The Pope and Islam: Misinterpretation and Anger

By January 23, 2007 No Comments

The bulk of media coverage in recent months has been concerned with violence in the Middle East (primarily Iraq). Some of this violence has been fueled by remarks made by Pope Benedict. The pope’s larger message, which concerned faith and reason, was drowned out by one line about Islam being a violent religion. In an ironic response, the Muslim world reacted with violence and anger. Many churches were firebombed and [1] Christians in the Middle East were on guard for their lives. The outcome of this speech not only shows a potential problem in the realm of politics and culture, but also the increasing issue of religious conflicts. [2] This article will address the context of the Pope’s comments, the Islamic reaction and issues on the horizon for Western nations.

Context of the Pope’s Speech

The context of the Pope’s speech surrounds faith and reason. He uses examples from the Christian era to point out that faith and reason should work in harmony to fulfill the overall purpose of God. The inclusion of the comments made by Manuel II Paleogous [3] was in order to illustrate that faith and violence do not go together. These were taken from a dialogue between Manuel II Paleogous “and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam.” [4] The following is a section of the Pope’s speech;

…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 Quran, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the ‘Book’ and the ‘infidels’, 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, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.” [5]

The speech had little to do with criticizing the Islamic faith today, but used an example from past conflicts between Christians and the Islamic empire to show how faith and violence cannot combine.

The Reaction

Many Muslim countries were quick to condemn the Pope’s speech and demanded an apology. In some cases, Christians were persecuted and churches attacked in order to express Islamic anger against the Pope. [6] When the Pope expressed his sorrow that this extreme reaction occurred, liberal and moderate Muslims interpreted this as an apology in order to help defuse the situation. Extremists, on the other hand, preferred to take the quote out of context. Even until late November, Islamic extremists and fundamentalists were burning images of the Pope and calling for renewed violence against the West and non-Muslims.

In the West, the Pope’s speech was seen as a call for dialogue and in support of freedom of speech. There was much approval for the Pope and his invitation to Islam

The Pope’s speech outlined the creation of Europe from the time of Constantine. This brings a vital reminder that Europe and many Western countries are built on Judeo-Greco-Christian values. In contrast, many Middle Eastern and Asian countries had these supplanted by the influence of the Islamic faith after its spread by the successors of Muhammad. Accordingly, the clash of Islam and Christianity results from very different theological views of faith and its influence on politics. [7]

Conclusion: Issues on the Horizon

It is truly unfortunate that the Pope’s speech prompted such a violent reaction. The Islamic faith and Western traditions collide on the basis of theological and cultural aspects. Theologically, the Islamic extremists believe that the faith is meant to expand as instructed by the Koran and Hadith. [8] This is accomplished by various means ranging from attacks on Western interests and groups as well as through non-violent means such as immigration into Western countries (where it is now being observed in many places such as the UK, that the Muslim community has no real interest in integration, but would rather have its own unique institutions such as Sharia law [9]. Dialogue is needed, particularly as Islamic fundamentalists continue to expand their sphere of influence and engage in violent conflict with Western nations