pope sermon 298 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
Pope Benedict XVI said yesterday that he was "deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries" to his quoting of a 14th-century text critical of Islam. He stressed to pilgrims at his summer palace outside Rome that this critical view wasn't his personal view. He further noted that a day earlier the Vatican secretary of state had issued a statement explaining the words of his original address, delivered in his native Germany last Tuesday.
The pope had actually been telling his audience that religion need not be fanatic or violent. To make his point he had alluded to a book recounting a conversation between Byzantine Christian emperor Manuel Paleologos II and an educated Persian on the truths of their creeds.
Branding Manuel's words "brusque," the pope had proceeded to quote them: "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."
Yet Benedict's speech at the University of Regensburg has sparked furor in the Muslim world. Messages of regret from the Holy See have not subdued the clamor for an outright apology, an absolute retraction, an expression of the pope's personal contrition, if not for his humiliation.
This is more than bewildering, the more so considering the conspicuous absence of Islamic clerics of stature even approaching that of the head of Roman Catholicism stepping up to renounce the noxious calumnies heaped by numerous high-ranking Muslim spiritual leaders on Jews, Christians or any they deem infidels.
Innumerable Islamic preachers have railed against Jews - often from state-television pulpits - called them pigs and informed their followers that Jews are descended from monkeys and dogs, that Jews are subhuman, incorrigible and undeserving of any consideration.
Such hatemongering clerics are not ostracized by their fellow Muslim spiritual leaders, by those attending their services, even by their governments. Much of the Muslim world as a whole, one is led to believe, doesn't take issue with such savage incitement.
Yet the very same Muslims who evince the most glaring insensitivity to abuses hurled at others are ultra-sensitive about any purported disrespect to themselves, be it in the form of Danish-commissioned caricature or learned lecture by the bishop of Rome, whose goal was to allay Western youth's disaffection from religion.
Yesterday the pope emphasized that his aim was to "invite frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect." The irony is bitter, indeed. First we witnessed "cartoon wars" - when extremists, reacting to caricatures that highlighted how the Prophet Muhammad's teachings are being co-opted to encourage violence, protested the drawings via an orgy of violence. Now we have an appeal for mutual respect seized upon as another pretext for Islamist fury.
The best way to disconnect Islam from its fanatic, intolerant, expansionist and exclusionist image is of course to sever the connection with violence. Christians and Jews don't dispatch suicide bombers to martyr themselves in God's name; they don't issue death sentences against nonconformist authors or threaten proponents of alternative views. Only Muslims nowadays practice the ideology of hate and seek to impose a worldwide theocracy.
Muslims who think otherwise need to be heard. They need to be heard, right now, unequivocally rejecting Mahdi Akaf, chief of the World Muslim Brotherhood, who has accused the pope of no less than "deliberately pouring oil on the flames of honorable Muslim fury which he ignited. The pope endangers the peace of the world."
They need to state openly and unambiguously that no utterances justify the resort to brutality, that bloodshed is a far graver sin than injurious pronouncements, that other groups have the same right to respect as Muslims claim for themselves.
When those who speak loudly for Islam encourage a readiness to tolerate critical comments, then they and their adherents will no longer be perceived as unreasonably radical. When they accept that in a free and pluralistic world anyone may voice opinions without fearing punitive retribution, they won't be depicted as volatile and homicidal. "Islamophobia" can be quelled first and foremost by Islam's own adherents.