Thursday, 28 February 2013

Pope Benedict: Islam controversy analysis

As Pope Benedict XVI retires, he may regret missing an opportunity with the Muslim world.

Pope Benedict XVI with George W. Bush
by Salaam Bhatti

On September 12 2006, Pope Benedict XVI closed a door on improving relations with many Muslims when he quoted a phrase from 14th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos during his Regensburg lecture. The quote said: "Show me just what Muhammad [the founder of Islam, who Muslims revere as God's greatest prophet] 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". Pope Benedict later explained his reasoning for using this phrase. In a footnote to his printed lecture, the Pope stated he agreed that violence coupled with religion is an inhuman and evil thing. He stated that he disagreed with the quote’s negative depiction of Islam, acknowledging Islam as a great religion and the Quran as a holy book. His purpose in using that quote was to show that religion and violence do not go hand in hand, not that Islam was a violent religion.

On the other hand, the Pope went on in the same Regensburg lecture to say that the Quranic verse "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256) was abrogated, or made redundant, by other Quranic verses regarding "holy war". There are two schools of thought in Islam regarding abrogation: one believes in it, the other does not. It is tough to know, with particular reference to this verse, which school is dominant and which one is on the rise or decline. However, it is easy to say that the Pope is neither a Quranic scholar, nor does he claim to be. Yet, he tried throwing his hat in that ring and just seven years later, he now throws the hat out of the entire arena, so it comes as little surprise that a Pew Forum poll taken earlier this month shows that 37% of US Catholics believe the pontiff has done a "fair/poor" job in promoting relations with other religions.

However, Benedict did try to reopen the door with Muslims. He deserves great credit for that. He has acknowledged Ramadan and other Muslim festivals, two things which most Western calendars still do not show. He also condemned the infamous derogatory caricatures of Muhammad and told his followers to engage in interfaith dialogue. He hosted the first talks between a Saudi Arabian king and a Pope, during which they discussed religious freedom.

Benedict's attempts at promoting a perspective where faith and reason go hand in hand has been another praiseworthy move from the church leader. However, he should have used more reason when explaining how faith and violence are contradictory and without using the insulting  medieval words from Palaiologos. Instead of implying that Muhammad owed his success and the success of the religion he brought - a religion which now follows Christianity as the second largest religion in terms of numbers of followers worldwide - to violence, the Pope should simply have reminded his audience of the saying that swords can win territories but not hearts, force can bend heads but not minds. @salawm
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