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Posted Online on Sunday, 17 September 2006 18:15 IST

Pope's attack on Islam was no casual slip 

Muslim Islamic NewsBy Abdus Sattar Ghazali

The Milli Gazette Online

16 September 2006

Pope Benedict has hit out at Islam and its concept of holy war. The thinly veiled attack on Islam came during a theological lecture on Sept. 12, 2006 to the staff and students at the University of Regensburg , where he taught theology in the 1970s. 

Just like a cheap shot against Islam - packaged in western free speech clichés and marketed as innocent satire – launched in the form of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad printed by a Danish daily and republished by European newspapers, Pope's anti-Islam remarks are touted as an invitation to open dialogue with Muslims. Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, insists Muslims must learn to enter into dialogue without "crying 'foul"'. The Guardian says: "There cannot be dialogue without rigor and openness. The Muslim world should also take pains to be thoughtful in its response, and perhaps less quick to take offence." 

However, this was no casual slip. Beneath his scholarly rhetoric, the Pope's logic seemed to be that Islam is dangerous and godless. Though many are inclined to see this debate as a fresh maneuver to keep the Muslims engaged in controversies. 

Using the words, "jihad" and "holy war", the Pope quoted criticisms of the prophet Mohammed by a 14th century Byzantine Christian emperor, Manuel II, during a debate with a learned Persian. "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," Benedict quoted the emperor as saying. "The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable," the Pope said and added: "Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul." 

Manuel II (1350-1425) was the second-to-last emperor of the East-Roman (Byzantine) Empire. As a boy, he had been held prisoner by the Turks, and his dialogues took place as his inheritance lay in jeopardy to the Ottoman empire, and his capital under siege. Only 28 years after his death, Constantinople, the capital of Byzantine empire fell to the Ottomans under Sultan Mehmed II.

Giles Fraser, a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford, - quoting Christopher Tyerman's latest book on the Crusades,"God's War" - argues that analogies between the Crusades and the present global conflict are often overdrawn and historically dubious. After all, it was one of Benedict's predecessors, Urban II, who first summoned a Christian jihad against Islam. And it's born-again Christians who have been at the forefront of support for the invasion of Iraq, the occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel, and the whole "reorganization" of the Middle East - a catastrophe in which many thousands of Muslims have lost their lives. 

But what makes his comments from Bavaria doubly insensitive is that Munich and its surrounding towns are home to thousands of Gastarbeiter, many from Turkey , who are often badly treated by local Germans and frequently subjected to racism, Fraser pointed out. "It won't be lost on them that Manuel II ran his Christian empire from what is now the Turkish city of Istanbul. And reference to that time, in circumstances such as these, has the unmistakable whiff of Christian triumphalism," he concluded. 

Another report in the Guardian gives some insight into the thinking of Vatican about Islam. John Hooper of Guardian reports from Rome that Pope believes his church should take tougher line on Islam. Writing under the title, After a quiet first year as pontiff, God's Rottweiler shows his teeth, Hooper says the key word in the Vatican now is "reciprocity". The leadership of the Roman Catholic church is increasingly of the opinion that a meaningful dialogue with the Muslim world is not possible while Christians are denied religious freedom in Muslim states. 

As a cardinal in the Holy See, he was known to be skeptical of John Paul II's pursuit of conversation. One of his earliest decisions as pope was to move Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, one of the Catholic Church's leading experts on Islam, and head of its council on inter-religious dialogue, away from the centre of influence in Rome, and send him to Egypt as papal nuncio. 

Benedict has spoken publicly of Christianity as the cornerstone of Europe and against the admission of Turkey into the European Council. He said Turkey should seek its future in an association of Islamic nations, not with the EU, which has Christian roots. His scheduled visit Turkey in November may now be at risk.

Renzo Guolo, a professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Padua, believes that this is maybe the strongest criticism because he doesn't speak of "fundamentalist Islam" but of Islam generally.

Marco Politi, the Vatican expert for the Italian daily La Repubblica, said: "Certainly he closes the door to an idea which was very dear to John Paul II - the idea that Christians, Jews and Muslims have the same God and have to pray together to the same God." 

The Rev. Daniel A. Madigan, rector of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said the central point was that "if we are really going into a serious dialogue with Muslims we need to take faith seriously." 

Unlike late Pope John Paul, Cardinal Ratzinger, who took the name of Benedict after his election as Pope, does not approve of joint prayers with Muslims. He is also skeptical of the value of inter-religious dialogue. In the summer of 2005, Pope Benedict devoted an annual weekend of study with former graduate students to Islam. During the meeting, and since, he has reportedly expressed skepticism about Islam's openness to change given the conviction that the Noble Quran is the unchangeable word of God. 

Giles Fraser believes that John Paul II's pontificate was largely defined by his relationship with a global conflict between west and east and his speech before a home crowd of Bavarian academics, Benedict XVI may well have set the parameters of his own period as Pope. 

Not surprisingly, Pope Benedict's attack on Islam drew sharp reaction from the Muslim world. The 57-member-state Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) while condemning the pope's statement expressed hope" that such surprising comments are not part of a new campaign against Islam by the Vatican, especially after decades of dialogue that brought scholars from the Muslims world together with scholars from the Vatican."

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