can’t see the forest

Pope Benedict XVI Panders to Anti-Islamic Sentiment for the Good of the Universal Church

At a “meeting with the representatives of science” at the University of Regensburg, Germany on Tuesday, 12 September, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, the proclaimed Vicar of Christ and seniormost cleric in the Catholic faith, began his address by reminiscing about his good old days in academia; he went on to lament about a reduction in the importance of theology as an academic discipline. Then there was a rather abrupt and disconcerting segue into the recounting of a conversation between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an unnamed Persian intellectual, a conversation which took place at Ankara and was later transcribed during the Siege of Constantinople (1394-1402), as documented by German professor Theodor Khoury:

In the seventh conversation, edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2,256 reads: “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. Without descending into details…he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “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 goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable…

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature…for the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.

Pope begins German tourThe full text of the Pope’s address is available here (opens in new window).

His Holiness was careful to note that the conversation being referenced was actually set down by the Byzantine emperor, which, he explains, accounts for the somewhat one-sided retelling, including the anonymity of the emperor’s Muslim “interlocutor.” Taken in context, the Pope’s statement is not the blanket condemnation of Islam which is being publicized in the media, and the ways in which it has been publicized may have much to do with the hotly negative reception with which it has been greeted by many Muslims and Islamic organizations. This would be an interesting subject of study.

But, even when the words being spoken are not his own, it can be argued that the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church must bear responsibility for addressing an essentially academic issue of religious transcendence and of the role of reason in theology with such a contentious and politically charged example, especially an example from a partisan source some 600 years distant.

The government of Pakistan has summoned the Vatican ambassador to express regret over the Pope’s remarks. The 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference said it regretted the Pope’s remarks, and Mohammed Mahdi Akef, head of the Muslim Brotherhood, has commented that the Pope’s remarks “do not express a correct understanding of Islam.”

Everything You Wanted to Know About Manuel II Paleologus, But Were Afraid to Ask

Manuel II Paleologus - Minted Depiction -

Manuel II Paleologus (also spelled Palaeologus or Palaiologos) was the leader of the Christian Byzantine Empire from 1391 until 1425. He became heir apparent to the throne after his older brother tried unsuccessfully to usurp their father’s power. Manuel’s father, John V Paleologus, was later overthrown by others but was restored with Manuel’s help and with the aid of the Republic of Venice. The prince was forced to become an honorary hostage to the Ottoman court of Bayezid I, where he was made to participate in a military campaign which displaced Philadelphia, the Byzantines’ last stronghold in the Turkish mainland.

Manuel II reigned at a time in which the tables had turned on the Byzantine Empire; Ottoman expansionism and dirty internal politics in Byzantium alike had destroyed much of the empire’s territorial and political influence. Manuel II survived and foiled a long and arduous Ottoman siege of Constantinople, from which his own transcription of the conversation cited by the present Pope dates, and he was able to maintain friendly relations with the growing giant. This was accomplished chiefly through servility and was likely little more than a protracted effort to buy time in order to bolster the Byzantine defenses in Constantinople and throughout Greece.

Much of the weakness inherited by Manuel II was the result of the Fourth Crusade, the brainchild of Pope Innocent III. The Fourth Crusade had been declared as an effort to reclaim Egypt and then Palestine for Christianity; but when it was found that far fewer than expected had heeded the Vatican’s call, the frustrated crusaders instead decided to sack Constantinople, then a largely Christian city. The ancient city was looted and many of its treasures were spirited away to Venice. These developments helped pave the way for the expansion of the Serbian Empire, leaving the shrinking and pillaged Byzantine Empire surrounded by somewhat hostile territory. This problem was compounded by the Ottoman unification of Osman I (1258-1326), which made Ottoman Muslims and their territorial ambitions a force to be reckoned with. [As Dirk points out in his comment below, Seljuk Turks had already taken advantage of significant territorial opportunities during the 11th Century, the result of which had been increasing Byzantine reliance on Western military aid.] No longer could Rome and Constantinople bully the Muslim tribes without second thoughts; the sport of crusading would be a little more difficult from now on, at least until the end of the Second World War.

Byzantine leaders turned to Rome, to Paris, and to London for assistance in defense against the Ottomans and others. They were offered assistance if and only if Byzantium would accept Roman Catholicism and political unity with the Western church. How’s that for conversion by force (or would Benedict XVI consider this technique more “reasonable”)? The Byzantine citizenry ultimately refused to accept such terms, and Constantinople, which had stood relatively undisturbed for about a thousand years, fell to Ottoman cannonades in 1453.

The Emperor’s Words In Context

GodefroiSo, when we stand back and examine the 600 year-old “anti-Islamic” comments of Manuel II Paleologus in context, we can see that we are dealing with words spoken by a political leader much of whose career, both on and off the throne, was devoted to supplication for military assistance to the Catholic Church and Catholic nations. When it had become clear that the Byzantine Empire would not be able to maintain its integrity alone in the face of growing territorial threats, Constantinople was willing to put its differences with Rome aside in order to ask for help; Rome wanted souls in exchange, and the deal was never decisively made. By and large, the Byzantines preferred death to forced conversion, be it at the hands of a Muslim empire or a Christian one. Manuel’s comments about violent conversion in the Islamic world, and in the Ottoman in particular, reflect his own experiences as a pawn in the toybox of that regime and they also reflect his need to portray an essentially territorial conflict in religious terms, since it was to a powerful religious body and to its associated political bodies that he was appealing for aid in time of need.

The utilization of religious tensions for political ends is hardly something to which Manuel II Paleologus or Osman I had been strangers any more than is Pope Benedict XVI. The solidification of the Ottoman Empire did indeed pose a threat to Byzantium and to other European territories, but the governments of England and France could not be compelled to invest resources in preemptively combatting this threat unless the conflict could be expressed more or less in purely religious terms. It is not enough to say that the Ottomans were eyeing Constantinople—for political purposes, the inference had to be drawn, whether or not it might have proven true, that it was all of Christendom which, solely for the sake of its own “reasonable” religious beliefs, was the ultimate target of the Ottoman Empire with its “unreasonable” religious beliefs. Thus, in Manuel’s account, it was not merely “Ottomans” who were posing this threat, but “Muslims” in general, by virtue, according to the emperor, of the fundamental aspects of their faith, which alone allowed them to be such warmongering monsters after all. Manuel’s assertion, or the interpretation thereof, that Islam is an unreasonable religion while Christianity keeps in strict accord with the ethical rosiness of Greek philosophy completely ignores the truth that the Christian Crusades were in themselves bloody acts of conquest on religious pretexts, just as Benedict’s evocation of these assertions belies numerous and vast examples of European expansionism upon similar religious pretexts, many of them having taken place in quite recent history and practically all of them with either the direct or implicit approval of the Holy See, whether or not any Pope would in retrospect condemn such policies as “unreasonable.” Every coin has two faces, no matter on which side of the Bosphorous it is minted.

The Role of Religion in the Psychology of “Us” against “Them”

While I do not believe that it was His Holiness’ sincere intention to insult Islam at large, the psychodynamics of the Pope’s choice of the comments of a war-beleaguered Byzantine as an appeal to a greater role for reason in theology and in political harmony in the modern world seems a bit…baited to me. We must remember that Pope Benedict XVI’s tour of Germany, from which his controversial statement comes to us, is essentially a quest for Vatican visibility in an increasingly secularized nation which just happens to be the Pope’s homeland. What better way to generate new converts or to stir up sluggish preexisting ones than to pit terrorism, expressed purely and deceptively in explicit liaison with greater Islam, against the angelic, self-effacing, somber reasonability of Catholicism, which everyone knows is the world’s friendliest faith, right? The Pope may be sincere when he says he is upset with how his remarks have been interpreted. His example of religious generalization and stereotyping from the XIVème Siècle was not meant as an affront to the Muslim word so much as a political rallying point for would-be Catholics in one of the most secular nations in Europe, which is also one of the foremost dissidents of Western motives and methods in the ‘War on Terror.’ His Holiness’ speech was, at its surface, primarily concerned with an argument that Catholic theology has much to offer our troubled times. But his use of this archaic example in a politically terse environment, as well as the greater shape of his discourse, show that this Regensburg address, like so many other papal dicta, was essentially a sales pitch to pricked ears in time of crisis.

I am reminded by all of this of the recently posted conversation between Noam Chomsky and evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, in which they discussed a self-selective tendency in biology and in politics for the ability of a group to positively generalize about itself while negatively generalizing about others. We don’t have to look very far to find a human history awash in this sort of thing, and we see examples of it in everyday life, from ourselves and others. Trivers’ point was that this kind of artful self-deception may have a biological purpose in animal life just as it has its political uses in civilization.

If I identify myself as a Christian and another person as a Muslim, for instance, then, when I am the beneficiary of an act of altruism on the part of my Muslim friend, I am apt to express exactly what event has taken place with which I am pleased, in unambiguous terms: “My friend gave me a great gift,” I might say. But if I become the recipient of an act which I perceive to have been hostile or disrespectful, I am more apt to say: “My Muslim friend did me wrong” as opposed to “my friend stepped on my toe.”

Conversely, if I identify myself as a Christian along with another Christian friend, when this Christian friend does something nice for me, I am likely to say: “My good Christian friend gave me a gift today. He’s such a good Christian.” But if this friend with whom I identify as part of a group should then abuse me in some way, I will not be as quick to identify his lapse of good judgment with his creed, since I myself am a part of that group. (This is all hypothetical—I would first and foremost characterize myself in real life as a dedicated agnostic, a position I have somehow miraculously taken without having become a hopelessly amoral human being in the process. I think.)

Whether you’re talking about conflicts expressed in religious, political, racial, or purely personal terms, there appears to be a biological basis for the propensity of human beings to generalize positively about ourselves in groups and negatively about others in groups. I would argue that human willingness to do so is every bit as generative of religion as a social construction as it is reactive to social and political circumstance.

God speaks to Moses - TheBrickTestament.comOne can look back to the Old Testament for a number of compelling examples in which Moses’ people were explicitly ordered by God to “cast out” (murder) the inhabitants of a land which they claimed was promised them by God solely on the basis of their own brand of fideism. I, for one, seriously have to wonder how much of this divine authorization of conquest was written in after the fact.

The Pope’s assessment that religious underpinnings for violence are unreasonable is something I feel that few educated people would argue against. I certainly could be mistaken. But, in my view, the reasons for which outcry among Muslims is justified in this instance can be traced in the most fundamental aspects of psychology, of rhetorical evasionary tactics: the Catholic evocation of any historical argument that Islam is an unreasonable faith ought at least to be tempered by explicit recognition of the many heinous and unreasonable atrocities perpetrated by political bodies which have owed their allegiances to the Vatican throughout the centuries. Anything less would be uncivilized.

As long as nationalism and religious conviction remain vehicles for state-sponsored generalizations and anecdotal selectivity of the species which found such a prominent voice in Regensburg this week, I fear there will never be peace in the world. But I am somewhat comforted, and I hope not falsely so, by my observations that I am living in an age in which the people of all faiths and nations seem to be growing more aware of the types of socioeconomic games being played far above their own heads, games in which not even the most sacred beliefs of a people are or have ever been safe from use as tools to divide and to distract.

His Holiness concluded the Regensburg address with the following comments:

In the Western World it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialog of cultures.

I am, admittedly, a bit frightened by the Pope’s nonchalance in speaking for the world’s “profoundly religious” cultures as viewing the universality of reason as a threat. I can imagine no instance in a theatre any larger than a single mind in which the “universality of reason” need conflict with one’s religious beliefs. But I can cite many existing examples and can imagine innumerable others in which such a conflict might be imposed on a population at large to suit the aims of the powerful, most particularly in cases in which, outside of the “reasonability” of self-serving generalizations, it would be most unreasonable to conceive the political actions of a relatively small body in terms of the religious beliefs shared among a greater whole.


14 Responses

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  1. Dirk said, on 9/16/06 at 2:04 am

    An excellent post and thank you for shedding some light on the context in which Manuel made the original comments – though elsewhere it says that they were made while in the winter barracks in Ankara, which is when he would have been a hostage of the Ottoman Court?

    I do take issue with the unification of the Ottoman tribes resulting in Rome and the Byzantines not being able to “bully” their way through any more. As you will know, the Byzantines hadn’t really been able to engage in any kind of bullying since the short-lived renaissance of the Empire in the late tenth century and the Turks (Seljuk) had proved their potential in the battle of Manizert in 1071.

  2. tellitlikeitis said, on 9/16/06 at 2:39 am

    You are right: the comments are reported to have been made in Ankara. It is presumed that the emperor set them to paper during the siege some years later. I will revise–thanks! And thanks very much for your compliments.

    Corruption in the empire and attacks from the Normans in 1040 weakened the Byzantine infrastructure significantly, and large portions of the east were left relatively undefended. The Seljuk Turks were able to take vast swathes of territory, and the capture of the Emperor Romanos IV led to further instability.

    But, perhaps beginning with the First Crusade, an influx of aid from the West enabled later Byzantine rulers, particularly Alexios and John II Komnenos, to reclaim a number of important cities and territories in Asia Minor. It was only during the subsequent and highly corrupt Angeloi dynasty, after 1185, that the Seljuks and Bulgarians began to be able to take serious advantage of the ground they had gained over a hundred years prior.

    You are right to point out the significance of the leadup to Manizert, and I thank you for your insights. But I don’t think that was definitively the last gasp of Byzantium. The door had been opened, but was not yet wide enough for an army to pass through.

    By the time of the Fourth Crusade, the Western attitudes towards intercession on behalf of Byzantium had significantly cooled. This was largely because it had become clear that political and spiritual unity with Rome was not a popular idea among the Byzantine people. It was the protracted absence of military and financial aid from Catholic rulers which, coupled with the disaster of the Fourth Crusade, allowed the Turks to overtake Constantinople with relative ease. Precisely as you suggest, earlier events had indeed contributed heavily to this state of affairs. But they had not yet posed so broad an obstacle to the territorial ambitions of the West as was realized upon the consolidation of the Turkic and other peoples under the Ottoman domain, in my view.

  3. Gracie said, on 9/17/06 at 7:29 am

    As always, I learn so much from your historical perspective on events still relative in today’s ongoing conflicts. This happens to be a topic that I’m quite interested in so thank you for writing these incredible, pieces. This particular one is quite informative so I hope you’ll continue to post on religious/political matters.

    BTW, your site is one of the best with the wealth of information provided here. Keep up the great work, Curt!

  4. nomdebplume said, on 9/17/06 at 7:54 pm

    I feel as though I’m in over my head with everything I’ve just read (and only partially absorbed), nevertheless, I am better for having visited. The subject you wrote about is of interest to me, though not to the same degree. The depth of background you provided has enabled me to give the entire issue more thought, and I thank you for that.

    It’s a fine line we walk as we strive to overcome our prejudices while witnessing current events… something I tend to daily while raising 4 children and teaching them the same. My immediate response to Islamic outrage over the Pope’s remarks was “refer to the Q’uran”. Secondary to that was “refer to current Islamic behavior and the absence of any outcry by the peaceful Islamic community concerning the use of terrorism by those claiming to also worship Allah”. But ultimately, the reaction punctuated it most dramatically: burning churches and killing a nun? Is this how a group of people set out to prove they are not a violent religion??

    And no, when my best friend, who is an Atheist, does something wonderful (which he often does), I don’t single him out as a good-deed-doing-Atheist – just as I don’t blame his atheism when he ticks me off. I just wish he were a Christian – mostly so that when he dies he will be in heaven and we can continue our friendship. I’m nobody special… it’s a gift anybody can have.

  5. tellitlikeitis said, on 9/17/06 at 8:23 pm

    You’re welcome, Nomdebplume, and I thank you for your comments and for visiting.

    I agree that the rather small and localized violent outbursts in limited parts of Muslim society are a most acrid punctuation of the Pope’s comments. But it is precisely an error of generalization of the type that is discussed above, to say that there is any burden of “proof” to be furnished by Muslims to prove they are not violent. Where is the proof furnished by Christians that they are not violent? Is it in the Crusades? No. In the conquest of Africa and the Americas? No. So generalizations can flow in both directions, with negative effects on either side. It is unbecoming of anyone to react violently to a statement made at an academic conference, but those who are reacting violently are not doing so just because their Muslim faith dictates that they should. They are reacting because they feel that a major Christian figure has insulted their faith by deeming its evangelism “unreasonable” while at the same time ignoring many heinous crimes committed in the name of Christ throughout the centuries. It is the pot calling the kettle black. That is what is insulting to these people, not because they are Muslim but because they are human beings with powers of judgment. The violence is certainly unwarranted; the Qur’an is not its source.

    The violent reactions to the Pope’s commentary are more a product of media representations rather than of the Pope’s comments themselves. So is the opinion of many Westerners that Muslims are intrinsically violent to a degree higher than those of any other faith, categorically. How much of this opinion is based on personal, face-to-face interaction with Muslims, and how much is based on televised and printed news? That is the real question.

    Your words are wise: “It’s a fine line we walk as we strive to overcome our prejudices while witnessing current events.” That is absolutely right on the money. The finest lines are hard to walk precisely because they are hardest to see in the first place. I struggle with it every day, even in very personal aspects of my life; we all do, to some degree, I think.   

  6. nomdebplume said, on 9/18/06 at 8:23 am

    Yes, generalizations can flow on both sides, but in one respect, I think we might have a case of “apples and oranges” here. We can go back and compare historic Muslim behavior with that of the Christian Crusades to justify modern-day Muslim conduct, but wouldn’t it be more prudent to use modern Christian conduct for this comparison?

    The bombings of abortion clinics or the murders of doctors who perform abortions by [so-called] Christians might provide a better example. There are those who write off the entire belief system of Christianity based on such acts, but as a Christian myself, I can separate the two. I abhor this violence and murder, especially when done in the name of God. True Christians speak out against this type of tragedy.

    My opinions are not based on media misrepresentation… or face-to-face contact with Muslims, since I can’t say with certainty that I’ve met any followers of Islam. I would not expect such an encounter to be offensive, violent, or to include the screaming of anti-American slogans. Just as I would not expect the next Christian I meet to be planning to bomb an abortion clinic.

    Instead, my opinions are complimented by some reading I’ve done about the Islam faith and what it expects of its followers. Though I’ve only scratched the surface, I have been amazed by what I’ve discovered (Unveiling Islam, Caner), and have to concede that it tends to support certain “generalizations” and much of what I witness going on in the world.

    For instance, in chapter 9, verse 29 of the Qur’an, it states: Fight those who believe not in Allah or the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth, from among the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizyah (tax) with willing submission and are subdued.

    Ibn Khaldun, the 15th century Tunisian historian, backs this up with his writings: “In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force… The other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the holy war was not a religious duty for them, save only for purposes of defense… Islam is under obligation to gain power over other nations.”

    Though written several centuries ago, our biggest mistake would be to believe this assertion is not still valid today. While Christians grieve the Crusades having ever taken place, and pose no threat of repeating such a horror, [this form of] Jihad is still practiced among Muslims.

    Without sounding like a Sunday School lesson, the tenets of my faith do not call for a Jihad against non-believers. Instead, we are expected to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us”… or at the very least, try. A very difficult line to walk, indeed.

    Thank you for taking the time to educate and challenge my views. I’m not as wise as I am a seeker of wisdom.

  7. tellitlikeitis said, on 9/18/06 at 10:23 am

    I’m glad that you’re quite conscious not to allow oversimplification and dramatization in the media to mold your opinions of others at the expense of common sense, and that you’re teaching your children to think similarly in this regard. That is a trait that is becoming more and more rare in our time and in our culture, and it’s heartening and it’s to be commended that honest people everywhere are fighting the trend. It may seem like common sense to you and to me, but to a growing segment of the population, in the West and elsewhere and irrespective of religious faith, it’s becoming less common. Most of this is related to issues of lifestyle and of technological culture that are not wholly relevant to our discussion, but are to many others.

    First of all, I’d like to address the idea that the point of bringing up the Christian Crusades is to somehow justify “modern Muslim conduct.” I think if you will reread what I have written you will find that this is not anywhere implied. There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world and an even greater number of Christians, so to speak of “modern Muslim conduct” or of “modern Christian conduct” is not something one can do and make a great deal of sense, at least not without drawing gross generalizations. What I’d like to get you to see, and I’m by no means offended if I’m unable to do so, is that I realize that you are not superciliously drawing generalizations with your argument, which is historically founded and relevant; I understand that you are beyond this in this context. But I do believe that you are making at least one large, hidden assumption based on the perspective from which you are viewing the situation we are discussing. In addition, I think there is a confusion of arguments going on which is not easy for anyone to avoid, myself certainly included. I’m also glad that you’re willing to duke it out. Most would shrug and turn on the television set, at least figuratively. These are not trivial qualities, and that’s why I prattle on about them so: not for purposes of patronization of any sort or shape, but because constructive–and deconstructive–thought is to be encouraged wherever one finds it, no matter if there is a consensus resulting from it or not.

    The reason that it is important to highlight the Crusades in this discussion is not because they have special relevance to violence in our time. There are more appropriate comparisons that can be drawn for purposes of analogy and deconstruction. You are quite right about that. The reason it is important to bring up the Crusades is that they have a very great deal to do with both Manuel II’s comments, as cited by the Pope, and those of ibn Khaldun, as cited by yourself. The Christian Crusades of the Middle Ages were the defining geopolitical movements of their time in Europe and the Near East, just as the wars in the Middle East bear significant weight in our own day. It was, in fact, a war between Europeans and Ottomans which was conceived of by the European public as a war of Islam against Christianity, and by the Ottomans as the reverse, both quite emotionally charged and erroneous conclusions the fallacy of which is easier to gauge from without than from within. This is the appropriateness of the evocation of the Crusades in Manuel’s time, to show that the kind of thinking behind his statments about Islam may offer striking parallels to the kind of thinking that goes on primarily amongst educated classes of both faiths in our own day.

    The pertinent part of the Pope’s address is not his citation of Manuel’s opinion that Muhammad brought the world only “evil and inhuman things.” His Holiness made it clear that this opinion is not his own. This is the media catchphrase, the part which has drawn the most attention among both Westerners and practicing Muslims throughout the world. The Pope has been careful to intimate that Manuel II Paleologus does not speak for the Catholic Church. But the Pope certainly does speak for that Church, and the defining part of his address is his own commentary directly subsequent to the citation he gave:
    “The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature…for the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.”

    The greater argument that the Pope was making is that intercultural dialog in the modern world is not possible because Muslims are violent and unreasonable. Apart from his rather gruesome citation (in my opinion), he was otherwise quite tactful about making this point. This is the part of the address which has most deeply offended Muslims as well as some Christians and other thinkers of various religious faiths, or, in my case, of none at all. It is fine to cite the Qur’an’s admonition to its faithful to fight those who believe not in Allah. That is valid. It’s there in the text.

    The insult to Muslims was that, alongside his oblique reference to those parts of the Qur’an instructing holy war or jihad as evidence for the unreasonability of Islam, the Pope did not also give attention to Biblical passages such as:

    “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men…They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it–men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep, and donkeys.” Joshua 2:2,21

    “And when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Show them no mercy.” Deuteronomy 7:2

    “In the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.” Deuteronomy 20:16

    If we’re going to highlight Qur’anic precedents for violence, let’s not leave out Biblical precedents for the same. The Pope’s call for intercultural dialog was tacitly hinged on the assumption that the two dialoging cultures are not on equal moral footing, which is not a judgment that those of either faith are entitled to make based on their histories, and yet, both commonly do, not only Christians but Muslims as well. This is the hidden assumption of which I speak, an assumption in both the Islamic and Christian spheres that each side has some sort of moral superiority to the other. Judged on the basis of the tenets of their faiths, neither does.

    It is no theological secret that the God of the Old Testament acts out of accord in many ways with the God embodied by Jesus Christ in the New. Yet, even in reference to the Old Testament, Christ himself spoke that he had not come to change even one letter of the law. Yahweh is more impetuous and violent than loving and compassionate in the older texts, and many theological scholars and historians agree that much of this divine-sanctioned violence was very likely written in as retroactive justification for Hebrew conquests out of Egypt. This is the most sensible of the various ways in which it is generally explained away in both Catholic and Protestant doctrine, when it is talked about at all. Angered Muslims and others, I feel, only wish that the Pope had highlighted this discrepancy before accusing Islam of the implict modus operandi of conversion by force when it is such an intrinsic part of the Judeo-Christian ethic, as acted out throughout the Old Testament and then confirmed rather than repudiated by Christ biblically, although the message of Christ vastly superceded, thankfully, much of the genocidal violence that had come before. Rome was the “oppressor” of Christ’s day, and the Romans were not so easily “cast out” as the Canaanites. This is a factor that must be considered for what it is worth, which may not be much. Still, the orders to Moses, Joshua, and others for pillage and murder came directly from the mouth of God; one cannot believe in the Bible as the word of God and think otherwise without adopting a double standard somewhere along the line.

    If you are sincere that the tenets of your faith do not call for you to act out violence against non-believers, then you have before you an awful lot of the Old Testament to explain away, much of which is devoted to precisely that. I mean no offense by this, and I understand that you are strong in your faith and I would never wish anything different for you. Please understand that. I am merely asking you to grant Muslims at large the same dogmatic and doctrinal latitude which Christians have awarded themselves over the past 2,000 years or more while slaughtering the indigenous populations of whole continents, all the while turning to the books of Judges and Deuteronomy for templates, according to the scholarly record and those of the European courts. I do not believe that we are comparing apples with oranges. We are comparing red apples to green apples, “our” apples to “their” apples, and the distinction is both subtle and of tantamount importance.

    “That’s all very well,” you might say, “but the proof is in the pudding.” And you’d be right to point that out. Your example of oxymoronic pro-life bombings is an appropriate comparison, I think. There is violence in the West and violence in the East. But there is a problem with insisting that violence continues in the Muslim world because of the tenets of Islamic faith. That’s just not the case, and it’s easily demonstrable as false through simple mathematics. You point out that true Christians would not blow up buildings and people. I tend to agree with you, although I would point out that this notion of “true” Christianity would be contingent on a highly selective interpretation of the Bible, since the Old Testament is awash with genocide and oppressive and vengeful violence of varying magnitudes, all straight from the mouth of God. What you might be glossing over is that, of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, approximately 1.29 billion of them would tell you seriously, even with their very lives on the line, that acts of violence carried out by Muslims in the name of Islam are not representative of a correct understanding of Islam. The situation is exactly parallel, in this regard, with your statement about true Christian values. The difference is that the violence perpetrated by less than 1% of the Muslim world tends to receive a great deal more publicity than the peaceful faith practiced by the other 99%. The squeaky wheel gets the grease–I don’t mean to regress to clichés, but that’s a huge factor in the ways in which Westerners, particularly, tend to generalize about violence in the Muslim world.

    I would also take issue with the notion that Christians “pose no threat of repeating such a horror” as the Crusades. Christianity is currently, by far, the dominant faith in the world economy. At the time of the Crusades, which were fueled by a great deal of economic strategy in addition to their decorative religious pretexts, this was not the case. The Muslim world was minerally richer then, as was the New World, which was conquered wholly in the name of evangelism, again according to scholarly record and to those of the imperial courts. If Christians pose no more of a threat than any other group, it is at least partially because the economic and geopolitical need for them to do so is no longer present. Furthermore, the historical reason that predominantly European or European-descended nations in which Christianity is the religion of the majority are now the wealthiest nations is precisely because of the kinds of genocide and exploitation which were carried out by conquistadores and others, wholly in the name of Christ, through which slavery later became the steroids of New World development every bit as much as it had been of Ottoman development. This is not something we can cast aside as ancient history, because it continued in Africa right up through the mid-20th Century. So European imperialists, by your definition, were not true Christians either, I take it. If that’s your assessment, I’d agree with it. What is apparent to me is that the righteousness of Christianity as a whole (note: not of you as a Christian personally, which is altogether different and more honorable) has much more to do with the current position of Christianity at the top of the world’s economic food chain, and how it got there, than with the intrinsic tenets of the faith.

    I believe that you are a good Christian person who takes your faith very seriously, and that you mean and do well in the world based on that faith. I would not take issue with that in any way. I think it’s wonderful. I only ask you to acknowledge that the same is true of the incredibly vast majority of the world’s Muslims. If you are not willing to acknowledge this, then I would have to call into serious question your statement that your opinions of the Muslim world at large are based on information above sensation.

    As always, thank you for your comments and for the stimulating discussion. We may have to agree to disagree at some point, but the point is that we will both learn something–I’ve learned much already, and I thank you for that.

  8. heavenlygraces said, on 9/19/06 at 4:21 am

    Wow! I am l really enjoying these discussions! You all write beautifully and I have learned from all, especially tellitlikeitis and nomdebplume. It is wonderful to have my mind be opened by both contrasting and parallel views. I am committed and joyful Catholic so I have my own prejudices and viewpoints based on my upbring and beliefs. I have worked for an Israeli company and travel to Israel for my work. I have learned and cried about the oppression that the Palestinians suffer while also enjoyed the fruits of Israel and its culture. I have friends from both cultures. It is truly heartbreaking. Anyway. I look forward to learning more from reading tellitlikeitis blog site. You are truly impressive at only 26 years of age!

  9. nomdebplume said, on 9/20/06 at 11:10 am

    Thank you for leaving such a nice comment. I can’t imagine what it must be like for you working in that region of the world and dealing with both sides of the issue that closely. It must tug at your heart and mind all the time. We can continue to pray for both sides…

    You weren’t kidding when you said “duke it out”, just as I wasn’t kidding when I said I felt I was in “over my head”. Your text was a lot for me to contemplate, which is always good. Although my beliefs are based on faith, I am not expected to accept everything I hear without testing it first (See 1John 4:1).

    I am tempted to try to address all of what you included in your most recent comment, but that would be neither practical for me, nor profitable for you. Instead, I will try to return to a more simplistic argument (for lack of a better word).

    Throughout our discussion, we have contrasted Christians with Muslims, and I believe defining the word “Christian” could help clarify a lot of the points we disagree on. As you know, literally translated, the word Christian means, “follower of Christ”. Christ was not a figure physically present in the Old Testament, His arrival heralded the New Testament, and enhanced the teaching contained therein. You mention that Christ himself said he had not come to change even one letter of the law, but he did say that he came to “fulfill the law” (Matthew 5:17). And what is this law? Is it permission for all believers to kill others, take over land… or “genocide”, as you say? No, “The Law” refers to the Ten Commandments.

    I guess the main difference between Biblical Old Testament violence and any call to Qur’anic violence would be that God was giving specific instructions to a specific group of people at specific times that were then recorded to show His providence to those who relied upon Him. As evidenced in the verses you provided, these were the Israelites: formerly enslaved, frequently hunted down, no strangers to war. The instructions from God sound like a form of Rules of Engagement in a sinful world where the only language ANY of them understood was war. And, the objective of these wars was not to promote Judaism, by the way. (I’m not even going to argue about whether or not one can find theologians to speculate the likelihood of retroactive justification. That would be like bringing expert witnesses to court who cancel each other out.) After reading verses in the Qur’an that advocate violence, and the different commentaries on them to help me understand them, it always leads to the same determination: Followers are encouraged to promote Islam, violently, if necessary… then, now, always. It is not a specific time, a specific group of people, specific instructions provided for an illustration. Whether peaceful Muslims choose to ignore these verses (and I hope they do) is, of course, their prerogative, but they are there, nonetheless.

    Please know that my goal is not to convince anyone to dislike Muslims, nor do I dislike them myself… just as I believe the same is true of the Pope. He deserves better from every percentage of the Muslim community, regardless of how small, regardless of what he may have said – or what he has been accused of saying. We should not have to worry that the Pope might be the next Salmon Rushdie.

    Lastly, I claim no moral superiority to Muslims or anybody else. The interesting thing about God, Christ, and the message of Christianity itself is that no one can earn a place in heaven. No amount of explosives around my waist will get me to “paradise”, and I don’t have to take flying lessons only to crash a jet into a skyscraper to get there, either. I don’t even have to warm a pew every Sunday to accumulate “brownie points”. At times, a little frustrating, there is nothing I can do to EARN my way. It is Christ alone who is superior after his death and resurrection, and he’s got a ticket with my name on it… :-)

    But we know that God accepts only those who have faith in Jesus Christ. No one can please God by simply obeying the Law. So we put our faith in Christ Jesus, and God accepts us because of our faith. Galatians 2:16

  10. tellitlikeitis said, on 9/20/06 at 6:13 pm

    Thanks, Nomdebplume. I’ll have to think about that, especially since ‘The Law’ in Christ’s time, as advocated and enforced by the Sanhedrin with Rome’s blessing, entailed much more than just the Ten Commandments.

    I am wondering if it is true that you are really “in over your head” here. I am wondering if that is an instinctive way of precluding argument on logical grounds.

    This is where I’ll have to exit this discussion, at least for now. I realize you’re not making categorical judgments against Muslims, as I said before. That’s cool. And I’m glad your interpretation of Christianity seems to be an overwhelmingly positive one. I think that’s true of most people. Carry on! :-)

    I’m still left with a little bit of a bad taste, though; I still feel that many judgments made by Christians against non-Christians around the world are out of keeping with Christ’s teachings, and that this sort of selective self-interpretation of what is and is not Judeo-Christian law and ethic appears to be quite self-serving sometimes. That’s as true of Muslims with Islamic law as it is of Christians, as far as I can tell.

    I was raised in a Protestant church for the first twenty years of my life. I left after a long internal struggle because, frankly, I couldn’t stand the centralized endorsement of hypocrisy on which everything I experienced there was built. I’m not going to generalize and extend that phenomenon throughout all Christendom, because that would be neither fair nor accurate. Well, I’ve by no means perfected the clarity of my thought, and likely never will, but I think I’ve made great strides since then in understanding that the admonitions of Christ against the willful blindness and short-sighted allegiance to power of the Church of his time are still relevant to many churches in our own time, in the United States and elsewhere.

    Thanks, and I continue to watch your blog with interest. You’re a talented writer.

  11. nomdebplume said, on 9/22/06 at 9:44 am

    Alas, tellitlikeitis, all good things must come to an end. I have learned much from our discussion, and will continue to learn as I visit your site regularly. Your point about the law is a good one, I need to investigate it further for my own purposes.

    Though on some points we will agree to disagree, whether or not I was “in over my head” is still out for a vote… :-). Your comment about the possibility of my using that claim to instinctually avoid logical arguments will have me scratching my head for quite a while (and thinking of a way to change that, if it is actually true).

    On one item I can agree with you, having also been raised a Protestant. There is enough hypocrisy rampant in the [Christian] Church at large to make one sick, and the prevalence of judgmental attitudes reflects negligently on the God they are representing. I am a Christian today only after realizing…

    You can’t judge Christ by Christians.

    Thank you for challenging and motivating me. Keep up your great work, friend!

  12. Skip Conover said, on 9/22/06 at 11:22 am

    Curt: You blew my socks off with this one! Erudition pales by comparison! Keep up the good work. I just blew in Tuesday late from Saudi Arabia, and Grace was quick to point me in this direction. Really great work! Best regards, Skip

    PS to Nomdeplume: One of my correspondents pointed out something, which is well worth noting. Part of the reason Muslims don’t respond is that most of them live in highly repressed societies, where speaking any word that is noticed can be detrimental to your health. Having made 15 trips to Saudi Arabia in the last 4 years, I can tell you this observation is right. You know those 5 Freedoms, which we honor in our 1st Amendment. None of them exist in Saudi Arabia, the center of Islam. The same is true most other places, except the USA. Best regards, Skip

  13. n said, on 9/26/06 at 8:14 pm

    So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? 13: Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. 14: If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15: For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. 16: Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. 17: If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them. 18: I speak not of you all: I know whom I have chosen: but that the Scripture may be fulfilled, He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me. 19: Now I tell you before it come, that, when it is come to pass, ye may believe that I am he. 20: Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth me; and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me. John 13:12-20

  14. tellitlikeitis said, on 9/26/06 at 8:16 pm

    Thank you very much for that, n. I only wish our leadership was capable of sticking to New Testament love and respect without reverting to Old Testament barbarism where it suits them.

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