On September 12th, Pope Benedict XVI lobbed a political grenade. He was delivering a lecture on “Faith, Reason and the University” at the University of Regensburg in Germany. In the course of that lecture, he quoted a long citation (about 15 percent of the text), which served as the entry point to the rest of the talk about faith and reason, and about the un-reasonability of violence when it comes to spreading faith. As such, it was not a casual reference. The citation almost immediately sparked protests, some violent throughout the Muslim world such as we have not seen, since Muslims took offense at Danish cartoons back in 2005. That previous incident is enough to convince most observers the Pope should have known what he was doing and indeed, almost certainly did. Moreover, he could have chosen dozens of citations about faith and reason that did not involve Islam. According to George Friedman, the Pope essentially chose his remarks to strengthen his political base and legitimize a stronger response to anti-Catholic rhetoric coming out of Muslim countries. He also probably counted on the response to illustrate his more substantive points: that Christianity is indeed more aligned with rationality than Islam; and implicitly, if violence is a rejection of reason, then Islam may wear the shoe.
Besides political impact and implication, the actual citation is worth attention. It is from a conversation circa 1391, between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II, Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, as well as potential truth contained in both religions. The emperor is the source of the incendiary quotation, claiming in his conversation with the Persian that Mohammed contributed nothing new to knowledge of God, but rather introduced evil through a command to spread the faith he preached by the sword. The emperor goes on to say violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul, and that God is not pleased by blood; and whosoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence or threats.
Now there are a lot of ways to take this whole conversation—the one between the emperor and the Persian, as well as the one between Pope Benedict and his audience, including a large audience outside of the lecture hall. The Byzantine emperor is from a Greek philosophical tradition, which makes his statements self-evident concerning God and Reason and concerning violence and its incompatibility with both. To the Persian, however, God is altogether more transcendent, and the linkages in the argument do not necessarily follow. On the other hand, the Persian might very well counter with Sura 2,256, which reads: ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ (Actually, the emperor points this inconsistency out about Islam in the same conversation, noting that Mohammed recurred to violence more over time, the more powerful he became). For those outside the university setting in which the Pope spoke, we could join several larger debates—for instance, many Christians might take issue with, or at least qualify the Pope’s comments concerning Christianity and Reason, given that the Age of Reason or Enlightenment led not only to the development of faith-based, ordered liberty, but also arguably, to modern secular humanism and to eventual loss of faith particularly in Europe. From my own perspective, I should think it just as reasonable to ignore the Pope’s comments altogether, to chalk them up to provocative intellectual discussion at a university, and okay, maybe to some red meat thrown to political partisans. At some level, however, man’s imperfect universal eye detracts from the political process and from free discourse, even the expression inherent and appropriate to cultural contexts and to any integral system. Being generally consistent is one thing, but audiences differ and methods of persuasion differ with each. Communication to any given audience is not only about words, but also about expressions and sentiment. Languages differ and so do dialects; so does humor and just about everything else the farther apart you go. The context of a speech is not only textual but in time and place and person. Hence not every media moment is going to withstand the delimited exposure to every man, woman and child on the planet. Twenty years from now, it may not even stand in the same location or with the same people. Freedom of speech has to be left alone, as it were, country to country at least; and mature people in the West certainly understand the Pope has to be able to speak to Catholics, without Jews and Protestants taking to the streets whenever they think they hear something insulting. Moreover, a Texan should be able to speak to other Texans, and a Virginian to his home crowd, without caring whether everyone in India or Bangladesh agrees or whether someone watching CNN from some other community takes offense. There is after all such a thing as nobody else’s business, or at least minding yours!
Now Muslims of various sects can of course join in with debates too. They could choose to argue the various, albeit mixed injunctions they have towards peace and tolerance. Perhaps they might choose to justify violence in a narrow context, who knows? Point being: they must choose the rationalist aspects out of their faith, in order to disprove the Pope’s implicit point. They can ignore all such arcane quotes, as a reasonable approach that I have suggested, or they can try their luck at reasoned argument and assertion. In so doing, they may yet lift their faith out of the hands of intellectual midgets, extremists and deviants amongst them who, as President Bush says, have hijacked a great religion. Muslims must choose reason and rational argument, in order to show themselves capable of civil disagreement, as well as peaceful coexistence both in and with free societies. Demonstrations in the street and violent outbursts over every little thing won’t meet a 14th century emperor’s challenge or criticism, any more than it will the 21st century’s imperative for harmony between billions of adherents to different faiths, all living, learning and seeking spiritual fulfillment in the midst of unprecedented globalization.
Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford. Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he ran for U.S. Congress (TX-District 31) in the 2004 Republican Primary. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org