When Pope Benedict XVI made a speech, written by himself, to a largely academic audience at the University of Regensburg in Germany, few would imagine that it held much interest outside a small, learned clique. But Pope Benedict’s address included a provocative quote from the 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus (“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.”) Outside of a reference to the emperor’s “startling brusqueness,” there was nothing to imply that the pontiff did not agree, since a theme of the speech was the inappropriateness of violence in conversions (pdf). Within days, the Muslim world was in protest, with the firebombing of churches in Palestine linked to the crisis (the killing of a nun in Somalia has been linked but remains unclear). Qatari scholar and Al-Jazeera personality Yusuf Qaradawi called for a “day of anger,” as he did during the Danish cartoon crisis earlier this year (though it seemed like weeks). Similar to that crisis as well was the occasional show of support from other religious scholars and institutions, noting the marked contrast with Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who built unprecedented bridges with other faiths (he was the first to enter both a synagogue and a mosque) and whose death was mourned by even the most conservative Muslims. Eventually, the Pope responded. “I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims,” he said five days later. “These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought.” Benedict’s unprecedented apology satisfied most Muslim representatives around the world, themselves wary of escalating a conflict with the leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics. But as analysts start to pick through the rationale, there are signs that the choice of words may be political as much as theological, with a pattern of questionable behaviour on display since his ascendence. Jews were disappointed earlier this year when Benedict offered defensiveness and discredited opinions during a visit to Auschwitz. Muslims were disappointed when he opposed Turkey’s potential ascension to the European Union to protect Europe’s Christian character (though he is still scheduled to visit that country in a papal first). He had also invited controversial Italian journalist and Islam critic Oriana Fallaci for a “pastoral” meeting before she died last week. Ultimately, the issue is a test for both communities to find their way back to the respectful dialogue of the John Paul era. There are still numerous hotspots around the world where Muslims and Catholics live in close proximity (Nigeria, the Phillippines). Any further tensions could result in more than a war of words.
By Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of alt.muslim. He is based in London, England.