Yes, the embattled Pope deserves impassioned support from all people of decency and good will and, yes, the pathetically predictable Islamic over-reaction to his recent words demonstrates once again the primitive, tribal, insecure essence of the so-called "Religion of Peace." Muslim crazies, always searching for some new basis to encourage fanatical hostility toward the West, distorted the Pontiff's substantive, thoughtful address at the University of Regensburg by ripping a single quotation wholly out of context and imputing to Benedict himself some incidental sentiments communicated by his Medieval source. Nevertheless, by choosing to cite that source in the first place, Pope Benedict made one crucial mistake: by discussing the conflict between Islam and Christianity in a fourteenth century context he provided the nostalgic perspective that the Islamists relish, and that all "infidels" (Christians, Jews and others) should scrupulously avoid.
To come to terms with the nature of the Pope's error one must first understand the true message of his scholarly lecture, which made only the briefest reference to the long-standing struggle between Christianity and Islam. His speech attempted to affirm the necessary connection between faith and reason, declaring that "not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature." In this regard, he quoted the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus who declared in 1391: "God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead smeone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, wihtout violence and threats."
These sentiments hardly sound controversial, but the Holy Father preceded them with another citation that provoked the rage of the Islamic world. "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new," said the Emperor more than six hundred years ago, "and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
The problem with this quotation isn't the inaccuracy of the Emperor's observation but the opening it provides to allow Islamic apologists to take us back once more to the days of desperate and deadly Muslim-Christian competition in the late Middle Ages. For instance, Anas Altikriti, writing in the British leftist journal "The Guardian" under the headline "An Insufficient Apology" seized the opportunity to remind his readers that "whilst the Catholic church was cementing the barbarism of Europe's dark ages," the Muslims were "busy writing literature, philosophy, art, architecture, medicine, chemistry, physics, biology, algebra and music." He goes on in lyrical terms to hail the "vast and illustrious universities and libraries of Baghdad, Damascus, Cordoba, Seville and Cairo" and "the 100 years of glorious co-existence among Muslims, Christians and Jews" in Spain.
Mr. Altikriti is right, of course, about the long-ago glories of Muslim civilization but the Islamic enlightenment of six centuries ago only makes their present predicament more perplexing and appalling. Non-Muslims should never engage in useless arguments about the relative merits of Islamic and Christian civilizations in the fourteenth century. Focusing on these by-gone conflicts makes Christendom look far worse than it is today and allows Islam to appear far better than it is today. That's why President Bush rightly apologized after he used the term "Crusade" to describe America's mission in the War on Terror. For Muslims, that term invokes images of an age in which Christians often proved harsh, bloodthirsty and barbaric, while their Islamic ancestors could arguably represent the more enlightened contender. Worst of all, the era featured a world-wide conflict between two powerful civilizations who fought for world dominance on a more-or-less equal basis.
Any recollection of medieval Christian-Muslim struggle therefore feeds the insane Islamist fantasy that today's battles amount to another "clash of civilizations" -- a laughably absurd notion when one considers the vast gulf separating Islamic nations (which now represent some of the earth's most backward, dysfunctional, violent and regressive societies) from the countries of the West (which constitute nearly all of the world's most dynamic, productive, powerful and enlightened states). The current battle hardly amounts to a war of civilizations, but rather constitutes a war AGAINST civilization by forces of barbarism and primitivism.
The hysterical response to the Pope's harmless if clumsy citation of a Medieval quote only underscores the point. The Dark Ages thinking that prevails in nearly all Islamic societies produces logic that suggests that the best way to rebut the ancient charge that Islam is inextricably intertwined with violence is to provide alarming displays of new violence. The public relations masters in Mecca and other centers of Islamist "thought" have concluded that they can prove that they do indeed honor reason and persuasion more than force by fire-bombing churches, killing nuns and issuing statements (even in London!) demanding the Pope's assassination.
The stupidity remains so obvious and so striking that it only underscores the need to keep our focus on contemporary conflicts, rather than giving the Islamist cheerleaders any opportunity to obscure the wildly uneven nature of the current struggle by looking, nostalgically, to the more balanced battles of the dim and distant past.