Will the Pope figure it out?

Posted: Nov 29, 2006 12:01 AM
Will the Pope figure it out?

By the time this dispatch is read, Pope Benedict XVI will be in Turkey and, inevitably, adding to the confusion in that part of the world. Motley groups and associations and ad-hockers have gathered to protest his visit, and most of them attribute their grievances to the speech he gave in September at the University of Regensburg.

That speech was held to be as inflammatory as the Danish cartoons that silenced half of Europe for fear of being associated with humorous treatments of the Quran. The pope does not discuss problems as grist for cartoons. Benedict XVI, we are frequently reminded, is a mature intellect and as such earns the rigorous attention paid to what he says, though less than rigorous attention is paid to what he preaches.

What he did at Regensburg was to quote a learned 14th-century Byzantine emperor who cautioned Islam against any doctrines that scorned reason, inasmuch as reason mediates dogma.

It was in one part surprising that the pope provoked such a storm by saying something so eminently defensible. What was more surprising was the emergence of a new figure on the throne of St. Peter. Cardinal Ratzinger was bemoaned, when he was elected pope, on the grounds that he had been, as cardinal, a full-time keeper of the eternal flame, and presumably would officiate as pope without sufficient diplomatic reserves.

Quite the opposite happened. In the three or four days after making the speech, the pope took every opportunity to stress not what had been the message of Regensburg, but the pain it had evidently caused adherents to the Islamic faith. And this theme he picked up again when he set out for Turkey. He was telling the world that his devotion to Muslims was such as to cause him terrible pain at any thought of having offended them by the use of language that appeared scornful or reproachful.

Now there were underlayers of disruption of a political character. When the pope was cardinal, he cautioned against admitting Turkey into the European Union. His reasoning was straightforward: that Turkey, a Muslim nation, was part of a different culture from that of Christian Europe. That theme had been picked up, most directly by the former president of France, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, and years have gone by without the admission of Turkey, although the reason generally given for the delay is ongoing tension between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus.

This has annoyed some Muslims, and outraged others, and here was an opportunity to add, on top of the resentments caused by the Regensburg speech, lingering resentments over the political rejection.

It isn't as simple as prescribing admission into the European Union as a poultice and, finally, a cure. That is because many Muslims, while resenting the articulation of differences between Western and Eastern culture on matters such as marriage, sex and alcohol, are proud that such differences exist and defend the maintenance of them. In Turkey itself there have been several attempts to overthrow the secular state and restore Islamic law.

Should Turkey think of itself as facing East? Or West? The Ottoman Empire was, up until its dissolution, held to be an adversary of the West in its constitution. Is that still the case with modern Turkey, never mind that hard secularism was adopted almost a century ago?

What is happening in that part of the world has to do with the evolution of Islam, and nobody can persuasively contend that Islamic passions to conquer and to rule are dead. And in that part of the world, attachments form under very ancient dispensations, so that the Shiites and the Sunnis, and then the Kurds and Hezbollah, crowd about, expressing their resentments and tossing internecine tribal, nationalist and credal elements into the stew.

There are those who hope that Pope Benedict will confront the maelstrom with dignity and with the strength that issues from his own faith. Or would that make too many people mad?