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

Technorati tags applicable to this post: - - - -


Unknown said...

Islamophobia Questions - answer YES and the ‘phobia’ will go away!

Will Muslims confirm that the expressed desire of some of the faithful for a worldwide caliphate is to be purged from their teachings (and their websites) and will Muslim leaders publicly renounce all those that support this worldview?

Will Muslims do something positive toward the radical elements within their own ranks by purging Mosques of radical clerics an hold them legally accountable for those that act on their instructions?

Will Moslems actively seek to broaden their junior schools’ curriculum and ensure that only students, that have reached the age of reason, attend institutions that are dedicated exclusively to studying the Qur’an?

Will Muslims actively and constantly rebuke, loudly and publicly, those that undertake violent jihad and denounce the concept as being defunct and belonging to another time (much as the Christians have done with their revolting concepts of the crusades)?

Will Muslims actively return to the now practically abandoned practice of broad spectrum “ijtihad” and as a world religion start a process of enlightenment in a similar way the Christians did with their period of reformation?

Will Muslim scholars and clerics actively endorse a program of democratization and work conscientiously and consistently seek to remove dictatorial governments?

Will Muslims walk away from the concept of a theocratic state and acknowledge that civil law must always out way sharia law?

Will Muslims publicly rebuke governments and organisations that fund violent Islamic movements in foreign lands, such as the one that has existed in Thailand for some years?

Will Islamic religious leaders publicly denounce brutal regimes that are involved in ethnic cleansing such as Somalia and Sudan and volunteer armed forces to United Nations missions involved in attempts to install democratic governments in failed states?

Will Muslims, through a process ijtihad suppress and deny the sura and hadith that are highly offensive to non-Muslims by insisting that their followers acknowledge and accept that they refer to specific historical times and events that no longer exist and therefore render them void?

Will Muslims allow those that wish to leave the faith to do so without retribution?


Anonymous said...

Myth. Right. Read some history. The Islamic world was as imperialist as they come. They ruled by the sword and died by it.

iFaqeer said...

caliibre, in my very humble opinion, there's another "I" word that you never hear about that is even more relevant and, to most Muslims (or at least it used to be, till very recently), even more authoritative.

What none of the people so often reminding us of a need for new "Ijtihad" will tell you is that Ijtihad has, more often than not actually been #4 on the list of what carries authority in matters Islamic. (Of course, the fact that Ijtihad has been dead for a while is an urban myth manufactured out of whole cloth and pushed forward by both those that would decry Islam AND by those that would have it stay hidebound is a matter for another time.) After the Qur'an, the Hadith, and the other "I" I want to talk about.

And neither Irshad Manji and people that tend to agree with her or support her NOR what today are called "Islamists" will breath that other word that begins with I. And what it is has a lot to do with why.

For that third source of authority on matters Islamic is none other than "Ijma".

Ijma is, simply, the majority opinion of the global Muslim community, the Ummah.

Or, in a word, democracy.

The word has the same root, J-M-A, as Jumuah, the day Muslims gather for congregational prayer. Or the word so many Islamist parties and groups around the world, ironically, use in their name: "Jama'a" (as in Jama'a Islamiyya"), "Jamaat" (as in "Jamaat-e-Islami", the party founded by Syed Abu'l Ala Maududi, a thinker of the same stature as Syed Qutub, and one the rest of us are ill-advised to ignore), "Jamiat" (as in Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, the student wing of the JI)...need I go on?

The Islamists will never talk about it because their ideology, their views are not in sync with the Ijma, the opinion, the democratic opinion of the global Muslim community, the Ummah--the latter being a conceopt a lot of people on the left are uncomfortable, too (and I am not talking about Manji, et al; I will come to them in a minute). Take Pakisan, about the largest country in the word that has the word "Islamic" in its official name; the sixth largest country in the world. So often in the news. The "Deeni Jamaathain", as we call them in Pakistan (or "religious parties"--notice the echo of J-M-A in the Urdu word for "party") have never gotten more than about 11% (and that's being charitable) of the national vote. When the majority of Muslims lined up behind Mohammad Ali Jinnah in the run-up to independence, which led to the formation of Pakistan, the major ones were against its foundation. Today, most Pakistanis will tell you the laws of "Hudood" that do such a hatchet job of trying to implement Islamic principles about rape and adultery are just that; a hatchet job, these so-called "Deeni Jamaathain" prevent any real progress on the matter. I could go on and on.

Now to the other folks that scream "Ijtihad" so often. For example, Irshad Manji. She will never utter the word "Ijma" in any meaningful way, or inform you that it has most often been considered above even Ijtihad in the pecking order of sources of Islamic authority because, very simply, as Dr. Michael Eric Dyson and Dr. Cornell West will tell you, "You can't lead the people, if you don't love the people."

So, my brother or sister, it is not that Muslims need to come up with something completely new. It is that ALL of us--you, me, Irshad Manji, Usama bin Laden, Daniel Pipes--need to stop pretending that the Islamists of today represent the traditional understanding of Islam, and try to go back and engage with Muslims as they have been and, though the Islamists gain ground with every outrage they cause to others or claim against Muslims, start from there.

I am not saying the traditional practise and understanding of Islam by my parents' and grandparents' generations is right and appropriate for the 21st century. In fact, I am saying the exact opposite: that we need to go to sources of Islamic authority and engage them and mine them anew for principles and wisdom relevant for this new century.

And Ijma--inclusive, democratic, decision-makiing--is right up there in the top row of principles, most Muslims used to know and believe, above the "I" word you hear so much about.


I guess this should be a separate post on this blog.