Friday, September 15, 2006

Maybe a Fatwa Is In Order

Pope Benedict XVI has drawn some criticism from certain Muslims because of remarks he made about Islamist extremists during his recent trip to Germany. According to the story in the New York Times, Reuters news reports that Aiman Mazyek, head of Germany's Muslim council, said that the Pope is being a hypocrite when he criticizes the actions of certain Muslims who take their religious beliefs to violent extremes:
One only need think of the Crusades or the forced conversions of Jews and Muslims in Spain.
This kind of Tu quoque response, while tiresome in the extreme, is also so very common as to begin warranting a rational response. After all, it's not just Muslims, who may, perhaps, be forgiven for not really knowing much about what they're talking about when it comes to Christianity, but Christians and other Westerners who say such idiotic things.

But where to begin? I suppose one would want to point out, somewhere along the line, that the things that Aiman Mazyek mentions are things that happened a long time ago, as long ago, indeed, as half a millenium and more, and are indeed things that some members of the Church have openly apologized for. Many Westerners are still waiting for an apology for 9-11, but all we get are videos of Palestinians dancing in the street and promises of more, and worse, to come. Christianity has come a very long way since 1204 or 1492; how far has Islam come since 2001?

But of course this is to beg the question entirely. Nobody but the racists and other idiots thinks that 9-11 was something done by Muslims qua Muslims--it was done by Muslims qua madmen, and anyone--Muslim, Christian, Jew, atheist--is capable of becoming a madman. That is to say, the fact that the nutjobs who pulled off 9-11 happened to be Muslims is entirely accidental to the fact. That they just happened to justify their actions by appealing to their bizarre and irrational reading of their own religion is irrelevant--other Muslims, the majority, in fact, can point to other, more reasonable interpretations of Islam to show that the actions were entirely wrong. Much the same could be said about the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition. The fact that some Christians thought, at one time and place, that such things were a Good Idea, is in fact irrelevant to whether Christianity itself ought to endorse such things.

But the Pope speaks for Christians, so it is not merely a matter of one particular Christian putting forward his own, idiosyncratic opinion. This opinion must be taken more seriously than others, it will be said. But this is true in one way and not true in another. When the Pope speaks on matters of faith and morals, his opinion is worth more than mine or any other Christian's. When he speaks about prudential matters, he is just one Christian among many. Even when he speaks on matters of faith and morals he must speak with the Tradition--it is possible, after all, for a Pope to fall into heresy. But at that moment he ceases to be Pope in any real sense, and he becomes just one more heretic (sadly, among many).

So what about in this case? Was the Pope just blathering, or were his words such as to demand particular attention from Christendom? Here is how the New York Times reported what he said (based on a story from Reuters):
In his speech in Germany on Tuesday, the Pope appeared to endorse a Christian view, contested by most Muslims, that the early Muslims spread their religion by violence.

He repeated criticism of the Prophet Mohammad by the 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus, who is recorded as saying that everything Mohammad brought was evil ''such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.''

Most of the Pope's speech was about faith and reason but his historical references suggested that he shared the emperor's view that the Islamic concept of jihad showed that Islam was irrational and incompatible with God's nature.
Before I discuss this, it is worth pointing out one error in the report. Manuel II Palaeologus did not say that everything Mohammad brought was evil. He said that everything new about Islam--that is, in the areas where it differs from Judaism and Christianity--represented an introduction of evil.

Regarding the other elements of the story, however, there is this to say. First, it is perhaps an emprical matter whether Islam was spread by violence in its early years, but it seems fair to say that, if somebody is going to interpret the Crusades as an attempt to spread Christianity by violence, then there is no rational reason why that same person would not interpret the early spread of Islam as violent in its nature. In short, the criticism is an irrational one given its source. If there were someone who disputed the violent nature of the Crusades, or who disputed whether the Crusades were really relious wars aimed at promoting Christianity, then that person could also rationally dispute whether the Arabic invasions of North Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries were also attempts to spread Islam. But you can't rationally criticize the one as violent religious war without admitting the other to be violent religious war as well. So to accuse the Pope of adopting a peculiarly Christian interpretation of history that Muslims reject is just nonsense.

Second, the remarks that the "new" elements of Islam were "evil" is a reference not to the Prophet himself but to the methods adopted for the spread of the religion. Presumably the Prophet, like the Pope, can be regarded as infallible when it comes to understanding God's will for men but fallible when it comes to making personal decisions as to how to tell people about God's will for men, but this is a theological view and of course I have no idea whether any Muslim would agree with me or not. It's worth pointing out, however, that if one is a Christian, and if one believes that human beings, even Prophets, must, from time to time, make prudential judgments based on their own reasoning, then they can sometimes make prudential errors and still preach only the truth as revealed by God. That is to say, from the perspective of a Christian, the criticism of the "new" elements is not an explicit denial of the authority, mission, or dignity of the Prophet. Having said that, I must add that it would be fairly bizarre for anyone to object to a Christian openly proclaiming that he does, in fact, think that Christianity is true, and nobody could deny that if Christianity is true, then other religions are false. And the word "evil" in a Christian context means "falling short of the Good"--it does not mean "an aliance with Satan". So to say that the "new" elements are evil is just to say that they do not accurately reveal God's will to men, and who on earth would criticize a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew, or really anybody, for saying that they believe in their religion because they believe it to be true rather than false? Who believes in their religion because they believe it to be false? I'm going to pass over in silence a rather complicated issue--the notion that saying that the Prophet might make errors of prudential judgment yet still be infallible in matters of faith is an insult to the Prophet. Muslims might say "You Christians really get your knickers in a twist when we say anything negative about Jesus, so who are you to insult the Prophet? We at least say that Jesus was a prophet in his own right, and we do not criticize him." In a way that's true--some Muslims are very circumspect about what they say about Jesus. But of course Christians do not believe that Jesus was merely a prophet, we believe that he was God Incarnate, and if Jesus also believed that, then according to Islam he was mistaken. That is, Islam as a religion has built right into it a charge that our prophet not only made a mistake, he made a major theological mistake that reduced him to an abomination in the sight of God. Now them's fightin' words, ordinarily, but we'll let it go for now.

Finally, the implicit implication ("his historical references suggested that he shared the emperor's view"). This is, I suppose, not an unreasonable inference to draw, but it is an inference nonetheless, and it is essentially unfair to attribute to another person an attitude that one has oneself assumed to be the case. At the very least, we must assume that if the Pope does share the emperor's view, the meaning of the view must be interpreted in light of everything else we know about the Pope's attitudes towards other peoples and other faiths, and so far we have every reason to believe that Benedict XVI is a paradigm Christian, loving all men as brothers in God, criticizing not sinners themselves but sad deviations from what he believes to be God's loving plan for all men. Violence and destruction, deliberate killings of innocent civilians, are not part of God's loving plan for all men, and all true Muslims, like all true Christians and Jews, agree. The criticism of the Pope appears to amount to this: he has conflated the acts of some folks who were not true Muslims with the teachings of Islam itself.

I doubt whether that is true, but if it is, I suspect that whether we ever hear the end of it will depend, by and large, on whether Muslims are really interested in finding peace with the rest of the world, or whether what they really care about is saving face and paying back insults. If they are able to forgive and move on, as most religions teach folks to do, that will be salutary for everyone. But if some of them prefer to behave like mobsters, then we're all in trouble--Christians and Jews, perhaps, but Muslims most of all.

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