Before you can discuss the manifest seriousness of the latest controversy involving the pope, you have to acknowledge its hilarity. Pope Benedict XVI, in an austere philosophical address, invoked Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, the 14th century ruler who offered a harsh assessment of Islam. While the Koran says, "There is no compulsion in religion," Manuel couldn't help but notice that Muslims were setting up more franchises in his neighborhood than Starbucks - and they weren't doing so by selling the best darn Mocha Frappuccinos on his side of the Bosphorus Straits.
"Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new," Manuel complained sometime around the siege of Byzantium, "and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Why Pope Benedict quoted Manuel is hotly debated. But one explicit reason was to enunciate the Church's opposition to using faith to justify violence or intolerance.
And this is where the hilarity comes in. A Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman responded: "Anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence."
During Friday prayers in Iran, a senior cleric changed his usual script to denounce the pope, but the crowd of worshippers hadn't seen the memo, so they chanted back the usual refrain: "Death to America! Death to Israel!"
In Turkey, protestors demanded that the Justice Ministry arrest the pope when he visits there this fall and prosecute him for insulting Islam.
And just this week, clerics in Gaza reportedly suggested that the pope convert to Islam to save his own life.
But let us not dare suggest that even a whiff of intolerance can be detected in the Islamic world. If you say otherwise, I will cut off your head.
It may be amusing to note how so many Muslims are eager to confirm a stereotype in the process of denouncing that very stereotype, but it's not so funny when they put their jihad where the mouth is. Churches were attacked in the West Bank and a nun in Somalia was murdered, allegedly in reaction to the pope's comments. Al-Qaida's franchise in Iraq announced "We shall break the cross and spill the wine. ... God will (help) Muslims to conquer Rome. ... (May) God enable us to slit their throats."
But this isn't primarily about al-Qaida or even the war on terror. Note that the parliaments and governments of Islamic nations - our allies in the war on terror - have been at the forefront of the anti-pope backlash.