27 October 2006

pope meets world

The Post-9/11 world that is. And he’s finding it too thrilling for comfort. What started as an innocuous homecoming lecture, filled with the usual erudition and staidness as one would expect from Pope Benedict XVI, churned out the most controversial and dangerous results.

The offending words: “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” (lines spoken by 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologos in a dialogue with a Persian scholar). Of course, Benedict XVI didn’t mean that he agreed with the opinion of the Emperor.

The other offending point was the Pope’s assessment of Sura 2;256 (“There is no compulsion in religion”): “According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war.

The Pope might have thought it apt and even timely to use these points as jumping board to scholarly discussions on the transcendence of God, the dynamics of faith and reason and the contradictory natures of religion and violence. The points, however, jumped farther than he imagined.

Several Muslim scholars have since challenged the accuracy of the Pope’s observation and that of his sources, as well as certain other theological points concerning Islam that he made in the lecture. Many also thought he could have exercised a little more sensitivity and prudence in his choice of words. However, the intensity of violent reactions from the Muslim world – the rounds of vitriolic condemnation from Muslim leaders, incomplete, of course, without the fatwas and flag-burning; the demand for recalling Papal legates in some Muslim countries; the bombing of Christian churches (many of them non-Catholic) in West Bank, Gaza and Iraq; and the murder of an elderly Italian nun in Mogadishu allegedly because of it – have turned out to be, at once, inexcusable, ironic, understandable and expected.

Inexcusable because violence is never a fitting response to an academic opinion. Plus the inherent irrational nature of terrorist acts. Plus the appalling disproportion of the reactions. Suspicion of blasphemy is enough to merit several death sentences; allegation of disrespect to the tenets of another faith is sufficient ground to bomb churches.

Ironic because so much of the aggression has been pointed (1) at Pope Benedict XVI himself, icon of intellectual rigor and dogmatic correctness; (2) and at the Catholic Church (and other Christian Churches, by association) who is among those at the forefront of dialogue, peace-seeking and lobbying in behalf of Muslims in war-torn areas. And (3) radical Islamists dream of the day when everyone will think of them as men of peace by killing today those who think otherwise.

Understandable, to an extent, if one considers the Muslim context: a history of general poverty (despite the affluence of some oil-producing Arab nations), lack of proper education, suspicion against the encroachment of Western culture to their society and traditions, and recently, the wars involving “Christian West” versus Muslim peoples in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Expected because, in this Post-9/11 world, if you’re a world leader and you say something in public that falls short of perfection about the Prophet and Islam, do you expect to have peace of mind afterwards?

The Pope has since issued several apologies for the confusion and hurt of those who misinterpreted his words and intentions. The Vatican has made diplomatic moves to ease the tension and work for a return to normalcy of relations. Some were relatively satisfied with the apologies. Some just could not get over it.

Other than a costly lesson on religious sensitivity, the controversy has come to highlight certain facts: the growth in strength over the years of the threat of radical Islamists; the need to truly understand and properly respond to this phenomenon; the paucity of the West’s response to it so far (i.e., economic sanctions and military occupations); and the need for continuing and effective dialogue and peace-building among cultures.

Nothing new under the sun really; just a timely jolt to remind the Church of certain realities it has come to terms with in our Post-9/11 world, just like everybody else.