A speech on "Faith, Reason and the University" would hardly seem a likely occasion to declare war on Islam. But some in the Muslim world seem to believe that Pope Benedict XVI was doing exactly that in his speech at Regensburg, Germany, last week. The pope has expressed regret that his words -- actually those of a medieval Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Palaeologus -- have caused hurt in the Islamic world, but the controversy shows no sign of abating.
The quotation that has sparked the outrage came from a translation of a 14th-century text, ascribed to Manuel II Palaeologus, the last Christian emperor of the Byzantine Empire, or what was left of it in 1391. In that year, Emperor Manuel II transcribed his debate with a Persian scholar in which Manuel -- not Benedict -- says, "Show me just what Mohammed 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 pope has said that he does not share Manuel II's view of Islam. And in the pope's speech, he prefaces his remarks first with the admonition from the Koran, "There is no compulsion in religion," and then describes the dialogue he is about to quote from as one that reflects "a brusqueness which leaves us astounded." But these caveats have been conveniently ignored by the pope's critics.
Very little in Pope Benedict XVI's speech had to do with Islam. It was, instead, an erudite discursion on the rupture between reason and faith that has occurred in post-Enlightenment Christianity. Nonetheless, the pope did distinguish between Christianity's and Islam's understanding of the relationship between reason and faith. The pope argues that for Christianity (at least until the Reformation), reason is inextricably bound to faith. "But for Muslim teaching," Pope Benedict XVI says, "God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality."
The irony is that those who have taken most offense at the pope's comments have responded in ways that seem to prove Manuel II's point. Al Qaeda in Iraq has declared, "We will break up the cross, spill the liquor and impose the 'jizya' tax [a tax applied to non-Muslims], then the only thing acceptable is a conversion or the sword."
The Mujahedeen Shura Council, a group of Sunni extremists in Iraq, has warned, "You infidels and despots, we will continue our jihad and never stop until God avails us to chop your necks and raise the fluttering banner of monotheism, when God's rule is established governing all people and nations."
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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