Pope Benedict XVI made an ill choice of illustrative anecdotes in a lecture at Germany’s University of Regensburg, and should have known better, but he did not thereby insult Islam. That deed was rather accomplished by those relatively small numbers of Muslims reacting to his words with incomprehension and thuggish violence.
The pope’s remarks came in a scholarly, richly subtle discussion of the rational nature of God before a group of academics. Peruse the text of his talk, and you encounter a host of erudite references, including one to a dialogue between a Byzantine emperor and an educated Persian in 1391. The emperor at onepoint confronts the Persian with a declaration that Mohammed brought nothing new to faith but “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Coercing faith through violence was unreasonable, the emperor said. “God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature,” he told the Persian, adding, “To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm or weapons of any kind … .”
The pope goes on from this account to explore his larger point about the “grandeur” of a rationality that derives from God. “It is to this great logos, to this bread of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures,” he said.
Invitation refused. Ripping his words out of context, ignoring the pope’s earlier calls for reconciliation between Christians and Muslims, later refusing to heed the pope’s assurance that the emperor’s disdain did not “express my personal thought,” a tiny minority of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims — but still thousands — have acted unreasonably, one of them even saying that “the pope’s comments may lead to war.”
The author of that grotesque overreaction was Hani Pahas, who also said in his article in an Arabic-language newspaper in London that the pope’s words were no different from “ignorant comments made by Adolph Hitler, who spoke of a supreme white race against all other races … .” But of course, the pope said nothing about race or about Muslims generally.
At least, Pahas confined his condemnatory excess to words on the printed page. Less restrained was a Palestinian group that firebombed Anglican and Greek Orthodox churches in the town of Nablus — wrong denominations, brave martyrs — as well as a Roman Catholic church. Wearing masks, some members of this group also fired bullets into two churches and set them afire with lighter fluid. In Gaza City, some of these wunderkind fired their rifles and set off explosives in another Greek Orthodox church.
There’s more. About 2,000 Muslims protested outside the Palestinian parliament building. Still other churches in other towns were burned down, one of them 170 years old. In Basra in Iraq, hundreds of demonstrators burned an effigy of the pope, shouting that he should be tried in an international court. And an Iraqi branch of al Qaeda put out a statement saying they would “break the cross and spill the wine,” that God would help “Muslims to conquer Rome” and “enable us to slit their throats … .”
Especially given the way some Muslim leaders try to stir up trouble in response to any and every perceived slight of a religion that does in fact deserve respect, the pope should have skipped any allusion to the Byzantine emperor. But a threat to slit throats as tit for the tat of an historical citation in a philosophical discourse? This, the assaults on churches and talk of war constitute far more serious testimony about inhuman violence in the name of a faith than anything the pope even remotely said.