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The Pope and Jihad: “Cultural Dialogue” and the Islamic Response to Benedict’s Regensburg Address

On September 12, Pope Benedict delivered an address at the University of Regensburg entitled “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections.” The first part of the subtitle, “memories,” refers to the start of the speech, Benedict’s recollections of early years in his own academic career in Germany, which then sets the stage for a reflection on the place of theology within the university: that is to say, the relationship between faith and reason. The setting he invokes is one very much of modern universities, but in which theological faculties were still well integrated into the fabric of intellectual life.

The university was also very proud of its two theological faculties. It was clear that, by inquiring about the reasonableness of faith, they too carried out a work which is necessarily part of the “whole” of the universitas scientiarum, even if not everyone could share the faith which theologians seek to correlate with reason as a whole. This profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason was not troubled, even when it was once reported that a colleague had said there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God.

Benedict’s large concern in the address will become the unraveling of this fabric in western culture, but the prose of the passage is worth nothing: he cites the unnamed “colleague” and reports his lack of belief in the existence of God—Benedict presumably thinks otherwise.

This small act of citation, with its touch of humor at the outset, leads into another, more serious, which has become the bone of contention in Islamic condemnations of the speech. The head of the Turkish Religious Authority, Ali Bardakoglu, has demanded that Benedict take back his comments and accused him of a “crusader mentality.”

The leader of the French Muslim Council, Dalil Boubakeur, calls for the Pope to clarify his position and to distinguish between “Islam, which is a revealed religion, and Islamicism, which has nothing to do with religion but which is a political ideology.” Similarly, a representative of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany insisted that the Church was “in no place” to criticize because of “the violent and bloody Christianization of South America, the Crusades in the Islamic world, and the fact that the Church let itself be used by the Nazi regime.”

[In another context, one might take apart all of those historical points; it is however worth noting the irony of this Islamic critique of the Church for its collaboration with the Nazis—since a leading pan-Arab political figure of the Hitler era, the Mufti of Jerusalem, collaborated quite explicitly with the Nazis, and the nostalgia for the anti-Semitism of the Third Reich in large parts of the Arab world is well known.]

But what drives these heated responses to Benedict’s talk? After the introduction, the topic turns to a text, a dialogue between one of the last emperors of Byzantium, the erudite Manuel II Paleologus, and “a learned Persian,” which probably took place in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara (Constantinople would fall in 1453). From this wide-ranging conversation, Benedict focuses on one point in particular: forced conversion. Can religion be compelled? The sad spectacle of the kidnapped Fox News journalists who were released in Gaza only after undergoing a forced conversion to Islam is still fresh in the public’s memory (not that Benedict made reference to it). The problem though, violence and religion, is much larger: both in the fourteenth century, with the Islamic expansion into the Christian East, and today in the violent anti-Westernism of Islamic (or Islamicist) jihadists. (It is however not only an anti-Western violence: one need only think of the janjaweed in Darfur, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, or the train bombs in India) Benedict surmises that Paleologus was aware of alternative, non-violent teaching within Islam, but he was faced with an invading army, and he tried to make the argument of the incompatibility of faith and violence.

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 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. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats . . . To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death . . . ”

This is hardly a commentary on Islam; it is rather a reference to an earlier Christian thinker on the question of religion and force. To argue that religion and violent force are incompatible implies the affinity between religion and reason, understood as the opposite of violence. This then blossoms into Benedict’s larger argument: the distinctive synthesis of Biblical faith and Greek philosophy which became foundational for Europe, but which are in fact universal, and not all parochially European. His discussion of the tension between an idolatrous paganism and a spiritual philosophy within Greek culture adds to the complexity of the account, which then leads to his main theme: the threats to that synthesis, the “dehellenization” of Europe and the weakening of the bond between faith and reason in the contemporary world. It reveals a strand of cultural criticism that stretches from a diagnosis of Duns Scotus’ voluntarism to the arbitrary nihilism of post-modernism.

Yet the focus here is on the Islamic material in the talk, and there is one more passage worth examining. Here too Benedict speaks through other voices with citations and references: Theodor Khoury, who translated Paleologus; the French scholar of Islam, R. Arnaldez, who in turn refers to the eleventh century philosopher Ibn Hazn:

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: 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. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practise idolatry.

All of this is a report on the views of others, and ultimately only a gloss on the fourteenth century interrogation of violent conversion in jihad. At the same time, it grounds a particular logic of the West defined in terms of the integration of faith and reason: and this is placed in contrast to the view of Ibn Hazn and the absolute transcendence of God, beyond reason and philosophy.

Benedict’s real target however is not Islam (and how one could read this address and detect a “Crusader mentality” is a true mystery)—his target is the West. The text describes three historical moments of “dehellenization”: the Reformation’s effort to recover pure faith, bereft of philosophical teaching; nineteenth-century historicism and its transformation of Christianity into the practical reason of social ethics, without concern for divinity; and a contemporary “cultural pluralism,” that treats integration of (Greek) philosophy and faith as merely one possible cultural-contextual outcome, rather than the integral substance of spiritual life.

In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux. This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.

The nature of faith itself? That suggests—against multiculturalism—that there are universal features of human life, which are not subject to relativization, and that faith as well as reason can lay claim to central positions. His “critique of modern reason from within” is a sober look at the contemporary cultural condition and “has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age.” It does however recognize the disassociation of faith and reason in post-modernity. Far from an attack on Islam, it is an anatomy of the contemporary western mind, linked implicitly to the thesis that it is the cultural crisis of the West that is the primary threat. That however will not prevent Islamic extremists from attacking the speech and manipulating responses, as took place in the response to the Danish Muhammed cartoons. Too bad they will clearly miss the core message.

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