By Terry Lacey
(May 15, Jakarta, Sri Lanka Guardian) Pope Benedict XVI just traveled to Jordan, Israel and Palestine. Many Muslims felt he should have apologized for what he said in Regensberg in 2006. But the problem was not what he said. The problem was what he did not say. For many in the Muslim world the Pope has not yet traveled far enough.
In Amman, Jordan the Pope denounced “the ideological manipulation of religion” and called for greater understanding between the Christian and Muslim faiths. (Jakarta Globe 11.05.09 and AP).
In his famous speech at the University of Regensberg the Pope referred to the book by Professor Theodore Khoury on the dialogue between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.
The Pope points out that the emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: There is no compulsion in religion. He noted this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat.
Then the Pope moved onto religion and violence, quoting the Emperor Paleologus: “Show me just what Mohammed 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“.
The emperor argued that spreading the faith through violence was unreasonable and that “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul”.
This quote was probably written, as the Pope said, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402, when the Emperor was under attack from Muslim armies.
But instead of following up this tendentious first quotation with reflections on the impact of Greek philosophy on Christian concepts of faith and God, he needed to contextualize better to ensure he would not be misinterpreted as making a generalized attack on Islam as implicitly violent and evil.
He did not attempt to get out of this corner, and that is why he is still in it. He was trapped by his failure to explain the context of the politics of perception of Muslim violence and the nature of Islam by the Emperor Paleologus at that time. He dismissed sociological explanations as inadequate in the same speech but failed to recognize that history, war and the politics of power struggles may also determine how people see Islam, or Christianity or Judaism in a given place and time.
Christianity should rejoice in its Middle Eastern and Oriental common roots with Judaism and Islam and not seek, as the Pope seemed to argue at Regensberg, to impose a universally valid Hellenic-derived eurocentrism upon the world, which could never be accepted for example, by Muslims or people from Asian faiths, or by the cosmovision of indigenous peoples, and neither by more universalistic Christians. In this globalized world theology and politics are intertwined and there is no ivory tower in which to find God. After all Mother Theresa found Him in the street in India.
All three related monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have been used politically to justify violence, both by moderates and extremists, sometimes justified and sometimes not, except for pacifists who argue violence is never justified.
All three have been misused by fundamentalists to justify extremist policies and actions.
Violent disputes within Islam, separatist movements, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and fundamentalist terrorism have led many people to a violent view of Islam
But the majority of Muslims in modern times prefer the idea of a non-violent jihad against poverty and for development, or to be better citizens, or better people, and raise their families better.
There have always been tendencies within Islam that preferred to defend pluralism, tolerance and social and economic progress. The same Constantinople once besieged by Muslims, became the heart of the Muslim Ottoman Empire and received and protected the Jewish victims of the Spanish Inquisition.
What the Pope could have explained better at Regensberg was that selective use of quotations without adequate contextualization could lead to misinterpretations.
It might have been better in Regensberg or Amman, having introduced violence and religion, to contextualize the violent spread of Christianity in Indonesia by cannons and commerce, or the subjugation of the indigenous peoples of Latin America by the Cross and the sword, or the division of Africa by the Congress of Berlin, European armies and Christian denominations. Or how the holocaust happened in Christian Europe.
We should not judge Christianity as a religion by the political and commercial uses made of it, nor by its historical moral failures, nor by taking quotes out of context from the violent histories in the Old Testament. But put the emphasis more on positive histories and examples, achievements, beliefs and aspirations and modern socially responsible contextualization.
Similar courtesy could be extended in due course by His Holiness to Islam.
Terry Lacey is a development economist who writes from Jakarta on modernization in the Muslim world, investment and trade relations with the EU and Islamic banking.
By Terry Lacey