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Islam and Pope
Benedict's speech



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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September 20th, 2006

LONDON - A young Danish cartoonist is one thing. But a supposedly learned Pope is another. Pope Benedict has not only shot himself in the foot he has, unwittingly no doubt, joined up as a full member of President George W. Bush’s crusade against “Islamic fascism”- at least that is how it is being perceived, not unreasonably, in many parts of the Islamic world. Benedict is obviously still possessed of a portion of the same naiveté he had as an fourteen old when he joined the Hitler Youth and later the military. Just as his speech at Auschwitz four months ago seemed to pass over the culpability of ordinary Germans in what happened then so with his speech at his old university on Friday did he too lightly deal with the hard facts of the 1400-year relationship between Islam and Christianity. His apology is to say the least disingenuous. He appears to be only “sorry for the reactions in some countries” to his address. He is not yet ready to apologise for the sloppy, uninformed, way he put together his speech.

The speech is not joined up thinking, at least not in the way Anglo-Saxon scholars are trained to write. One point does not need logically to the next. It is difficult, reading the whole text, to discern exactly the principal theme of the speech. But judging from the early quote from the 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel 11 Paleologus, on the violent nature of Islam and the Pope’s concluding remarks on Islam, it was indeed meant to be aimed at the issue of Muslim/Christian relations. It is deceitful of the Pope to now claim it was only “a few passages” that have caused the fuss.

If he had been more sensitive to the Islamic world, this little travelled Pope, who spent too much of his life in the cocoon of the pretty but isolated university town of Regensburg, would have quoted as an example of the dangers of violence being done in the name of God the activities of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, who having first decreed a radical policy of the mass conversion of Muslims, killed many of them and drove the rest of the 700 year-old community out of Spain in 1492 and then turned on the Jews. Some 80,000 Jews were forced out, a great many perishing of hunger on the way to refuge.

Yes, we all know that Islam is more accepting of violence in its original traditions that Christianity. It was by the sword that Mohammed conquered Mecca and within 20 years of his death his followers had conquered large parts of the Roman Empire and absorbed the Persian. In contrast, Christians submitted themselves to the lion rather than fight and not until the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity some 300
years after Jesus’ death did Christianity take on the role of running a state with its well-embedded military traditions.

But in those first 600 years of the spread and development of Islam one of the most intriguing aspects is Islam’s tolerance for Judaism and Christianity, right up to the time of the Byzantine emperor, Manuel 11. The Koran requires that Muslims should respect, “The People of the Book”. Muslims in India were also compelled to be tolerant to Hindus - the Taj Mahal with its fusion of Islamic and Hindu styles is a testament to this benign attitude.

Even after Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem in 1187 for the next 700 years the churches remained open. The Jews were given funds to rebuild their synagogues. This was in marked contrast to the way the Crusaders had ruled Jerusalem before when Muslim and Jews were mainly forbidden from living within the city walls.

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Likewise, from the fifteenth century on, when the majority of Arabs lived under Ottoman rule, for its five hundred years of life Christians and Jews were recognised and protected. Many of the Jews expelled from Iberia were granted refuge in the Ottoman Empire. German, French and Czech Protestants fleeing Catholic persecution were also given protection.

The Christian West, despite its long propensity to go to war against Muslims, has a not only selective memory it has a deeply ingrained anti-Muslim prejudice about the violent tendency of Muslims. Recall Shakespeare’s witches brew of “nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips”, Dante’s portrayal of Mohammed in hell, Voltaire’s “Fanaticism or Mohammed the Prophet”, and Delacrox’s painting “Massacre of Chaos”, with Christian women of Bulgaria pursued by Turkish lancers. (The mass killings of the Muslims 50 years earlier in Peloponnesia were neither depicted nor remembered.)

But why should a Pope who seems not to know clearly and without ambiguity what went on in his own Christian country during his own youth to be aware of the import today of all this?


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


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