‘The Pope has slandered Islam by equating it with violence and irrationality. Let’s bomb the Vatican.’ No one to my knowledge has actually said so, though they might as well have, if one is to go by the climate of hysterical frenzy that has swept the Muslim world since Pope Benedict XVI delivered his now famous lecture at the University of Regensburg on September 12. In order to refute the Pope’s alleged slanders, a great many among us seemed determined to prove them right.
“It’s war, declared the editor of one Egyptian newspaper in a front-page “commentary, seething with sound and fury. The newspaper’s headline, in bold bright red, screamed, “The Vatican beats the drums of a Crusading war. “The deadly poison that has been released by the Vatican Pope should not be allowed to pass . it is war and it should be met with war, the editor said ominously.
It has been a week of ranting and raving, with the print and broadcast media all competing over which among them can strike the most hysterical, frenzied notes; hosts of political and religious figures and talking heads of all sorts scrambled over one another in their rush to hurl abuse at the “ignorant, “Nazi Pope, warning of the dire consequences of his statements to the whole world and to the West in particular.
Most of us are all too happy to condemn, or at least distance ourselves from the crazed fanatical terrorists of the Al-Qaeda variety, but they remain our card in the hold, jack in the box, whatever. ‘You do such and such to us, and the crazies will get you,’ we seem to be warning repeatedly, even as we rant and rave on our way to the mall to stock up on two-dozen packs of Coca Cola cans and other “authentic Ramadan goodies – car stickers proclaiming our willingness to sacrifice our fathers and mothers in defense of the Prophet and our religious and cultural identity.
It’s the Danish Cartoons part II, and if anything, it’s even more pathetic.
This time around, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) was holding its annual party conference, promising us “a second leap forward (so swift the first leap must have been, we’re all hard pressed to discover when it was supposed to have taken place) and basically assuring us that they’re there to stay, third leap, fourth leap, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
But who cares, the Crusaders are coming. Pike-wielding Swiss Guards in puffed sleeves and striped knicker-bockers are at the gates of Jerusalem. Well, maybe not. That particular holy land has been captured already.
Has it occurred to anyone that a scholastic lecture (however tenuous its scholarship) should be countered possibly by another scholastic lecture, a paper, a polemical work? That ideas, however, ridiculous or malevolent you believe them to be are countered by other ideas – what is known as a debate?
Certainly, the Pope is not some obscure professor lecturing in some backwater university, and neither is he an American televangelist of the type that are heaping anti-Islamic invective before millions of viewers practically daily on American airwaves. Certainly, His Holiness should have shown more wisdom and, indeed, respect toward his own flock, let alone to the followers of the second largest faith in the world than to take a jump on the bandwagon of “the clash of civilizations worthy of mediocre, power-serving academics of the Huntington type.
Yet I totally fail to see where any of last week’s Muslim hullabaloos has served any purpose. We got an insincere, half-hearted apology; yet the reference to Islam is still out there, and thanks to our dubious efforts, has won more publicity than the Pope in all his eminence could have imagined – or is it that he, in fact, counted on our by now highly predictable foolishness. Is there anything like a learning curve in this part of the world? Does experience count for anything? Has anyone even paused to examine the farce of the Danish cartoons, which we managed to make available to tens of millions, instead of the odd 40 thousand readers of an obscure Danish newspaper?
And has it yet dawned on any of our political, religious and intellectual leaders how demeaning and insulting it is – for Islam, Muslims and each and everyone of us – to keep protesting that our religion is not a religion of terror and violence?
But jump on the “clash bandwagon Pope Benedict XVI did. His reference to Islam is gratuitous and wholly incidental to the course of the argument he set out to make in his lecture; a jab delivered en passant, and not very cleverly at that. The thrust of the Pope’s lecture, however – for those who have bothered to look up the text – is his call for rapprochement between religious faith and reason – quite possibly a commendable exercise. His basis for such a rapprochement is to redefine rational enquiry in broader terms than the empirically verifiable, as is prescribed by the natural sciences. This, he suggests, is to be found in philosophy; in particular, Greek philosophy, about which he makes the rather dubious claim of having been intertwined, from the very start, with the Christian spirit and, indeed, with Biblical tradition as a whole, including the Old Testament.
Be that as it may. It is all a question of reading. Where the Pope blunders incredibly is in his fleeting attempt to contrast the allegedly inherent rationality of Christianity to an equally inherent mysticism of Islam. This is little more than Orientalist nonsense of the crudest kind. It is particularly glaring when the subject at hand is the Christian world’s rediscovery of its presumably Hellenistic roots. Has the Pope, in all his scholarly wisdom, not heard of Ibn Rushd, otherwise known in the Latin world as Averroes. Is he perhaps not aware of what any undergraduate student of the history of philosophy knows, which is that Greek philosophy had been wholly lost to Christian Europe for centuries, and that it’s “rediscovery in the 12th and 13th centuries occurred via translation from Arabic? Is it indeed possible to deliver what is supposed to be a scholarly lecture on the relationship between Christian theology and Greek philosophy without a single reference to Averroes and Ibn Sina, or Avicenna?
Tellingly, it was not the slur about their alleged irrationality that so infuriated the elite of today’s Muslim world, but it was rather the quoted reference to violence to which they reacted so violently. Incidental and gratuitous, the reference is plainly silly. For a Roman Catholic Pope, whose predecessor recently apologized to the Jews for the Holocaust and centuries of pogroms and persecution, to try and suggest, however artfully, the inherently pacific nature of Christianity as opposed to the inherently violent nature of Islam, is simply ridiculous.
Or need we remind His Holiness of the inquisition, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre (on the occasion of which another of his long line of predecessors, Pope Gregory XIII, declared a public day of thanksgiving and had the guns of the Castel Sant’Angelo sound a joyous salute), or of the way Christianity was genocidally introduced to the native people of South America, or of the Crusades?
The mutual taunting could go on forever; for Christian no less than for Muslim history, it is really a question of “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone. (John 8:7)
Ideas are countered by ideas. Instead of yet another show of irrational frenzy we would have been much better served by demanding the right of reply, insisting perhaps that it should be published in all Catholic newspapers and magazines – God knows there are a great many of these. And I know just the person to do it. Prof. Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, one of the most brilliant Islamic scholars living today and a masterful expert on the rationalist tradition in Islam. We might, however, keep between us the fact that an Egyptian court ruled him an apostate and ordered him divorced from his wife, thereby hounding him and his wife out of the country for fear of their lives.
Hani Shukrallah is a consultant for Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and is the f
ormer Editor of Al Ahram Weekly. He writes a weekly commentary for The Daily Star Egypt.