Pope Benedict XVI did the right thing, twice. In his talk to scholars in Germany, he correctly put Islam in historical perspective, describing how Islam was perceived as "evil and inhuman" by a 14th-century Christian emperor desperate for the help of other Christians to defend his country against Islamic conquest. (His fellow Christians didn't help.)
He was correct this week as well, to say he was "deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages." He clearly wanted to put a lid on the violence without contradicting his earlier remarks. Benedict, reasonably enough, called for reflection to seek the "true sense of his words" about how violence is the wrong approach to faith. Who among us could disagree with that? (A lot of Muslims, to be sure.)
Words, unlike knives and suicide bombs, don't kill, and when facts buried in arcane scholarship come to light they can nudge thoughtful men and women toward the genuine interfaith discussion Pope Benedict sought when he asked for "frank and sincere dialogue with mutual respect." A Muslim leader who asked for such an intellectual debate would not be faulted for calling attention to the evil of the Crusades, which also sought to make converts through the sword or the burning of heretics.
The modern world today is engaged in an unprecedented attempt to understand Islam, confronting its two faces -- one ferociously bent on destroying everything Western and the other professing appreciation for the Western values underlying peaceful secular and pluralistic societies. Optimists see the smiley face of Islam, and applaud. Pessimists see a mask covering the motives of evil men who are determined to eradicate Western civilization as we know it, and despair.
The rioters who killed an Italian nun in Mogadishu and burned Christian churches in Palestine support the pessimistic view. Those who retreat from denouncing this violence for fear of offending violent Islamists are giving in to blackmail. The Turks used the pope's remarks to focus criticism of him because he opposes admitting Turkey into the European Union. The violent reactions substantiate his belief that Turkish admission would expand Islamic fanaticism in Europe.
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