In November 1095 Pope Urban II called the First Crusade. To judge from the comments issuing from some Muslim groups and politicians, Pope Benedict XVI has done the same thing. According to Salih Kapusuz, a deputy leader of the majority party in Turkey, Benedict, “has a dark mentality that comes from the darkness of the Middle Ages. He is a poor thing that has not benefited from the spirit of reform in the Christian world.” Kapusuz maintains that the pope is engaged in “an effort to revive the mentality of the Crusades.” And so it is that protesters across the Middle East are hastily sewing together pope effigies. In Ankara a black wreath was laid before the Vatican embassy and in Cairo people are chanting “Oh Crusaders, oh cowards! Down with the pope!”
So, what about that Crusade? Well, as one might expect, there isn’t one. Is it nonetheless true, as Muhammad Umar, chairman of the Ramadhan Foundation in Britain has claimed, that Benedict “has fallen into the trap of the bigots and racists when it comes to judging Islam…”? Not exactly. But he has fallen into the trap of association, even from the distance of six centuries, with someone who once criticized Islam. And that is clearly not acceptable.
On Tuesday, September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI addressed scholars and scientists at the University of Regensburg on the topic of “Faith, Reason, and the University.” It was a very learned and scholarly lecture, which means that it would put most people comfortably to sleep. However, it is in this lecture that, some believe, Benedict revealed his true colors when it comes to Islam. Early in the address he referred to an interfaith dialogue between a Persian scholar and the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus which probably took place in 1391. Manuel was the leader of the last Christian state in the East. The descendent of the once mighty Roman Empire, Byzantium had by Manuel’s day been reduced to little more than a few crumbs floating around in the soup of the ever-expanding Ottoman Empire. This was a world in which the forces of Islam were the real superpower, and they knew it. Manuel spent his reign flattering and appeasing the Turks on the one hand and desperately seeking aid from Europeans on the other. In neither case was he very successful. Less than three decades after his death, the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II destroyed the Byzantine Empire and made its capital, Constantinople (modern Istanbul), his own.
But back to Benedict XVI. The pope resurrected Manuel II in order to make a point. He noted that the learned Manuel was well aware that the Koran states that “There is no compulsion in religion.” But he also knew, as someone who had been on the business end of jihad himself, that the Koran also speaks of holy war. With “startling brusqueness,” the pope continued, Manuel tackled this seeming contradiction by saying “’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.’ 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.”
The pope’s purpose in citing this passage is made clear almost immediately. “The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. The editor [of Manuel’s dialogue], Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.” Now here is where it gets a little complicated. (I said that it was a scholarly lecture.) Benedict asks the question, “Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?” He concludes that the Greek concept of reason, bound together with Christianity, fundamentally shaped, even gave birth to Europe. He then describes a process which he calls “dehellenization” in which Europeans from the Late Middle Ages onward have chipped away the fusion of faith and reason, placing them in completely separate spheres. This separation is the main focus of the lecture. It is, in fact, not about Islam at all. Benedict is calling a crusade, but it is one against a Christianity stripped of reason and a science stripped of transcendent truths. “In this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith. Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.”
This is a tough lecture to boil down to one sentence, but if forced I would characterize it as: Theology belongs in the university because only by studying faith with reason will we find solutions to the problems of our time. However, if instead of reading the lecture we simply cut out everything except the words of Manuel II Palaeologus written six centuries ago, then we have a good justification for Pakistan’s parliament to unanimously condemn the pope. If we further pretend that it was Benedict, rather than a long-dead emperor, who expressed these sentiments we have a sound basis for the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah of Lebanon to demand “a personal apology — not through his officials — to Muslims for this false reading (of Islam).” Or we can rage with Syria’s top Sunni Muslim religious authority, Sheik Ahmad Badereddine Hassoun, who replied to the pope, “We have heard about your extremism and hate for Arabs and Muslims. Now that you have dropped the mask from your face we see its ugliness and extremist nature.”
During Friday prayers in Iraq’s Shiite Muslim stronghold of Kufa, Sheik Salah al-Ubaidi reminded the faithful that “last year and in the same month the Danish cartoon assaulted Islam.” The pope’s comments were now a second assault, he said. Al-Ubaidi is at least partly right. The furor over the Danish cartoon brought in stark relief the cultural differences that exist when it comes to matters of free speech and expression. At least with the cartoon, the illustrator and publisher really were criticizing Islam and its founder. In the case of the pope, however, we have someone who is merely citing a medieval source within the context of a scholarly address. Is that really sufficient justification for Mr. Kapusuz to characterize the pope as “the author of such unfortunate and insolent remarks… [who] is going down in history in the same category as leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini”?
In the coming days there will undoubtedly be more protests, more outrage, and perhaps even more violence (a nun in Somalia was murdered this weekend) in response to the 14th-century words of Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus. Pope Benedict XVI has already apologized to the world’s Muslims, assuring them that he had no desire to offend them. Heads should soon cool. But the underlying problem will still remain. Interfaith dialogues, by their very nature, require some criticism and some understanding of the shared histories of the respective faiths. If these are stifled, if reason is exiled, then we will never understand, let alone bridge, the religious and cultural gulfs in the world today. And that is what the pope’s lecture was all about.
– Thomas F. Madden is professor of medieval history and chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University. He is the author most recently of The New Concise History of the Crusades.