While I commented in the post below on the pope's apparent lack of ecumenism and frankly knowledge of Islam, it is important not to take his provocative quotation out of context. This is a greater contextual illustration of Pope Benedict XVI address in Germany on September 12 at the University of Regensburg:
In the seventh conversation…the emperor touches on the theme of the 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 Muhammad 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."
The pope did not choose to use additional examples of Christian or Jewish inspired wars of conquest, wars of wanton destruction, wars against an indigenous population and wars against Islam. Certainly, a more balanced and intelligent approach to the important topic of religion and violence would have added credibility and power to the pope's speech. Defenders say it was an academic speech. Well as an academic, I can attest that academic speech should present as complete a picture as possible of a topic such as religion and violence. Had the pope given even one example other than Islam, then it would be a simple issue of free speech and perhaps academic freedom given the venue of a university. Yet he seemed to gratuitously blame Islam and alas, its prophet Muhammad, for the world's current despicable religious wars of preemption and near genocide from southern Beirut to Falluja to southern Afghanistan.
I defend the papal prerogative to say what he wishes, but concur totally with Muslim rage and the editorial below that the pope should carefully examine his remarks and offer some type of direct, personal statement of contrition.
New York Times Editorial, September 16, 2006
The Pope's Words
There is more than enough religious anger in the world. So it is particularly disturbing that Pope Benedict XVI has insulted Muslims, quoting a 14th-century description of Islam as “evil and inhuman.”
In the most provocative part of a speech this week on “faith and reason,” the pontiff recounted a conversation between an “erudite” Byzantine Christian emperor and a “learned” Muslim Persian circa 1391. The pope quoted the emperor saying, “Show me just what Muhammad 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.”
Muslim leaders the world over have demanded apologies and threatened to recall their ambassadors from the Vatican, warning that the pope’s words dangerously reinforce a false and biased view of Islam. For many Muslims, holy war — jihad — is a spiritual struggle, and not a call to violence. And they denounce its perversion by extremists, who use jihad to justify murder and terrorism.
The Vatican issued a statement saying that Benedict meant no offense and in fact desired dialogue. But this is not the first time the pope has fomented discord between Christians and Muslims.
In 2004 when he was still the Vatican’s top theologian, he spoke out against Turkey’s joining the European Union, because Turkey, as a Muslim country was “in permanent contrast to Europe.”
A doctrinal conservative, his greatest fear appears to be the loss of a uniform Catholic identity, not exactly the best jumping-off point for tolerance or interfaith dialogue.
The world listens carefully to the words of any pope. And it is tragic and dangerous when one sows pain, either deliberately or carelessly. He needs to offer a deep and persuasive apology, demonstrating that words can also heal.