Islam and the Pope

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I expect that most of the people currently working themselves into an apoplectic frenzy over Pope Benedict’s speech haven’t even bothered to read it. But I have, and I have some thoughts:

First, the speech is a helpful reminder that one doesn’t become Pope by being an intellectual lightweight. The text is long, sophisticated, and clearly written for an academic audience. Nevertheless, I found it an interesting read. Benedict is typically seen as a defender of tradition, morality and social conservatism, which he is. But here he shows a slightly different side: he some nice things to say about modernity and the enlightenment, and he seems to suggest that the preservation of Athenian-style reason is every bit as vital for the survival of the West as the preservation of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. I’m almost glad that the current public controversy brought it to my attention.

Secondly, Benedict mentions Islam in only passing, and only to set up his broader argument. The infamous “evil and inhuman” comment was part of a longer quote by 14th century Byzantime emperor Manuel II Paleologus, and not the Pope’s own words. Moreover, Benedict doesn’t endorse this view; Manuel II’s comment is merely the starting point for a set of dialectic observations about the interplay between faith and reason. The idea that this represents some sort of “bigotry” that the Pope should have to apologise for is utterly absurd; one might as well accuse historians of bigotry for recording Manuel II’s correspondence in the first place. I find it hard to view the reaction to the Pope’s remarks as anything other than a manifestation of the well-established Islamic tendency to go into a spasm of public outrage over any perceived slight, real or imaginary.

That said, there is an implicit criticism of Islam there, for those determined to find it. Benedict rightly suggests that freedom of religion is absolutely vital if religion itself is to be meaningful: religion cannot be a conscientious choice if it is mandatory. For this reason, Benedict endorses Manuel II’s pointed criticism of holy war, and argues that “violent conversion” is contrary to the principles of both religion and rationality. This can be construed as criticism of Islam only because Islamic societies are among the few that still practice “violent conversion” (or at least use violence to prevent conversion, which in a moral sense amounts to the same thing) on a wide scale. Historical Christianity is also far from blameless in this regard, as the Byzantine emperor (whose own state had been sacked by the crusaders 300 years earlier) surely knew. But Christianity has, for the most part, reformed itself. Islam – under which the death penalty for apostasy is still widely practiced, and freedom of religion frequently does not exist – has not.