Ideology–Dealing with Islam on Muslim Terms

Melanie McDonagh writes in Telegraph UK that the West is again being forced to deal with Islam on Muslim terms. She refers to the recent speech by the Pope that was deemed excessively critical of Islam by Muslims (and certainly by Islamo-fascists). However, she could have been referring to the Danish cartoon incident or a host of other issues. I recall a friend’s suprise regarding the cartoons, when he commented that “I didn’t realize that non-Muslims also had to follow Islamic strictures re: Mohammed”. This honest naivete speaks to the Western assumption that religious ideology applies to its adherents, not to the world at large. Radical Islam makes no such distinction, and some might argue that Islam does in general. Ms. McDonagh reminds us that we need to have some boundaries and resist the submission to this dis-empowerment of our own rights as citizens of the West to speak our mind and draw our own conclusions.


There is, I am afraid, such a thing as being too clever by half. Pope Benedict is a case in point. He is a former academic… The gist, to spare you the trouble of looking it up, is that belief in God is entirely consistent with human reason and the Greek spirit of philosophical inquiry. By using the reason God gave us, we become, in a way, more like him. Fair enough, you might think. No harm in that.

But there was, of course. If the Pope had stuck to quoting Plato (which he did) to illustrate his point, he wouldn’t now be in the position of, as the Muslim News put it, alienating a billion Muslims. His mistake was to cite a series of dialogues between a learned Byzantine emperor and a scholarly Persian Muslim about the truth of their respective religions, which was probably written while Constantinople was being besieged by the Turks. The emperor in question, Manuel II Paleologus, referred during the seventh dialogue to the Koran’s teachings about spreading the faith by the sword. And this, said the emperor, could not come from God because violence was the opposite of reason, and God himself cannot act contrary to reason.

What interested the Pope was the emperor’s insistence that God’s nature meant that he cannot act irrationally. Unfortunately, Benedict quoted verbatim from the emperor’s words: “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.” And this remark, which the Pope described as “rather marginal to the dialogue itself”, was what almost every prominent Muslim has seized on. It wasn’t so much that the remarks got lost in translation from the German – it was the quotation marks.


The very fact that the Pope cited the adjectives “evil and inhuman” was taken as evidence that he agreed with them. …In fact, the Pope was out to attack something very different – the contemporary, secular idea that faith is simply a matter of personal opinion. If he’s having a go at anything, it’s not Islam, it’s the patronising notion that you get, say, in David Hare’s play Galileo, playing to rave reviews at the National Theatre, that religion is incompatible with independent thought.

And indeed, with conspicuous exceptions, the reaction from the Islamic world hasn’t been what you might call measured. Admittedly, it was easy to take the Pope’s remarks out of context, given that it takes a bit of effort to track down his address in full, or indeed to understand it. But not impossible – yet hardly anyone seems to have made the effort. The row has yet to escalate to the level of the Danish cartoon controversy, but it’s not looking….The head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt declared that he had “aroused the anger of the whole Islamic world”.

Ali Bardakoglu, the head of Turkey’s state-run directorate of religious affairs, called the Pope’s remarks “provocative, hostile, prejudiced and biased”…

And in Lebanon, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah demanded an apology for this “false reading of Islam”.

In fact, the speech itself suggested that the Pope understood perfectly well that there are nuances to the Islamic idea of jihad. He cites an early verse in the Koran that “there is no compulsion in religion”. And in respect of the verses that exhort Muslims to take up arms for the faith – and no, we’re not talking merely about a spiritual struggle, but the real thing – he notes that there are differences between Mohammed’s treatment of Christians and Jews, and of pagans.

If you’re looking for a real critique of Islam in the speech, there is one tucked away in the text, but hardly anyone noticed. The Pope suggests that the Islamic idea of God is so transcendent that he cannot be seen in terms of human reason. He cites one medieval Islamic scholar, Ibn Hazn, who says that God is entirely remote from our rational categories.

This may not sound like much to get worked up about, but Benedict plainly sees this approach as the opposite of the Christian way of looking at faith and reason. And indeed, a Rome-based Muslim theologian, Adnane Mokrani, has pointed out that this is only one Islamic view of God’s nature, and other schools of Muslim thought are very different. Now that’s proper religious dialogue.

As for the Pope’s notional Islamophobia, … He was sympathetic to their reaction to the Danish cartoons, and he was strongly opposed to the conflict in Lebanon and the war in Iraq.

The irony of this row is that it is the opposite of what the Pope was trying to achieve. Benedict ended his speech by hoping for a new dialogue between the sciences, religions and cultures “which is so urgently needed today”. It looks, from this miserable episode, as if you can only have a conversation that deals – however remotely – with Islam on Muslim terms. Not much of a dialogue, then.


For another take on the Pope’s intent, review this entry in the American Thinker. The perception of this writer is that the Pope wishes for an open dialogue with Muslims willing to self-criticize, as Catholics have done over the last 50 years or so.


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