that’s a major part of the doctrine of the primacy of conscience). Part of what peeved the Byzantine emperor at the time was the contradiction of Muhammad’s later writing, for it was only shortly before Muhammad died that he added the command to spread the Islamic faith by the sword: a command that adds compulsion to religion. Now, that observation and criticism of the Islamic faith (and of Muhammad) is all very sound and logical, but doesn’t really address the fact that the Pope quoted a nasty-sounding assertion by this Byzantine emperor.
The other amusing reaction I’ve heard is people using the opportunity to vent their anger with the facts of history and the Catholic Church. Some people take the opportunity to say things like “the Pope shouldn’t point fingers at extremist activities in other religions, when his own faith has been a party to the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, among other nasties.” Which, truly, is an absurd reaction. It reminds me of a comedy routine by Eddie Izzard who said that we really ought to make the Germans and Japanese be the world’s peace-makers. They’ve very organized, and they can fly in and go “hey, hey now, we’ve done the killing thing, it really doesn’t work out, so knock it off!” Without making any defenses of the Church’s behavior in those two cases (and I think there’s a lot more to be said on those subjects), who better to say “yeah, been there, done that, it was a bad idea”? Granted, there seems to be some hypocrisy to that, but at the same time, the Pope, like everyone else, has a moral obligation to speak out against moral atrocities and abuse, such as those perpetrated by today’s Islamic fascists.
Anyway, that’s my perspective on things. Kind of helter-skelter comments, but that’s my brain today, for you.
To top it off, here’s a cartoon I thought was apt: