Monday, September 18, 2006

Karen Armstrong on the Pope's Speech

Reproduced below is Karen Armstrong's op-ed on the Pope's recent speech. It captures one of the threads going through my head--discussed this very thought with my brother on Friday, for example. And these are much needed words. Words that might help explain the "Why" to non-Muslim audiences.

In the Muslim world/communities, I fear even these words will only add fuel to the fire The Holy Father has lit--whether out of naivete, ill-advisedness ("stupidity" seems inappropriate for such a respected person), or malice, I know not. Though the article below makes the case that it is a mixture of all three:

We cannot afford to maintain these ancient prejudices against Islam

The Pope's remarks were dangerous, and will convince many more Muslims that the west is incurably Islamophobic

Karen Armstrong
Monday September 18, 2006
The Guardian,,1874786,00.html

In the 12th century, Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, initiated a
dialogue with the Islamic world. "I approach you not with arms, but
with words," he wrote to the Muslims whom he imagined reading his
book, "not with force, but with reason, not with hatred, but with
love." Yet his treatise was entitled Summary of the Whole Heresy of
the Diabolical Sect of the Saracens and segued repeatedly into
spluttering intransigence. Words failed Peter when he contemplated
the "bestial cruelty" of Islam, which, he claimed, had established
itself by the sword. Was Muhammad a true prophet? "I shall be worse
than a donkey if I agree," he expostulated, "worse than cattle if I

Peter was writing at the time of the Crusades. Even when Christians
were trying to be fair, their entrenched loathing of Islam made it
impossible for them to approach it objectively. For Peter, Islam was
so self-evidently evil that it did not seem to occur to him that the
Muslims he approached with such "love" might be offended by his
remarks. This medieval cast of mind is still alive and well.

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI quoted, without qualification and with
apparent approval, the words of the 14th-century Byzantine emperor
Manuel II: "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." The Vatican seemed
bemused by the Muslim outrage occasioned by the Pope's words,
claiming that the Holy Father had simply intended "to cultivate an
attitude of respect and dialogue toward the other religions and
cultures, and obviously also towards Islam".

But the Pope's good intentions seem far from obvious. Hatred of Islam
is so ubiquitous and so deeply rooted in western culture that it
brings together people who are usually at daggers drawn. Neither the
Danish cartoonists, who published the offensive caricatures of the
Prophet Muhammad last February, nor the Christian fundamentalists who
have called him a paedophile and a terrorist, would ordinarily make
common cause with the Pope; yet on the subject of Islam they are in
full agreement.

Our Islamophobia dates back to the time of the Crusades, and is
entwined with our chronic anti-semitism. Some of the first Crusaders
began their journey to the Holy Land by massacring the Jewish
communities along the Rhine valley; the Crusaders ended their
campaign in 1099 by slaughtering some 30,000 Muslims and Jews in
Jerusalem. It is always difficult to forgive people we know we have
wronged. Thenceforth Jews and Muslims became the shadow-self of
Christendom, the mirror image of everything that we hoped we were not
- or feared that we were.

The fearful fantasies created by Europeans at this time endured for
centuries and reveal a buried anxiety about Christian identity and
behaviour. When the popes called for a Crusade to the Holy Land,
Christians often persecuted the local Jewish communities: why march
3,000 miles to Palestine to liberate the tomb of Christ, and leave
unscathed the people who had - or so the Crusaders mistakenly assumed
- actually killed Jesus. Jews were believed to kill little children
and mix their blood with the leavened bread of Passover: this "blood
libel" regularly inspired pogroms in Europe, and the image of the Jew
as the child slayer laid bare an almost Oedipal terror of the parent

Jesus had told his followers to love their enemies, not to
exterminate them. It was when the Christians of Europe were fighting
brutal holy wars against Muslims in the Middle East that Islam first
became known in the west as the religion of the sword. At this time,
when the popes were trying to impose celibacy on the reluctant
clergy, Muhammad was portrayed by the scholar monks of Europe as a
lecher, and Islam condemned - with ill-concealed envy - as a faith
that encouraged Muslims to indulge their basest sexual instincts. At
a time when European social order was deeply hierarchical, despite
the egalitarian message of the gospel, Islam was condemned for giving
too much respect to women and other menials.

In a state of unhealthy denial, Christians were projecting
subterranean disquiet about their activities on to the victims of the
Crusades, creating fantastic enemies in their own image and likeness.
This habit has persisted. The Muslims who have objected so
vociferously to the Pope's denigration of Islam have accused him of
"hypocrisy", pointing out that the Catholic church is ill-placed to
condemn violent jihad when it has itself been guilty of unholy
violence in crusades, persecutions and inquisitions and, under Pope
Pius XII, tacitly condoned the Nazi Holocaust.

Pope Benedict delivered his controversial speech in Germany the day
after the fifth anniversary of September 11. It is difficult to
believe that his reference to an inherently violent strain in Islam
was entirely accidental. He has, most unfortunately, withdrawn from
the interfaith initiatives inaugurated by his predecessor, John Paul
II, at a time when they are more desperately needed than ever. Coming
on the heels of the Danish cartoon crisis, his remarks were extremely
dangerous. They will convince more Muslims that the west is incurably
Islamophobic and engaged in a new crusade.

We simply cannot afford this type of bigotry. The trouble is that too
many people in the western world unconsciously share this prejudice,
convinced that Islam and the Qur'an are addicted to violence. The
9/11 terrorists, who in fact violated essential Islamic principles,
have confirmed this deep-rooted western perception and are seen as
typical Muslims instead of the deviants they really were.

With disturbing regularity, this medieval conviction surfaces every
time there is trouble in the Middle East. Yet until the 20th century,
Islam was a far more tolerant and peaceful faith than Christianity.
The Qur'an strictly forbids any coercion in religion and regards all
rightly guided religion as coming from God; and despite the western
belief to the contrary, Muslims did not impose their faith by the sword.

The early conquests in Persia and Byzantium after the Prophet's death
were inspired by political rather than religious aspirations. Until
the middle of the eighth century, Jews and Christians in the Muslim
empire were actively discouraged from conversion to Islam, as,
according to Qur'anic teaching, they had received authentic
revelations of their own. The extremism and intolerance that have
surfaced in the Muslim world in our own day are a response to
intractable political problems - oil, Palestine, the occupation of
Muslim lands, the prevelance of authoritarian regimes in the Middle
East, and the west's perceived "double standards" - and not to an
ingrained religious imperative.

But the old myth of Islam as a chronically violent faith persists,
and surfaces at the most inappropriate moments. As one of the
received ideas of the west, it seems well-nigh impossible to
eradicate. Indeed, we may even be strengthening it by falling back
into our old habits of projection. As we see the violence - in Iraq,
Palestine, Lebanon - for which we bear a measure of responsibility,
there is a temptation, perhaps, to blame it all on "Islam". But if we
are feeding our prejudice in this way, we do so at our peril.

· Karen Armstrong is the author of Islam: A Short History

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